Academic journal article Centro Journal

Sin Pelos En la Lengua: Rosario Ferré's Last Interview

Academic journal article Centro Journal

Sin Pelos En la Lengua: Rosario Ferré's Last Interview

Article excerpt


In this rare interview with Rosario Ferré, Frances Negrón-Muntaner engages with the iconic author on a host of issues that remain controversial for critics and readers alike: bilingualism in contemporary Puerto Rican society, cultural nationalism, and the reception of the author's work in English. Negrón-Muntaner's opening commentary contextualizes the interview's central threads, including the politics of language in Puerto Rican society, the importance of Rosario Ferré in recent literary history, and the inherent complications in straddling the demands of various literary traditions and cultural markets. Recorded in 2002, the one-one-one exchange with Ferré poses sharp and challenging questions regarding her work's racial politics, her sometimes tense relations with other Puerto Rican intellectuals, and the potential of literature to offer Puerto Ricans an enduring sense of self-worth in both political and cultural terms. [Key words: Rosario Ferré, Puerto Rico, Puerto Rican literature, Latino literature, bilingualism]

WRITER ROSARIO FERRÉ AND I SAT DOWN ON HER COVERED PORCH, BUT WE WERE NOT ALONE. Her husband quietly came in and out of the room, and a dog barked behind the main door. While Ferré settled down, I immediately wrote the date, place and time of our encounter so I would not forget: El Condado, January 3, 2002, 1:00 PM.

I was there to interview her as part of the research for my book-in-progress Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture, which was eventually published in 2004. I hoped that the conversation would inform a chapter I planned to call "Rosario's Tongue" (Negrón-Muntaner 2004: 175-209) in the book's last section, "Boricua Anatomies." Overall, I was interested in examining why and to what effects specific body parts like tongues, hips, buttocks and hair belonging to Puerto Rican cultural figures had come to signify larger tensions within the national body politic. Specifically, I was intrigued by the shifting place of English, the effects of commodification on Puerto Rican literary production, and the declining power of island Puerto Rican intellectuals in the process of authorizing national culture.

The fact that I was in Ferré's and not anyone else's porch was then not arbitrary. Following more than two decades of writing for a Spanish-speaking public, in 1995 Ferré decided to start publishing primarily in English. Historically, this was a risky proposition. Among most intellectuals in Puerto Rico, the Spanish language, or simply, la lengua, had been a fundamental prosthesis of the national body politic since the 1898 U.S. invasion of the island and its politically disappointing outcome. As it has been broadly noted, once expectations of home rule withered away after the U.S. imposed colonial rule and took steps to require English as a language of instruction, a new politics of language emerged. Through it, a wide range of social actors seized upon their "Hispanic" heritage to symbolically encase their opposition to the Englishspeaking "Anglos," who became major obstacles to their political project. In this context, Puerto Rican literature in Spanish was often called on to perform the role of a "national constitution"-undeniable proof of a distinct Puerto Rican nationality that compensated for the absence of a sovereign state. Not surprisingly, until relatively recently, most prominent Puerto Rican writers (including critics and essayists) tended to imagine themselves as virtual heads of state and protectors of the nation's integrity against foreign linguistic "penetration."

The symbolic importance of Spanish as a form of cultural defense, however, is not a historical echo from long ago. It is also linked to the undeniable and increasing weight of English in Puerto Rican lives as a result of globalization and mass migration. After hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. in the post World War II period, English stopped being foreign; in fact, it became the mother tongue and/or the primary language of millions of Puerto Ricans residing in the U. …

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