The purpose of this unit is to acquaint the reader with the short story and contemporary writers in Puerto Rico with a special emphasis on Rosario Ferré and her stories.
As part of the unit, a section containing background information is included. The short story in Puerto Rico is and has always been in a state of constant change. Themes, styles, topics, and content change as conditions on the island change. There will be brief descriptions on each of the phases of the short story to be used by teachers as additional reference material. This information will prove valuable in understanding the writer’s point of view and the message that he or she wants to get across. The unit should work well with students in Spanish II or above, in the middle or high school levels.
The short story in Puerto Rico today as a literary form, like the Puerto Rican people, in the unfinished product of constant change. Its origin can be traced back to its oral tradition, when stories were told and handed down from one generation to another by country and city folks alike. With time, some of these stories were written down, and in 1843
El aguinaldo puertorrique–o
was published. These first stories reflected the manners and the customs of the Spanish Colonial era. It was the story of the
or the humble country peasant; of his view of life and the struggles that accompanied him in his daily existence. This type of writing still influences many writers today and the stories are now an integral part of the Puerto Rican folklore. In 1844, the
was published and one of its most notable writers was Manuel Alonso. Alonso later wrote
, one of the first native novels.
Other outstanding writers of the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds were Manuel Fernández Juncos, Pablo Morales Cabrera, Cayetano Coll y Toste, and Matias González Garc’a. The topics chosen by these writers dealt mainly with traditional folk stories, anecdotes, and supernatural tales which served primarily to entertain the readers. This phase in the Puerto Rican short story is a narration of the
those born of Spanish parents in the New World. In the literary world, this phase in known as
in which the j’baro is presented with his own garb and language variations. His sufferings and joys are interweaved in the stories, and this trait in particular is still present in contemporary writers although the characters of their stories may reside in other places; a slum in the city, a dingy apartment in New York, or somewhere within a drug disturbed mind.
Following this phase, modernism sets in Puerto Rico somewhat later than in other countries, and lasts from 1910 to 1928, according to Enrique Laguerre. During this time, the short story takes on French airs; it becomes sensuous and more elaborate. There are poetic embellishments and detailed visual descriptions of the Puerto Rican landscapes. This phase of the short story is brief and has very few representative writers, Mar’a Cadilla de Mart’nez and Collado Martell considered the outstanding ones. This period served as a refining stage in writing and prepared the setting for the next phase.
The thirties reflect an awakening of a national conscience. The writers of this period pondered on the question of what it was to be a Puerto Rican. An identity crisis developed and this problem was discussed in novels, essays, news articles, and in short stories. The issues of culture, ethnicity, poverty, and personal sufferings were presented in the stories with explicit realism. These were written of and about sugar cane workers and coffee reapers, their hardships and the cruel treatment given to them by the plantation owners.
Writers of this phase are Miguel Meléndez Múnoz, Antonio Oliver Frau, Tomás Blanco, and Emilio S. Belaval. This last writer brought into writing new elements; grotesque tones, carnival-like settings, and comic-tragic scenes. These innovations are still being used by modern day writers.
The writers of the thirties were characterized by realism, folklore, social preoccupation, and poetic revalorization of Puerto Rican life as a whole. It was imperative to establish Puerto Rican authenticity in what was being written and not allow outside influences to dominate the content or style of the stories. This was an unsettled time of two forces: the traditional Spanish patterns of 400 years and the political, economic, and cultural infiltration of North America into the island. The result was a breaking from the Spanish literary bonds and a determination not to accept or be dominated the North American pressure.
The Generation or Promotion of the Forties
In the mid-forties, a group of young writers initiated a literary movement which broke away from all previous traditions. Writers of this period include Abelardo D’az Alfaro, José Luis González, René Marqués, Pedro Juan Soto, Edwin Figueroa, José Luis Vivas, Emilio D’az Varcarcel, and Salvador M. de Jesús. Their stories reflected the historical reality of Puerto Rico in the forties; the nationalist or independence phenomenon, industrialization and progress myths, life in the city, the participation of Puerto Ricans in the Korean War, mass emigration to New York, and the opposition to the Associated Free State status of Puerto Rico with the United States. It is during this phase of story writing that women are given leading roles in stories, broken also is the traditional role of the woman in Puerto Rican literature. She, now, has control of her actions and her destiny, though her characterization may be unacceptable. The forties marked the unwanted encounter of the traditional patriarchal pattern of life with the North American way of life and beliefs. It was not and still is not accepted as the way of life in Puerto Rico.
