March 03, 2014

Poverty Education and Tourism

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Walking through San Juan, Puerto Rico during the Feista de Calle San Sebastian, I left the touristy center of Old San Juan. Away from the blue cobblestoned streets and brightly colored colonial buildings of Puerto Rico’s most viable tourist bubble, I walked through an old gate. Locals say residents often stand guard in an attempt to dissuade people like me from entering the rundown area called La Perla.


Photo courtesy of the author


With the massive fort on one side, a dense knot of old concrete buildings, rubble plots, and crooked streets opened up on the other, between the wall and beautiful beachfront. Here the onetime slaughterhouse district was preparing for the festival as well, with people setting up stages and lights as they were in Old San Juan. Inflated advertisements for Heineken, Coca-Cola, and Gasoline (a kind of alcoholic juice box) alit the crumbling buildings. Only a few paces away from the shadow of one of them a group of young men stepped out from one of the many decomposing buildings and a tried to sell me marijuana.

I wanted to visit the area because it is rather famous in the social sciences as being the birthplace of the infamous idea of the Culture of Poverty. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis spent hundreds of hours here (and in New York City) to study families living in poverty, and published the results in 1966 as La Vida. 

Despite Lewis’s attempts to demonstrate that it was the experience of living in poverty that created certain kinds of behaviors, many people thought that his sensationalist portrayal of Puerto Ricans as drug-addled, highly sexual deviants who lived in disorder was racist . These perspectives have been challenged (e.g., Helen Safa offered valuable counter-evidence, finding Puerto Ricans to be highly cooperative and resourceful, and deeply affected by industrialization and urbanization in the early and mid-1900s) and revisited (e.g., the work of Sudhir Venkatesh). 

While I visited La Perla to gain a little familiarity for an upcoming discussion of the Culture of Poverty in my urban sociology class, I also reflected on my own experience as a passing visitor. I thought about recent trends in “poverty tourism,” where (at best) well-intentioned elites make attempts to understand the lived experiences of the poor. On the one hand, I could see some good in such an instinct: a little knowledge could lend some real empathy and a potential foundation of understanding. The negatives, however, need to be unpacked as well.

There are some troubling exploitations of this instinct to know, as Jacob Riis called it, How the Other Half Lives. For example, a little over half the average monthly salary of South Africans (U$84) a visitor can stay in a five-star luxury hotel designed as a series of huts. Despite a variety of amenities, including wifi, one reviewer called it a “real experience.” (For a video and some pictures see the Sydney Morning Herald.) Another example is the opportunity to stay in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and live a day and night as a homeless person. 

What about those who seek out such experiences as explicitly educational opportunities? Study abroad programs require a certain amount of reflection too. Working with an honors student last year, we developed a project that examined two different study abroad motivations: collecting ”high cultural capital”  (e.g., living in France or Italy and learning the language) or “social justice” experiences (e.g., volunteering in a developing country). Students who participated in the latter group, we found, made it clear they planned to use their short-term visceral experiences with poverty to augment their own educational credentials for either graduate school or a future career.

When walking through a more touristy part of San Juan, with all the familiar hotel and restaurant chains, I wondered what a “real experience” is. We stayed in another area, called Santurce to experience less traversed neighborhoods and eat in less polished places. I ate my share of mofongo, drank Don Q rum, bought some local art, and took a few pictures of La Perla for my PowerPoint presentations for class. How was what I did, I wonder, any different than those travel abroad students? How can travel expand our sociological imaginations? 


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It sad to know that are places on the planet where families live in such poverty.

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