The Colonized Subject in Self-Exile: Cultural
Existential Angst in Mid-20th Century
Puerto Rican Literature
Kimberly A. Vega
University of Virginia
Generation of 1950 authors, René Marqués, José Luis González and Pedro Juan Soto, secured entrance into the Puerto Rican literary canon for their artistic treatment of contemporary Puerto Rican social and political issues. Despite their success, their heavy-handed, pessimistic literary style prompted famed island poet, Juan Antonio Corretjer, to call this group of authors "The Desperate Generation" (A.González, 503). Corretjer’s tongue-in-cheek characterization, however, did speak some truth for in many respects this generation was desperate. Almost fifty years of rule by the world’s wealthiest country had not erased widespread poverty on the island. Moreover, these authors saw their dream of a politically autonomous Puerto Rico slipping away. Because this generation demonstrated a tendency to write about mid-century contemporary issues, they were therefore the first authors to choose as theme the self-exiled Puerto Rican being that it was a phenomenon of such grand scale that no sector of the population remained untouched. In the end, about one-third of the population left the island and resettled in large industrial metropolises such as Chicago and New York City; a notable number even made it as far as Hawaii.
In the 1940s Puerto Rico’s first popularly-elected governor and founder of its current Free Associated State status, Luis Muñoz Marín, launched “Operation Bootstrap” with the primary purpose of fomenting industry and infrastructure in Puerto Rico. First, an entirely new branch of government was created that was specifically dedicated to founding and financing new enterprises. These new government-founded and government-controlled industries would only be privatized once self-sustaining, with control handed over to local businessmen. The second part of the plan involved wooing foreign and especially North American corporations into coming to the island. Even though the first part of the plan did not achieve the anticipated results, the second part worked rather marvelously, bringing major industries such as pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals to Puerto Rico. The government also founded an official tourism department and additionally lucrative was the presence of U.S. military and scientific bases. All of these elements provided the impetus behind the island’s “economic miracle,” converting Puerto Rico from the “poorhouse” of the Caribbean to having one of the highest per capita incomes in the region in mere decades.
Unfortunately, the rapid modernization resulted in many cultural, social and economic side-effects. Politically, the situation was charged at best. Muñoz Marín had avoided the status issue for two elections, but by 1945 he could so no longer. Students, artists, intellectuals, urban proletariat and unions organized strikes that spoke of their discontent with corporate exploitation and North American rule that often verged on military rule. Members of his party also put tremendous pressure on the governor. But Muñoz Marín made a “disturbing discovery” while campaigning for the 1948 elections: “The vast majority of the people he met had a deep and instinctive fear of independence” (Maldonado, 77). The governor believed that Puerto Rico needed the help of the United States in order to establish a stable economy that would later withstand political autonomy. He thus proposed the “political mutation” of the Free Associated State, but nationalism resurged again when famed nationalist, Pedro Albizu Campos, returned from incarceration in the U.S. in 1947. The year 1950 then proved to be climactic with two assassination attempts: One was made on President Truman during a visit to Puerto Rico and the other was made on Muñoz Marín himself. In spite of the resistance, Muñoz Marín and his Partido Popular Democrático constituents went ahead with the plan. Congress approved the new commonwealth status --while still maintaining ultimate authority in Puerto Rico-- and so the island became a Free Associated State in 1952.
