Mami did not read stories to my sister and me; she told them to us. Juan Bobo stories, Puerto Rican folktales that are now almost two centuries old. Mami learned them from her mother, born in the 19th century, she in turn from her mother — a chain of storytelling, stretching back to my great-grandmother and beyond. Storytelling took place in a small bedroom with a single bed against the right wall, a bureau and wardrobe against the other wall, and shelves by the bed. My sister and I would lie down on the narrow bed with Mami, nestled by her sides, enveloped in her warmth. We listened in the darkened room to her narrative. The stories were funny and silly. We would always ask for more; she would say, “Sí, mijito,” move a finger across our foreheads, and start another as if turning the pages of a book. I can remember everything about our storytime, her voice the only sound, the darkness of the room, her warmth — except the tales themselves. My sister remembers our Mami telling us stories and has no memory of what the stories were about. I asked several Puerto Rican co-workers about Juan Bobo. They remembered his name, but not any of the tales. It was a magical time when our mother told us her tales. Part of the magic was the stories themselves. To reclaim this part of the wonder of those nights, I obtained a copy of Los Cuentos de Juan Bobo, adapted by José Ramírez Rivera from a collection by Maria Cadilla de Martinez, who collected them from storytellers. I hoped that reading them in the original Spanish might trigger a memory from those long-ago days of childhood. None of them brought back any memories of the narratives our mother told us, only the mischievous character of Juan Bobo. One of the reasons we loved the stories was because of how ridiculous they were. The story of the “Clock Adventure” illustrates this and that Juan Bobo was not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. For a taste, I have translated this tale for modern audiences. Before starting this condensed version, I should explain that it involves some wordplay. In English, we walk, but a clock runs. Andar means to walk in Spanish, but it can be used in the sense of a clock running. I have used run in my translation. Juan Bobo and the Clock Adventure One day Juan Bobo’s teacher asked him to bring a clock back to school that a parent had donated. His teacher warned Juan Bobo that the clock was still in good condition and ran perfectly. “Be careful to avoid any bumps that would stop the clock from running,” the teacher told him. Juan Bobo did as he was told and picked up the large, heavy grandfather clock. He soon tired of carrying the heavy clock. “My schoolteacher told me you could run,” Juan Bobo told the clock. “I am going to run ahead and show you the path.” “Follow me! Follow me!” When he looked back, the clock had not moved. Becoming very annoyed that the clock had not followed him, Juan Bobo found some twine, wrapped it around the clock, and started to drag it down the path. Every time it hit a bump, another piece of the clock would fall off, destroying it by the time he got back to school. Juan Bobo’s teacher was so upset with him, punished him so severely that Juan decided not to go back to school. But then Mami stopped telling us the stories. Was it because she had told us all the stories she knew? I don’t remember our mother ever repeating a story. My experiences telling stories to our son followed a similar path and may hold the key to why she stopped and why we can’t remember them. Sometimes instead of reading him a story, I would relate to him a children’s story I had learned growing up. On a hike through the primeval forest of Redwoods National Park in California, our three-year-old son was restless and not enjoying our walk. To keep his attention, I told him the classic story of Hansel and Gretel as we walked along the shady forest path. The effect was dramatic. He listened with rapt attention and walked without complaint. After this, I started telling him stories or making one up when he began to fuss at a restaurant. They had the same calming effect. At bedtime, sometimes instead of reading to my son, I would tell him one of my made-up stories. Holding him on my lap, I would act out the exciting parts of a tale about time travel, rocking and rolling his body with my knees, complete with sound effects. As he grew older, we would bring books to keep him entertained at restaurants, and he became less interested in my homemade stories. Is this what happened with Mami? Did we become less attentive, and if so, why? Then as my sister and I grew older, English replaced Spanish, our first language. Mami would speak to us in Spanish, and we would answer in English and tell her to “speak American.” She, in turn, started to reply to us in English — this was the way our mother learned how to speak English. Did we become less attentive to Mami’s stories told in Spanish and stopped asking for more of them? Something similar happened with music. At first, we listened to the popular Spanish language music of the day Mami loved, but as we grew older, she kept moving to a Latin beat, as my sister and I became rock-n-rollers. First-born Americans, we embraced American culture and its language. Spanish was for old people like parents. Rejecting their Spanish language and culture was the beginning of becoming independent, something all children go through as they reach adulthood. The language used might also be why my sister and I don’t remember the stories Mami told us. We still retained the vivid emotional memories of us lying down with her in a warm, narrow bed, but not the soft Spanish words of the tales she told us in the dark. Our son told me that he remembers the storytelling much more than the actual stories. Perhaps the intimate act of a parent telling a story to a child is the most crucial part of the memory — the teller not the tale.
