Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Mother Africa and la Abuela Puertorriqueña: Francisco Arriví, Rosario Ferré, and the Ambiguity of Race in the Puerto Rican Family Tradition

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Mother Africa and la Abuela Puertorriqueña: Francisco Arriví, Rosario Ferré, and the Ambiguity of Race in the Puerto Rican Family Tradition

Article excerpt

In this essay I will analyze some remarkable similarities between The House on the Lagoon, a contemporary novel by Rosario Ferré, and Vejigantes, a play from an ear lier decade, written by Francisco Arriví. Both works feature a "turban" scene and a scene that challenges the reader or audience to decide whether "rape" or "seduction" best describes a certain set of events that takes place. Both authors base their work, in part, on Puerto Rican oral tradition as well as on a poem by Francisco Vizcarrondo, who was one of the first to "document" this oral tradition in a literary form. In the turban scenes, I will compare the use of language and imagery, and how Arriví and Ferré each depend on developing a high level of dramatic tension to achieve their goals. In the rape/seduction scenes, I will also explore the use of language and imagery. But in these scenes, I will emphasize how both works meticulous' Iy construct situations that offer ample evidence to support either one of two opposing interpretations: rape or seduction. Furthermore, I will offer an explanation of these writers' purposes for testing the reader/audience with an excruciating expert' ence that could be described as a "race-based" Rorschach.Through this comparison and analysis of scenes, I will also demonstrate how Puerto Rican racial symbols have crossed three generations and four genres: folk tradition, poem, play and novel.

Wherever Puerto Ricans gather, whether on the mainland of the United States in communities of Chicago, New York or Boston, or on the island in the neighborhoods of San Juan, Ponce or Mayagüez, any conversation that touches on family and bloodlines may lead one Puerto Rican to challenge another with: "Y tu abuela, ¿dónde está?" ("And your grandmother, where is she?"). The question itself may be considered rhetorical, but it powerfully captures the often ambiguous and contradictory attitude that Puerto Ricans have toward race-sometimes affirming, sometimes denying their connection to Africa. This question represents a well-established Puerto Rican folk tradition whose sayings employ wry wit and irony to affirm the ubiquitous presence of Africa in the family bloodlines of Puerto Rico. The tradition implies that no Puerto Rican has more than two degrees (generations) of separation from an African ancestor.

Puerto Rican writers like Fortunato Vizcarrondo, Francisco Arriví, and Rosario Ferré have called upon this tradition as they attempt to reveal, explore, and resolve contradictory ideas of national and cultural identity. In works that span from the early 1940s to the mid-1990s, these writers echo the folk tradition, and each other, beginning with Vizcarrondo's poem "íY tu aguela, e' onne ejtá?" published in his collection Dingo, y mandinga; poema.no (1942), continuing with Arrivi's play, Vejigantes (1958), and culminating with Ferré's novel, The House on the Lagoon (1995). In his poem, Vizcarrondo captures the folk tradition, "documents" it, and makes it part of the Puerto Rican literary tradition. In his play, Arrivi takes the metaphor of the grandmother and brings her literally to life on the Puerto Rican stage in a drama centered around three female characters: a woman, her daughter, and her granddaughter.

Ferré, coming of age in a generation after Vizcarrondo and Arriví, and having access to the works of both, exploits intertextuality in a way that boldly and powerfully reflects the folk tradition and the works of her two predecessors. Most striking of all, is the resemblance of two scenes in The House on the Lagoon to two corresponding scenes in Arriví's Vejigantes. First, Ferré portrays a situation involving a woman wearing a turban, long-time symbol of hidden racial identity in Puerto Rico. Then, she depicts another situation that involves an interracial liaison between wealthy "Spanish" patrón and African servant, where the reader is left in doubt as to whether the relationship is consummated consensually or by force. …

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