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In her most ambitious work since In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez tells the story of a woman whose poetry inspired one Caribbean revolution and of her daughter whose dedication to teaching strengthened another.
Camila Henríquez Ureña is about to retire from her longtime job teaching Spanish at Vassar College. Only now as she sorts through family papers does she begin to know the woman behind the legend of her mother, the revered Salomé Ureña, who died when Camila was three.
In stark contrast to Salomé, who became the Dominican Republic's national poet at the age of seventeen, Camila has spent most of her life trying not to offend anybody. Her mother dedicated her life to educating young women to give them voice in their turbulent new nation; Camila has spent
her life quietly and anonymously teaching the Spanish pluperfect to upper-class American girls with no notion of revolution, no knowledge of Salomé Ureña.
Now, in 1960, Camila must choose a final destination for herself. Where will she spend the rest of her days? News of the revolution in Cuba mirrors her own internal upheaval. In the process of deciding her future, Camila uncovers the truth of her mother's tragic personal life and, finally, finds a
place for her own passion and commitment.
Julia Alvarez has won a large and devoted audience by brilliantly illuminating the history of modern Caribbean America through the personal stories of its people. As a Latina, as a poet and novelist, and as a university professor, Julia Alvarez brings her own experience to this exquisite story.
Release date: June 9, 2000
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Print pages: 368
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In the Name of Salome
Now in the full of June, the attic is hot. Years back, when she earned tenure, the dean offered her a more modern apartment, nearer to the campus. But she refused. She has always loved attics, their secretiveness, their niches and nooks, where those never quite at home in the house can hide. And this one has wonderful light. Shafts of sunlight swarm with dust motes, as if the air were coming alive.
It is time for fresh blood in this old house. On the second floor, right below her, Vivian Lafleur from the Music Department is getting on in years and going a bit deaf, too. Every year the piano gets more fortissimo, her foot heavy on the pedal. Her older sister, Dot, has already retired from Admissions and moved in with her “baby” sister. “Come quickly, Viv,” she sometimes hollers from her bedroom. The music stops. Could this be it for Dot? On the ground floor, Florence from History has been called back from her retirement after the young medievalist from Yale stumbled into a manhole and broke her ankle. “I’m so grateful.” Flo cornered her one day downstairs by their mailboxes. “I was beginning to go batty in that cottage in Maine.”
She herself is worried about the emptiness that lies ahead. Childless and motherless, she is a bead unstrung from the necklace of the generations. All she leaves behind here are a few close colleagues, also about to retire, and her students, those young immortals with, she hopes, the Spanish subjunctive filed away in their heads.
She must not let herself get morbid. It is 1960. In Cuba, Castro and his bearded boys are saying alarming, wonderful things about the new patria they are creating. The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet last year on a yak with the Chinese at his heels, has issued a statement: One must love one’s enemies, or else all is lost. (But you have lost everything, she thinks.) This winter she read of an expedition to Antarctica led by Vivian Fuchs. Sir Vivian has asked the world to agree not to dump its nuclear waste there. (Why dump it anywhere? Camila wonders.) But these are positive signs, she reminds herself, positive signs. It is not a new habit of hers: these efforts to rouse herself from a depressive turn of mind she inherited from her mother. Of course, sometimes the bigger picture is rather grim. So? Use your subjunctive (she reminds herself). Make a wish. Contrary to possibility, contrary to fact.
MOST OF HER THINGS have already been sent ahead, several trunks and boxes, years of accumulation, sorted with her friend Marion’s help, down to the essentials. She is taking only her suitcase and the trunk of her mother’s papers and poems carried down just now by the school grounds crew to the waiting car. To think that only a few months ago, she was consulting those poems for signs! She smiles at the easy gimmick she thought would resolve the big question in her life. Now, playfully, she imagines the many lives she has lived as captioned by the title of one or another of her mother’s poems. How should this new life be titled? “Faith in the Future”? “The Arrival of Winter”? or (why not?) “Love and Yearning”?
The horn honks again. It will probably be titled “Ruins” if she doesn’t get downstairs soon! Marion is impatient to go, red-faced and swearing, jerking the steering wheel as she turns the car around. “Lady driver,” one of the men mutters under his breath.