Michael De Rosa was born in New York City and grew up in Spanish Harlem. His mother was born in Najuabo, Puerto Rico. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the City University of New York. From 1973-1989 he taught organic chemistry (in Spanish) and did research at Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. From 1989-2020 he was a faculty member at Penn State Brandywine and retired as a professor emeritus of chemistry. This piece is from a memoir he is writing on growing up in Spanish Harlem. He recently published a short story, "The Nuptial Dance in Xs and Ys,” in Academy of the Heart And Mind.
Bird of Paradise flower in full bloom, photo by Ken Wolter
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Forever Home by Lilia Marotta
Home is not always where you hang your hat as it is said. Sometimes home is where you grew up as a child. Other times home is the place you raised your own children. Perhaps home is neither, but a place that you visited during your childhood years. A place where your family roots are embedded in the soil, intertwined with tradition and cultures of those who spread their wings and flew to another land. A small island caught between the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea whose people call to you in your dreams.
Throughout the years, I have had many different homes. I left my mother's apartment at an early age to live with my boyfriend at the time. A year later when it didn't work out, I lived alone, then with a roommate and alone again. Until eventually I married and moved from Chicago to New Jersey. During that time my mother remained in her three-bedroom apartment filled with memories, great food and many plants. I often visited my mother in my childhood home throughout the years especially when I lived only a couple of blocks away.
Now married with a family of my own, we plan a trip to visit the island once called Borinquen. The fear of flying and the expense of the flights make these trips few and far between, however when the decision is made and the time has come, it is greeted with much anticipation. The plans of where we will take the children sightseeing, whom we will visit and what we need for the trip consume the days prior. Calls are made to the extended family on the island and ideas are exchanged, the excitement is palpable. Our kids try to recall the names of their aunts, uncles and cousins based on their prior visits. They never forget Aunt Vicky and Uncle Jorge whom we've stayed with in the past and spoiled the kids during that stay, ensuring that they will not be forgotten. The many cousins become confusing. However they cannot wait to eat the non-traditional spaghetti that my aunt makes. For me, it is the traditional food my Aunt Margarita cooks in her home. Just the thought of her brings back the smell of arroz con gandules and pulled chicken with authentic spices, making my mouth water.
Boarding the plane, I recall the nervous energy my mother used to have and how I inherited her fear of flying. The mornings of those years past when she would spill her café, drop items and lose her temper before a flight, all symptoms of her anxiety. Yet, it was never a deterrent for getting us there every year. As I try to appear brave before my children, I quietly pray the rosary from the moment my feet move me onto the plane until we land with a few distractions in between. Sitting on the plane in those moments of being transported through the air from one home to another, I wonder how things have changed since I was last there. Flying seems to bend the time, in some ways I expect everyone to be as I last left them, but know that isn't so. One year when I visited I was surprised to find one of my cousins was bald. Apparently not something that made the weekly phone conversations.
The kids eagerly watch as the plane ascends into the air and four hours later, clap the moment the wheels touch the ground. While they are being entertained with numerous movies on their electronic devices, I try my best not to focus on the flight itself but the destination. Memories flow of conversations with my cousins when we were teenagers hanging out on the side of my grandmother's house; of sitting with my grandmother on her balcony shelling gandules while she told me stories; watching the mountainous views from the balcony; and going to bed at night listening to the coqui frogs under mosquito netting while my mother, sister and aunts all giggled about the events of the day. When the plane finally lands my tears spill over, as I not only feel relief for arriving safely, but jubilation at having returned.