Rapid industrialization also produced an ecological disaster that finally all but destroyed the long-suffering agricultural industry (Puerto Rico: Paradise Invaded). Because the majority of the population’s livelihood had been dependent on fishing, sugar, bananas or coffee and there was now no work in these industries, country peasants --the now-mythic “jíbaros”-- flocked to the island’s coastal cities in record numbers. But it was not only the lack of work in the countryside that led to this migration. Government-funded vaccination programs dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, school breakfast and lunch programs, and somewhat better sanitary facilities in a primarily Catholic community with little knowledge of or recourse to birth control resulted in a population explosion. The government could promise foreign companies and investors a large cheap workforce but the thousands of new jobs created in the Puerto Rican cities were simply not enough. World War II had jumpstarted the world economy; the post-war United States then continued to enjoy unprecedented economic growth and affluence. With so many new industries in the U.S. itself, these unskilled workers crossed over to the mainland in one of the most curious migrations in both countries’ histories. Norman González-Ferreira points out that “Puerto Rican migration to the mainland has been unique because it is the only massive migratory movement to the United States mainland of American citizens from a different cultural background, generally distinct in language and customs” (20-1). What also marks this mass migratory movement as unique is the fact that it became a bi-directional movement. Puerto Ricans, having been granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, could move unhindered between the island and the mainland. So their cultural source was more readily available to them than that of other immigrant groups, resulting in the real possibility of a constant renewal of Puerto Ricans’ cultural ties. Prior to Puerto Rican and parallel Mexican immigration, this was not at all the case for other immigrant groups in the United States. Moreover, while all these groups experienced similar social, economic and psychological circumstances due to self-exile, the Puerto Rican’s brand of self-exile differed in that they often viewed their time in the United States as a temporary situation. Puerto Ricans often wished to work in the United States for a time and then return to Puerto Rico with enough money to buy a house and maybe a little land on which live out their golden years. This was the Puerto Rican version, or translation, of the American Dream. And while a good number succeeded, the majority did not. Self-exile for the Puerto Rican and the length of that sentence were generally contingent on two factors: the individual’s ability to adapt to the mainland and his or her economic status. Some could not adapt and, many times relying on family to help pay their way, often returned just as impoverished as when they arrived. Some were never able to go home again even if they wanted to simply because they couldn’t afford it.
These unskilled workers from small, agrarian communities were completely unprepared for life in the big city be it San Juan or New York. What we witness in this era of Puerto Rican letters is the rise of the urban space as the primary setting, sometimes embellished with a brief, often nostalgic sketch of the disappearing countryside. The city becomes the overwhelming cultural, dominant center. However the metropolis --sharing 19th-century naturalist tendencies-- morphs into a cesspool of anti-Puerto Rican values and in logical step with this rigid dichotomy, the metropolis therefore symbolizes pro-North American values. This new literary generation, committed as they were in some shape or form to defining Puerto Rican identity and nationalism, addressed the Puerto Rican migration to the cities in terms of a massive breakdown in the island's social structures and traditions. As if to underscore this strict, politically-symbolic dichotomy first set down by Puerto Rico’s Generation of 1930, René Marqués refers to San Juan as “the city under siege” in the epigraph to his short story collection, En una ciudad llamada San Juan (1960). This reference succinctly illuminates the way these intellectuals and artists envisioned the Puerto Rican-North American relationship. Moreover, as if this threat to the homeland did not suffice to further dislocate the colonized subject’s psycho-social space, a move to the center of that threat proved ever the more debilitating. Thus it is not only a perceived, invasive foreign culture that threatens both Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican’s psyche in this literature, it is also the internalization of foreign values (or, the acceptance of the conqueror’s superiority and culture) that creates both a subaltern status as well as a perpetually fragmented identity. In sum, the exacerbated cultural dislocation forever destabilizes a unified Puerto Rican identity which, as a consequence, ultimately thwarts the dream of political autonomy.
In general, the Generation of 1950 chose to disseminate and fictionalize the themes of migration, cultural resistance, Puerto Rican national identity, and political, social and economic unrest. The manner in which they chose to develop these themes also served to introduce new, primarily North American and European literary techniques into the island’s literary milieu. Stream-of-consciousness, modernist fragmentation, the flashback, psychoanalysis and existentialism transformed their treatment of contemporary social ills from a more journalistic type of writing into art. In addition, these newer literary techniques served to universalize the island’s literature, helping these authors gain international recognition for their work. The most well-known author of the group is René Marqués, whose drama, La carreta, became canonized in the 1950s for its (now-stereotypical) treatment of the Puerto Rican immigrant’s plight. Yet even Marqués notes his own artistic debt to José Luis González, a self-confessed Marxist and literary maverick who chose Mexican citizenship over U.S. citizenship for political reasons. While Marqués basked in the glories heaped upon him by Puerto Rico’s cultural institutions, González was snubbed by the island’s cultural elite. But it is to González that we must attribute the first post-war Puerto Rican novel, Paisa (1950), which also contains what is most likely the first use of the flashback technique in Puerto Rican literary history.