Marion and Les, her new husband, have flown up to help with the move. (Marion’s companion of ten years finally proposed marriage.) Now the two best friends will head down to Florida in a rental car. Les has already been deposited (Marion’s verb) in New Hampshire at his daughter’s door, so that Marion and Camila can have this last trip together. All the way down to Baltimore and Jacksonville and on to Key West before she boards her ferry to Havana, Marion will try talking her out of her plans.
“Everyone who is anyone is getting out.”
“Well then, I’ll have no problem. ‘I’m Nobody—Who are you?’” She loves to quote Miss Dickinson, whose home she once visited, whose fierce talent reminds her of her own mother’s. Emily Dickinson is to the United States of America as Salomé Ureña is to the Dominican Republic—something like that. One of her nieces—is it Lupe?—loves those analogies in the game books Camila takes them when she goes to visit. But she herself always feels nervous when she is asked to put things exactly where they belong. Look at my life, she thinks, hither and yon, hither and yon.
But now—“Shall we have a drumroll, shall we blow the trumpet, and pipe a ditty on the flute?” Marion teases—she is heading home, or as close to home as she can get. Trujillo has made her own country an impossible choice. Perhaps it will all turn out well, perhaps, perhaps.
“You are not nobody, Camila,” her friend scolds. “Don’t be modest now!” Marion loves to brag. She is from the midwestern part of the country, and so she is easily impressed by somebodies, especially when they come from either coast or from foreign countries. (“Camila’s mother was a famous poet.” “Her father was president.” “Her brother was the Norton Lecturer at Harvard.”) Perhaps Marion thinks that such reflected importance will stem the tide of prejudice that often falls on the foreign and colored in this country. She should know better. How can Marion forget the cross burning on her front lawn that long ago summer Camila visited the Reed family in North Dakota?
“You need a hand with anything else, Miss Henry?” one of the burly janitorial crew calls up. Her name is Henríquez (“accent on the i”), she has told them more than once, and they have repeated her name slowly, but the next time she requires their assistance, they have forgotten. Miss Henry, Miss Henriette.
Beyond them on College Street, in their pastel shirtwaist dresses, a group of young graduates hurries by on the way to some last gathering. They look like blossoms released from their stems.
One of them turns suddenly, a hand at her brow, shielding her eyes from the sun, a flag of red hair. “Hasta luego, Profesora,” she calls out to the flashing attic windows.
She couldn’t possibly see me, the professor is thinking. I am already gone from this place.
BEFORE SHE LEAVES, SHE makes the sign of the cross—an old habit she has not been able to shake since her mother’s death sixty-three years ago.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of my mother, Salomé.
Her aunt Ramona, her mother’s only sister, taught her to do this. Dear old Mon, round and brown with a knot of black hair on top of her head, a Dominican Buddha but with none of the bodhisattva’s calm. Mon was more superstitious than religious and more cranky than anything else. Back then, it was a habit to kiss each parent’s hand and ask their blessing before leaving the house. La bendición, Mamá. La bendición, Papá.
(The American girls made faces in class when she told them about this old tradition. “What a drag,” the plump, freckled girl from Cooperstown said, lifting one corner of her mouth as if the old-world practice had a bad smell.)
When her mother died, Mon thought up this way for her to ask for Salomé’s blessing. To summon strength from a fading memory that every year became less and less real until all that was left of her mother was the story of her mother.
Sometimes the phrase is part prayer, part curse—as now when she hears the loud, rude honk from down below and mutters it under her breath. Marion will be the death of Dot yet. The two sisters have always been kind to their quiet upstairs neighbor, that condescending kindness of natives toward foreigners who are not frightening. Dot knits her awful matching accessories every winter that she must wear once in a while to show her appreciation.
Another loud honk, then the call, “Hey Cam! Did you have a coronary up there or what?” She peers down from the back window and waves to her friend that she will be right down. Marion stands beside her rental car, a Caribe turquoise Oldsmobile. They have debated the color. (She is from the Caribbean, and she has never seen that color blue, she argues. But the manual Marion whipped out from the glove compartment did say Caribe turquoise.) With her hands at her hips, her baggy trousers, and paisley scarf tied around her neck (can she really be from North Dakota?), Marion could be the drama coach at the college, barking at the girls up on the stage. Years of teaching physical education have kept Marion fit and trim, and her hardy midwestern genes have done the rest. She is warm-hearted and showy, kicking up a storm wherever she goes. “Are you Spanish, too?” people often ask, and with her dark hair and bright eyes Marion could pass, though her skin is so pale that Camila’s father often worried that she might be anemic or consumptive.
