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The House on the Lagoon
By Rosario Ferre

Chapter One: Buenaventura's Freshwater Spring

When Buenaventura Mendizabal, Quintin's father, arrived on the island, he built himself a wooden cottage on the far side of Alamares Lagoon, a forgotten stretch of land that had been only partially cleared of wild vines and thickets. There was a spring nearby which the residents of the area had once used. A stone fountain built around it had been maintained by a caretaker, since it was considered public property. In recent years, however, people had forgotten all about it. The caretaker, an arthritic old man who lived next to the spring, had stopped keeping it up, and soon the mangrove swamp had enveloped it completely.

Half a kilometer down the beach stood the beautiful houses of Alamares, one of the most exclusive suburbs of San Juan. Alamares stood on a strip of land crossed by a palm-crested avenue - Ponce de Leon Avenue - with water on either side: the Atlantic Ocean to the north, and Alamares Lagoon to the south. The more public side of the avenue looked out to the Atlantic, where the surf was always swelling and battering the sand dunes; and the more private one opened onto the quiet beach of the lagoon. This beach ended in a huge mangrove swamp, and only the tip of it was visible from Alamares. When he moved to the area, Buenaventura built a modest cottage precisely at this site, where the mangrove swamp met the private beach of the lagoon.

The swamp was a mysterious place, full of exotic wildlife and strange botanical specimens, with creatures both amphibious and terrestrial. The mangroves had bushy tops with all sorts of birds nesting in them. The white heron roosted there, and at sundown turned the branches of the trees a ghostly white, as if a snowstorm had just blown through. Albatross were often seen gliding over the swamp, looking for a safe place to spend the night, and from time to time one could even see a tiger-eyed guaraguao, the nearly extinct local eagle, perched on one of its branches. But the mangroves were also aquatic, and their roots spread an intricate maze over the water. Inside this labyrinth of knots and sinews a whole universe of mollusks, crustaceans, and fish proliferated freely, half immersed in the mud, half encrusted in the mossy cartilage of the wood.

It was a strange territory to navigate in, and although several wide channels crossed it from end to end, if one were to get lost in its tangle, there was only a slim chance of finding one's way out. Following the waterways, one came eventually to Morass Lagoon - thus named by the Spanish explorers and later renamed Molasses Lagoon by the slum's inhabitants - and after crossing it would finally end up in Lucumi Beach. A sugar mill, the Central Oromiel, had been established on the lagoon's shores and emptied the foul-smelling sludge from its rum distillery into its quiet waters, turning the lagoon into a quagmire. The sugar mill had closed down at the beginning of the twentieth century, but the waters were still contaminated. Many of the city's sewers emptied into it; it was cheaper to get rid of raw sewage that way than pollute the white sand beaches, which tourists had begun to visit. On the shores of Morass Lagoon was one of the city's worst slums, Las Minas. Most of the servants who worked in the houses of the elegant suburb of Alamares lived there, and frequently crossed the intricate waterways of the mangrove swamp in their rowboats.

Ponce de Leon Avenue, the capital's longest boulevard, began in the Old City, cut straight across Puerta de Tierra, and converged into Alamares, before losing itself in the distance as it penetrated the country's interior. When Buenaventura moved into the area there were still a good number of old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages driving by, as well as fashionable Stutz Bear Cats, Packards, and Silver Clouds belonging to the affluent residents. Everyone knew everyone else in Alamares and waved cheerfully from their motor seats, dressed in white cotton jackets to keep off the dust from the road and wearing rubber-rimmed goggles that made them look like owls.

In the afternoon, when nannies came out to take their charges for a walk, they always preferred to stroll down the sidewalk of Ponce de Leon Avenue, where the wind from the ocean playfully pulled at their starched aprons and coifs. There the Atlantic broke in long blue waves over the bathers, who had to swim energetically to keep their heads above the crests of the waves. The nannies felt secure and invigorated. But when they walked down the quiet beach path which bordered Alamares Lagoon, they insisted they could hear strange moans coming from the nearby swamp that reminded them, they said, of things dying or being born. Once the sun began to go down, mysterious lights sometimes glowed through the bushes; crabs and lizards crept through the undergrowth. For this reason no one walked in the direction of Buenaventura's half-hidden cottage at the end of the lagoon at dusk.

One day the caretaker of the spring was found dead, lying by the rim of the fountain, from a mysterious blow to the head. A small item appeared in the morning papers. but nobody paid much attention, and the event was soon forgotten. The residents of Alamares didn't need water from the spring any longer, since they were connected to the city's aqueduct. Soon after that, Buenaventura moved to the caretaker's house and nobody seemed to mind. He cleared the spring of undergrowth and put it back in use. Afterward, Buenaventura married Rebecca Arrigoitia and took her to live with him on the shores of Alamares Lagoon.