His short story, "En Nueva York" (1948), succinctly encapsulates the theme of the Puerto Rican immigrant abroad and its treatment as generally developed by the Generation of 1950. The story owes much of its own artistic debt to European and North American Neo- or Social Realism in that it is contemporary, urban, and heavily influenced by the language of cinema, thus culminating into veritable “snapshots” of life. While this story does not fully develop the use of the flashback, it does use the technique of inserting English language into the text without any Spanish translation. González, like his contemporaries and most notably like Pedro Juan Soto, utilizes English in order to make more "real" the foreign atmosphere in which his characters reside. This story also seeks to linguistically incorporate various elements of popular speech. It is the usage of language in particular where the Generation of 1950 makes the most progressive in-roads, attempting to recuperate what they see as an authentic Puerto Rican voice. They situate that voice in the common language of the everyday person. The technique takes on further significance when this recuperation is attempted amidst a North American setting. The linguistic contact and conflict between differing ethno-linguistic groups is well-documented throughout U.S. immigrant history; specifically, it is these authors’ turn to attempt to give a voice to the Puerto Rican immigrant in a place where he has none. Consequently, a space is created from which the Puerto Rican immigrant’s stories, experiences and memory can be recorded. In addition, the perceived fundamental and irrevocable differences between North American culture and Puerto Rican culture are posited symbolically, albeit somewhat simplistically, in the different languages: Spanish vs. English. Language, then, serves to underscore an inherent incompatibility between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In mid-century contemporary terms, language was the “front-line” in the battle for cultural and political autonomy.
"En Nueva York,” like many of the short stories of this era, is also stereotypical and superficial in its treatment of the immigrant’s life in New York: economic hardship, cultural annihilation, and cultural, linguistic isolation are all revisited. Marcelino's inability to find work and keep it in the great U.S. metropolis, along with the fragmentation of his sense of community and identity, all lead to sickness and destitution. When the impoverished Marcelino first arrives in New York he searches for his cousin who had emigrated earlier and instead finds his cousin's widow. His cousin had been killed in a common tale of mistaken identity and urban brutality: the police accidentally shot the wrong Puerto Rican. The cousin’s tragic death reveals the racist structure at work in North American society as it is intimated that all police and by extrapolation, Anglo-Americans, view Puerto Ricans as clichéd “unwashed masses”. As they constitute an ethnic “Other” that is indivisible and individually indistinguishable, they are subsequently dehumanized.
When the widow refuses to help Marcelino, her callous act underscores the sense of disintegration of traditional Puerto Rican family ties. Without family help to orient and support him in this new space, the protagonist’s own physical, emotional and moral self inexorably disintegrates too, resulting in his attempted mugging of a Puerto Rican woman. His subsequent realization of the futility of this act climaxes in a long-winded scream. The scream of despair, or the “grito”, is a recurrent motif in Generation of 1950 literature, although Soto will take it the furthest in its textual realization and symbolic function. The scream indicates madness, emotional catharsis and, at the same time, a recuperation of the voice. However, these multiple meanings make the “grito” an ambivalent vocal recuperation. This is probably one of the more provocative manifestations of recuperation and resistance in subaltern literatures.
The scream also reverberates in René Marqués’ 1955 short story, “Isla en Manhattan,” which focuses as well on locally-specific, Puerto Rican social themes while at the same time demonstrating a marked existentialism. This story’s characters are also Puerto Rican immigrants living in New York City but this time the protagonist is a woman. Marqués' work, along with Soto’s, marks a profound change: The jíbaro is also the jíbara, which was not the case previously. When discussing the general characteristics of his literary generation, Marqués has written that:
…hay además, un hecho significativo: la irrupción de la mujer como protagonista en la nueva literatura… Hasta entonces la mujer, como personaje, no había pasado de ser figura secundaria en nuestra literatura… no lograba alcanzar, como personaje, el derecho a ser hacedora consciente de circunstancias.