They have lived through so much, some of which is best left buried in the past, especially now that Marion is a respectable married lady. (“I don’t know about the respectable,” Marion laughs.) In her politics, however, Marion is as conservative as her recently acquired husband, Lesley Richards III, whose perennial tan gives him a shellacked look, as if he were being preserved for posterity. He is rich and alcoholic and riddled with ailments.
She should not think so unkindly.
By the door hangs the chart her student helper drew up when they were sorting through the family trunks. Camila found the scrap of paper when she was cleaning up, no doubt inadvertently left behind. She was so amused by this young girl’s vision of her life, she tacked it up on her bulletin board. She considers taking it down, then decides to leave this curious memento for the next tenant to ponder.
The car honks again, another shout of summons.
It will be a long ride to Florida. She has measured the route on the large atlas at the library using her fingers to figure out the distance. Each finger a day on the road. Five fingers, a handful, with Marion singing old campfire songs and driving too fast, especially with Salomé’s trunk tied to the roof of the car. On the passenger’s side, Camila clutches the arm loop by the door and hopes that that they don’t run into a rainstorm, hopes and prays that Marion will not try to talk her out of her decision by reminding her that she is sixty-six, alone, and should be thinking about her pension, should be thinking about her future, should be thinking about moving into a comfy bungalow just down the road from Marion, at least until things settle down at home in those hot-tempered little islands.
“In the name of my mother, Salomé,” she says to herself again. She needs all the help she can get here at the end of her life in the United States.
SOMEWHERE PAST TRENTON, New Jersey, to keep her restless friend from further distractions (“Light me a cigarette, will you?” “Any more of those chips left?” “I sure could use a soda!”), she offers: “Shall I tell you why I have decided to go back?” Marion has been pestering Camila ever since she arrived a few days ago to help her friend pack. “But why? Why? That’s what I want to know. What do you hope to accomplish with a bunch of ill-mannered, unshaven, unwashed guerrillas running a country?”
Purposely, she believes, Marion mispronounces the word so it sounds like gorillas. “Guerrillas,” Camila corrects, rattling the r’s.
She has been afraid she will sound foolish if she explains how just once before her life is over, she would like to give herself completely to something—yes, like her mother. Friends would worry that she has lost her wits, too much sugar in her blood, her cataracts blurring all levels of her vision. And Marion’s disapproval would be the worst of all, for she would not only disagree with Camila’s choice, she would try to save her.
Marion has turned to face her. Briefly, the car weaves into the left lane. A honk from an oncoming car startles Marion, and she pulls back over just in time.
Camila takes a deep breath. Perhaps the future will be over sooner than she thinks.
“I’M ALL EARS,” Marion says when they have both recovered.
Camila’s heart is still beating wildly—one of those bats that sometimes gets trapped in her attic apartment so that she has to call the grounds crew to come get it out. “I have to go back a ways,” she explains. “I have to start with Salomé.”
“Can I confess something?” Marion asks, not a real question, as she does not wait for Camila to answer back. “Please don’t get your feelings hurt, but I honestly don’t think I would ever have heard of your mother unless I had met you.”
She’s not surprised. Americans don’t interest themselves in the heroes and heroines of minor countries until someone makes a movie about them.
Up ahead a man on a billboard is smoking a cigarette; behind him a herd of cattle waits until he finishes it.
“So, what’s the story?” Marion wants to know.
“As I said, I’ll have to start with my mother, which means at the birth of la patria, since they were both born about the same time.” Her voice sounds strangely her own and not her own. All those years in the classroom. Her half brother Rodolfo calls it her teacher’s handicap, how she vanishes into whatever she’s teaching. She’s done it all her life. Long before she stepped into a classroom, she indulged this habit of erasing herself, of turning herself into the third person, a minor character, the best friend (or daughter!) of the dying first-person hero or heroine. Her mission in life—after the curtain falls—to tell the story of the great ones who have passed on.
