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Puerto Rico Profile: Rosario Ferré

August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"Writing is a lot like sewing. You bring pieces together and make a quilt." In her own words, Rosario Ferré has taken pieces of her life experiences in Puerto Rico and in the United States and written poems, essays, short stories, and novels that herald her as a versatile artist and individual. Both her newly released novel, Flight of the Swan, and her personal/literary essays, A la sombra de tu nombre (In the Shadow of Your Name), combine elements of her artistic imagination and her political background. As in her acclaimed novel, House on the Lagoon (1995), Rosario continues to address important and controversial topics such as gender relations and class divisions.

Rosario Ferré was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1930 to Lorenza Ramírez de Arrellano and Luís A. Ferré, governor of Puerto Rico from 1968-1972. Raised in a highly political and influential Puerto Rican family, it is no wonder that many of Ferré’s works deal with class struggles, politics, and the role of women in Puerto Rican society.

Ferré began writing in 1970 when she was thirty years old and working on her master’s degree from University of Puerto Rico. In a recent interview, Rosario Ferré discussed her initial reasons for continuing her education, "I had been going through a difficult time in my private life and so I decided to enroll in a master’s degree program at the University of Puerto Rico simply to get my mind off my personal problems."

With the support of one of her professors, Angel Rama, Ferré, along with four classmates, founded the literary journal, Zona carga y descarga (Loading and Unloading Zone). The magazine provided young, unpublished writers to express both their artistic and political views. The literary magazine was highly consequential for Rosario’s writing career as well as that of her classmates. "And would you believe that quite a number of the students involved with the literary magazine have gone on to become well-known Puerto Rican writers, literary critics, and poets," Rosario later stated.

Some of her works that appeared in the literary magazine have since been published in a revised collection of short stories, Papeles (Papers, 1979), which is now in its third edition. From that point, Rosario jump-started her career and began experimenting in several writing genres. Among Ferré’s repertoire of writing she includes an anthology of children’s stories, which she wrote for her own three children, called Sonatinas (1989), and an anthology of literary essays, Sitio a eros (1980).

In addition, Ferré goes from such literary extremes as writing poetry to writing a biography about the life of her father, who is now ninety-seven. The biography entitled, Luis Ferré: Memorias de Ponce (Memories of Ponce, 1992), details his personal life and his political life as governor of the island and a supporter of statehood.

In 1987, Rosario tried her hand at novels. Her first novella entitled, Maldito amor, translated into English as, Sweet Diamond Dust, addresses important political and cultural struggles in Puerto Rico. Since the success of her novella, Rosario has published four additional novels. Her second novel, written in 1993, La batalla de las virgenes (The Battle of Virgins), was viewed as a bit too risqué by Puerto Rican literary critics.

For her next novel, Ferré decided to write in English. The response was outrage and disappointment from some of her fellow Puerto Ricans who felt she had betrayed her island roots. Rosario’s response was, "But I am no less Puerto Rican because I can write in English. Why limit myself to one language when I can write in both? Why use one hand when I have two?"

Despite initial opposition, her novel was a success. This gripping novel, House on the Lagoon, is about a wealthy Puerto Rican woman, Isabel, who follows her dream to become a writer. In the beginning pages of The House on the Lagoon, Rosario writes, "Years later, when I was living in the house on the lagoon, I began to write down some of those stories. My original purpose was to interweave the woof of my memories with the warp of Quintín’s recollections, but what I finally wrote was something very different." However, her husband, Quintín, disagrees with her story telling and begins to correct her "mistakes."

This story intertwines both personal family history and Puerto Rico’s rich traditions and heritage. The Publisher Weekly reviewed the book and stated, "Ferré dramatizes the issue of who gets to write history, gracefully incorporating it into a compelling panorama of Puerto Rican experience that is rich in history, drama, and memorable characters." The novel was so powerful that it earned Rosario a nomination for the prestigious National Book Award.

Rosario continued to write in English with another novel in 1998, Eccentric Neighborhoods. Like her other works, this novel showed the life of three generations of Puerto Rican families through the narration of the daughter, Elvira. The character, Elvira, struggles with her relationship to her traditional mother. "She’s (Elvira’s) torn the same ways as the island is torn. It has a lot to do with what being Puerto Rican means, " said Rosario about this book. The subject of family and identity is personally relevant to Ferré and her upbringing, especially with her own traditional mother. In her personal essays, Rosario wrote about her relationship and the difficulty she had relating to a mother who saw herself as only a wife. "The day after mamá’s burial, I began to write my first book," Ferré wrote.

Ferré often delves into women’s issues and the role of women in Puerto Rican society. She has always been an activist in the feminist movement. In fact, her essay La cocina de la escritura, has been translated several times and has served as an important literary work for other critics writing on Latin American feminist literature.

Her latest novel, Flight of the Swan, published in June of this year, is a story loosely based on the world famous ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and her tour of Latin America during World War I. The story takes place in 1917, a time of political upheaval in Puerto Rico and Russia. The stranded ballet troupe spend three months in San Juan and learn not only about the island’s colonial status, but about love, loyalty, and class divisions as well.

Throughout her life, Rosario has always remained at the forefront of Puerto Rican politics and culture. In fact, Rosario broke from her father’s political stance when he founded the New Progressive Party, supporting statehood for Puerto Rico. At that time, Rosario was a student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and stood in opposition to her father by supporting Puerto Rico’s independence.

However, Rosario Ferré has since altered her political agenda. Now agreeing with her father, Rosario publicly supports statehood for Puerto Rico. When asked why she changed her original political status, Ferré responded, "Because, Americans may finally be willing to accept a Spanish-speaking state. The U.S. has evolved enormously in twenty-six years."

Openly discussing what it means for her to be a Puerto Rican woman, Ferré said, "As a Puerto Rican writer, I constantly face the problem of identity. To be Puerto Rican is to be a hybrid. Our two halves are inseparable; we cannot give up either without feeling maimed."

After achieving a doctorate in philosophy in Latin American literature from the University of Maryland, Ferré currently lives and works in her homeland of Puerto Rico. She has taught at a number of universities including Harvard University, The Johns Hopkins University, and University of California in Berkeley. She is now teaching at the University of Puerto Rico.

Rosario has also raised three children from her first marriage and is now married to Augustín Costa. In addition to her extensive writing and teaching careers, Rosario acts as the Vice President of the Ponce Museum and is part owner of her family’s cement enterprise, the Puerto Rican Cement Company.

For now, Rosario Ferré will continue to write, educate, and inspire. In her fiction and non-fiction works, Rosario Ferré challenges her readers and her fellow Puerto Ricans to view life in both a critical and beautiful manner.

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