«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Unfortunately, Bernabé is caught planning an uprising and, as punishment, his tongue is cut out. This brutal reaction illustrates how colonial violence literally cuts out African culture and replaces it with colonial culture. Yet though Bernabé has lost his “langue” in the physical sense, it remains intact through the oral tradition, for his story is passed down to future generations before it is recorded to the written form of Isabel’s novel.
The complexity of language corresponds to the debate over independence and statehood in Puerto Rico. Those in favor of independence cite fear of losing the Spanish language as a main reason for their cause, believing that to support Puerto Rico’s annexation to the United States would mean to support English as its primary language.
In his article, “Speaking English in Puerto Rico: The Impact of Affluence, Education, and Return Migration,” Amílcar Antonio Barreto claims that Puerto Rico began to develop its own cultural identity in response to the American invasion, and that the Spanish language was a tool used to create that identity: “Americanization gave the Spanish language a social meaning it would not have acquired otherwise…Puerto Rican intellectuals actively promoted the articulation of a new ethnic identity seeking to distinguish Puerto Ricans from Americans – us from them.” 18 Under the Foraker Act, which established civilian government in Puerto Rico, there was a push for English to be the official language, and schools began to teach classes in English, a change that was unwelcome by most of the Puerto Rican population. Today, though English shares space with Spanish as the co-official language, the majority of Puerto Ricans do not identify with English nor speak it fluently. 20 Barreto’s article also mentions that it was Puerto Rico’s elite who wished to forge this national identity, a sentiment echoed by critic José Luis González, whose essay “Puerto Rico: The Four Storeyed Country” essentially states that there was no national Amílcar Antonio Barreto, “Speaking English in Puerto Rico: The Impact of Affluence, Education, and Return Migration,” Centro Journal 12, no.1 (Fall 2000): 6.
Trías Monge’s Puerto Rico, 55.
See p. 184 of Trías Monge’s Puerto Rico (Ibid.), where he states that only 19% of Puerto Ricans speak English with ease.
identity before Americanization. Interestingly, (or perhaps because of his thesis) González barely mentions language in his essay, with the exception of the last page that urges the reader to master English. In learning English, González believes that Puerto Rico will have a chance to appropriate the language to aid in a decolonization process. In this way Puerto Rico will not concede to the American influence. The idea of appropriation used to overturn outside influence is a technique that authors such as Jean Rhys and Maryse Condé employ by adopting the colonial language and rewriting the canonical text. Though González maintains he does not believe in the colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, his essays tend to have a pro-American sentiment, mainly because he insists that Americanization has aided the oppressed Afro Puerto Rican groups of the island, and that it is Puerto Rico’s elite who are unsupportive of Afro Puerto Ricans and therefore wish to forge a national identity in order to gain more control. González’s essay is more thoroughly explored in chapter four, but for now is only introduced in terms of its view of language.
Despite whether or not the affiliation of Spanish to a Puerto Rican identity was created through questionable motivation, the reality is that Puerto Ricans now do identify with their language as a source of national pride, and this identification adds to the fragmentation of Puerto Rican society, causing divides between those of differing political views. In Ferré’s novel, the support of the Spanish language, and hence, independence, is often an idea felt by the women of the novel. Their political support can be seen as an extension of their feelings toward their marriage, for Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S. is metaphorically a need for Puerto Rican women’s independence from the patriarch. As women, certain characters in the novel seek autonomy and are therefore sympathetic to Puerto Rico’s desire for autonomy as a country. For example, Coral fiercely defends the preservation of her language to her politically apathetic boyfriend, Manuel. She sees English as an intrusion on a culture that is already suffering an identity crisis: “Independence for the island was the purest ideal anyone could strive for, but statehood was anathema. It meant English would be our official language and we would have to talk and feel in English…Just think, we’re in a country that in its five hundred years of existence has never been its own self. Don’t you think that’s tragic?” (341). Coral’s belief that English is an “outsider” language, while Spanish represents the self, parallels the sentiments of many Caribbean writers. For the Caribbean author, Creole is the language of “home.” In her book Searching for Safe Spaces, Myriam Chancy explains how English enhanced her feelings of exile when she
emigrated from Haiti to Canada: “I associated English with all that remained to be lost:
my native tongue and the fragments of créole that, I hoped, were still clinging to the deep recesses of my memory.” 21 According to Chancy, language is what connects her to her country of origin, similar to Coral’s view that English as an official language will distance her from her Puerto Rican culture.
