Two Latinas Talking Immigration: An Interview with Marisel VeraBy Lorraine M. Lopez
September 14, 2011
I first encountered Marisel Vera through our mutual friend—author Tayari Jones—who noted that Marisel and I share the same publisher and editor. Marisel contacted me by E-mail, inviting me to blurb her debut novel, If I Bring You Roses. I devoured this book in great, greedy gulps, recognizing in the narrative the honesty and depth of feeling that creates an unforgettable experience of literature. Her characters, Aníbal and Felicidad remain with me to this day; the impression they leave with the reader is as indelible as the impact made by family members or close friends.
The novel transports the reader along with Aníbal and Felicidad from island to mainland, as they navigate a tricky terrain of being neither this nor that, an unmapped region of cultural otherness that complicates, challenges, and ultimately enriches not just the reader’s understanding of the immigrant experience, but of what it means to be a human being.
If I Bring You Roses is set in the mid-1900s, but the characters in your novel come alive in such a way that they are knowable, even familiar as family to the reader. You take us into the hearts and minds of Aníbal and Felicidad in a way that shows how their lives are shaped by cultural influences that spell out fairly rigid gender roles. Why did you decide to write from both the male and female perspective in portraying these characters? What are some of the challenges and opportunities in presenting this and especially in writing a male perspective?
I think the immigrant experience is very different for males and females and was particularly so in the 1950s when gender roles were more defined. By writing in both the female and male perspectives, I hoped to show an immigrant’s travails in a more intimate way. I was always very sympathetic to Aníbal and found it incredibly liberating to write in the male voice. I was very drawn to him, probably because my father and my many uncles left Puerto Rico to work in Chicago’s factories as Aníbal did. To help me understand Aníbal, I stared for hours at black and white photographs of Puerto Rican jíbaros working en la finca, imagining the backbreaking work of cutting cane or picking coffee cherries. I begged stories and details of my grandfather (on whom I based Felicidad’s father) of my mother and godmother. Also, because my grandfather had lived in Chicago for ten years while I was growing up, I could draw on my love and respect for him.
Felicidad, I envisioned as the sad little girl on the cover of Jack Delano’s book Puerto Rico Mio. Interestingly, I found her a little more difficult to get to know and she made me work hard for the privilege.
It helped me tremendously to read poetry when I was writing the first few drafts of the novel. If I was going to work on Aníbal then I would read poetry by Puerto Rican poets like Martín Espada or Victor Hernández Cruz to get psyched for writing from the Latino perspective and I read Philip Levine, one of my favorite poets, to help me with the sense of powerlessness of a factory worker. I also recalled that powerlessness from my own father’s experience. For Felicidad, I liked Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey and Songs of the Simple Truth by Julia De Burgos.
In the journey of If I Bring You Roses, I’d had a few agents and editors advise me to write the novel from only Felicidad’s perspective but I never considered doing that. It was his story and her story.
The Latino culture is notorious for promoting machismo, male privilege, while valorizing female self-sacrifice. Yet those of us who were raised in Spanish-speaking households know firsthand how quickly such stereotypes become absurd in the face of practical family dynamics. If I Bring You Roses suggests that gender roles must be dismantled before intimacy can be achieved between men and women, and the novel shows how complex, difficult, and threatening this can be, especially for men. Will you discuss challenges imposed by gender roles that complicate Aníbal and Felicidad’s relationship with one another?
It might be absurd in the face of practical family dynamics but the double standard is still very true in my own family —my mother’s generation—I am still expected to serve my husband at my relatives’ houses or help out with the clean-up! But If I Bring You Roses takes place in the 1950s and I have to say that I didn’t know a single family when I was growing up in the 1970s —Puerto Rican or otherwise, where if both parents worked, the man did his fair share of housework or even any housework. I don’t think it was until the 1980s before Latinas felt empowered to make some demands—I’m talking of Latinas of my generation not my mother’s—and expect them to be met. Perhaps, the empowerment of the women in If I Bring You Roses is only my own wishful thinking, although there have always been confident puertorriqueñas like Ana and Marta.
But Felicidad is trained to be subservient to men as was typical for girls of her class, yet it annoys Aníbal that he must make all the decisions for her. On the other hand, he expects her to accept his decisions and to wait complacently until he makes them! Felicidad’s confusion as to what Aníbal expects of her as a wife leads to the beginning of her introspection, something that is completely new to her coming from a culture where women aren’t taught or encouraged to think independently. Her thinking and consequent action force Aníbal into contemplation and action of his own.
From the tropical Puerto Rican campo to the frigid streets of Chicago, the setting in the novel is powerfully evocative, and details of the time period are well woven into the narrative for a seamless experience of story. How did you collect the information necessary to recreate such diverse settings of more than half a century ago so convincingly here?
