Para ver este documento en español, oprima aquí.


Rossello, Hernandez Colon, Ferre Urge Nobel Prize in Literature for Enrique Laguerre

by Chris Hawley

March 3, 1999
©Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Six weeks ago, the Reliquary, a little-known literary magazine, began a letter-writing campaign to introduce a Puerto Rican writer to organizers of the Nobel Prize in Sweden.

At first, Puerto Ricans quietly applauded the Reliquary's spunk. Then the whole island joined the campaign.

Now, radio stations in the U.S. commonwealth broadcast the address of the Swedish Academy, urging listeners to back Enrique Laguerre for the world's highest literary prize.

School classes are sending packages of letters. Universities and politicians are joining the movement along with the island's intellectual elite, including author Rosario Ferre, the 1995 U.S. National Book Award finalist.

Late last month, the island's House of Representatives and Senate issued a resolution signed by Gov. Pedro Rossello urging his nomination. Laguerre's 31 historical novels explore the cultural and economic struggles of a Spanish-speaking island that this year marked a century since U.S. troops wrested it from Spain - setting in motion a still-unresolved identity crisis.

The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture sent its official nomination to the academy last month, along with copies of every major work by Laguerre. Friends donated out-of-print editions to the cause.

"I, personally, am joining with many other Puerto Ricans who are in favor of this nomination," Rossello said. "This is a just petition and it reflects the depth and validity of (Laguerre's) work."

The national pride in the novelist, and the campaign it has inspired, appear to reflect a revival of the century-old battle to carve a cultural identity for Puerto Rico separate from the United States. In December, Puerto Ricans rejected U.S. statehood in a controversial non-binding referendum called by Rossello.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, has a rigid policy of not commenting on nominations and never revealing Nobel Prize candidates.

Under its rules, previous laureates, members of the academy, university literature professors and presidents of national authors' or cultural organizations can nominate authors.

Laguerre, whose wavy head of hair and twinkling eyes belie his 92 years, said he is flattered by the sudden attention.

"I have spent my whole life trying to ennoble the history of my country - that's what has always driven me, almost desperately, to write," he said. "So this brings me a lot of personal satisfaction, because it means the people of my country have understood me."

Laguerre's novels are highly regarded in Latin America and are required reading in Puerto Rican schools, but few have been translated from Spanish.

Some have been spectacular local best sellers. But only "The Labyrinth," a portrait of a fictional dictatorship inspired by the Dominican Republic, is well known outside Latin America.

"La Llamarada" ("The Blaze") and "La Resaca" ("The Undertow"), about the exploitation of Puerto Rican sugar workers in the 1930s, are staples of literature courses on the island.

In "La Llamarada," Laguerre's protagonist describes workers as they wait to be paid what little money is not taken out of their salaries by the company store:

"Next to me a sad, discolored hillbilly took out a penny. He contemplated it a long time. Then he put it back in his pocket. The boy selling the brown sweets came up to offer them. The man doubted. He put his hand in the pocket, caressed the miserable coin and wrinkled the space between his eyebrows, thinking perhaps of his worsening misfortune, the nakedness of his children. He shook his head from shoulder to shoulder, saying to the kid, 'I'm telling you, no!' And he started to whistle a bit to scare away the grief and the pain."

"Solar Montoya" ("Montoya's Plot") deals with Puerto Rican coffee growers and "Ceiba en el Tiesto" ("Silk-cotton Tree in the Flowerpot") is about the emigration of islanders to the United States. "Cauce sin Rio" ("Riverbed Without a River") examines the island's transformation from an agrarian to industrial center.

"They are important works, enriched with the words of Puerto Rico and the culture of the different regions," said Ricardo Alegria, director of the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

Laguerre was born in rural Moca, Puerto Rico, during the period when the United States was trying to "Americanize" its new colony by requiring that schools teach all subjects in English to their Spanish-speaking pupils.

"Like all of the scholars of those times, I am a product of that absurd schooling," he said in a recent autobiographical article. "Over time, I had to re-educate myself by way of reading."

He wrote - and burned - three novels before a university professor encouraged him to publish "La Llamarada" at age 25.

With his work, "the Puerto Rican novel stops being a mere projection of the traditional European novel," wrote critic Josefina Rivera de Alvarez in her "Dictionary of Puerto Rican Literature."

"Laguerre focuses ... on the problems of our countrysides, our villages and our cities, but amplifying his vision with an ever-broadening technique," she said.

Former governors Rafael Hernandez Colon and Luis A. Ferre (novelist Rosario Ferre's father) have sent letters to Stockholm backing Laguerre's nomination. So have the presidents of Puerto Rico 's main universities.

The chairman of the culture committee in the island's house of representatives urged all 78 municipalities to send their endorsements.

The Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers and the island's main trade unions have joined the call.

But Alegria acknowledged such grassroots efforts are unlikely to sway the academy.

"It's always been hard for our country to make known our culture to those kinds of bodies because it's always the diplomats who serve as publicity agents," he said. As a United States territory, "we lack a diplomatic corps."

No matter, said Laguerre.

"To know that my people have listened to me, that's the greatest prize I could ever get," he said.

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback