«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
The significance of the marriage scene was explored in chapter one of this dissertation, but the reflection of generations in that scene merits a second look. Doria represents the first generation Italians who have come to America, but she passes her Italian past on to Carmolina through stories of her childhood. Though after her runaway experience Carmolina expresses a longing to break from her culture, this scene demonstrates that she is eventually able to achieve a balance between her heritage as italiana and her identity as a person. She is able to preserve her memories by committing them to writing, which in Meyer, “Breaking the Silence,” 233.
turn permits her to step out of the Italian woman’s traditional role. One of the many autobiographical moments of the novel is the epilogue, which depicts the destruction of the Italian neighborhood. Although the neighborhood is materially destroyed, there is hope that memory will ensure its survival, just as memory ensures the survival of Carmolina’s dying grandmother. The last words of the novel are “It’s only a trick, Grandma…Don’t let it fool you” (121). In other words, death is an illusion, superseded by memory and the text. De Rosa is doing what Grandma Doria prepares Carmolina to do: she mixes Italian past with American present and creates a work that speaks to both cultures. In an interview with Fred Gardaphé, De Rosa said, “Our grandparents and parents were bound to survival; we, on the other hand, have become freer to use our own talents and to rescue the talents of those who came before us.” This sentiment is echoed in many third generation writers of Italian descent. Among the most poignant is an essay from Louise DeSalvo, whose family experienced such mistreatment as a result of its ethnicity that they passed down no cultural history to the third generation daughter.
Through family records, DeSalvo uncovers information of her past and imagines life as it would have been through the eyes of her immigrant grandmother, whose careful
signature is etched in DeSalvo’s memory:
And I wonder, now, what it was/is like to live a life where you almost never had an occasion to sign your name; wonder what it meant/means not to be able to use the art of writing to tell people about yourself and who you were and where you came from;
wonder what it meant/means not to be able to participate in the creation of your identity, for you did/do not have the language to do so. 37 Something as simple as a signature was a rare event for the grandmother, and DeSalvo points out that her grandmother’s signature on her naturalization papers gave silent Fred Gardaphé, “An Interview with Tina de Rosa,” Fra Noi 24 (May 1985) : 23.
DeSalvo, “Color: White/Complexion: Dark,” 25.
consent of what others presumed about her. Most notably, the arbitrary and unnecessary observation of complexion, which naturalization officials labeled “dark.” With that signature DeSalvo’s grandmother renounced her Italian citizenship in order to become “American.” The painstaking act of putting her name to paper, the name being central to identity, to affirm a newly assigned identity, is a memory that is effectively “rescued” through DeSalvo’s essay.
M.L. Hansen sees the third generation as retrievers of a past that the second generation has ignored. According to his theory, the second generation did not only reject the language and custom of its parents, but it also suppressed artistic elements of its culture. Hansen claims that though most of the people who immigrated to America were uneducated, they still had an appreciation of art that lingered from the European culture in which they lived. In America, there was no such appreciation, and therefore in order
to conform, the second generation created a gulf between itself and artistic endeavors:
“The second generation was entirely aware of the contempt in which [any other artistic] activities were held and they hastened to prove that they knew nothing about casts, symphonies or canvas.” If we accept Hansen’s claim, then it is no wonder that Italian Americans suffered from a lack of literary tradition. However, the third generation writer provides hope for reviving and recording history. As a writer, it is clear that De Rosa feels a responsibility to give a life and a voice to images of the past, and in so doing, creates a work that exemplifies the Italian American identity. This is an identity that does not have to be created at the expense of the self. In other words, through writing about her experience, it is possible for the Italian American woman to assert her independence while bringing herself closer to her culture.
Hansen, “The Third Generation in America,” 494.
Chapter IV: Literature and History in The House on the Lagoon In this chapter I examine the relationship between literature and history and how this applies to identity. I first explore José Luis González’s “The Four Storyed Country,” an essay that metaphorically arranges Puerto Rican history in a structure of four levels and claims that Puerto Rican identity is a myth that was created by those who sought power. I then apply this essay to the house in Ferré’s novel, which serves as much more than a mere setting or background to her story. The house is as much a character in the novel as Isabel and Quintín, and its continual destruction and reconstruction can be compared with the constant changing of Puerto Rican identity. I focus a section of the chapter on Milan Pavel, the fictional architect who designs the house on the lagoon.
Using imitation as a point of departure for what will ultimately be a unique creation is an idea I explore in relation to Jean Rhys and Maryse Condé. Like Pavel, Rhys and Condé are mimicking an original design but implementing changes to make it their own.
Finally, I consider Isabel and Quintín, whose intense feud over her manuscript is representative of the debate over literature and history. Although different critics may consider one superior over the other, or both useless, I hold that their relation to one another is important and that literature can be used to shed light on a neglected history.