The caretaker's fate was a stroke of good luck for Buenaventura. Since the outbreak of the First World War, San Juan Bay had been filled with merchant marine ships, as well as navy destroyers that would sail past the looming stone walls of San Felipe del Morro, the Old City's largest medieval fort, crowned with Spanish cast-iron cannons, to anchor not far from Alamares Lagoon. There were so many ships that the municipal aqueduct could not supply fresh water for all of them, and before long the captains of the Spanish merchant ships, like the Virgen de Purrua and the Virgen de Altagracia, came knocking at Buenaventura's door to ask if he could provide them with fresh water from his spring. Buenaventura felt it his duty to oblige and he did all he could to accommodate them. There was no other well for twenty miles around, and Spanish ships were always left for last, since government officials in the city were understandably partial to serving those merchant ships which sailed under the American flag. Yet, despite the increasing American influence, there was always a lively market for Spanish foods on the island: most well-to-do people favored the paella valenciana, Segovian sobreasada, ensaimadas from Mallorca, and other such tasty dishes over American-style food. Trade with Spain was impossible to eliminate completely.

Buenaventura was, above all, a good Spaniard, and he never pressed his countrymen to pay cash for his services. He preferred to exchange his water casks for a few cases of the Riojas and Logronos which the Spanish captains brought him. In turn, he would sell them to his customers in the city at a favorable price. Soon after he arrived on the island, he proved so successful at this friendly bartering that he built a small warehouse next to his spring. There he stored his wines; the ruby-red hams he began to import from Valdeverdeja, his hometown; the ivory-white asparagus from Aranjuez; the honeyed nougats and marzipans from Jijona; and the exquisite Moorish olives from Seville. He brought most of his goods into the island illegally in flat, covered barges that navigated through the mangrove swamp. The barges would load their merchandise off the deserted coves of Lucumi Beach, where the Spanish merchant ships arriving from Europe made discreet stops before going on to the port of San Juan. Buenaventura

Arrives on the Island

When Buenaventura arrived on the island in the Virgen de Covadonga, he was twenty-three years old and without a cent to his name. An orphan since he had turned fifteen, he was raised in Spain by two maiden aunts, who set great store by his good looks. He was six feet tall, tan-skinned and dark-haired, and had eyes so blue they made you want to sail out to sea every time you looked at them. Quintin told me the story of his arrival when we were first engaged to be married, and many years later he repeated it from time to time for our two boys, Manuel and Willie, to remind them of who they were and where they came from.

All during his trip across the Atlantic, Buenaventura had wondered what the island of Puerto Rico would be like. He had read something about the history of the Caribbean before setting sail from Cadiz, but he had also learned much of it firsthand. The Spanish-American War, which had ended nineteen years before, was still fresh in the mind of many Spaniards. He knew his country had fought tooth and nail to keep Cuba the last jewel in the crown of the Spanish empire. After the Seven Years' War, in 1763, Spain had traded Florida for Cuba to the British. Later, thousands of Buenaventura's countrymen had died at Punta Brava, Dos Rios, Camaguey, shot down in bloody combat by Cuban rebels during the Revolution. But when Spain lost the Spaniards-American War, it simply let Puerto Rico go. Was the island too poor and not worth fighting for, Buenaventura asked himself. Or was Spain just too exhausted to go on fighting?

Buenaventura landed in the port of San Juan on July. 4, 1917, the same day President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act, which granted us American citizenship. Luis Munoz Rivera. the bill's chief proponent and our Resident Commissioner, had died the year before and President Wilson, in deference to his memory, had signed the new bill with the Resident Commissioner's gold pen. Munoz Rivera was a poet as well as a statesman, and like many of the island's politicians at the time, he juggled American interests with nationalist conceits, fighting for Puerto Rico's independence on the sly.

As Buenaventura's ship dropped anchor in the harbor, the festivities celebrating our brand-new American citizenship were going full blast. Now each of us would have the right to an American passport, a talisman so powerful it opened doors all over the world. For nineteen years, since the Americans had landed on the coast of Guanica in 1898, we had lived in a political limbo. Spain had given us our autonomy six months before the Americans arrived, but we were never granted Puerto Rican citizenship. We still traveled with a Spanish passport, and lost it at the end of the Spanish-American War. A new document had not been issued, and for a while we were citizens of nowhere at all.

Not to be citizens of any country, however insignificant, was uncomfortable enough. Then we were told we couldn't travel anywhere. The greater part of our island's bourgeoisie consisted of seafaring immigrants, people from the Canary Islands. the Balearics, and Corsica, as well as from mainland Spain and France. Some had come to the island from Venezuela, and others from neighboring Caribbean islands, fleeing the wars of independence, which inevitably brought ruin - if not death - to the well-to-do settlers. They were used to traveling freely to and from the Continent, migrating with the seasons. Travel was imperative to establishing stable commercial relations with business partners. Not having a passport meant growing poorer every year.