Coral is probably the most political woman in the novel but many of the other female characters, such as Abby, Isabel, and even Rebecca are supportive of independence in their desire to be strong independent women. Rebecca, for example, espouses this political belief as a reaction against the male figures that dominated her life.
As a child she was always under the thumb of her overprotective father, who denied her a university education. In order to console herself she identifies with the French stamps
Myriam Chancy, Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (Philadelphia:
Temple University Press, 1997), xii.
from her collection, whose initials RF (Révolution Française) correspond her to her own, Rebecca Francisca: “Rebecca swore to herself that one day she would gain freedom and fly to all parts of the world, like the letters her stamps gave wings to. ‘Every woman should be a republic unto herself’ she often whispered into her pillow before she went to sleep at night.” (97). Unfortunately, when Rebecca marries, control is merely transferred from father to husband, therefore her personal wish for independence shifts to a political one: “If she couldn’t be independent herself, she would say, at least her country should have control over its destiny” (97). Rebecca’s love of the arts is used as an attempt to gain more independence from her husband and to develop an identity outside the role of a married woman. Rebecca’s poetry, her controversial dancing, and her love of art inspire independence, yet this also incites anger in her husband, who after a particularly scandalous dance beats his wife so badly that she gives up her artistic joys and instead becomes a mother to more children.
Motherhood and Marriage in The House on the Lagoon As in all of these novels, motherhood is a theme and the struggles that the sons and daughters have with their mothers are prevalent in The House on the Lagoon. Many of the women characters do not want children as they are viewed as a hindrance to their independence. Isabel’s grandmother becomes celibate in order to avoid another pregnancy, and Rebecca enjoys her artistic endeavors for years before becoming pregnant with Quintín. She is satisfied with her only child, but her husband disapproves of her dancing and poetry readings. He wishes for more children and would prefer to see Rebecca in the role of wife and mother. He eventually gets his wish, and Rebecca becomes more submissive with each pregnancy: “Rebecca bore her frequent pregnancies patiently, seemingly reconciled to her fate. But she was exhausted. She put away her dancing shoes and her poetry books and slowly faded from view” (69).
In the novel there are also instances in which women are driven in the opposite direction; that is, they are pressured not to have children. Isabel is an only child because her grandmother forces Isabel’s mother, Carmita, to have an abortion. The grandmother feels that she is doing Carmita a service and offering her more independence. However, Carmita almost dies in the process, and the procedure leaves her unable to conceive.
Isabel witnesses her mother’s abortion, and the image is forever burned in her mind. The mother, Carmita, is grief stricken over the aborted child, and consequently falls into a deep depression. Through the fog of this depression, she neglects Isabel: “All of a sudden it was as if Carmita wasn’t there anymore. Her eyes grew absent and her black clothes, wet with tears, were always cold when I hugged her. It was as if she lived in a perpetual mist. She wouldn’t let me kiss of embrace her, because I reminded her of the dead baby” (37). This scene is reminiscent of Paper Fish, for Sarah pays little attention to Carmolina in favor of her handicapped daughter, Doriana. However, the scene has a much more striking resemblance to Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette’s mother, Annette, favors Pierre, her son, who also has a disability. She endures a deep depression after his death, and thus she also lives in a fog and deserts Antoinette. Isabel’s mother suffers another tragedy, the suicide of her husband, and therefore she is linked to Annette in another way: they both become insane. Isabel eventually commits her mother to an asylum.