When the doors open and we step off the plane my hair does what it always does, unforgivably curl no matter how hard I worked that morning to get it straightened. The humidity not only ensnarls my hair it gently kisses my skin. I inhale the scent of the island's indigenous Flamboyan trees and exotic plants, bringing me back to my youth and overwhelming me with emotion.
This trip is different from all others as I carry with me a plant from my mother's house to intern in this soil. A plant that she nurtured and flourished over the years in her home and unfortunately was not doing well in mine. A living reminder of the woman that once nurtured us both, that will take root in this soil and grow for years to come. On this trip I will be greeted by my extended family and will finally grieve with them the loss of my mother, their sister and family matriarch. My aunt and uncle wanted her buried on the island. But selfishly all I brought was a plant. The decision wasn't mine alone but we buried my mother where my siblings and I could visit her grave and where my mother had chosen to call home for 62 years.
Walking out of the airport the heat feels like a cloak over the island and a warm embrace that moves me to want to kiss the ground, because although I was not raised here it is good to be home. Even though, this is not where I reside, this feeling of connection and love will always make it feel like home. That is what my mother wanted for me and what I want for my children.
We planted my mother's Bird of Paradise in the dirt where my grandfather once grew sugar cane and let his goats roamed free. A sunny spot where my aunt can nurture it, so it can continue to grow and flourish, forever in Puerto Rico’s soil.
Lilia Marotta is a Chicago Native transplanted in New Jersey with roots from Puerto Rico.She is a DePaul University graduate who has written stories since she was 10 years old. She’s married, has three children and a dog.
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Photo by Scott Russell Duncan-Fernandez
El Rey del Batey Por Idalie Muñoz Muñoz
Cuando yo cumplí los 13 años, mi familia se mudó del sur del Bronx a la ciudad de Filadelfia, en el estado de Pensilvania. Nos mudamos a una casa de ladrillo de tres pisos que incluía una tienda de esquina, una entre muchas de pequeños negocios de familia que salpicaban los vecindarios en esos días.
La casa tenía un gran sótano encalado que corría toda la longitud de la casa, donde almacenábamos los productos enlatados de venta en la tienda. En aquellos tiempos, por protección y preferencia, mis padres tenían tres perros pastores alemanes, y de noche los manteníamos atados debajo de las escaleras del sótano. De cómo nos podrían proteger los perros atados así en el sótano, no tengo idea.
Después de una visita de fin de semana a unos parientes a Long Island, mi padre y yo trajimos de vuelta un precioso gallo rojo de pura raza Rhode Island Red, hermosísimo en su plumaje de verde oscuro y rojo tirando a cobre. A pesar de atraer la curiosidad y la sospecha de los demás pasajeros, lo portamos en una caja de cartón con rotitos por el LIRR, el metro de Nueva York y en el tren de regreso a Filadelfia. Estoy segura de que le pusimos un nombre, olvidado desde entonces, pero, para remediarnos por ahora, le pondremos Don Gallo. Don Gallo salió ser genial y amistoso, un verdadero caballero de noble linaje.
Una vez que Don Gallo se colocó bien en el sótano, ya era tiempo de buscarle una novia. Con este propósito, nos dirigimos al Mercado Italiano en el sur de Filadelfia, donde tenían viveros, y regresamos con una bola de plumas que, para propósitos de esta historia, llamaremos Reina. En realidad no recuerdo mucho de ella, aparte de que era redonda y sumisa.
Pues bien, Don Gallo y Reina se dedicaron a la felicidad doméstica, pero sin producir ni un solo huevo. Resulta que, un día como cualquier otro, Reina desapareció misteriosamente. La buscamos por todas partes del sótano, sin tener resultados. Pensábamos que tal vez los perros la habían atacado en la noche, pero no había rastro—ni plumas, ni sangre, nada. Al fin y al cabo, nos resignamos a abandonar la búsqueda. No fue hasta años después que descubrimos los restos momificados de la pobre Reina, más plana que un panqueque, atrapada detrás de una vieja cómoda en el sótano. Aparentemente se había quedado atascada allá atrás sin poderse escapar.
