In Now We Will Be Happy, Amina Gautier’s collection of short stories about Puerto Rican families and relationships on the mainland, the ability to connect to Puerto Rican culture is framed as a very important type of power and agency. Families deny their children access to the Spanish language and Puerto Rican culture, including the music, the food, and the island’s history, hoping to ease the difficulty of their children’s assimilation into U.S. society, but the children are left at a disadvantage, powerless without that knowledge, trapped between the two cultures and uncomfortable in either. The beauty of this collection of stories is how it examines many facets and the variety of repercussions that can result from issues like this, and that is certainly true with the issue of power and agency as caught up in Puerto Rican cultural and language identity.
The most glaring instance of this is in the titular story, “Now We Will Be Happy,” and its connecting story, “Muñeca,” where Rosa, whose parents never taught her Spanish (42) and raised her on standard North American fare like “baked chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes” (41), marries Pedro, a man familiar with Puerto Rican culture who wants her to learn to make “bacalao, sancocho, alcapurrias, pernil… the right foods” (41). Unfortunately for her, Pedro’s financial failures and his resultant perceived emasculation make him “feel more like a live-in boyfriend than anyone’s husband” (43) and he becomes resentful and abusive, reacting to the slippage of his sense of control over his own life by insisting on controlling hers. Besides the one in-text instance of physical abuse, he abuses her emotionally by “us[ing] her ignorance [of Spanish and Puerto Rican culture] against her” (25). Her lack of knowledge is anathema to her; she desperately wants to understand, but still Pedro “wield[s] it like a weapon, mocking and ridiculing her, telling her to ‘look it up’” (26). In addition, her parents use the “intimacy of their private language” (25) to shut her out and speak in secret. They listen to Spanish language music “only in her absence” (25) and have never shared the basics of their culture with her (20). Rosa is “tired of not knowing, tired of being left out” (26).
When Rosa meets Yauba, he is not only gentle and kind, he shares Puerto Rico with her in the way that she has always longed for. Instead of using her ignorance against her as her parents and husband have done, he tells her about the ethnically mixed culture of Puerto Rico (20), cooks her authentic Puerto Rican food (24), and dances with her to the songs she might so easily have grown up with (25). Though she is a married woman, Rosa and Pedro’s relationship is deeply troubled by the way Pedro treats her, the power struggle that he is trying to win by keeping her ignorant. In the powerful final scene of the titular story, Yauba takes Rosa on an imaginary journey to Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Beach and “tells her the meanings of all the words she has ever wanted to know” (27) and, while the reader is left in the dark as to whether Rosa’s situation ever changes, it is clear that she has been given a taste of the agency she has longed for and that it will not be easy to forget her new-found power, or indeed her new lover.
The connected story arc between “Bodega,” “Only Son,” and “Palabras” also showcases ways that connection to Puerto Rican culture and language provide characters with agency and personal power. In “Bodega,” Nelida uses her memories of Puerto Rico as a meditation every morning, “let[ting her soul fly to her island across the ocean and take her where it will” (36). The island, however, has stolen her son who “taunts them with news of his new life in Humacao and pretends he is never coming back” (31). Nelida’s husband has kept her from speaking Spanish (67), even in Puerto Rico as they planned the move to New York, as he is a “restless man” (32) who wants to set up a family business in the big city on the mainland. Their son loves Puerto Rico and feels “stripped of his skin” (70) on the Brooklyn streets. “Speaking English embarrassed him” (72) and he speaks in Spanish to his child before his permanent move back to the island (73), as his mother chides him, echoing the way her husband once chided her. Esteban’s way of taking back his power is to run back to the island he was born on, leaving behind his mother, father, son, and the family business, and this act of agency is couched in understanding of the Spanish language, magnified as his final reply to his father’s letters is in Spanish, “Papi, No comprendo ingles. tu hijo” (120). He has turned his back completely on his family, wounded by feelings of loss of his culture because of their decision to assimilate. He has previously accused them of “never tr[ing] to see what it was like for me” (75) and says he “can never forget where [he] came from” (79), referring to Puerto Rico and not to his family. His rebellion, while it hurts his family immensely, is one way that the children caught between two worlds can take back their power and fulfill their own needs.
While these are perhaps the most glaring examples of personal power and agency as manifested though the ability to communicate and connect culturally, the theme appears repeatedly thoughout Gautier’s collection. In “Aguanile,” the estranged grandfather’s family “eschewed all things Puerto Rican,” (1) as if in direct response to his abandonment and return to the country. He attempts to reconnect by sharing his favorite element of his culture, the music, with his granddaughter. She is used as a “peace offering” (3) and a link between New York and Puerto Rico, but her first experience seeing her grandfather in San Juan is of her aunt and her grandfather “completely ignoring [her], uncaring that [she] couldn’t understand a word they said” (3). She is rendered invisible by her lack of knowledge of Spanish. Back in her home in the U.S., many years later it is evident that her grandfather did gain some power over her as she treasures the cassette tape of Spanish-language salsa music that he gave her, despite her mixed feelings about him (14).
From the grandmother in “How to Make Flan” who has tried to “cram a whole island into her… apartment” (60) decoratively, to her granddaughter who she reprimands for not knowing Spanish, “roll[ing] her eyes in disgust” (59), the reader is allowed to see the power of cultural memory and communication in Puerto Rican communities in the mainland U.S. from various angles, but it is obvious that the younger generation has lost much of that connection through their parents’ desire for assimilation with the prevailing culture and that this loss gives them less power and agency in their own community of elders and perhaps also in their own minds, as without stories of Puerto Rico, they cannot imagine and process the place they are from. Gautier’s masterful portrayal of a variety of characters and their different reactions to the loss of cultural history and the language that goes with it keeps the reader from pigeonholing or stereotyping this younger generation as having one single reaction. People are far too complex for that and reactions range from neutral all the way to Esteban’s abandonment of his son and family. There is, however, always an element of something lost, even if it is only a loss of ability to communicate well with the oldest generation and a loss of historical imagination. Power and agency lie in having a past and understanding cultural history while also moving toward a desired future and erasing a culture completely through total assimilation shows itself to be emotionally harmful to characters like Rosa, Esteban, “Nena,” and “Nieta,” although their responses to that erasure vary richly, emphasizing the rich diversity of even similar human experience.
All quotes from
Gautier, Amina. Now We Will Be Happy. University of Nebraska Press, 2014.