«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Marginalized Figures Brought into Focus One of the more remarkable women that Isabel describes is Ermelinda, a mulatto who grows up in a poor neighborhood and survives as a seamstress until the day she sees
one of her products in an American magazine:
One of them struck her fancy: it showed a beautiful girl with blond curly hair, getting ready for bed. She was wearing the very same silk negligee she and her little sisters had finished only three weeks before, for which Mr. Turnbull had paid her mother exactly fifty cents. It was selling for fifty dollars at a store called Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. (219) The blonde American model in New York marks a striking contrast to the Afro Caribbean women, like Ermelinda, detailed in Isabel’s manuscript. Ermelinda is also
beautiful, but not in the way typically described in magazines:
She was sixteen and very good-looking – tall and willowy, with fine features. Her eyes were the color of molasses and her skin was a light cinnamon. Her only drawback was the mat of corkscrew curls that grew on top of her head, so wild and thick and spirited that there was no way to comb them into a civilized hairdo. For this reason, ever since she was fifteen, Ermelinda wore a red turban tied around her head. (219) This passage immediately follows the description of the blond American woman, and it highlights issues that are common in African American and Caribbean literature – the idea that beauty is having skin that is light, hair that is straight, and that the ability to “pass” as white is an asset. In her article, “Nanas negras: The Silenced Women in Rosario Ferré and Olga Nolla,” Mary Ann Gosser Esquilin sees the above description as problematic. 1 Certainly, the use of the word “drawback” could indicate this but Isabel is also describing the reality of the struggles of black and mulatto women in this Mary Ann Gosser Esquilin, “ Nanas Negras: The Silenced Women in Rosario Ferré and Olga Nolla,” Centro Journal 14, no. 2 (Fall 2002) : 57.
environment. In order to succeed, they are placed in the difficult position of deciding whether or not to “pass” as white in a society that does not offer the same possibilities to mulattos or blacks.
Despite these struggles, Ermelinda becomes an accomplished seamstress whose garments are sought after in Ponce. She gives birth to three beautiful daughters. Though she has obtained this success, her lover and the father of her children, influential white lawyer Don Bolívar Márquez, refuses to marry her or give their children his last name.
The reason, obviously, is Ermelinda’s race, and this problem has a trickle down effect for the entire family, leading to the scandal with the Mendizabal family.
Ignacio, Quintín’s brother, falls in love with Ermelinda’s daughter, Esmeralda, and Ermelinda is happy at the prospect of her daughter marrying into the Mendizabal clan. Of course, Ignacio is worried about his family’s reaction to his new love, and his reason for concern is not unfounded. During a party at the Mendizabal household, when Rebecca and Buenaventura meet Ermelinda for the first time, Rebecca decides to expose
Ermelinda by knocking off the turban that hides her curls:
Dona Ermelinda’s face turned gray. Several people began to laugh, pointing to the thick matt of hair that rose from her head, and some began to make unkind comments. But Dona Ermelinda didn’t bat an eyelash. She stared right back at them, stood up proudly from the Spanish Conquistador Chair, and shook her head vigorously, to make her wild curls stand out even more. Then she walked over to Esmeralda, took her by the hand, and they walked out of the house together, heads held high. (231) Ermelinda’s reaction to this humiliation is to demonstrate a newfound pride by displaying her curls, but her pride is so great that despite his insistence, she refuses to let Igancio see her daughter. Ignacio never recovers, never marries, and ends up committing suicide. As Esquilin points out, this sad outcome also keeps the Mendizabal’s precious bloodline intact, and Isabel’s recounting of these events demonstrates at what cost. The loss of a son is echoed in the second generation as well, for when Manuel wants to marry Coral, Ermelinda’s granddaughter, Quintín’s opposition incites Manuel’s rage which forever separates father and son.
It is important to recognize that Isabel is the one who records these events, thus shedding light on what would have otherwise remained secret in the Mendizabal family.