Después de un tiempo apropiado de guardar luto, decidimos que el viudo Don Gallo necesitaba una nueva compañera para que no cayera en un estado de depresión. De nuevo nos emprendimos con mucho afán hacia el Mercado Italiano, donde encontramos una linda pollita, negra como el azabache, y regresamos muy satisfechos con la nueva compañera de Don Gallo, a quien llamaremos Reinita.
Surgió el problema de que Doña Reinita no quería nada que ver con Don Gallo y le huía como perro al escape, ¡resistiendo vigorosamente todos sus avances amorosos! Sus días se pasaban en una frenética persecución de un lado del sótano al otro! ¡Hay que darle crédito a Don Gallo aunque sea por su ardor!
Una madrugada, bajamos al sótano, como de costumbre, a darle comida a los pollos y a soltar a los perros. Nos encontramos con un desagradable reguero de plumas ensangrentadas, de lo que una vez había sido Don Gallo, al mismo frente de donde se amarraban los perros. Nos sentíamos absolutamente desconsolados por la muerte prematura y trágica de Don Gallo. Por supuesto, los perros se portaron muy avergonzados, con el rabo entra las patas, y no encontraban en donde meter las caras de sinvergüenzas. Nunca supimos lo que pasó esa noche, pero la Reinita nunca lo olvidó.
A la mañana siguiente, ¡la Reinita se subió a la tubería instalada cerca del techo en el sótano y cantó! ¡Proclamó su soberanía con un desafiante QUI-QUI-RI-QUIIIII! Casi de la noche a la mañana, “ella” desarrolló una barba carnosa y una moña roja. Le brotó una cola majestuosa, un plumaje adornado con plumas largas y lustrosas, tan negras que brillaban como el azul de medianoche.
Claramente, él ya no era una “ella”. Creció a un tamaño imponente, con un porte arrogante, y con tremendo mal genio por añadidura! Todas las noches, “visitaba” a los perros y les daba tremenda paliza con sus alas extendidas, largas espuelas y ¡a picotazo limpio! Los tres enormes pastores alemanes estaban aterrorizados y no encontraban en donde esconderse cada vez que pasaba el gallo haciendo patrulla.
Siguió trepándose en la tubería del sótano y se le tiraba encima a cualquier persona que no le gustara, ¡queriendo decir a casi todo el mundo! Era tan bravo que finalmente encontramos un granjero dispuesto a llevárselo. Quizás, con suerte, logró ser el rey del batey en un ambiente más apropiado a su nueva estación en la vida.
Y con eso termino este cuento, historia real, dato por dato. Tengo otras, pero en esas historias, el gallo no tiene muy buen fin. Así que me las reservo.
Ruler of the Roost By Idalie Muñoz Muñoz
When I was 13, my family moved from the South Bronx to the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We moved to a three-story brick rowhome that included a corner store, one of many mom-and-pop stores that dotted the neighborhoods in those days. The house had a large, whitewashed basement which ran the full length of the house, where we stored the non-perishable merchandise for the store. In those days, for protection and preference, my parents had three German Shepherd dogs, which we kept tied up every night under the basement stairs. What protection they could offer tied up in the basement, I have no idea. After one weekend visit to Long Island relatives, my father and I brought back a gorgeous Rhode Island Red rooster, resplendent in his lush plumage of metallic green and coppery-red. In spite of the odd looks and curious stares of our fellow passengers, we rode on the LIRR, on the New York subways and on the train back to Philadelphia with our rooster inside a cardboard box with little air holes. I’m sure he had a name, long since forgotten, so we’ll call him Big Red for purposes of this story. Big Red proved to be a real gentleman, and as nice and gentle as could be. Once Big Red was settled in the basement, it was time to find him a mate. We found a suitable partner for Big Red at the Italian Market in South Philly and brought her home. I don’t remember much about her, other than that she was round and nondescript. I’m sure she had a name, too, but we’ll call her Jane for now. Well, Big Red and Jane happily set up housekeeping in the basement, but produced no eggs. Then one day, Jane mysteriously disappeared. We searched for her everywhere in the basement. We thought maybe the dogs had gotten to her in the night, but there were no feathers, no blood, not a sign. We finally gave up the search. Years later, we found a mummified Jane, flatter than a pancake, stuck behind an old dresser in the basement. She had