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A Place And The Family That Left It But Never Forgot It Culture Clashes Within A Family In Puerto Rico
A Place And The Family That Left It But Never Forgot It
By PATRICIA VOLK
April 23, 2004
THE NOISE OF INFINITE LONGING
PHOTO: Luisita López Torregrosa, author of "The Noise of Infinte Longing."
No habla español? When Luisita López Torregrosa uses Spanish in "The Noise of Infinite Longing," the reader is so under her spell language is not important.
Ms. Torregrosa, an editor at The New York Times, has written a memoir as much about place as it is about family. If you lived in the United States during Operation Bootstrap, if your vision of Puerto Rico comes from bodegas or the pool at the El San Juan, here's what you've missed:
"We were born in a place of no particular consequence, on an island of certain beauty, at the intersection of two cultures, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean, a place of crosswinds and hurricanes, jumbo jets and puddle jumpers, a stopover for travelers going by sea or by air to one or another tourist resort in the American tropics. Island colonies, all of them, outcrops of sunken landmasses, dead rims of ancient volcanoes, pieces of land conquered and abandoned, hot, sensuous, primitive, ocean-lapped and wind-lashed. Places like this island have no history, their beginnings pulverized by time and indifference, their moments of heroism and cowardice passing unnoticed by the grander world."
It is 1994. Ms. Torregrosa's mother is dead. Six siblings, scattered from Honduras to Queens, convene in Texas. For the first time in 15 years, they will be in the same room.
They laugh, cry and down margaritas. They sift through photos. Their mother had the habit of cutting up a good likeness and superimposing it, gluing it, on another not quite as flattering. She faked real life, too, putting the best face on misery, superimposing it on pain. For María Luisa, this was an act of love, what mothers did. To her daughter, it was enraging.
The author's mother, María Luisa, is a beauty contest winner, lawyer and founder of Farándula Bohemia, a touring theater company. "Her face seems to gather all the light." When she is 22, Amaury, "a man with a past and the willful temper and ambition of the hard-born," a man not of her classe de gente asks her to a dance.
Soon María Luisa is pregnant, living with Amaury on a dirt road, with no hot water and chickens scratching in the yard. The family keeps moving as Amaury pursues a medical career. One night when Luisita's beloved 5-year-old sister, Angeles, refuses to eat dinner, Amaury whips off his belt. Luisita listens to "the snapping sound of leather on flesh." At this seminal moment, she expects her all-powerful mother to intervene. Instead, María Luisa "sat helpless, weak afraid, and I saw that fear in her eyes, and I was terrified." When the author, a straight-A student, gets a C in deportment, she is beaten, too.
Nobody knows loss like a first-born. All expectations of maternal protection vanish. Luisita becomes hyper-vigilant. Instead of playing with dolls she reads the encyclopedia. She develops thunderbolt crushes on girls. Of Gabriela, her mother says: "You talk about nothing else. You talk about her like she was your sweetheart." When she is older, her father offers her $10,000 if she'll get married. Ms. Torregrosa seethes. "I would never again have anything much to say to him." She and her mother avoid the subject. "I never talked to mother about it, about my love for women, and she never asked me. That silence ran deep, and it was perhaps more than any other thing what kept me away I was afraid she would ask, and at the same time, I resented that she didn't want to know."
Ms. Torregrosa excels at school. She goes to college and moves to Brooklyn. She becomes a newspaper editor. She is good at what she does. Then comes a double whammy: she falls in love with a person and a place. She jettisons everything and moves to Manila. There, living with her lover, she begins to write. "Words and passion came at the same time."
Once in a while you're lucky enough to read a book that compels you to ask questions: What part does memory play in grief? Do all people have two childhoods, the one they experience and the one they remember? Can you love a person who hurts you? And most difficult: Can you love a person who hurts someone you love? "We analyze everything to death," her sister Angeles says, "and we can twist anything anyway we want."
"The Noise of Infinite Longing" starts slowly, then picks up speed, the last third accelerating clear through the acknowledgments. Ms. Torregrosa pulls off an oxymoronic feat: she is ferocious yet lyrical. She makes you ache to see the other Puerto Rico, her Puerto Rico its Fajardo, El Vedado and Pérez Galdós, places of trammeled beauty. She makes you promise yourself to do what she cannot be good to people who love you even if you don't love them. Most of all, she makes you long to see her sister Angeles dance.
Patricia Volk, a novelist and essayist, is the author of "Stuffed," a family memoir.
Culture Clashes Within A Family In Puerto Rico
By Emily Spicer
January 25, 2004
The Meaning of Consuelo. Judith Ortiz Cofer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $20. 200 pp.
Set in the Puerto Rico of the 1950s, when American industry and innovation are first making their marks on the island's landscape and culture, The Meaning of Consuelo sets upon a deft exploration of the tensions that arise from such sudden changes.
Judith Ortiz Cofer's novel personalizes the struggles of assimilation and preservation through Consuelo, an introspective young girl careening toward adulthood, and her family. Her father is a man in love with all things American and modern and is hungry to live his life in the land of opportunity. Her mother is more old-fashioned, with a sentimental attachment to her family and the island's traditions and slow-paced rhythms.
Consuelo is caught in the middle, fighting against her family's extreme views, all the while trying to overcome her guilt and sadness at her little sister's unraveling sanity.
As Mili's mental illness advances, her mother and father are forced to confront their own divergent viewpoints and are challenged with finding a compromise through life.
In the end, it is Consuelo who successfully manages to bridge the gulf of tradition and innovation, leaving her island for a new life in a new land.
Cofer excels at painting an image of a Puerto Rico caught between worlds, between the sounds of salsa and constant construction, between the smells of the ocean and ripe sugarcane and the exhaust from trucks. Then there's Consuelo, whom Cofer nimbly describes as caught between childhood and adulthood, between mother and daughter roles and between being American and Puerto Rican.
Cofer's writing is elegantly rhythmic and filled with the warmth of her love for the island. As one of the characters advises Consuelo, "You may leave the island, nina, but it will never leave you. We all carry the plantain stain with us, la mancha, inside or out, wherever we go."
In that way, Cofer's book stays with you long after you finish reading.