José Luis González’s Four Stories and Puerto Rican Identity In his essay “The Four Storyed Country,” José Luis González examines the effect of American intervention in Puerto Rican culture by exploring the beginnings of that culture and arguing against the notion that Puerto Rico had a strong identity before the American invasion. He goes on to say that the Puerto Rican culture, as in many colonies, is made up of two groups: the oppressed and the oppressors, and that only the culture of the oppressors is universally accepted as local custom, a point continually made throughout this dissertation about colonial society. Formerly, the majority of published literature focuses on the colonizer’s point of view. Any story of the oppressed or Other is expressed in the colonizer’s words.
González’s essay describes Puerto Rican history, explaining that Spanish settlers did not consider themselves Puerto Rican as they held fast to their European traditions.
He concludes that the first real Puerto Ricans were black, the descendants of African slaves brought to the island. According to González, these descendants were the first to think of the island as their homeland: “What I am claiming is that it was the blacks, the people bound most closely to the territory which they inhabited (they were after all slaves), who had the greatest difficulty in imagining any other place to live.” González adds that many react with chagrin to this information, apparently reluctant to agree with his view. González’s statement seems at least partly correct, because he neglects to mention the marriages between Spanish settlers and Taino Indians. González writes about the Taino Indians but says that their mass deaths induced by colonial violence as well as the disease the settlers brought to the island all but wiped them out. While this is true, many Spanish also married Taino women, for when gold seekers arrived in great numbers, they brought no women with them. In fact, according to Irving Rouse’s book on the Taino Indians, as many as forty percent of Spanish men had married Taino women by 1514, and this early racial mixing is still perceptible in Puerto Rico today.
According to these sources, it seems that the first Puerto Ricans included at least two González, “The Four Storyed Country,” 10.
Kal Wagenheim, The Puerto Ricans: a documentary history (New York: Praeger, 1973), 41.
Irving Rouse, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1992), 67 groups: those of African descent, and those that were a mix of Spanish and Taino.
Several of these sources also argue that the Spanish, unlike other European countries, did not have a problem with marrying into another ethnic group. 4 This is not to say that they did not exploit both the Taino Indians and the African slaves, but perhaps the more nuanced forms of racial discrimination came later, and González claims as much. He clearly makes a distinction between Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations, explaining that Puerto Rican culture would be predominantly Afro Antillean in nature if it were not for the subsequent “stories” built upon the original foundation.
The next, or second story of the country includes the influx of foreigners coming to the island from several parts of Europe in the early 19th century. González calls this event a “second colonization,” for these foreigners took lands from the Creoles, those who were born on the island and were by then the ruling class. The foreigners of course felt no national pride for Puerto Rico as they identified with their country of origin, and their cruelty toward the Creole class was a divisive force on the island. Therefore, according to González, when the American invasion occurred in 1898, Puerto Rico was already a divided country with no national identity and so the independence cause was based on a desire to go backward, not forward, and return to an era that was marked by colonial violence.
It is a compelling argument; nonetheless, what is missing in González’s essay is some account for the three hundred years and all the generations that lived between the arrival of the Spaniards on the island and the arrival of the foreigners. During this time, many were born on the island who considered Puerto Rico, and not Spain, their home.
As previously mentioned, theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Stuart Hall have explained Ibid., 71.
that identity is formed on the basis of exclusion, i.e. that there must be an entity that is culturally different in order for there to be an entity of sameness. In the desire for autonomy from Spain, Puerto Rican Creoles of this generation may well have been unified in an effort to be separate from Spain.
In his article “Puerto Rico: The Pleasures and Traumas of Race,” Alan Duran argues that the movement for independence was combined with the call for abolition of slavery. However, during this period there are still many racial divides – the white Creoles view the mulattos with disdain, and the black Puerto Ricans are the most hated.
This racial split is not uncommon in other Caribbean cultures, but González singles out Puerto Rico because this particular island has the illusion of a happy, racially mixed
What sets Puerto Rico’s case apart is that for more than half a century we have been peddled the myth of social, racial, and cultural homogeneity which it is now high time that we begin to dismantle, not so as to “divide” the country – a prospect that some people contemplate with terror – but rather so as to gain a true perspective on the country’s real and objective diversity. 7 This call to dismantle the facade of a cohesive Puerto Rican society is what Rosario Ferré is participating in with her novel. In her writing she dispels the myth of a harmonious Puerto Rico by revealing the fissures within the facade and creating a work that includes the marginalized.
While Americanization and capitalism are the third and fourth stories perched upon the unstable second story, González insists that this Americanization is not synonymous with de-Puerto Ricanization, and that those who claim that American influence threatens the independence of Puerto Ricans are wrong because they speak of West-Duran, “Puerto Rico : The pleasures and traumas of race,” 50.
Wagenheim, The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History, 112.
González, The Four Storyed Country, 23.
an identity never felt by Puerto Ricans. This claim resonates strongly if identity is formed as a result of exclusion from another group. For Puerto Rico, however, no unity persisted since there were many who welcomed U.S. intervention and possibly statehood, thus causing the political and national divide on the island that still exists today.