apparently gotten stuck back there and couldn’t get out. After observing a suitable period of mourning, we decided it was time for Big Red to have a new mate so he wouldn’t fall into a blue funk. Back we went to the Italian Market and returned with a dainty black hen, whom we’ll call Jane 2. Problem was, she would have no part of Big Red and vigorously resisted his amorous advances! Their days were spent in a frenetic chase around the basement! You have to give Big Red credit for trying! One morning, we went down, as usual, to feed the chickens and let loose the dogs and found a messy pile of bloody feathers by the dogs of what had once been Big Red. We were absolutely broken-hearted by his untimely and violent demise. Of course, the dogs acted all droopy-tailed and ashamed. We don’t know what happened that night, but the new Jane never forgot it. The very next morning, Jane 2 climbed up on the overhead pipes in the basement and crowed with a lusty QUI-QUI-RI-QUIIIII! Almost overnight, “she” sprouted a fiery red cockscomb and wattle and a majestic tail, with lustrous long feathers so black they shimmered blue. Clearly, he was no longer a “she.” He grew to an imposing height, an arrogant strut and an evil temper to boot. Every night, he would “visit” the dogs and give them a thorough thrashing with his outstretched wings, curved claws and sharp beak. These three huge German Shepherds were terrified of him and they cowered and cringed anytime he walked by on patrol. He continued to roost on the overhead pipes and would swoop down on anyone he didn’t like, which was pretty much everybody. He was so mean, we finally found a farmer willing to take him, and hopefully, he went on to rule the roost somewhere more appropriate to his new station in life. And that’s the end of my rooster’s tale, true story, word for word. I have others, but they don’t have a happy ending for the rooster. Better left unsaid.
Idalie Muñoz Muñoz, a native of Puerto Rico, lives and works in the Seattle, Washington, area.
First published February 1, 2010, as the inaugural feature of Somos en escrito Magazine By Armando Rendón
William Carlos Williams in his 50s
William Carlos Williams was born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey. The date was auspicious because it falls today during a period of celebrating the liberation of several Spanish speaking countries from foreign rule. His struggle with identity that resulted in a remarkable contribution to the world of literature may be a metaphor for that impulse toward freedom. Recent community upheavals in the United States support the argument that people whose contributions to a nation’s development have been slighted or distorted by the ruling majority will seek to correct history. Over recent decades, growing Chicano and Latino political awareness has opened wider the gates to academia for more Latinos and led to scholarly research into the Hispanic past of the United States. We have discovered that the origins of many famous people are rooted in Mexican, Caribbean and Latin American heritage, as well as from Spain.
William Carlos Williams, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, is one of those famous Americans whose Hispanic origin has been little known. He came by his middle name by virtue of his mother, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb, who was born in Puerto Rico. From the evidence to be found in his autobiography, his poetry, and writings about him, his mother and her maternal origins lent more than a middle name to the poet and his works.
Williams’ writings have been thoroughly critiqued and his life minutely detailed by biographers; I don’t intend to advance such scholarship about him but simply to revive the significance of his life’s work to the Latino community.
In Williams’ autobiography, he simply introduces his mother, Elena, as she was called in the U.S., by saying she had come to the U.S. via Santo Domingo “to be married.” (W.C.W., p. 5) The road extended back much farther.
Elena’s mother, Meline Hurrard (or Jurrard) was of Basque ancestry whose family had emigrated from Bordeaux to Martinique, a French possession in the Caribbean in the early 1800s. She had married Solomon Hoheb, whose ancestors had been Sephardic Jews in Holland. (P.M., p. 15) Unfortunately, Williams relates matter-of-factly, the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 wiped out the Hurrard side of Elena’s family along with the other 28,000 inhabitants of the city of Saint-Pierre.
