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The Dallas Morning News

A Story Of Growing Up, Growing Aware Remarkable Mother Is At Center Of Memoir By Hispanic-American

Book Critic

April 4, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK - There have been acclaimed, best-selling memoirs about overcoming poverty or criminality, about the upheavals of immigrating to America, even about growing up with incest or insanity in the family.

But there hasn't been a memoir quite like The Noise of Infinite Longing (HarperCollins, $24.95).

It's the story of author Luisita López Torregrosa's mother, María Luisa, a remarkable woman who became a prominent lawyer in Puerto Rico. She kept her own family name, not her husband's - and this was in the 1940s. Then she did it all over again in small-town Texas, becoming a practicing female Hispanic lawyer in Sweetwater in the mid-'60s.

It's the story of her torrid but turbulent marriage to Ms. Torregrosa's father, Amaury López Candal. It's also the story of the author's own sink-or-swim assimilation into the United States - in 1957, when she was 14 and alone, the single Hispanic sent to a WASPy prep school in Pennsylvania.

Infinite Longing intertwines all of these stories - and Ms. Torregrosa's longing for the country of her childhood, the island of bougainvillea and pistachio-green houses. Giving the book an A-, Entertainment Weekly called it touching and lyrical.

Growing up, coming out

But then, almost halfway through, the book becomes something else again. Infinite Longing encompasses the family's dramatic shifts in class, culture, race, language, climate - and sexual orientation. It's also the story of Ms. Torregrosa's growing realization that she's a lesbian.

In a recent interview in a Manhattan diner, Ms. Torregrosa, 60, says she doesn't know of another memoir like hers. But then, "I deliberately didn't read any while I was writing," she says. "I didn't want to hear other voices in my head. And if the book I read turned out to be excellent, it would only make me feel insecure about my own writing."

Ms. Torregrosa is an assistant editor for The New York Times and has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent, writing cover stories for Vanity Fair and Vogue. Growing up, she had an aunt who was a radio journalist in Puerto Rico, and she partly credits her and her mother's independent ways with inspiring her.

"She worked all our lives and was extremely proud of it." she says. "I thought she was brilliant. I never thought, 'Oh, I wish mommy were here.' To the contrary, I wanted to go to work with her."

"It was the first thing I'd tell my friends when I was growing up," says Ms. Torregrosa's sister, Sara Lawrence, 49, who lives in Dallas. "'Oh, yes, and my mom's a lawyer.'"

The other Texans

Ms. Torregrosa is a Latina elf, small, dark, with a distinct Spanish accent. So hearing her sister speak is a shock. Ms. Lawrence has the broad accent of a lifetime Texan. She practically booms her enthusiasm over the phone lines.

"We had completely different childhoods," she declares. The Torregrosa family is actually split between those siblings such as Luisita, who grew up with María Torregrosa and Mr. López Candal in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and those, such as Sara, who grew up mostly in Texas after 1962, with Leon Slaughter, María Torregrosa's second husband.

In Puerto Rico, their mother was a vibrant upper-class beauty, an actress, a lawyer with political interests. "She could have done anything," Ms. Torregrosa says. But when María Luisa Torregrosa learned of her husband's public infidelity, she divorced him - a rare event in the '60s in that country.

"For someone of mother's social standing, it was terrible," Ms. Torregrosa says. "Men have always philandered in that culture, and the women handle it by ignoring it. But it was typical of her that she wouldn't. Of course, I felt they should have divorced much earlier. But she was traditional in that she felt she had to have a man."

Coming home to peace

In contrast, says Ms. Lawrence, their mother had a different life in Texas. Mr. Slaughter "is such a calm, patient man," she says. "It was the security she felt. He gave mother such a different life."

"Sara had a more stable growing up," says her older sister, "and it was an American growing up. They are total Texans."

Infinite Longing is book-ended by funerals - beginning with María Luisa Torregrosa's death in 1994 in Edgewood, east of Terrell. It was the first time all six of the children had been reunited in 15 years. And the book ends with Amaury López Candal's death in Puerto Rico in 2001. For that occasion, Ms. Torregrosa and several of her siblings returned to the house in which they all lived together last.

It was now the funeral home handling their father's service.

"His death was not part of my original story," says Ms. Torregrosa, who had planned to write up only to her arrival in college. "But it was so ironic. If I were a novelist, I couldn't use it. People would think, 'Surely, this didn't happen.'"

Extending her family's story also meant extending her own - as a journalist and as a lesbian.

"It was my classmates who told me," Ms. Torregrosa says, recalling when she was 16 or 17. "I was not aware fully. I had an inkling I was drawn to certain women, but I thought I just had a crush on a classmate. It wasn't physical, I thought, it was much more poetic, more ethereal" - her hands draw arabesques in the air. "It took me a while to accept the sexual side."

In fact, when one classmate told Ms. Torregrosa that she was clearly a lesbian, "I just started crying," she recalls. "Not that. It was like I didn't even have a term for it."

Ms. Lawrence says her sister's sexuality "has never been an issue in the family. It was not real apparent for a long time, and we didn't talk about it. But over time, we knew. It was the same with Mother. She finally stopped asking why she wasn't married. But no one ever said, 'Oh, how awful.' Eventually, we talked about it freely."

"My sisters and brother have been my biggest champions," Ms. Torregrosa says, grinning. So much so, none of them asked what was going into her memoir.

"They completely trusted me," she says. "A remarkable thing for which I'm eternally grateful."

About her sexuality, though, there was one early moment, Ms. Torregrosa says, when she had to tell their mother everything.

"The parents of my first real girlfriend, when they learned about us, they went crazy," she recalls. "They told me they were going to take me to court.

"So I went to my mother and told her what was happening. And she said, 'If they do, I will be there to support you.

"'As your lawyer.'"

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