El femenismo puertorriqueño había ya obtenido la igualdad política, pero no había logrado –ni en verdad lo había pedido o intentado—destruir la estructura social y cultural establecida. Fue con el vendaval democratizador iniciado desde 1940, que la sociedad puertorriqueña dio un rápido viraje hacia el matriarcado estilo anglosajón (Marqués, “El cuento puertorriqueño en la promoción del cuarenta,” 93).
Marqués’ clearly anti-feminist attitude is meant to be a counterpoint to the hegemonic North American culture, revealing the real nature of the U.S-Puerto Rican relationship in that it is one of master and slave as one culture imposes itself on another. Also present is the notion of an incompatibility between the two cultures. Feminism may have been an “imported,” imposed ideology but Marqués’ attack on it proved very unpopular and he suffered much criticism for it. Yet it is a curious sort of anti-feminist attitude he demonstrates firstly because Marqués always fondly attributed a significant literary debt to his grandmother who was a gifted story-teller. Oral tradition is therefore common feature of his work. More importantly, Marqués displayed a marked ambivalence toward his female characters who vacillate between traditional roles and non-traditional ones. He artistically, but especially intellectually, seemed unable to negotiate the nostalgic, traditional femininity he valued and the new realities that required its metamorphosis.
Yet the critical question remains: Why did this literary generation choose female characters to personify their political agendas? Marqués has already partially answered this question: Woman represents unchartered literary territory. His literary generation also wanted to break literary taboos present in Puerto Rican literature and society, and so they often tackled controversial subjects such as rape, abortion and female sexuality. Yet one might also wonder if this preoccupation with the female subject could not also be because Woman --as a traditional figure of less social, economic and political power despite the political equality given her by the American democratic system—really represents Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. Western, specifically U.S., might is often gendered as “masculine” in political rhetoric; thus anything perceived of as contradictory and/or inferior is gendered as “feminine”. Yet the “feminine” in “Isla en Manhattan” is shown to wield subversive political and psychological power in spite of the hardship and humiliation suffered at the hands of the dominant, “masculine” culture. Like many of Marqués’ stories, this one also begins in media res. In a series of flashbacks we learn about expatriate Juanita’s life in Puerto Rico while she is on her way to be married at the courthouse. When Juanita fell in love with her soon-to-be husband, she adopted his pro-independence and pro-labor politics. Her activism resulted in her expulsion from the University of Puerto Rico which in turn left her with no other option but to move to New York as she was considered unemployable. The situation is ironic because the U.S. had always framed its imperialism as “educational,” a “tutelage” of democracy. Yet the island still enjoyed less civil liberties than the United States.
Authorities kept lists naming political activists; the University of Puerto Rico made it policy to expel leftist activists; companies refused to hire or fired employees with Independentista sympathies. Juanita reflects upon these injustices in Puerto Rico and the current ones she suffers despite being an American citizen. She remembers being raped and deflowered by a white man and how as if to further degrade her, he tossed her some money after the act. To help support both herself and her boyfriend, Juanita then begins life as a prostitute. Her current job is symbolic of her moral slide and her ultimate exploitation in a capitalist society. Juanita feels that she has given up her life for her fiancé. She thinks that she should have stayed in Lares where it was, while poor, at least familiar. To add insult to injury, her fiancé has completely changed. He now wholly believes in the superiority of North American capitalism, is a foreman in a factory, is proud of his good English and has even changed his name. Juanita feels betrayed and disillusioned.
One of the first of many significant literary motifs at work in this story is the protagonist’s name. Juanita possesses a name that is considered universal in Hispanic culture so “Juanita”, like “María”, functions euphemistically to signify Woman. Juanita, then, is an Every(wo)man. The penchant for unnamed or universalized, symbolic protagonists pervades this literature and we shall see it repeated in Soto’s work. The lack of naming may function existentially in that it seems to depersonalize the character, but it also may more readily allow the reader to identify with the character. Thus the anonymous character is better able to absorb while at the same time reflect the psychological projections the reader might impose upon him/her. We must remember that we are discussing a particular time in literary history where psychoanalysis and existentialism are en vogue. Psychoanalytic projection is certainly not beyond these authors’ thinking or literary intention at this time. Additionally, the fact that Marqués’ Every(wo)man comes from Lares is significant because of the “Grito de Lares” of 1868. The town of Lares is posited here as an authentic site of resistance and revolution because it was home to the only organized rebellion under Spanish rule. In this way Juanita is shown to be pro-independence not because of her pro-independence stance, but because she has been inscribed into that very ideological position since her birth. The symbolic ties to the land are posited in terms of an organic nationalism.