As author, she focuses primarily on Quintín’s history, including many elements that would certainly be disregarded if Quintín controlled the text. As a white male, Quintín is horrified by certain family secrets that are revealed: for example, that his father frequently had affairs with black women in the mangroves and had many illegitimate mulatto children. Quintín’s infidelity is also a subject of the novel, and the details are even more disturbing to the reader when Quintín takes Carmelina, Petra’s granddaughter, by force, and she becomes pregnant with their son. Though Isabel forgives Quintín and adopts the illegitimate child as her own, they do not reveal to the public the true nature of Quintín’s relationship with Willie, i.e., that Willie is his biological son. Because of Quintín’s racist tendencies and Puerto Rico’s class restrictions, Quintín would not openly acknowledge this fact, but Isabel reveals this secret in her novel, thus making racial issues a central focus in her manuscript. Also important, since Quintín and Isabel legally adopt Willie, they have effectively “depurified” the bloodlines in the Mendizabal family and merged with the Avilés (read: Petra’s) family. Despite Quintín’s opposition and the secrecy surrounding the adoption, it is still a step towards eliminating the racial barrier.
Again, the secret is told in Isabel’s manuscript, which further pushes through this barrier.
Though Quintín has an affair, like his father before him, with a mulatto woman, and adopts the son, his racism is not quelled. His hypocrisy is exposed through his
violent opposition to his son’s desire to marry Coral:
And, taking his pocketknife, he made a small incision on the tip of his finger, so that a spurt of blood appeared on it. “You see this blood, Manuel?” Quintín said. It doesn’t have a drop of Arab, Jewish, or black blood in it. Thousands of people have died for it to stay that way. We fought the Moors, and in 1492 we expelled them from Spain, together with the Jews. When our ancestors came to this island, special books were set up to keep track of white marriages. They were called Bloodline Books and were jealously guarded by the church. Esmeralda’s marriage to Ernesto Ustariz doesn’t appear in any of them, because she’s part black. That’s why Isabel shouldn’t have taken you to Esmeralda’s house when you were a child. And that’s why you can’t marry Coral. (346) This quotation demonstrates how strong Quintín’s feelings are on the bloodlines subject;
a sentiment that was not overt through most of the novel. It is Isabel who narrates and chooses to include these events to expose the racism that is pervasive in Puerto Rican society, and she does so not only through her husband, but also by including many strong and sympathetic black or mulatto Puerto Rican women in her manuscript. These women are resilient and successful, yet they are still at a disadvantage in society because of their race. Isabel’s authorship divulges these hardships and her exposure of the hypocrisy in Puerto Rican society through writing is a step towards eliminating it. Ermelinda, Esmeralda, and Coral are not the only women of color that Isabel includes in her manuscript. One of the most important figures in the novel is Petra, a presence that represents authority and power in the house on the lagoon.
Petra’s Underworld: Rational Speech in The House on the Lagoon In the foreword to The House on the Lagoon, Rosario Ferré presents the reader with a quotation from Homer’s Odyssey: “Any shade to whom you give access to the blood will hold rational speech with you, while those whom you reject will leave you and retire.” This section of Homer’s poem depicts Odysseus’ voyage to the Underworld.
Here, he meets with the dead souls who describe the circumstances of their deaths and implore him to tell them news of the living. Isabel undergoes a figurative voyage by writing her manuscript, the purpose of which is to record the memories of family history and violence in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future. In order to do this, Isabel must revisit the past, and in a way, communicate with ghosts, and record their words in her text. As detailed above, Isabel does not limit her dialogue to the elite males of the family but includes the voices of feminist women as well as women of color. One of these women is Petra, the family servant, who serves as protector of the family and who lends an African perspective to the work, a perspective which is an important part of Puerto Rico’s history but is often left undeveloped in Latin American literature.
Petra and her family inhabit the basement of the house, and this area is surrounded with an aura of secrecy and sacredness. A medicine woman and descendant of tribal chieftans, Petra’s basement can be seen as an underworld, for members of the black community come to her with offerings to her favorite saint, Elegguá, seeking counsel from her. As is common in African culture, ancestors are very important to Petra, and she uses her conch shell to speak to the dead.