For this reason, our brand-new American citizenship was hailed as a godsend, and a first-class celebration was in order. We would now have a definite identification with the most powerful country in the world, and the golden eagle would be stamped on the cover of our passport. Henceforth, we would cherish it as our magic shield: we could travel anywhere, no matter how far or exotic our destination; we had the inalienable right to political asylum at the local American Embassy; and the American ambassador would be our civil servant.

Buenaventura disembarked from the Virgen de Covadonga and found lodging near the wharf where the ship had docked. Don Miguel Santiesteban, a longtime friend of his family who had immigrated from Extremadura some years before, owned a warehouse at La Puntilla, the harbor area where most of the merchants' depots were. Buenaventura dropped off his satchel, put on his black sombrero Cordobes, and walked up the street to where the festivities were in full swing.

The heat was stifling, as suicidal pelicans nosedived into the molten steel of the bay. Buenaventura walked along the harbor, admiring the Mississippi and the Virginia, steamships anchored at the dock, decorated with streamers flapping gaily in the wind. He passed the new Federal Post Office and admired the impressive pink Federal Customs House. A handsome new building, it had guava-colored pinnacles on the roof and garlands of ceramic grape-fruits and pineapples decorating the windowsills. Near the Customs House was the National City Bank, which reminded him of a Corinthian temple. Several gaily painted pushcarts were parked under the huge laurel tree in the plaza, selling "hot dogs," a snack which was evidently very popular because the line of people went around the Post Office building. Buenaventura asked what "hot dog" meant and burst out laughing when he was told. He bought one and it didn't taste like dog meat at all; it reminded him, instead, of a cross between salami and a German wiener. Another vendor sold beer from a barrel, but it was warm and he couldn't swallow it. He would have given anything for a glass of red wine from Valdeverdeja. He settled for a glass of fresh sugarcane juice, which he found delicious.

As he walked on, the Atlantic glimmered at the end of the street like a jewel. He felt as if he were still on deck; the road was paved with large polished blue bricks, and for a moment it seemed to be rocking gently under his feet. A huge crowd gathered on the sidewalk and he stood on a corner to watch the Fourth of July parade go by. A lady standing near him, wearing a starched white cap with a red cross sewn on it, gave him a small American flag. "You must wave it above your head when Governor Yager arrives," she said to him, "and call out 'God Bless America' as he rides by in his open convertible." He took the flag and thanked her, doffing his hat.

Nearby was the new capitol - still under construction - the dome of which was to be "an exact copy of the one Thomas Jefferson built at Monticello," as someone proudly told him on the street. He looked at the corner sign and noticed that the avenue was named after Juan Ponce de Leon, one of the Spanish Conquistadors, and his heart skipped a beat. Several floats went by, pulled by army mules and covered from top to bottom with American flags. From them waved a chorus of beautiful girls with red, white, and blue sashes draped across their chests - the names of the States of the Union written in glittering silver dust.

A mob of barefoot children stood cheering on the sidewalk; they were brought there from the public elementary school by the superintendent, who was dressed in black and carried a bowler hat in his hand. It was the first public school on the island, a passerby confided to Buenaventura, completely funded by the American government. Every time a float went by, the children cheered and waved their flags spiritedly, but they shouted the most when they saw Uncle Sam walk by on stilts, wearing long silk pants with red, white, and blue stripes on them, his top hat aglitter with silver stars. He threw handfuls of brand-new pennies at the crowd, and they gleamed on the ground like gold.

Buenaventura observed everything around him with a keen eye. He had come to the island to stay, and any knowledge about his new situation would help him get settled. He noticed that the people sitting on the dais, at the foot of the unfinished capitol, and the soldiers marching down the avenue were foreigners. Most of them were blond, tall, and well-built, whereas the natives were of sallow complexion, medium height, and a delicate frame. The well-to-do had parked their open carriages and motors on the side of the avenue and were watching the parade from the comfort of their leather seats, sitting under opened parasols. They were fashionably dressed, the men in dark cloth coats and the women in white cotton percale, with intricate lace frills at the neck and sleeves. The people standing on the sidewalk looked thin and pale, as if they rarely had three meals a day. But they were in good spirits. Most of them were barefoot and wore straw hats on their heads, with the fringe turned down to shade their faces from the blazing sun.