Juanita’s disillusionment over her life in New York is further compounded by the fact that her marriage will be a civil marriage and not a Catholic one. She wonders if she can even wear white as she is no longer a virgin. On the way, while hearing the “Angelus”, Juanita is presented with a petition for the release of eight black men unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Her musings, the “Angelus”, and the racial injustice she witnesses end in a dramatic climax when Juanita defies her fiancé in a fit of hysteria by signing the petition. Juanita’s renewed political activism symbolizes the dissolution of her relationship and the overthrow of her fiancé’s control. But it also symbolizes the birth of Juanita's new, autonomous and political self. Juanita embodies the "Isla" in Manhattan. She is Puerto Rico, but a double-islander. The clever trick is that both Puerto Rico and Manhattan are islands, and the trick is made even more clever in that Juanita still feels isolated, an island, no matter where she lives. Her rebellion is presented as a recipe for Puerto Rican cultural autonomy although still unable to completely traverse the isolation of existentialist angst. Juanita draws upon her faith in herself, her faith in the importance and validity of her own grass-roots culture (symbolized by the town of Lares); and as implied by the “Angelus”, her faith in God and the Catholic tradition (Peterson, 216). The message is that one must be authentic to him/herself. Yet there is an irony present in Marqués’ message because it really constitutes part of the North American individualistic ideology and not the “patronismo” he supported as the latter system is more deterministic. Marqués relies on the “good” conscience of the Puerto Rican people to be able to choose their home-grown traditions over imported ones. However, he seems unaware that his own position is partially imported as well.
Pedro Juan Soto’s fiction is the first literary work of the 20th-century firmly grounded in the chaotic space of the city. González-Ferreira correctly states that Soto “does not idealize the land as Marqués did. Soto is a man from the urban milieu, who reflects his personal sociopolitical condition in his fiction” (189). One could also make a convincing argument that Spiks is one of the most innovative literary works of this generational group in terms of style and form and rightly enough, Soto claims a literary debt to González as well: “También pretendí sumar otros atisbos a la visión de Nueva York que nos había dado en 1948 José Luis González con los cuentos de El hombre de la calle” (10). It was González who set the literary standard; Marqués lyricized it; but Soto practically smashed it.
Formally, the book's structure alternates between short stories which sometimes are only two or three pages long, and vignettes titled "Miniatura I", "Miniatura II" and so on in succession. Here we see the fullest development of the Social Realist cinematic "snapshot" of life first begun in 1948’s “En Nueva York” and transformed through the fragmentation of European modernism. The vignettes tend to be narrated in stream-of-consciousness and are but a paragraph in length. Because of the fragmented structure, debate raged on for a quite a while as to whether the slim volume is a collection of short stories or a novel. Not only did Soto outdo his contemporaries with his structural innovations, he also outdid them on the linguistic front. The presentation of language and the feel for its oral quality far surpass anything else done by González or Marqués. Soto writes all of his characters' speech in the slang and rhythmic pattern of the spoken Puerto Rican dialect. But he also writes in the Puerto Rican dialect of the lower classes, sprinkling his pages with English words and phrases that call attention to the New York setting, exacerbating the sense of isolation for the non-English speaker and the infiltration of English into Spanish. Yet these linguistic realities and their consequent utilization as literary innovations did cause Soto remorse. In his 1973 prologue he writes that while he still likes some things about Spiks, he detests others. One element he detests in particular is the influence of English: “desde los vocablos anglicados que aún no se han convertido en préstamos lingüísticos, hasta el repetido abuso del gerudio” (10). Once again, language is viewed as the primary site of contest over cultural hegemony.
