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Rossello, Hernandez Colon, Ferre Urge Nobel Prize
in Literature for Enrique Laguerre
by Chris Hawley
March 3, 1999
©Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Six weeks ago, the Reliquary,
a little-known literary magazine, began a letter-writing campaign
to introduce a Puerto Rican writer to organizers of the Nobel
Prize in Sweden.
At first, Puerto Ricans quietly applauded the Reliquary's spunk.
Then the whole island joined the campaign.
Now, radio stations in the U.S. commonwealth broadcast the address
of the Swedish Academy, urging listeners to back Enrique Laguerre
for the world's highest literary prize.
School classes are sending packages of letters. Universities and
politicians are joining the movement along with the island's intellectual
elite, including author Rosario Ferre, the 1995 U.S. National
Book Award finalist.
Late last month, the island's House of Representatives and Senate
issued a resolution signed by Gov. Pedro Rossello urging his nomination.
Laguerre's 31 historical novels explore the cultural and economic
struggles of a Spanish-speaking island that this year marked a
century since U.S. troops wrested it from Spain - setting in motion
a still-unresolved identity crisis.
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture sent its official nomination
to the academy last month, along with copies of every major work
by Laguerre. Friends donated out-of-print editions to the cause.
"I, personally, am joining with many other Puerto Ricans
who are in favor of this nomination," Rossello said. "This
is a just petition and it reflects the depth and validity of (Laguerre's)
The national pride in the novelist, and the campaign it has inspired,
appear to reflect a revival of the century-old battle to carve
a cultural identity for Puerto Rico separate from the United States.
In December, Puerto Ricans rejected U.S. statehood in a controversial
non-binding referendum called by Rossello.
The Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, has a rigid policy
of not commenting on nominations and never revealing Nobel Prize
Under its rules, previous laureates, members of the academy, university
literature professors and presidents of national authors' or cultural
organizations can nominate authors.
Laguerre, whose wavy head of hair and twinkling eyes belie his
92 years, said he is flattered by the sudden attention.
"I have spent my whole life trying to ennoble the history
of my country - that's what has always driven me, almost desperately,
to write," he said. "So this brings me a lot of personal
satisfaction, because it means the people of my country have understood
Laguerre's novels are highly regarded in Latin America and are
required reading in Puerto Rican schools, but few have been translated
Some have been spectacular local best sellers. But only "The
Labyrinth," a portrait of a fictional dictatorship inspired
by the Dominican Republic, is well known outside Latin America.
"La Llamarada" ("The Blaze") and "La
Resaca" ("The Undertow"), about the exploitation
of Puerto Rican sugar workers in the 1930s, are staples of literature
courses on the island.
In "La Llamarada," Laguerre's protagonist describes
workers as they wait to be paid what little money is not taken
out of their salaries by the company store:
"Next to me a sad, discolored hillbilly took out a penny.
He contemplated it a long time. Then he put it back in his pocket.
The boy selling the brown sweets came up to offer them. The man
doubted. He put his hand in the pocket, caressed the miserable
coin and wrinkled the space between his eyebrows, thinking perhaps
of his worsening misfortune, the nakedness of his children. He
shook his head from shoulder to shoulder, saying to the kid, 'I'm
telling you, no!' And he started to whistle a bit to scare away
the grief and the pain."
"Solar Montoya" ("Montoya's Plot") deals with
Puerto Rican coffee growers and "Ceiba en el Tiesto"
("Silk-cotton Tree in the Flowerpot") is about the emigration
of islanders to the United States. "Cauce sin Rio" ("Riverbed
Without a River") examines the island's transformation from
an agrarian to industrial center.
"They are important works, enriched with the words of Puerto
Rico and the culture of the different regions," said Ricardo
Alegria, director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto
Rico and the Caribbean.
Laguerre was born in rural Moca, Puerto Rico, during the period
when the United States was trying to "Americanize" its
new colony by requiring that schools teach all subjects in English
to their Spanish-speaking pupils.
"Like all of the scholars of those times, I am a product
of that absurd schooling," he said in a recent autobiographical
article. "Over time, I had to re-educate myself by way of
He wrote - and burned - three novels before a university professor
encouraged him to publish "La Llamarada" at age 25.
With his work, "the Puerto Rican novel stops being a mere
projection of the traditional European novel," wrote critic
Josefina Rivera de Alvarez in her "Dictionary of Puerto Rican
"Laguerre focuses ... on the problems of our countrysides,
our villages and our cities, but amplifying his vision with an
ever-broadening technique," she said.
Former governors Rafael Hernandez Colon and Luis A. Ferre (novelist
Rosario Ferre's father) have sent letters to Stockholm backing
Laguerre's nomination. So have the presidents of Puerto Rico 's
The chairman of the culture committee in the island's house of
representatives urged all 78 municipalities to send their endorsements.
The Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers and the island's main
trade unions have joined the call.
But Alegria acknowledged such grassroots efforts are unlikely
to sway the academy.
"It's always been hard for our country to make known our
culture to those kinds of bodies because it's always the diplomats
who serve as publicity agents," he said. As a United States
territory, "we lack a diplomatic corps."
No matter, said Laguerre.
"To know that my people have listened to me, that's the greatest
prize I could ever get," he said.