The loyal traitor


Rosario Ferré’s A la sombra de tu nombre may allude to the shadow cast culturally across her native Puerto Rico


A la sombra de tu nombre
Rosario Ferré
2001, Alfaguara
222 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiméneze

THE CONTROVERSIAL Puerto Rican novelist, poet and literary critic Rosario Ferré believes that all writing is autobiographical.

In her collection of essays A la sombra de tu nombre (“In the shadow of your name”), she presents a bittersweet recollection of memories from the island of her birth – at times critical, at times nostalgic and even surreal – and speaks frankly about the quirks and contradictions of a tiny Caribbean country searching for its own identity.

The reader may question whether the title alludes to the influence Puerto Rico may have on her life, or simply whether the shadow cast culturally, and even physically, across the island may be that of the United States.

Ferré describes warmly the island’s fate from the moment Spanish colonisers set foot on it: from being a blue-water, walled jail for escaping slaves to a cemetery where so many political enemies rest (but maybe not in peace) overlooking the sea and awaiting the country’s eternal salvation.

The author mentions the turbulent 1940s and ’50s, marked by continuous uprisings, the cane strike and the Korean War. She also looks at growing up and being educated in posh Puerto Rican religious schools – where children learned about their Hispanic heritage – alongside the public schools, where the main teachings were about US history.

Spirit of transgression

Particularly interesting is the tale of Isabel “la negra”, a servant in her house whose spirit of transgression made Ferré realise that she was not living in Europe or California but Latin America by simply sharing her love for the music of “el jibarito” – Felipe Rodríguez.

For those interested in learning about Puerto Rico, this is a good find. And one can see why Ferré was branded as a “traitor” by the literary critics in her country: she was born into none other than the family of Luis A. Ferré, a former governor of Puerto Rico. When she was 13, she moved to Massachusetts, where she went to a finishing school to learn the skills of genteel society required by someone of her background. She completed a degree in literature, to become, years later, one of Puerto Rico’s foremost and prolific writers.

Ferré began to write at a young age, and felt the need to advocate Puerto Rico’s independence even when it meant going against her own father’s political views.

She went further, by discussing the marginalisation of women writers. Influenced by the feminist movement in America and France, and her admiration for Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, she realised that even when females writing in Puerto Rico were not taken seriously they had an advantage over other Latin American women: their country was married to the US and they had greater rights than women elsewhere.

In the 1970s, Ferré returned to her country and enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico for a Masters Degree. She became the founder, editor and publisher of the journal Zona de Carga y Descarga along with her cousin Olga Nolla, who herself spoke fiercely about women’s rights in Puerto Rico, and was derided and even branded a dangerous influence upon youth.

Zona de Carga y Descarga was dedicated to publishing young writers, to promoting the ideas of the independence movement, and to acting as a platform for social change, and it has been seen as the first manifestation of Puerto Rican postmodernism.

Ferré’s ideas were also reflected in Papeles de Pandora (The Youngest Doll) her first collection of short stories published in 1976. She began to write for children in 1977, yet social and political reform were still the underlining message.

In the 1980s, her first collection of literary essays, Sitio a Eros (“Site to Eros”), was published. In a well known piece, “The Cookery of Writing” (“La cocina de la escritura”), Ferré compares the similarities between the act of writing and the act of cooking. For a successful literary or alimentary result, she explains, the same things are needed: quality ingredients, the right method and the right temperature.

Unlike other feminist writers of the era, Ferré believed that, like the techniques of haute cuisine, literature does not have a specific sexual domain, nor even a distinctive language, but what makes women’s writing different from that of men are the themes, which are based on life experience.

In another of her essays, “El coloquio de las perras” (“The Dialogue of the Bitches”) – a name that parodies Miguel de Cervantes’ Dialogue of the Dogs – she uses the case of Puerto Rico to reflect on the difficulties experienced by female writers across Latin America.

In 1985, Ferré published the novel Maldito amor (Sweet Diamond Dust), and this was followed in 1993 by La batalla de las vírgenes (The Battle of the Virgins) which was rejected by local critics because it analysed Puerto Rico’s distinctive Catholicism.

In 1995, she wrote her first novel in English, The House on the Lagoon, which earned her a nomination for the National Book Award. Later, she also wrote Eccentric Neighborhoods in English, and has also has written and published a biography of her father. Her latest novel, Flight of the Swan, was published in 2002 by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

Georgina Jimenez is a freelance Mexican writer

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