Spiks is also the first novel to be completely devoted to the theme of the Puerto Rican exile. This may be due to the fact that, while all the authors spent some time in New York City, Soto spent the most time there. Reflecting upon the process of writing Spiks, Soto writes that he vaguely remembers “las emociones que también intervinieron en cada caso porque, como es natural, cada narración me sirvió para exorcizar las emociones que entonces me torturaban. Lástima, impotencia, ira, asco, dolor, eran algunas de ellas” (10). Out of all these authors, Soto most completely identifies with the Puerto Rican immigrant because he once was one. Consequently, Soto was the most able to create a plausible and more complex characterization of that immigrant while the others could only create two-dimensional characters. For Marqués and González, the self-exiled Puerto Rican was subsumed to their pro-independence, anti-imperialist ideology. The immigrant’s experiences served to underscore the cultural incompatibilities these authors believed to exist between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The immigrants were not necessarily important in and of themselves. As a result, these immigrant characters were made symbols of the resistance to U.S. hegemony, but yet remained “over there” despite being written about “over here”. For Soto, his characters were almost literally “closer to home” and more importantly, Soto is the author least likely to offer a solution for the Puerto Rican’s fragmented identity or the island’s political status. Another important element present in Soto's collection is the development of psychoanalytic themes. Psychoanalysis and existentialism helped Soto create more complex immigrant characters in the short story format but it is not simply the way in which he develops his characters through mental illness (by using disjointed writing and plenty of stream-of-consciousness) that makes his work stand out amongst such literary juggernauts as González and Marqués. It is through the choice of characters he employs to act out those illnesses. As a consequence, Soto’s development of the female protagonist is possibly one of the most complete, complex and at the same time, sympathetic, of the three authors presented here.
"La cautiva" opens the collection and in it we find the young protagonist at the airport in San Juan, waiting for her plane to New York. In terms of the book’s structure, this is significant because the rest of the book uses New York City as its setting, thereby making the whole of Spiks a Puerto Rican immigrant allegory in that it is both a physical, psychological and partly spiritual journey to the United States. Also, like many of the characters we have thus far seen, this “captive” is almost nameless. As the narrative voice never divulges her name, it is only through snippets of conversation that we learn that her name is Fernanda. But the use of her name is sparse at best. In fact, the narrative moments of this story are also rather sparse with most of it occurring in Fernanda’s interior. The rest is primarily dialogue, a barrage of oral speech: Fernanda arguing with her mother, her mother admonishing her for her behavior, airport intercom announcements, calls for boarding.
It is through this dialogue that we learn the reasons why the protagonist is a “captive”. She is being sent away because she and her brother-in-law have fallen in love. Sending wayward children away to relatives in far-off places in order to avoid social scandals was quite common at this time and so a Puerto Rican readership would not be unfamiliar with the practice. Soto is obviously critical of the moral code and country attitude of the jíbaro. His protagonist is being sacrificed to the family honor. Moreover, her journey is symbolic of all Puerto Ricans’ journeys to the U.S.: First it is almost forced onto a person (the government officially supported emigration and the economic situation practically mandated it). Second, by moving to the United States Puerto Ricans mistakenly believed they would be able to resolve their problems when, in actuality and as Soto later develops in his succeeding stories, they are presented with a whole new set of problems on top of the old ones. In fact, the time away is presented as a sort of jail sentence in that it would be temporary: “Cuatro años más… Después podré venir a pelear por él” (22).
“Ausencia" is another tale that features another almost nameless, female protagonist and constant dialogue. This time, however, Altagracia is abandoned by her husband and not by her family (her mother lives upstairs). We find her in the midst of grappling with that loss, both emotionally traumatic and economic, suffering both intense isolation and intense sexual frustration. She tells her mother that “(l)o que yo tengo… no me lo va a cural ningún doctol. Eh un ehspíritu que me me pelsigue...” (54). When the mother tentatively asks whose spirit it is, the woman remarks that it is Mario’s. Mario doesn’t want her to go out anymore, to wear nice clothes or make-up, to see other men, or to do anything that might compromise him. Yet Mario is not even dead, as her mother points out. Nevertheless, the protagonist refuses to “move on” and it is really her refusal to abandon these overly-idealized rules of Puerto Rican wifely conduct that is the critical point Soto wishes to make. In an apartment repeatedly described as a cave, Altagracia fantasizes about Mario, talking to him as if he were there. The protagonist finally goes mad in that tiny space. It is her wail of sexual frustration and despair that closes the story but unlike Juanita’s scream in “Isla en Manhattan”, Altagracia’s cry is like Marcelino’s in “En Nueva York”.