With her parents both tragically dead, Isabel, like many other characters in these novels, is now an orphan. When she and Quintín fall in love, Quintín is cautioned by his parents about marriage. Here we see another parallel to Wide Sargasso Sea, for Quintín, like Rochester, is warned of a possible backlash of family history: “Carmita went mad and Carlos killed himself. Quintín’s parents cautioned him, pointing out these things and insisting that he should think carefully before making a decision. Psychological problems were often inherited, and Carmita’s madness was not to be taken lightly. His children might develop it; Isabel, too” (247). Friends of Quintín’s family even sometimes call Isabel’s family “white trash” (247) which bears a resemblance to the “white cockroaches” insult to the white Creoles of the Caribbean islands. Quintín marries Isabel despite the warnings, but he in turn becomes very controlling. In fact, after her first child and at Quintín’s insistence, Isabel undergoes a procedure that prevents her from getting pregnant again. Therefore, Quintín has control over Isabel in an area most fundamental to women: reproduction.
Isabel shows similar characteristics to Rebecca, leaning towards independence and an inclination to follow the arts. Before her marriage, Isabel, who had seen many strong women become meek throughout years of marriage, made her own wedding vow, which was not to her husband, but to herself: “Rebecca had wanted to be a writer and a dancer, but she became neither, because of her unhappy marriage. I swore I wouldn’t let that happen to me” (208). Yet it does happen, and it is Isabel’s writing that is the measure of her independence. Early in the novel, she describes a passion for writing and pursues an education in literature. She mentions how she wrote poems and stories in the early part of her marriage. Yet as her marriage progresses, her independence wanes.
Isabel becomes another housewife, another Rebecca:
I was content to be Quintín Mendizabal’s wife and willingly took over the role of mistress of the house on the lagoon. I kept myself looking as young as possible, was concerned that our children perform well at school, saw that the cooking and the laundering were impeccably done, took care that Brambon fed the dogs and kept the mangroves properly pruned so that they wouldn’t encroach on the house. I even joined several charity associations, like the Carnegie Library Ladies Club, the Red Cross Charity Ball Committee, and the Cancer Committee, and would often give tea parties for it’s members. Once in awhile I also invited Quintín’s friends to the house, San Juan’s most successful businessmen and their elegant wives. (329) Isabel does not seem to realize that she has become the wife and mother that she swore she would not. She has lost her author/ity as a person and as a writer, and this loss can be compared to an observation Isabel makes early in the novel, where she presents an interesting comparison between Puerto Rican statehood and marriage. This comparison parallels the difficulty of women attempting to gain independence in marriages ruled by a
The way I see it, our island is like a betrothed, always on the verge of marriage. If one day Puerto Rico becomes a state, it will have to accept English – the language of her future husband – as its official language, not just because it’s the language of modernity and of progress but because it’s the language of authority. If the island decides to remain single, on the other hand, it will probably mean backwardness and poverty. (184) The language of authority is key in this passage; in essence, Puerto Rico would give authority and autonomy over to the U.S. and allow its language, Spanish, to fall by the wayside; it is a sacrifice made in exchange for security in this “marriage.” Here again I am reminded of Glissant’s criticism of the French Caribbean’s assimilation to France.
Critic Michael Dash comments on Glissant’s opinion of Martinque’s relationship with
Caribbean Discourse offers a historical perspective on the unchecked process of psychic disintegration in Martinique. History – or, to use Glissant’s term, “nonhistory” – is seen as a series of “missed opportunities” because of which the French West Indian is persuaded of his impotence and encouraged to believe in the disinterested generosity of France, to pursue the privilege of citizenship and the material benefits of departmental status. 22 Michael Dash, Introduction to Caribbean Discourse by Edouard Glissant (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989): xviii.