Descriptions of the landscape, rural or urban, reflected the mood or state of being of the character, it became a part of him. The stories were about man and his problems, whatever their nature might be. The writers wrote about real people, real situations, but did not pass judgment. They forced the reader to get involved both emotionally and psychologically with the story and characters. It is the reader who, ultimately, is the judge.
The phase of the Generation of the Forties goes well into the sixties and many of these writers still continue to write excellent stories in the present.
In the mid-sixties another literary movement was initiated by Luis Rafael Sánchez. In his stories, he dealt with the man on the streets of the city and he was the precurso of the renovation movement of the short story in Puerto Rico, which came into full force in the very early seventies. Sánchez situated his stories within the historical reality but broke away from the preceding tendency of psychological or existentialist discourse. The humor in Sánchez’ stories ranges from lyrical tenderness to the grotesque, and his use of the Puerto Rican dialect as the means of expression are Sánchez’ contributions to Puerto Rican literature.
In 1971, Manuel Ramos Otero published
Concierto de metal para un
’as de soledad
Concert of Metal for a Memory and
Other Orgies of Solitude
). This book marked the beginning of the present literary phase in Puerto Rico and was the first of the many new books of short stories that quickly followed.
Writers from the fifties’ phase were at their height of social realism in Puerto Rico. While this was happening, the rest of the Latin American writers were breaking away from the realist mold with such exponents as Carpentier, Asturias, Rulfo, and Borges.
The seventies in Puerto Rico, historically, were tumultuous. The backlashes of the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War; the pro-rights movements of blacks, women, and homosexuals; the political crisis of the Commonwealth and the triumph of the pro-statehood political party; the increased volume of Latin American editorials and publishers, were all factors in the new role of the writers and the stories they were going to write.
As a result of all these forces pressing upon the writers, an endeavor to write with higher standards in language usage and artistic style became the norm among them. The writers of the seventies initiated a phase of renovating literary narration. They reacted to the realist mode in different ways. Some of them continued to use realism in their stories but enriched them with surprising and experimental elements such as “collage” techniques, polyphonic forms and complex space-time concepts. Juan Antonio Ramos, Pedro Juan Soto, and Emilio D’az Varcarcel are writers who excelled in these techniques.
Other writers dealt with the socio-realist model critically and magic or fantasy became their means of expression. Many young writers adopted this means of expression; Manuel Ramos Otero, Rosario Ferré, Manuel Abreu Adorno, Edgardo Sanabria Santaliz, Mayra Montero, Tomás Rodr’guez, Carmelo Rodr’guez Torres, and Edgardo Rodr’guez Juliá.
A third group of writers of the seventies reacted still in another way. These writers presented a comic vision of reality by writing in a grotesque, deforming, and caricature-like manner. Writers in this group include Luis Rafael Sánchez, Ana Lydia Vega, Juan Antonio Ramos, and in some instances Rosario Ferré and Manuel Ramos Otero.
The three tendencies; experimental realism, magical-mythical writing, and comical-grotesque writing are used by the writers in their stories in varying degrees. It is not unusual to find in any one writer that she/he has written stories from each of the prevailing tendencies.
New themes and topics are dealt with in the short story of the seventies. New perspectives and points of view about the changing roles of women, blacks, and homosexuals are brought out into the light. There are more women writers presenting the new woman in a contemporary context. Blacks and homosexuals are given a place within the present historical reality. These stories take in characters previously ignored subjects; these characters represent the marginal and unspoken members of society.
The settings of the stories are in the city, on the street, in shops, indoors or outdoors, even apartments in New York are no longer seen as slum dwellings but as melancholic, nostalgic spaces of emigrants. In fact, the setting of the story becomes an integral part of the characters, not a reflection of his condition in society.
The writers of this period have taken the best from their predecessors and have enriched the techniques, language, and substance of the short story today.
Although there are excellent writers and other female writers in the seventies and eighties in Puerto Rico, Rosario Ferré has impressed me greatly with way she presents the role(s) of the woman in Puerto Rican society.
Rosario Ferré says, in
Sitio a Eros
, that she writes to fulfill a need. The need is both constructive and destructive. About writing, she says that, it reveals autobiographical traits of the writer and that it is not important to know about the writer beforehand to be able to understand his/her stories. One may agree or disagree with her on this point. There is little biographical information on Rosario Ferre, in her book of essays;
Sitio a Eros,
she stresses the fact that it is not important to know about her life story, but it is getting to know her through her stories that matters.