It is not that Soto didn’t create male protagonists. His development of the masculine characters, however, is not generally positive or as complex as that of the feminine ones. The men are often portrayed as unemployed, underemployed or at odds with the North American authorities. Masculinity is defined in terms of employment and the external world of the streets and bars of New York City while the existential, interior spaces are conceptualized in tiny apartments associated more with the feminine. The male characters are also often alcoholic as well as abusive toward the female characters, yet the female characters are not completely exonerated either. A good example is found in “Garabatos” where we are privy to both the man’s and the woman’s interior spaces, alternating between one’s thoughts and the other’s. The story starts out as the typical tale of a hard-working wife and mother with a no-good, unemployed husband. But the story takes an unexpected twist. It is Christmas Eve and Graciela’s husband, who has no money for Christmas presents, decides to paint his wife a mural on their bathroom wall that symbolizes their love. However, the pastoral scene of Puerto Rico with the nude figures of a man and woman are not to her liking –she finds them disgusting—and she erases all his work. Like Altagracia in “Ausencia”, the outdated moral codes Soto criticizes are carried within the woman, even though they may harm her in the end.
While Soto is highly critical of tradition he offers very little to replace it. The only moment where some quasi-spiritual resolution occurs, akin to Juanita’s experience in “Isla en Manhattan”, is in the final story of the collection, “Dios en Harlem.” Here the protagonist, who has suffered a miscarriage at the hands of her lover, hysterically cries out while in front of a church and pointing to her belly that “God is here! God is here!” Overall, Spiks presents us with the fullest development in this period of the female psyche as a site of protest and struggle. The female psyche and her body become symbolic of a spiritually-unmoored yet spiritually-salient, overall passive but yet at times active, “feminine” Puerto Rico in relation to the materialistically-grounded, active and aggressive culture of the United States. Like Juanita, Soto’s female protagonists are symbols of the marginal, both Woman and Puerto Rico.
This literary generation perceived a continued breakdown in their island’s social structures due to North American influence and so, in a reactionary way, addressed them accordingly. They recommended an internal search for authentic Puerto Rican expression of an authentic Puerto Rican identity, which is extrapolated to mean an authentic Puerto Rican culture. However, and unlike their literary predecessors, they could not or chose not to always go to the countryside in order to establish a locus of that authentic expression. Instead they preferred to situate their search in chaotic urban spaces. Moreover, by choosing a North American urban space as the setting for many of their stories they had more readily available to them a set dichotomy --a more easily recognizable separation of cultures. This resulted in their overall treatment of the Puerto Rican immigrant as stereotypical and two-dimensional. Yet in a foreign setting they were also able to argue that cultural authenticity really comes from within –no matter where one lives. In this manner, psychoanalytic and existentialist theories served their agendas well. So these authors’ recommendation, should they even present one, tended to hinge upon this idea of true realization of one’s self. For them, once the Puerto Rican was to realize or know him/herself at the individual level, s/he would then be able to make the proper choice (meaning political autonomy) in “good conscience”.
But their recipe for independence ultimately failed. Instead, we see the subaltern’s constant negotiation between the imported but also internalized culture, and the culture of their ethnic origin. These factors do not necessarily sabotage the search for authenticity as much as they do Puerto Rico’s political autonomy. The recuperation of Puerto Ricans’ political, cultural and even literary voice remains always and forever, partly imported. More importantly, it is ambivalent. Existentialism may have helped to make these authors known internationally but it stymied any real, applicable coherence to their nationalist agenda. Additionally, it highlighted the ambivalence the average Puerto Rican experienced when asked to choose between independence and continued North American rule or affiliation. That ambivalence, symbolized best by the scream of madness or despair, really illuminates a particularly Puerto Rican brand of cultural dislocation.