I’ve been working on If I Bring You Roses for years and that work included extensive research in both Spanish and English. Kind librarians in the four different states where I lived got me the many books I requested; what they couldn’t get me, I bought. Gina Pérez who wrote The Near Northwest Side Story, sent me her Ph.D. dissertation complete with detailed bibliography in the early stages of my research. I looked at hundreds of old photographs for details and inspiration including those of Jack Delano. My relatives were always willing to answer my questions and I relied heavily on my mother and godmother. If I Bring You Roses would be a much different book if it weren’t for them.
Growing up and hearing stories about Puerto Rico, the island had a dreamlike quality for me. I saw palm trees only in my dreams. I was eighteen the first time that I went to Puerto Rico. I had saved money from my part-time job so that I could visit this mystical land from my childhood before I started college. I was blown away by the palm trees seeming to grow right out of the cement at the Ponce airport. The profusion of colors and sounds en el campo couldn’t have been more different from my block on Augusta and Sacramento in Humboldt Park. I felt like I belonged as I’d never felt growing up in Chicago. That feeling was transitory but it was so intense that I never forgot it.
I used a little creative license in describing Chicago and the Puerto Rican milieu of the early 1950s.
The novel depicts an immigrant experience that is somewhat unique in that the characters, emigrating from Puerto Rico, are US citizens, a distinction you explore when Felicidad finds factory work and discovers how her Mexican coworkers are exploited in ways that she, as a citizen, is not. Despite his citizenship status, Aníbal experiences discrimination accompanied by feelings of powerlessness that compromise his sense of manhood. In what other ways does the immigrant experience have an impact on these characters?
Aníbal exemplifies what happens when men from a culture with high expectations of men live as second class citizens in another culture that heaps humiliation on them in the workplace and how that creates a cycle of privilege and subordination that ultimately disrespects women. I learned through my research that early on in the migration to Chicago, Puerto Ricans were looked upon as “ideal” as compared to Puerto Ricans in NYC—until they had been in the U.S. a few years and started to make some demands. For Felicidad, immigration is the best thing that has ever happened to her. She learns to be independent, to speak up, what she could never have done in her old place of employment or within her family, and she is respected for it. Felicidad was a second class citizen in her own life in Puerto Rico but in the U.S., she has the opportunity to achieve not only financial independence but personal emancipation. This phenomenon of women’s lives improving due to immigration while men tend to suffer seems to define the immigration experience for many people from Latin America. Opportunities for autonomy and empowerment open up for women while men tend to lose their privileged male status in the U.S.
What was your inspiration or trigger for writing the novel? It is tempting for the reader to imagine that you, as a puertorriqueña from Chicago, may have drawn upon family stories. What, if any, connections to your personal history appear in the book and why did you decide to write this as a fictional narrative?
I am fascinated by the subject of immigration in general. To leave behind everyone and everything you love, including your country, for a hoped-for better life in another place as yet unknown to you, seems to me so incredibly brave that I wanted to explore it. I am all admiration for people who do this. I think that growing up in Chicago and witnessing firsthand the discrimination and intolerance immigrants are subjected to, especially immigrants of color, shaped my perspective and developed my deep empathy for immigrants legal or otherwise.
I felt that it was a story as yet untold, at least in American literature. As the daughter of Puerto Ricans who migrated to Chicago in the 1950s, I very much wanted to tell a story about jíbaros like my relatives, why those first Puerto Ricans left their beloved island and how difficult it was for them to live and work in Chicago. I was always intrigued by my relatives’ pride in being jíbaros. I knew very little Puerto Rican history and If I Bring You Roses was a way of discovering my Puerto Rican heritage. Since I’m a fiction writer, I wanted to make up a story about the Puerto Rican migration to Chicago. I confess to using my maternal grandfather as the model for Felicidad’s father as I was fortunate to know him because he lived in Chicago for ten years while I was growing up. Everyone else is pretty much made up.
Felicidad is often portrayed embroidering roses. She stitches these into clothing, bedding, even furniture upholstery. While the rose is a particularly delicate and even feminine symbol, such an act emerges as an assertion of character and identity, almost as a gesture of appropriating and marking territory for her, a practice that reminds others of her presence even in her absence. How did you develop this wonderfully complex “trademark” for her?
Poor Puerto Rican girls like Felicidad began to embroider at a very young age, four or five years old, and worked alongside their mothers. The most skilled of these women embroidered fantastical gardens complete with birds of paradise. The women earned pennies for their works of art which were sold in fancy department stories in NYC or Paris. The rose is the first flower Felicidad’s mother teaches her to embroider. I liked how it connected Felicidad to her mother and to a happier time in her life. Regardless of her circumstances, she could embroider a rose and it would remind her of a time when she felt loved and when her name was a blessing. She stitches all her dreams and yearning in that rose. It says what she has never been permitted or able to say aloud.
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