Ferré’s stories reveal a woman living in changing times. She is changing from the woman-object to the woman-doer, for example, the divorcee. In Ferré’s own situation, she had just gotten divorced and initiating a life on her own was painful and difficult. The transition was exasperating and especially lonely; these feelings are experienced by countless women today. As a writer, Ferré had to come face to face with her own reality and decided what was to fulfill her existence. She wanted to live life to the fullest and get her experiences second hand or always be sheltered from danger or dangerous situations. Her most important achievement was to learn not to fear death; but in order to do this, she had to live fully first. It was at this point in her life when she wrote her first story, “La mu–eca menor” in 1970; a story which will be included in this unit and discussed fully.
Many of her stories deal with the issue of inequality which women of today still struggle with as human beings, particularly in Puerto Rican society. Her heroines, contrary to the main character in
La muneca menor
who was passive, conformist, and resigned to her sad fate, in her stories today are brave, free willing, strong, and have positive attitudes towards life. Thus, Ferre is revealed in her stories as a rebel, a non-conformist, a woman exploring her feelings and her surroundings; and as a writer who is aggressive, imaginative, and lyrical. Rosario Ferré was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She is a writer, poet, and essayist from the seventies. She has written the following:
Papeles de Pandora
Sitio a Eros (1980)-
Siege at Eros
Fabulas de la garza desangrada (1982)
Fables of the Bleeding Heron
La mona que le pisaron la cola (1981)
The Monkey Who Got Her Tail Stepped On
Los cuentos de Juan Bobo (1981)
The Stories of Juan Bobo
“La mu–eca menor”—The Youngest Doll
This story was the first one written by Rosario Ferré. It is a story that is easily read but has a deep and complicated message. In “Sitio a Eros”, Ferré explains the origin of the story but she adds surprising elements into it, which make the story uniquely her own.
After unsuccessful attempts to start writing, Rosario Ferré was convinced that she would never be able to be much of a storyteller, much less a writer of stories. One day, however, while having lunch at an aunt’s house, her aunt told her a story. The story had taken place at the beginning of the twentieth century in a sugar cane plantation, and the main character of her story made dolls which she filled with honey. This woman’s husband was a drunkard and a money spender who, in no time, had used up all of their fortune and lost everything. To top all of this, he threw her out of their home and brought in another woman to live with him.
As was the custom in those days, the unfortunate woman was taken in by close relatives. To show her gratitude, she made dolls for their daughters. Soon after she had arrived at this new home, her right leg became swollen without apparent reason. Her family sent for the town doctor. The doctor was young and wanted to build his own fortune. The woman with the strange illness was also young and quite attractive, so the doctor first courted her and later made a false diagnosis about her leg by saying that there was no cure for her ailment. For twenty years this doctor kept giving medication and therapies but only for his own greed. He used up the money she had been able to salvage from her broken marriage and had converted her into an invalid by telling her there was no cure available for her leg.
The story continued but Ferré’s version of it makes it more than a story told around the coffee table on a warm afternoon. Ferré’s motives in writing the story were to reveal the end of an era and social structures (the sugar cane plantation, its owners and workers), and the substitution of it by another social class; the change of family values to values measured in terms of wealth and personal achievement, which in many cases were materialist and lacking scruples.
Ferré was not happy with the story when she finished it and almost threw it out. However, she put it away for ten years before she published it, but the fact that she had been able to write it at all, started the flow of many other stories that were to follow.
The story “La mu–eca menor” can be summarized as follows:
The aunt is old now and sits on the porch whenever she wanted to make a doll. When she was young she used to bathe in the river, but, once when there had been many days of rain and the river had risen higher than normal, she was bitten by something in her right leg. The pain was terrible and she had to be carried back to the house.
The doctor came and told her not to worry but as the days passed by there was no improvement on her cut, it would not heal. At the end of a month, the doctor concluded that the river prawn had introduced itself into the skin and had begun to fatten. He then tried to force it out with a heat treatment but that did not work, and the mixture he put on her thigh to heel not only did not do any good but a hard, rocklike substance covered the area where she had been bitten.
Because of her monstruous leg, she withdrew from living. She had always been beautiful and had had many suitors but her condition made her lose her vanity and she sent all her suitors away. She used to spend hours and hours making dolls for her nieces to play with. Every year she would make nine dolls, one for each of her nieces, and each doll would be the size of the girl receiving it. There were so many dolls, a room had to be set aside to store them.
