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THE MIAMI HERALD
Writer Paints Rich Portraits Of Puerto Rico
By Fabiola Santiago
July 8, 2001
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The rain comes, as it often does in the tropics, fast, hard, unannounced. Fiercely clutching the steering wheel of her white Volvo, Rosario Ferré is negotiating a typical tapón, a traffic jam exacerbated tonight by the downpour and an anti-U.S. Vieques demonstration.
Elegant in a lime green suit, matching pumps and classic gold jewelry, a Jackie Kennedy flair about her, Ferré is headed to a suburban bookstore to read from her collection of essays on life and literature, A la sombra de tu nombre (In the Shadow of Your Name), published by Alfaguara. The books is one of two new works she has published this year.
With the Vieques protests and the Miss Universe pageant in town, it's a newsy night in The Enchanted Island of the Caribbean, the kind of historical moment readers are likely to find in the literature of Puerto Rico's best-known contemporary author.
An exquisitely lyrical writer in both Spanish and English, a rarity in the world of prose and poetry, Ferré reads Monday night at Coral Gables' Books & Books from another new work, the novel Flight of the Swan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), a fictionalized account of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova's path through Puerto Rico in 1917.
Whatever Ferré's vehicle -- fiction, essays or poetry -- the island is her perennial protagonist.
A feminist in an evolving but still traditional male order -- and the daughter of former governor Luis A. Ferré -- she has no political aspirations of her own. The 62-year-old Ferré, who was born in southern Ponce, a city she describes as ``living with its back to the sea but unable to ignore it,'' is often the target of the kind of charged criticism leveled at politicians.
``Writing is a political act, and that alone is enough,'' she says.
The latest round: Some in the literary establishment think that by writing her novels in English, Ferré has abandoned her roots and culture and sold out to U.S. interests.
She had published about a dozen books in Spanish -- short stories, children's literature, poetry, essays and novels -- before she started on the novel that jump-started her career in English, the family saga The House on the Lagoon, a National Book Award nominee in 1996. Her ensuing novels, Eccentric Neighborhoods in 1998 and now Flight of the Swan, were written in English.
``Everything here is seen through the prism of our cultural and national identity. But I am no less Puerto Rican because I can write in English,'' Ferré says. ``Why limit myself to one language when I can write in both? Why use one hand when I have two? It's a question of vision. Mine is universal. I believe in modernizing our lives through our relationship with Europe and the United States.
``My critics see [Puerto Ricans] as being tied to the Motherland, Spain and the search for roots. I defend my language, Spanish, but, yes, I am anti-Spain. What Motherland? What has Spain done for us lately?''
ALL IN THE FAMILY
At least some of the controversy her writing and outspokenness generate is entangled with the family's prominence. The novelist, a first cousin to Miami's former mayor Maurice Ferré, and her family are the closest thing to royalty on the island.
There's the political legacy: Her father founded the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and was governor from 1968 to 1972. The high-profile theater Centro de Bellas Artes in San Juan is named after the former governor, now 97, as is the highway between the capital and Ponce, the second largest city. There, the philanthropic Luis A. Ferré Foundation runs the Museo de Arte de Ponce, home to family artwork valued in the millions.
There's the wealth: Ferré's brother, Antonio Luis, and his family publish the largest and most influential daily newspaper, El Nuevo Día.
``Carrying the name has been a privilege,'' the novelist says, ``but it also has caused me difficulties being my own person.''
Ferré is vice president of the Ponce museum and part owner of the family's cement enterprise, the Puerto Rican Cement Company. ``But we are the poorer Ferrés,'' she quips.
On this stormy night at Paseo del Libro, a chic bookstore warmed by candlelight, a circle of a dozen women and one man sit around the author as if this were someone's living room and she a favorite house guest.
Ferré is introduced by literature professor Ileana Cintrón-Inserni as ``the one who opened the doors to feminism in Puerto Rico,'' a writer who, annoyed at a sexist linguistic reference during the Guadalajara book fair, declared: ``Las escritoras puertorriqueñas son los mejores escritores puertorriqueños.''
She was resoundly applauded at the prestigious fair, but in the patriarchal island, the pronouncement that the island's female writers are the best writers, period, did not go unnoticed. Critics pounced.
``It's because we're women that they feel the need to always hit us over the head,'' Ferré says. ``They want us to be anonymous.''
And she's anything but that.
Her novels are rich portraits of Puerto Rican society. Satirical, sad, humorous, they expose social injustices and explore the status of women through fictional characters inspired by the lives of her upper-class family and friends.