But Marion is not going to indulge her. Camila has not gotten past the first few years of Salomé’s life and the wars of independence when her friend interrupts. “I thought you were finally going to talk about yourself, Camila.”
“I am talking about myself,” she says—and waits until they have passed a large moving van, a sailing ship afloat on its aluminum sides—before she begins again.
PROFESORA CAMILA HENRÍQUEZ UREÑA’S FAMILY
Tons of revolutions and wars, too numerous to list!
THE STORY OF MY life starts with the story of my country, as I was born six years after independence, a sickly child, not expected to live. But by the time I was six, I was in better health than my country, for la patria had already suffered eleven changes of government. I, on the other hand, had only endured one major change: my mother had left my father.
I could hardly remember my parents’ separation, and as for my country, I grew up amid so many wars that I had no real understanding of the danger I was in. What I feared was not the revolutions themselves, but the dark hole underneath the house that we had to hide in whenever a war broke out.
We children had no idea what the fighting was about. One side was red and the other side was blue—color being the only way we could tell one side from the other, though both sides said that whatever they were doing, they were doing for la patria. We had fought off an invasion from Haiti, and soon we would fight a war with Spain. Now we were fighting among ourselves. I still remember the song my sister, Ramona, and I used to sing:
I was born Spanish,
by the afternoon I was French,
at night I was African.
What will become of me?
We were living, my mother, my sister, Ramona, my tía Ana—the second mother of the household—and myself, in a small, wooden house with a bright zinc roof, far enough from the central square to escape bombing and looting. “Whoever heard of two women owning a house!” my father was said to have exclaimed when he heard the news that his wife had bought a house with her sister.
We were proud of our house, and most especially we were proud of our zinc roof. If you had a fine, old house from when the Spaniards first settled in the island, you no doubt had a Spanish-tile roof, which was all very fine and pure-blooded of your family to have, except for the fact that if you had that kind of house, you would be living in the old Spanish section of the city along with the government house and the prison house and the cathedral, and in time of war, that would be the area where the opposing side would aim its cannons and blast your fine, old family roof to hell.
And so, a zinc roof from the United States of America, which was a country much closer by than Spain, was a more convenient roof to have in 1856 when I was six years old and bombs were going off up and down the streets of the capital, as the Reds fought to recover la patria from the control of the Blues.
IT IS AN AFTERNOON in October 1856, and a bomb has just blown up the candle factory down the street.
“Girls,” my mother says, “get ready.”
We know the procedure: wrap up a platano and a chunk of codfish in a scrap of cloth from Mamá’s basket, slip on our oldest smocks, and then hurry down the back steps to a hole dug underneath the house for just this purpose.
“Can I bring Alexandra?” Ramona asks. My older sister won’t go anywhere without the porcelain doll with egg-yolk-color hair that our father has sent her from St. Thomas.
I suppose Ramona likes the doll better than me as it does not cry. There are days when I wake up crying and cannot even say why I am crying, which worries Mamá, as melancholy is an affliction like leprosy or dementia, for which people can be locked away. Sometimes when I cry so hard, my chest tightens up and I can’t breathe, which worries Mamá even more, as melancholy is a trifle compared to consumption. But Dr. Valverde says all I have is a touch of asthma, and Mamá must stop worrying or she herself will succumb to hysteria. All in all, we sound quite unhealthy.
But today has not been a weeping day. I have been entertaining myself writing in the back of one of the catechism books that my aunt Ana, a schoolteacher, hands out to her students. I look up from the Catón cristiano and ask my mother what is the fighting about today.
“La patria,” Mamá says, sighing.
Today the word catches my attention, the way a word will suddenly stare back at you and refuse to tell you what it means. “Mamá,” I say, “what is la patria?” and my mother does not answer but looks ready to weep herself.
A shell explodes in the street beyond the barred door, so that the walls shake and our crucifix comes tumbling down, Christ first, followed by his cross.
Mamá motions desperately. Tía Ana is already down the back steps and calling for us to come.
Quickly, I gather my things, including the Catón cristiano. It is not so much that I am interested in reviewing my catechism, but in the back of the book, I have illegally begun writing a small verse.