The Puerto Rican subject’s cultural schizophrenia in this generation’s literature is also symbolized by the foregrounding of the feminine protagonist. For the first time in Puerto Rican letters, Woman rises to true literary autonomy. She tends to best symbolize the colonized subject in this literature in that she evinces a fragmented, subaltern identity submitted to both incomprehensible, North American cultural codes as well as outdated, Puerto Rican gender-specific and moral codes. What is most significant is that this tenuous, “sick” condition that must negotiate between multiple spaces and competing codes is exacerbated by emigration to the mainland. Cultural schizophrenia is furthermore symbolized by a geographical dislocation firstly evinced in the opposition we have already seen between the city and countryside. Nevertheless, Puerto Rican culture and its authenticity are still often interpreted in terms of the countryside. The countryside acts as an antithesis: For Marqués it is the site of authenticity and traditional cultural values; yet for both González, and especially for Soto, it remains a more contradictory site.
Furthermore, the countryside exists less in reality and more and more in the realm of nostalgia and memory. Thus the Puerto Rican’s cultural identity is negotiated in terms of space, specifically geographic space, but one space resides in the imaginary. The resultant tensions are therefore posited in the psychological, internal space of the Puerto Rican himself. Its articulation in this literature is through the nervous breakdown and the existential pangs of constant self-questioning. However, the existential angst and related cultural insecurity endemic of the subaltern’s global positioning are not completely caused by the confusion experienced by immigration. They go deeper than simply the émigré’s fears and insecurity amidst a new, foreign landscape. They are difficulties experienced by a colonized subject who has experienced a colonial system in which efforts at North American acculturation were made and cannot ever be completely undone. In fact, the “success” of North American acculturation is best seen in the linguistic battle of Spanish versus English. While the two differing, competing languages underscored the supposed, inherent incompatibility between what was perceived of as a fundamentally Anglo culture versus a fundamentally Hispanic one, the mixing of the two languages was virulently rejected as “authentic” linguistic “borrowing”. Unfortunately or fortunately, the linguistic mix nonetheless demonstrates a certain irrevocable transformation of not only common Puerto Rican speech patterns but Puerto Rican culture as well. For these authors, even that partial creolization of the Puerto Rican dialect can be seen as debilitating in the search for true cultural authenticity. In sum, the Puerto Rican self-exile in this literature is really an exile from knowing him/herself. But self-exile or not, the Puerto Rican is shown to experience similar cultural dislocation even when at home in Puerto Rico.
González, Aníbal. “Puerto Rico.” Handbook of Latin American Literature. Ed. David William Foster. New York: Garland, 1987.
González, José Luis. "En Nueva York." 1948. Cuentos completos: José Luis González. México, D.F.: Editorial Alfaguara, 169-78. 1997.
González-Ferreira, Norman. “The Puerto Rican Experience on the Mainland: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of René Marqués, Pedro Juan Soto, and Emilio Díaz Valcárcel (1951-79).” Diss. New York U, 1991.
Maldonado, Alex W. “Puerto Rico: From Columbus to Commonwealth.” The U.S. Overseas. Jerry Korn, ed. Time-Life Books: New York, 1970. 40-65.
Marqués, René. "Isla en Manhattan." 1955. Inmersos en silencio. Río Piedras, P.R.: Editorial Antillana, 73-88. 1976.
- - -. “El cuento puertorriqueño en la promoción del cuarenta,” El puertorriqueño dócil y otros ensayos (1953-1971). 1st ed. 1966. Río Piedras, P.R.: Editorial Antillana, 1993. 85-116.
Peterson, Vernon Lynn. Idea y representación literaria en la narrativa de René Marqués. Diss. U of Iowa, 1982. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1983. 8325173.
Puerto Rico: Paradise Invaded. Prod. Latin American Film Studies Project. Videocassette. New York, 1977.
Soto, Pedro Juan. Spiks. 1956. Río Piedras, P.R.: Editorial Cultural, 1973.