``There is a parallel with reality, but my novels are fiction,'' Ferré says. ``It's easier to think that they are autobiographical, but that takes away from the book by saying it's just a copy of reality and not really the imagination.''
Her essays, on the other hand, are personal, frank, revelatory, a style considered unusual for a woman of her generation and social status. She openly discusses her divorces, traditions that demean women, and makes painful observations about her parents' traditional lifestyle -- all of it -- as she opines on literature, history, architecture.
Her marriage of 10 years to Puerto Rican architect Agustín Costa is her third. Her second was to Mexican novelist Jorge Aguilar Mora. She was 21 when she married Puerto Rican businessman Benigno Trigo, and by 24, she had three children.
Women of her generation ``threw ourselves into marriage like kamikaze pilots. It was only later that we realized what we had done,'' Ferré tells the bookstore audience. ``There is more independence now, and that is a fortunate thing.''
In the family saga Eccentric Neighborhoods, Ferré deals with the issues of a daughter who struggles to understand the traditional mother with whom she never got along. Ferré's mother, Lorenza Ramírez de Arrellano, the daughter of elite landowners, died when the novelist's father was governor, and the topic of their mother-daughter relationship was so painful she was not able to deal with it in her writing in Spanish. English, she found, gave her the necessary ``psychological distance'' to explore it.
Her mother doted on her father, saw her role as ``the provider of love, sensibility and refinement to the marriage.'' She read books Luis Ferré didn't have time to read, summed them up for him and discussed them, ``but she never expressed her opinion, not in public and not in private,'' Ferré writes in a poignant essay in A la sombra. ``She was papá's wife, and that was enough.''
In the essay, Ferré describes the moment she saw her mother's lifeless body in her bed, dressed and made up like a young woman, not a wrinkle in her face.
``Suddenly, I felt inexplicable anger,'' Ferré writes. ``Mamá was dead, and she was still a child. She was dead, and she had never been able to speak her mind. What a sad thing. How unforgivable! The day after mamá's burial, I began to write my first book.''
That collection of short stories Papeles de Pandora, was published in 1976 and translated into English in 1991 as The Youngest Doll. The stories were first published in the literary magazine Zona de Carga y Descarga (Loading and Unloading Zone), which Ferré founded while still a student at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. (Her love of writing and literature was nurtured in those days by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, her teacher and mentor.)
In her book of essays, Ferré tackles the cultural tendency in Spanish to use the diminutive version of women's names from the time they are children, and how the practice can become a way of belittling women.
She tells a haunting story to make her point.
When she was a child, her parents commissioned a sculpture of her in Florence. She had to pose many hours, but when it came time for the family to leave Italy and the sculptor wasn't finished, he told the family he needed a photograph.
He took her to an upstairs room in another building, told her mother to wait outside, and asked the child to undress. Horrified, Ferré ran to her mother. Back in Puerto Rico months later, the sculpture arrived.
It was titled ``Rosarito.''
Since then, Ferré's life has been symbolically split between the Rosarito and Rosario personas.
``Rosarito'' was the dutiful, ``decorous'' wife confined to her house and the care of her husband and children. ``Rosario'' evolved after her first divorce, but it was a split personality. While ``Rosarito'' minded convention, ``Rosario'' wrote fiction, wrote columns for the newspaper, and secretly dated.
After her children graduated from college and left home, Rosarito became ill and bored.
``Rosario, on the other hand, was happy because, finally, she could write, smoke and make love to whoever she wanted,'' writes Ferré.
Adding to the cauldron her feminist views ignite is Ferré's stance on the perennial debate over her homeland's middle-of-the-road status as a U.S. commonwealth, not quite a state and not an independent nation.
Once an ardent supporter of the independence movement, she came out publicly in 1998 in favor of statehood, generating a new round of controversy. Forced to choose between independence and statehood, Ferré says, she chose statehood.
``Even though I say I don't belong to either of those two tribes, issues like that here are inherited,'' she says.
Her position is more complicated. She favors the current commonwealth status, although with greater assurances that the United States will not abandon the island when it becomes convenient. Issues like U.S. bombing exercises in Vieques, which she has protested, could be ``used politically'' to pressure the U.S. government into leaving the island altogether.
``Puerto Rico is not self-sufficient, and if we were independent, there would be grave economic consequences,'' she says pragmatically. ``That's the pattern of the Caribbean: fight for independence to later endure a worse crisis. Can you imagine if we achieved independence without wanting it?''
Maybe as a twist of plot in a Rosario Ferré novel.