Several hours later, after three cannon shots have announced a change of government, we crawl out and climb up the steps, and then, since I am the smallest, Mamá and Tía Ana hoist me up on top of the zinc roof. A new flag is flying above the government palace.
“Red,” I call down.
“Your father will be back soon,” Mamá observes.
A WEEK LATER THERE is a knock on the front door. The front door is always kept closed because of the noise and dust of the streets. It is also kept closed because on a sunny afternoon in October a civil war might erupt and a band of men come galloping down the streets, guns drawn and firing.
But today there is just a knock and no war going on. Tía Ana is teaching the alphabet to fifteen little girls who have carried their own small cane chairs to our house on top of their heads. When these girls are older, they will enroll, most of them, in the school of the sisters Bobadilla a block away, the school that Ramona and I now attend. At Tía Ana’s school, the little girls learn how to sit properly in a chair, how to hold their hands when they are sitting down, and how to hold them when they are standing up. They learn how to recite the alphabet and how to pour a glass of water and how to pray the rosary and say the stations of the cross. Then the sisters Bobadilla take over.
At the sisters Bobadilla, the older girls learn manualities, which means they learn how to sew and how to knit and crochet; they learn how to read—the Catón cristiano and Friends of Children, and Elements of All of the Sciences (“The earth is a planet revolving around the sun”), and they memorize lessons in morality and virtue from Morality, Virtue, and Urbanity. But they will not learn how to write, so that even if they receive a love letter, they will not be able to write one back.
Of course, I am growing up with my tía Ana and my mother, Gregoria, who has left her husband, and these are not women to hold back orthography from a little girl whose first question on noticing the crucifix was not “Who is that man?” but “What are those letters written above his head, I, N, R, I?” And so, long before Ramona and I go a block away to attend the school of the sisters Bobadilla, my mother and aunt have taught us how to write as well as how to read.
That afternoon when there is knock, I run to the door because I am not in school today. I have caught cold from spending so much time in the damp revolution-hole this past month. I pull the stool over and open the top of the Dutch door because this is what I have been taught to do when there is a knock.
Standing outside is a handsome man with curly, black tresses (he wears his hair long like a pirate!) and a thin mustache and skin the color of fresh milk in a pail. He studies me a moment. Then his face lights up with a smile.
“Good morning, sir. What is your business?”
“Only to see those lovely stars! Only to hear my cooing dove!”
I have never heard anyone talk this way before. I am intrigued.
“¿Quién es?” my mother calls from the back of the house.
“Who are you, señor?” I echo my mother’s question.
“I am the bearer of this letter.” The way he says it, the words all rhyme like a song. He holds up a piece of parchment, folded over and sealed with a red wax seal I have seen before among my mother’s papers.
I take the letter, turn it over, and read. Señoritas Salomé and Ramona Ureña. “This is for me?”
“So you can read!” He grins. I don’t like this sense that I am providing him with amusement every time I open my mouth.
“I can write, too,” I pipe up, though this is something that Mamá has instructed me not to boast about, especially not to the sisters Bobadilla. But this man is a stranger—no one I have ever seen near the likes of the two elderly sisters, who are pure Spaniards, with a house made of stone and a roof made of tiles.
“Perhaps you will write a reply to my letter? You had better write that letter, or I die without reply!”
I nod. I will do anything he asks me, this man who speaks in rhymes.
The face softens with a look that I have seen before on my mother’s face. “Write me, little dove. Give it to any mule driver to deliver to the house on Mercy Street with the gardenia bush by the door and the laurel tree in the backyard.” He hands me a mexicano, which is a heavy, silver coin that I don’t often get to hold in my hand.
The man catches sight of something over my shoulder. All playfulness vanishes from his face. “Remember, it’s our secret,” he mouths. “Now put it away.” And before I can remember that I have never kept anything hidden from anyone in my family, I slip the letter and coin into the pocket of my pinafore.
A moment later, Tía Ana is at my back. I feel an antipathy I have never felt inside my own house before. It’s as if the hatred that has been causing all the fighting on the streets has been put in a small bottle, and stoppered—so that for days now there have been parades and sunshine and happiness—and now someone has come and opened that little bottle right here between my aunt and this strange man.