Due to this mixed heritage, Elena spoke both Spanish and French, the two languages that were apparently the idioms of Williams’ childhood. “Spanish and French were the languages I heard habitually while I was growing up,” Williams tells us. “Mother could talk very little English when I was born, and Pop spoke Spanish better, in fact, than most Spaniards.” (W.C.W., p. 15) Obviously, Spanish was dominant in Williams’ first years.
William George Williams, or “Pop” as Williams called his father (Elena was always “mother”), had remained an English citizen despite residing in the U.S. throughout his adult years. At the age of five, Pop’s family had migrated from England to the Caribbean, living first in St. Thomas and then moving to Santo Domingo. William George thus became an hispanohablante from childhood. He and Elena met in Santo Domingo and later on when the elder Williams had moved to New York City, he brought Elena over to marry.
No doubt due to his Spanish fluency, when William George became ad manager for the manufacturer of a cologne called, Florida Water, the job took him to South America on prolonged assignments. When Pop went to Buenos Aires in 1897 to help organize a factory and distribution center there, mother and the boys, William Carlos, 14, and his brother, Ed, 13, sailed from New York City to spend a year in Paris. A multi-talented woman, his mother had studied painting for three years in Paris in the late 1870s, and had also spent a short while in Geneva. The trio lived with an aunt and cousins of their mother’s during their year-long stay.
Besides her multilingual skills and painting talents, Elena also played the piano, accompanying the choir on Sundays at the Unitarian Church where Pop served as superintendent of the Sunday school for 18 years.
In his autobiography, Williams belittled his own Spanish, but he was apparently fluent enough to write poetry in Spanish and translate as well. A physician for most of his adult life, he recalls that as an intern, he was relegated to escorting an aged but wealthy Mexicano ranch owner and railroad executive, from New York City back to his native San Luis Potosí, primarily to keep him alive till he got him there. Though, as Williams says, “My Spanish wasn’t so hot,” (W.C.W., p. 73) he managed to cope with the situation, and delivered the old man, alive, to his family after a four-day trip. The man died within a day, but by then Williams was headed back home, 10 $20 gold pieces in his pockets as payment from the anciano’s son.
William Carlos had obtained an internship at the French Hospital in Manhattan at the suggestion of J. Julio Henna, a senior member of the medical staff there, and an old friend of his father’s—Henna was one of three physicians (including Ramón Emeterio Betances) who had fled Puerto Rico in the early 1880s because of their rebellion against Spanish rule.
The name that Williams chose as his pen name, so to speak, is instructive of where his loyalties and sensibilities lay with regard to his bicultural background. In 1909, he self-published a thin volume of poems with “not one thing of the slightest value” in it, he says in his autobiography, (W.C.W., p. 107) but perhaps using some of the Mexican gold dollars for the venture. When it came time for him to decide on what his literary signature would be, he decided on William Carlos Williams: “To me the full name seemed most revealing and therefore better.” (ibid, p. 108) What he meant by most revealing and better, he does not disclose.
Williams’ third book of poems, published in 1917, was titled Al Que Quiere, and included a poem entirely in Spanish. Paul Mariani, one of his biographers, reports that Pop Williams was “furious” that the publisher had gone to press with three typos in that one piece. (P.M., p. 13)
The Williamses kept close ties with Puerto Rican kin. One Fourth of July, when Williams was about 9 or 10, he was playing with his cousins Carlito and Raquel, who were on an extended visit, when a toy cannon they had filled with gun powder discharged in Williams’ face and nearly blinded him; for weeks, he had bandages on his face, but no permanent harm occurred. (W.C.W., p. 18) The cousins were the offspring of Elena’s brother, Carlos, also a physician.