Though Petra is a servant, and in many ways embodies the stereotypical characteristics of black servants in literature, she has a powerful effect on the Mendizabal family. Her space in the house is indicative of this effect, for while inhabiting the cellar is a literal manifestation of African servants being among the lower classes in Puerto Rican society, at second glance the basement can be viewed as the space that is the Robert Fitzgerald, trans., The Odyssey of Homer. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Inc., 1998), Book XI, foundation of the house on the lagoon. Petra’s name, meaning rock, is an attestation to this fact, and her cellar is just beneath the golden terrace that was unable to be destroyed because of the strength it provided to the house (69). In revisiting José Luis González’s essay, “Puerto Rico: The Four Storyed Country,” one can look at Petra’s physical location in the house, and the fact that she is of African descent, as González’s first story of the four to which the title refers. González claims that the descendants of African slaves made up the first true Puerto Ricans, people who considered the island their home and branded it with the Afro Antillean culture that today is still a central part of Puerto Rican life. The extra layers constituting the second, third and fourth stories were foreigners who were not invested in Puerto Rico as a nation. Petra’s realm in the cellar of the house serves as a stable foundation that remains solid even when chaos ensues from the workings of the Mendizabal family who inhabit the upper stories of the house.
The other members of the household are aware of Petra’s quiet power, and they respect or fear her. The most powerful male in the novel, Buenaventura, leader of the household, descends into Petra’s realm when he needs advice or healing. In her article, “Petra’s Kingdom: The Cellar of the House on the Lagoon,” RoseAnna Mueller
elaborates on the extent to which the white members of the household depend on Petra:
“The masters of the house descend to seek youth, cures, and in Isabel’s case, to get at the truth: the cause of one family member’s suicide and the bankruptcy of the family business.” 4 Petra is also the force behind the perpetuation of the family, for Buenaventura and Rebecca remain childless until Petra invites her to drink her African José Luis González,, Puerto Rico : the four-storeyed country and other essays (Maplewood, N.J :Waterfront Press, 1990). A more detailed reading of this essay, and how it relates to Ferré’s novel, will be provided in chapter four.
RoseAnna Mueller, “Petra’s Kingdom: The Cellar of The House on the Lagoon,” Centro Journal 14, no. 2 (Fall 2002) : 201.
potions, which give Rebecca several pregnancies. Petra can be seen as a matriarchal figure, an unusual position in a culture that favors the patriarch. This position in the family strengthens when one of her heirs, Willie, whose lineage contains Mendizabal blood, is adopted by Quintín and Isabel.
In Quintín’s texts in the margins of Isabel’s manuscript, he describes a fear of Petra that verges on paranoia. He refers to her several times as a “spider” that lives in the cellar and believes that she is a source of his problems with Isabel: “Petra had the ability to creep into people’s hearts, and after she was entrenched in them, there was no way to get her out…Quintín began to suspect that Petra was responsible for the web of lies Isabel was weaving around him. She wanted to show him that his family was a disaster, so he would lose his self-respect” (249). Quintín later becomes even more distressed by Isabel’s growing manuscript, concluding that Petra and Isabel must be working together in order to destroy him (274). In Isabel’s manuscript, she depicts Petra as the one who raised and mothered Quintín while Rebecca neglected him, a claim that Quintín dismisses. The distrust that Quintín has of Petra is comparable to Rochester’s attitude toward Christophine, and the two women share common strengths. While Petra is supportive of the men in the family, she is defiant when it comes to her great grandson Willie. When Quintín disinherits Willie, Petra threatens him with the wrath of her African saint: “Go ahead and disinherit Willie then,” Petra said defiantly. “But I swear to you by Elegguá – he who is more than God – that one day you’ll be sorry!” (372).
Petra’s faithfulness to Elegguá is often mentioned in Isabel’s manuscript, and the presence of African spiritualism is again an example of Ferré’s insistence on an African perspective in the work. Elegguá becomes an important protector in the story, and the attributes of the god can be compared to the Homeric verse quoted in the beginning of this section.