But my aunt Ana is a schoolteacher. She has to set a good example. Right this moment, her fifteen charges sit behind her, peering at the stranger and wondering what is about to happen. She reaches out a hand through the top opening of the Dutch door in a half abrazo. “¿Qué hay, Nicolás?” she says, and then over her shoulder she calls, “Gregoria, you are wanted.”
The fifteen little girls bow their heads to their tablets as Tía Ana turns back to them. Mamá hurries in from the backyard. There is an excitement in her face that I don’t often see there, and then also its opposite, a rein to the excitement as if Mamá were trying to make her face stop showing it.
“What is it?” Mamá asks Tía Ana, who glances toward the door, and then looks surprised herself. “Why Nicolás was just standing there.”
I look in the direction my aunt is pointing, and sure enough the man has disappeared.
“What did you say to him, Ana?” my mother asks in her quiet voice that is like something coming to a slow boil on a low fire.
Before my aunt can answer, I’ve lifted the bottom latch and run out the door to the corner. The stranger is already halfway down the next street. I call out the one word I know will make him stop. “¡Papá!”
Sure enough, my father turns around and waves back.
I DON’T THINK ANYONE ever told us why my parents separated in 1852, two years after I was born. In fact, until the day Ramona and I buried our father and met our counterparts in my father’s other family at the gravesite, we did not know why our mother had left our father. Of course, once people knew that we knew, they filled us in on all the particulars.
Supposedly, for several years, my mother did not suspect that her husband was finding pleasure outside their marriage bed. She was very much in love with her fun-loving Nicolás, who wrote poetry and studied law and came from a fine, old family in the capital.
The marriage between my mother and my father had been acceptable enough to his family, particularly because, if you count back from the birth of my older sister Ramona, there was very little room for argument as to what should be done. But had there been time to discuss the matter, the Ureñas might have had a long talk with their son Nicolás in which they might have pointed out that though Gregoria herself was pale enough, and though she spoke of her grandpapá from the Canary Islands, all you had to do was look over her shoulder at her grandmother and draw your own conclusions.
The way my mother finally found out about her husband’s transgressions was through her sharp-eyed, straight-talking older sister, Ana. Every time Nicolás did a little stepping out, Ana somehow found out. The capital was then a small city of some five thousand inhabitants, enough to keep your business secret if you kept your voice down and your clothes on in public. But Nicolás was a flamboyant man, a poet as well as a lawyer, and one time he found himself obliged to leave a woman’s house quickly, wearing only what he had grabbed on his way out of the window. It was early in the morning when respectable people were getting up, and not only was he seen by certain people on that street, but my father himself talked about the incident with great charm and frequency.
In those days, the Red party had come to power, and so my father had a post in the government. Early evenings, he would return from the palace to find a tearful wife who addressed him formally as usted and refused to let him put his hand down the front of her dress when his mother turned to stir the sancocho. That night he would find himself kneeling by her bedside, trying to convince her in that silver-tongue voice which could convince fellow ministers that fulano should be fined for watering down his milk or fulanito should be allowed to graze his cattle on public land, that what her sister, Ana, had heard was not to be trusted but was part of a political intrigue to discredit the new government.
And this worked, of course—why shouldn’t it work? If you love your charming husband, why should you believe your sister, who is three years your senior and still not married and known for her difficult temper and gruff manner? But then, one day this sister will tell you something worse than your husband was seen on San Francisco Street in the dawn hours with a woman’s mantilla wrapped around his bottom; she will tell you that he has started a whole other family and set up a whole other woman in her own house, while you are having to live with your in-laws and carry on all your fights at night in whispers after everyone else has fallen asleep.
And the next morning, after he has left for work, you dress your two little girls in their matching calico dresses, tell them to sit quietly on the bed, while you gather their other clothing and their second set of shoes, and your own clothing and second set of shoes, on top of a sheet whose ends you fold over and tie in a knot, and then you send this bundle ahead with a man on a mule you have hired to be delivered to Señorita Ana who has the little school on Commerce Street. Then, shortly afterward, without a word of goodbye to the sisters or the mother or father of your husband, you take your two girls down Mercy Street and up Commerce Street, and for the next four years you do not talk to this man you were married to and you do not let him see his daughters, even when you hear he has been thrown in prison by the newly victorious Blue
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