A conflict arose early on between his mother and British grandmother, Emily Dickenson Wellcome, over the rearing of young William. The grandmother tried to take over his upbringing, Williams recalled, until one day, “Mother lost her temper and laid the old gal out with a smack across the puss. … Her Latin blood got the best of her that day. Nor was she sorry; it did her more good, in fact, than anything that had happened to her since her coming to the States from Santo Domingo to be married. I think that one of the most potent forces that kept my mother going to the age of ninety-two was a malign determination to outlive her mother-in-law, who died at eighty-three in 1920. I hope I take after my female ancestors.” (W.C.W., p. 5)
Perhaps the most startling influence his mother might have had on Williams was her spiritualism, a tendency that often caused her suddenly to lapse into a trance. Close friends and family knew her as a medium; she often would lose awareness of her surroundings but continue to communicate as if in another persona. On one occasion, Williams relates, just as the family was at supper, Elena began looking around as if lost, and spoke as if she were someone else. His father asked her name and she said, “Why I’m Lou Payne.” (W.C.W., pp. 15-16) Pop Williams wrote to Jess Payne, a former neighbor and friend, who wrote back informing William George that, Lou Payne, the neighbor’s wife, had been near death from an illness just at the time that Elena had gone into the trance.
How else explain any number of his poems that convey a perspective as if from within a mirror, from another dimension? Here are a few lines from “Portrait of the Author”:
The birches are mad with green points the wood’s edge is burning with their green, burning, seething—No, no, no. The birches are opening their leaves one by one. Their delicate leaves unfold cold and separate, one by one. Slender tassels… CEP, p. 228
In a later poem, “Eve,” he says, as if vindicating his mother’s terrible gift, “I realize why you wish/to communicate with the dead—/And it is again I/who try to hush you/…It not so much frightens/as shames me. I want to protect/you, to spare you the disgrace—/seeing you reach out that way/to self-inflicted emptiness.” (C.E.P., pp. 376-77)
The influence of Hispanic roots on Williams has been thoroughly thrashed out by Julio Marzán, a Puerto Rican born poet and English professor now living in Queens, New York. Marzán published The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams in 1994.
In seeking to give voice to his Latino persona, Marzán posits, Williams invented a system of expression which enabled him to convey through English “a nascent writing that appears to have no roots in this country’s literature.” In other words, Williams’ poetry represents in fact “a major Latin literary root in Anglo American letters.” (J.M., p xi)
But Williams must have felt he had to be circumspect. He did not want to be labeled by critics or fellow poets as less than a real American writer because he was the son of immigrants. He sought to repel or dispel the biased notion that as a “foreigner” he could not write “good” English, and therefore, he had to write better than anyone else and do so within the American idiom. It seems that Williams found his voice by developing an approach to poetry, different from either that of the European classicist variety or the modernists of that era such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Thus, his primary contribution to American, even world, literature, was to liberate the poet from the oppression of language, that is, to convey his own worldview through whatever influences or informs his personal identity and free of Old World forms. Dante Alighieri reflected this consciousness when he broke away from the Church-imposed Latin as the lingua franca to write the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of the Italian people; by doing so, he freed the Italian language from bondage and created a new literature.
Part of or perhaps the underlying genius in Williams’ poetry, Marzán suggests, is his ability to convey externally the Anglo American persona, which was necessary to avoid being labeled a Latin immigrant and therefore less than an adequate or acceptable writer of English, while imbuing through a kind of code the very cultural essence that was his true self. Had Williams openly professed his Boricua roots, he would probably have been relegated to a second tier as a writer, as the offspring of immigrants trying to pass himself off as a White Anglo American. In short, he might never have continued as a writer.
Was this code, as Marzán calls it, actually a means that Williams used to suppress his “Spanish American roots,” a rejection of his Latino origins? Not likely. That would have meant abandoning his mother, both figuratively and physically. It’s quite clear from his writings that he cherished his mother, despite her idiosyncrasies. Williams visited Mayagüez in 1956, apparently on a mission to learn more about his roots; among other things, he found out the year of his mother’s birth— for some reason, she had kept the fact hidden from her children until her death.
Any writer will tend to convey in his language the ethos that is derived from his origins. That doesn’t make it good literature. Most of the writing in the early years of the Chicano movement would not pass muster today as first class fiction or poetry; it was heavily nationalistic but its good intent would not redeem it as credible literature.
