Calle del Sol in Old San Juan
When I was a college student in the ’50s I visited San Juan for a few weeks, and last week I was back, attending the “resident” part of a Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA—Writing program, of which I am an alum. Even sixty years can’t change the narrow, cobblestone streets of Old San Juan or the Spanish colonial architecture, the 16th century citadel of El Morro or the closely packed crypts and statues of the Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena. But traffic now chokes the streets. Signs indicate ongoing projects to improve La Perla, the infamous slum, but brilliantly colored houses still conceal poverty and drug trade, all washed by ocean surf.
Cemetary Maria Magdalen
U.S. fast food and clothing chains have invaded Old San Juan, and diamond merchants have proliferated, shop after shop catering to the flood of tourists that pour from giant cruise ships each day. To feed these travelers, San Juan’s restaurants serve “Latin fusion,” as the guidebooks call it, but really it’s placeless, homeless food that shoves aside the native comida criolla. In Old San Juan I yearned for remembered beans and rice flavored with sofrito, a mix of ham, root vegetables and native achiote; soupy asapao; green plantains fried crisp and ripe ones stewed to a sweet caramel.
Casa del Libro
El Libro y su Encuadernacion
Artist’s Book: Creacion del Mundo/Creation of the World
Beneath the glitzy, Americanized surface, leading Puerto Ricans lead their lives with depth and dedication. We visited the Casa del Libro, founded in the ’50s, a museum housing a collection of rare books published from the 15th century on and preserved from the ravages of tropical climate. This history is told in a gorgeous volume called El Libro y su Encuadernacion, The Book and its Binding. An exhibit of artists’ books from many lands included a beautiful illustration from the biblical Song of Songs: “I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but I found him not.”
Artist’s Book: “I sought him, but I found him not.”
Workshops and lectures with faculty Richard McCann and Mary Ruefle, outstanding writers and teachers, were held daily wherever we were. We were privileged to meet Hector Feliciano, world citizen and author of The Lost Museum: the Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art. Hector invited us to his airy, spacious house and up to his roof, telling us the story of his long search and the obsession required to unearth each vanished work of art. Equally contemporary was Yolanda Pizarro’s passionate attention to the stories of Puerto Rico’s enslaved black women, told in her book, Las Negras. Lecture became workshop as she urged us to consider our own names, their origins, meanings and the ways they define us. She asked us to write a short poem about the names. I wrote:
My middle name is Helen, hides
My grandma, also Helen, who conceals
In turn the girl who shamed her by
Her girlish birth, while
Wedging her name between my first and last.
These lines turned out to encapsulate my novel, I Never Knew You Had a Girl, in which the protagonist, based on my mother, suffers the self-loathing that comes from having a mother who doesn’t think much of girls.
Morning Sun on Bamboo
Americanization ends at the edge of El Yunque, the rainforest, where we spent the second four days. Though a U.S.National Forest, El Yunque is also a world unto itself, a place where bamboo whispers, life-giving water flows day and night, and plants win. Excellent local guides, Robin and his son Daniel, have befriended the plants and know the names and habits of each. They break off bits of edibles for us to crunch and offer pods of bromeliads for us to nurture back home. Waterfalls tumble down the steep mountains and pool in cool basins, one just below the Casa Cabuy, the Ecolodge where we stay. There cook Carmen prepares marvelous comida criolla: papaya and mango for breakfast as well as eggs and avena, oatmeal cooked with milk and sugar, served soupy. For lunch and dinner we eat beans, rice and fish or chicken, once pork, always plantain, green and crisp or ripe and mellow.
Who would have thought a writing residency would require rock scrambling skills? I didn’t, and didn’t believe it until I stripped to my bathing suit (No phone? No photos?), noticed my glasses (“I’ll take them,” said Mary, and stuffed multiple pairs into a plastic bag, the bag into her swimsuit), and edged bleary-eyed down a mud path to slippery rocks and water. If the current was mentioned I didn’t hear it over the rumble of cascading water. Nearly across I saw the bank retreat and called for help. A stranger dragged me and two others over the wet and moss-covered rocks to the shore.
Carolyn, Richard and Jude, waterfall at Casa Cabuy
Mary at the pool below Casa Cabuy
Waterfall in the Rainforest
Picture ascents where there’s nothing to grasp and footholds are slippery even when dry. Imagine steep descents of eight feet on one’s seat, where only the total compression of knees can resist the insistence of weight. My knees don’t compress and wrist tendons resist the helpful and needed assists that I got. A world unto itself, indeed! So well known to Robin that he saw no need to warn or explain, but knew the best move for each rock on the path. Our goal? Taino pictographs, attributed to first inhabitants. “They look better at dawn,” said Robin, swiping them with a wet towel. “Look now, when they’re wet. Use your imagination.” He suggested a dive neath a thundering waterfall and hinted that those undesired are sometimes thrown in. We still had to return the same way that we came, and Mary and I exchanged a big hug at the finish.
A day on the beach capped our week, romping and swimming and eating at the beach’s famed sixty kiosks with our fellow students, Richard, Mary, and our organizational guru, poet Pam Taylor. The camaraderie of all was just as infectious and lively as the workshops and lectures had been perceptive and challenging.
VCFA Encampment on Luquillo Beach: Sophfronia, Mary, Shanalee, Carolyn, Partridge, Lillian, Richard
Evidence: I was there