New Novel Explores Life on a 19th Century Plantation in Puerto Rico
History aficionados will find “Conquistadora” a fascinating text with detailed views of a Puerto Rican sugar cane plantation in the mid-19th century.
By Rafael Ocasio
Esmeralda Santiago was born in the working-class neighborhood of Villa Palmeras, in Santurce, in the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1948. In 1961, when she was barely a teenager, she arrived in the United States in as part of a post-war immigration wave that would eventually relocate nearly one-third of the Puerto Rican population into Northeastern American cities. Her experiences in coping with cultural differences, those separating an urban American lifestyle from the traditions of impoverished Puerto Rican communities, are the main subject of her memoirs, including “When I Was Puerto Rican”.
Santiago’s works trace women’s struggles against insurmountable odds in patriarchal societies, both in Puerto Rico and in the United States. Her most recent novel, “Conquistadora”, described by Publishers’ Weekly as “the Puerto Rican “Gone with the Wind”,” offers an in-depth look at the emerging Puerto Rican identity in the setting of a 19th-century sugar cane plantation. Amid the colonial abuses of a slavery-based system the novel follows the lives of fictional historical characters. Among them is a feisty female protagonist, a conquistadora, who symbolically attempts to conquer the chauvinist Spanish colonial power imposed upon Puerto Rico. She represents in the broader image a more complex political picture of the desperate, imperialistic practices of a declining empire. The 19th century, as Santiago has described it, “was a period of technological advances, political turmoil around the world, and, as another character in “Conquistadora” notices, the beginnings of a distinct Puerto Rican identity.”
In a comprehensive historical approach to the development of the Puerto Rican nation, Santiago’s novel begins with an idyllic view of the Taínos, the indigenous population of Boriken, today called Puerto Rico, prior to the arrival of conquistador Juan Ponce de León. The impact of the conquest on this population was overwhelming, resulting in their extermination. In their place, African slaves were imported to the island, where they became not only the workers in massive construction projects and, most particularly, on the sugar cane plantations, but they were also the “populist” element of an emerging Puerto Rican identity. The Creole syncretism, i.e. combination of different beliefs, resulting from the merge of the various types of African religions with the equally diverse Catholic practices of the different Spanish groups is an important aspect of Santiago’s novel.
The novel explores the culture of sugar cane plantations, which in the 19th century were Puerto Rico’s main source of income and the reason behind Spain’s stern control over the island. In the beginning of the plot, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, a dreamy, feisty Spanish teenager, struggles with the social impositions of her upper-class upbringing. Going against the traditional path of marriage, Ana wants to experience the adventures of a remote forefather, who had been part of Ponce de León’s army in his conquest of the Boriken.
Her dream comes true when Ana meets twin brothers, Ramón and Inocente, whose family had just inherited a rundown sugar cane plantation on the northern coast of the island. They are the brothers of Ana’s best friend Elena, with whom Ana develops an intimate sexual bond. Unknown to the brothers, they become part of an intricate plan that Elena and Ana hope will keep them together in Puerto Rico. Fate interrupts Ana’s and Elena’s dreams. Ana marries Ramón, who subjects her to a loveless marriage, in a setting that, in spite of her yearning for adventures, proves too overwhelming for her to handle. In the end, Ana comes to fulfill her dreams, however, not as she has carefully planned, but as fate intends.
History aficionados will find “Conquistadora” a fascinating text with detailed views of a Puerto Rican sugar cane plantation in the mid-19th century. The novel takes on a different direction when Ana becomes an unwilling plantation administrator, symbolically a heartless conquistadora, who has to deal with obstacles that women endured in the rather traditional Puerto Rican society, hanging on to the conservative gender-biased elements of Spanish society. One aspect that makes this portrayal different is the detailed view of the lives of rural slaves, particularly women, whose customs are the precursors of traditions in the Puerto Rican countryside of today.
On September 2, at the Atlanta Journal Constitution Decatur Book Festival, Santiago spoke about the historical research behind “Conquistadora.” Her interest in documenting the Puerto Rican 19th century went beyond the current trend of historical novels. Santiago wanted to explore the lives of the thousands of the “landless campesinos;” her peasant ancestry, who as illiterate members of a highly stratified society, had been left outside traditional historical sources. Santiago has pointed out she intended to document their lives fully because “I was particularly interested in what work people might have performed, what their lives might have been like.” She was very mindful, however, that her characterization of these popular figures had to avoid the failures of previous literary experiments, such as the over-idealized renditions of Puerto Rican romantic writers, who offered “a noble savage approach” to these working class figures. Instead, Santiago wanted real, unsanitized characters; “It is not romantic to die of tropical diseases, to work in horrific circumstances in order to survive.”
Such exploration of the role of ethnicity in the making of Puerto Rican identity is at the core of Santiago’s finely crafted slave characters. They were part of a highly structured social organization, a rigid caste system that forced human beings into bizarre conditions of servitude. They were sugar cane cutters, house servants, medicine women and religious practitioners of ancient African rites. Their knowledge of their newly adopted land was indispensable in the management of the sugar cane plantations. Behind their horrendous lives was, however, a fascinating, hidden existence, which centered around a Creole religious belief system, a Puerto Rican synthesis of Santería-like practices.
As Santiago stresses, these sorts of religious practices, although unlawful according to Spanish slave regulations, were nonetheless widely performed on Puerto Rican plantations. The slaves’ observance of rituals represents an important aspect of the plot, which is developed in the style of magical realism. Plantation owners’ fears of supernatural events would be fueled by slaves’ religious practices. This political aspect of magical realism is represented in work of other Latin American masters, such as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier’s treatment of voodoo in his 1949 novel, “The Kingdom of This World”.
The novel also offers a glimpse of slavery as a major component of the complex political arena that, in spite of being a decaying economic system, kept Puerto Rico subjected to Spanish control. The abolitionist movement produced activists who became among the first intellectuals to formulate the concept of the Puerto Rican nation. One of them, Ramón Emeterio Betances, is also Ms. Santiago’s inspiration. In an interview with her publisher, she notes that Betances’s influence is at play in the character of Miguel Argoso Larragoiti, Ana’s criollo son, who exhibits the daring pro-independence spirit of the up-and-coming first generation of Puerto Ricans that struggled with the issue of independence from Spain’s declining government.
Santiago concluded “Conquistadora” after recovering from a stroke that in 2008 forced her to re-learn English. Today Ms. Santiago plans to continue the historical saga of the development of the Puerto Rican nation. Although this relentless Puerto Rican Margaret Mitchell has not disclosed details, she has spoken indirectly about historical characters that she has identified as Puerto Ricans, “people … very, very mixed, not just from Spain. There were people from Ireland, from Germany, from Italy. We are just a real mixture, with the native population and with the Africans. And so that was really exciting to read just how mixed we are and how many different cultures came to our little island and made Puerto Rico what it is.” This combination of dissimilar, yet vibrant ethnicities, makes for fascinating modern reading reflective of today’s multicultural societies, so far removed from Margaret Mitchell’s portrayal of black and white Southern society. “Conquistadora” is the first such exciting historical saga, a project that would bring to modern reader a period rarely explored by Puerto Rican novelists writing in English.
Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish, Agnes Scott College, is the author of two books on Reinaldo Arenas, and his forthcoming book, “Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo from Plantation to the Slums,” will be available in the spring from The University Press of Florida.
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