Learning about Williams’ experience as a bilingual and bicultural person adds another dimension to his overall contribution to literature. Williams mastered what was essentially a second language, English, and obviously wrote beyond the ordinary—he established a standard. Chicanos writers, I for one, tend to write with a pronounced ethnic slant. That does not relieve me of the obligation to write as well as I can in English and when I do so in Spanish, my mother tongue. During Williams’ era, the buzzwords stereotyping or racial profiling with their present connotation did not exist, but the denigration of foreigners and immigrants did: Williams realized this and, if Marzán is correct, adjusted to the reality through subterfuge or subtlety, and even “coding” in his poetry.
But, much has changed since Williams’ day. We can criticize writing if it’s just poorly worded or structured, but to demean a poem or story, let alone a community, because it derives from a “foreign” source, or communicates through an “inferior” language, can cause immediate push-back from various social sectors.
Unlike Williams, I feel very comfortable if some of my writing clearly defines me as a Chicano writer or poet, because I can also write from the universal center that Williams found, which is unrelated, even unconscious, of an ethnicity, a place of birth, or a spiritual slant. That underlying impulse in Williams’ poetry of a Latino sub-consciousness empowers all Latino writers. Having set the benchmark in the English idiom, he has “proven” as it were that one can be Latino, Chicano, Boricua or whatever, and still exercise a mastery of English. In fact, Williams tells us, we can enhance the English language because of our bicultural and bilingual nature.
This is precisely what Williams was suggesting in 1940, when he spoke at the First Inter-American Writers’ Conference at the University of Puerto Rico. According to Mariani, Williams “studded his talk with references to Spanish literature and to the salutary influence that literature had had on the American language,” (P.M., p. 446) going so far as to compare the Spanish dramatist, Lope de Vega, to Shakespeare. Mariani says it was “a way of paying tribute to his parents… For the first time in his life, Williams had returned to his mother’s ancestral home.” (P.M., p. 446)
Of course, Mariani missed the whole point. Williams had long before “returned to his mother’s” cultural roots, if he had ever left them, through language—here was an American writer, who could tell the difference between the shorter line of four stresses in Spanish drama and poetry against the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s works, and dare to urge North American writers to take advantage of the Spanish idiom.
Mariani quotes from Williams’ speech: “In many ways, sixteenth and seventeenth century Spain and Spaniards are nearer to us in the United States today than perhaps, England ever was. It is a point worth at least taking into consideration. We in the United States are climactically as by latitude and weather much nearer Spain than England, as also in volatility of our spirits, in racial mixture—much more like Gothic and Moorish Spain.” P.M., p. 446-47.
This doesn’t sound like someone who rejects his bicultural roots. Rather it reveals in the “we” that he recognized his origins and found them more vital and organic to his writing than even English literature. Is it not a tribute to his mother and a profession of his Hispanic roots that he claims that “volatility of spirits” and “racial mixture” as his own?
As subtle as ever, Marzán would say. Williams again seems to be using code words for the influence of his mother, the volatile medium, and his own mixed racial and ethnic ancestry. Today, it’s very likely that Williams would have felt quite comfortable to break the code and call himself a Boricua or Latino poet.
William Carlos Williams died March 4, 1963, age 80, after suffering a series of strokes that left him unable to write. Up until now, few if any Latinos have appreciated him as a brother. It must be a final culmination of his complex life that we can now fully proclaim and esteem William Carlos Williams as a Latino poet, no half ways about it.
Sources: The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, (W.C.W.) by William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, Norfolk, Conn., 1948. The Collected Earlier Poems, (C.E.P.) by William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, Norfolk, Conn., 1938, 1951. The Collected Later Poems, (C.L.P.) by William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, Norfolk, Conn., 1944, , 1948, and 1950. The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams (J.M.), by Julio Marzán, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994. William Carlos Williams, A New World Naked, (P.M.) by Paul Mariani, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1981.
Armando Rendón is author of Chicano Manifesto, a long-time writer on Chicano and Latino affairs, and in his later years, having been inspired by the likes of Williams, turning more to poetry. He is in the midst of reading all of Williams’ poems.