The bilingual story of a jíbara, country girl, of mixed ancestry growing up in 1930s Puerto Rico.
“Hygiene, Mami,” Juanita says to her mother late in de Monteflores’ (Possessions, 2009, etc.) novel. “It’s all about hygiene.” When the book begins, it’s 1928 and Juanita is a dark-skinned 10-year-old who has been learning about llermes, or germs, in her one-room schoolhouse. That day, a hurricane hits Puerto Rico, razing her tin-roofed home and forcing her mother to move them to the capital to find work. But before the storm hit, the English teacher praised Juanita for her quick grasp of meaning, and the girl decided “then and there that Misi Davis was nice and that she liked school very much.” Two years later, Juanita is living in a San Juan slum and attending a Catholic school as a charity student. She has befriended fair-skinned, well-to-do Clara, after having met her in the schoolyard when a ball went over the fence that separates the poor students from the regular ones. Readers follow the friends’ progress through predictably different lives. Clara marries a man from her own social circle—with devastating consequences—while Juanita remains single, goes to university on scholarship and becomes involved with the island’s Popular Democratic Party. Along the way, de Monteflores is heavy-handedly didactic about issues of class and gender. This is mitigated, however, by the skillful way in which she describes heart-rending poverty without sentimentality from the point of view of a child who has never known anything else. The author also excels at rendering the thick accents of both Spanish and English speakers when trying to communicate using each other’s language, a flair that is likely to trigger knowing laughter from bilingual readers.
An uneven effort still worth the read.