A tall man with a large mustache, wearing a tuxedo and top hat, was sitting next to a large-bosomed lady carrying a wide-brimmed hat with a silk cabbage rose pinned on the side. Buenaventura found out from his chatty neighbor on the sidewalk that they were the governor and his wife. A detachment of cadets marched behind the Marine band, wearing red caps with patent-leather visors and carrying their rifles on their right shoulders. They marched down Ponce de Leon Avenue to the beat of Sousa's Semper Fidelis. Buenaventura liked the music immensely; he found it so inspiring he almost went two-stepping along behind them. Any nation that marched to that kind of music was bound to be optimistic, he thought. He would like very much to belong to it. The scathing heat, the screaming children-none of it would matter as long as he could be part of the brave and the free.

His native land was very different. Spain was a decaying country; its buildings were crumbling with age and everything seemed outdated. In Valdeverdeja, water was still sold house to house from earthenware jars hauled by mules, and the villagers went around in two-wheeled carts pulled by donkeys. It seemed to him that his countrymen had been disenchanted with the world from the time of Segismundo, Calderon de la Barca's hero, and that skepticism had sapped their spirits. They didn't believe in anything anymore-not in the values of patriotism, not in the dogmas of faith. Religion was no more than a convention of respectability. But here the young men were full of spirit as they marched down the avenue; he could see it in their eyes, which shone with enthusiasm every time the cry "God bless America and America will bless you!" was heard from one of the bystanders.

Buenaventura was still standing there watching the parade when someone announced through a loudspeaker that all citizens over twenty-one were expected to sign up as volunteers in the U.S. Army. Tables would be set up at the end of Ponce de Leon Avenue once the festivities were over. Suddenly people began to run here and there, calling to one another excitedly. Buenaventura thought that, despite all the hoopla about the new citizenship, the natives wouldn't risk their skins for it, and would run home and hide under the bed. But the reverse happened. In no time at all, there was a line of several dozen young men eagerly waiting to sign up beside Uncle Sam's portrait, and in less than three hours the quotas were filled.

"They must have good reason to leave. I'm beginning to suspect famine on this island has been even worse than in Valdeverdeja," he wrote to a friend in a letter he sent home the next day. "I'm amazed at the eagerness with which the young men of San Juan lined up to board the Buford, the military transport ship anchored at the wharf. In Extremadura it's not surprising if people want to sign up in the Spanish Navy. Land there is dried-up leather, and everyone wants to leave. But this place is as green as the Garden of Eden, and no one can go hungry. One has only to squat by the roadside and shit a few guava' seeds, and in no time a full-blown tree is growing there, laden with fruit and flowers. Puerto Rico must have been a miser's paradise in days gone by, and who knows but it may still be so today."

Buenaventura had acquired an accountant's certificate in Spain, but it didn't do him much good here, because it didn't conform to federal standards. It was proof of his experience, though, and he went searching for work in the city's commercial district with his certificate in his pocket. As he passed by the wharf, he saw a ship loaded with casks of rum which were being thrown overboard by the crew in view of a group of government officials. He asked what they were doing and they said the cargo's owner was abiding by the Dry Law, which had just been imposed on the island. Buenaventura marveled that the islanders should want so fervently to be good American citizens. They had been drinking rum practically from the cradle, and he didn't see how giving up liquor was going to make them better citizens.

Farther down the street, he came to an open circular building, a wooden arena with bleachers all around, where a cockfight was about to take place. People were placing bets and yelling, ready to pit two cocks against each other. Two men blew mouthfuls of rum into the birds' beaks to make them more aggressive, and everyone was drinking openly. Apparently, rum was not forbidden at cockfights. The men were affixing razor blades to the spurs of the struggling fowl and they glinted in the sun like tiny scythes.

Buenaventura had seen plenty of bullfights in Valdeverdeja. But when the men let the cocks loose and one of them in a minute trailed its innards in the sawdust, he suddenly felt like vomiting and had to leave. That evening, when he arrived at his lodgings. he wrote another long letter to his friend back in Extremadura. "Here islanders have kept many African rites alive. It's going to be difficult to teach the Congolese and Yorubas the good manners of the Mayflower."

To a cousin in Madrid he remarked: "Soon this place will be a fakir's paradise, where everybody will live on air. The present war in Europe has made the economy more precarious, but the main concern of the islanders is to prove to the United States that they can be good American citizens. Their most popular refrain at present is 'Food can be as effective as bullets.' They have tightened their belts dramatically, cutting down on their intake of flour, sugar, rice? and milk, and donated the proceeds to the troops fighting overseas, so that American soldiers will be better fed.

"The sale of Liberty Bonds has been extraordinarily successful, and even public-school children have bought some of them with their penny savings. Although hungry and often dressed in rags, these islanders have managed to purchase twelve thousand three hundred and eighty-three dollars in bonds, their contribution to the defense of the powerful nation that has adopted them. Sometimes they're so generous they remind me of Don Quixote."

© 1995 Rosario Ferre

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