On each of her nieces’ wedding day, she would give her a special doll. Unlike the other dolls which were stuffed with wadding, the wedding doll was filled with honey. The doll had a porcelain face and hands, and glass eyes imported from Europe. The old aunt would have someone put the eyes at the bottom of the brook (where she had been bitten) so that they would become sensitive to the movements of river prawns.
Twenty years had passed, and all but the youngest of her nieces had gotten married. On one of his monthly-visits, the doctor came with his son. The young man had also studied medicine and when he saw the old woman’s leg he knew at once that her leg could have been cured with the right medication. The father then told him that it had been the money he had been getting from the old woman that had paid for his medical studies. From then on, it was the young doctor who came to visit the elderly aunt and at the same time courted her youngest niece. On their wedding day, the aunt gave her a special doll, more lifelike than any of the other dolls she had ever made. She also set in deep inside each eye a diamond stud earring.
The young wife went to live in the town where her husband had his office. He made her sit in the balcony every day, as to show her off to all who passed by. His ambition and greed were confirmed by her when took out the diamond earrings from the doll’s eyes and pawned them for a costly pocket watch and chain. From then on, the doll’s eyelids remained lowered.
A few months later, the doctor noticed that the doll had disappeared. His wife told him that she had sold the porcelain hands and face for a good sum of money to a group of women who were restoring the Virgin at the town church and that the ants had devoured the honey inside the doll in one night. The doctor did not believe her story and dug up the yard surrounding the house to see if he could find any remains of the doll.
Years passed by and the doctor became very rich. He noticed that although he had aged considerably, his wife looked the same as she had when he married her. One night, he went into her room while she slept. He took his stethoscope to listen to her heartbeat but heard nothing. He could hear a faint rush as that of a stream. Then the doll opened her eyes and through the empty holes where the glass eyes had been, the frantic antennas of the river prawns started coming out.
“La mu–eca menor” is found in Rosario Ferrés first book of stories,
Papeles de Pandora
. The second story, “La cucarachita Martina” is one of six folk tales in
La mona que le pisaron la cola.
This story is taken from the oral tradition in Puerto Rican folklore.
“La cucarachita Martina” is about a very clean and tidy cockroach, and it can be summarized as follows;
One day, while sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house, Martina finds a penny. After thinking for a while what she was going to buy with that penny, she decided to buy a penny’s worth of powder. After she bought the powder, she went home, got dressed up in her best outfit, and set on her porch to watch people go by.
Mr. Cat was the first to come by her house, all dressed up because he was going to a wedding. When he saw her so pretty, he went up to her and asked her to marry him. She asked him what he was going to do on their wedding night and he said that he was going to meow and hiss all night, and yell at the top of his lungs that he was the master of the house and that was that! Martina did not like his proposal and told him to leave. Mr. Dog came by second and also asked her to marry him, and so Mr. Rooster. Each of them told her what they would do on their wedding night; the dog scared her and the rooster was going to be making a racket all night, and both declared themselves masters of the house.
The mouse, Ratoncito Pérez, was the last to come by, just when Martina was getting ready to inside the house. He was very courteous and asked her if she cared to go for a walk, she answered that she would rather sit on the porch, so he joined her. After a while, he dared to ask her if she wanted to marry him and she asked him what he planned to do on their wedding night. He told her that he would squeak quietly in her ear and tell her how much he loved her. She liked his approach and told him that she would marry him the next day.
The next day, Martina got up very early to prepare everything for her wedding. She cleaned her house and when she finished her chores, she started cooking a big pot of rice pudding with raisins, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and coconut milk. While the pudding was cooking, she went to her room to get ready to get married.
Martina did not know that Ratoncito Pérez besides being a gentleman was also very fond of sweets. As soon as Martina left the kitchen, he went in to find out what she was cooking in the pot. Since he could not reach the top of the pot, he stood on a stool and jumped on to the rim of the pot. There he balanced himself while at the same time getting dizzy on the wonderful aroma of the pudding. He wanted to get a taste of the pudding, so he tried to pull out a cinnamon stick from the pot. He tried several times to yank it out but it was in too deep. He lost his balance and fell into the boiling mixture.
When Martina came back in the kitchen to stir the rice pudding, she finds her husband -to-be dead at the bottom of the pot. The sad ending to the story is that after finding the perfect husband she loses him to her own cooking.
Topics to ponder
After reading the two stories, several issues should be discussed in the classroom; the role of women in society, in the home, and in a relationship such as marriage. The stories’ messages are those that affect women directly in past and present generations, and where changes are affecting the larger social structure and traditional female roles are being modified to the woman of today.