San Juan: Memoir of a City

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San Juan: Memoir of a City conducts readers through Puerto Rico's capital, guided by one of its most graceful and reflective writers, Edgardo Rodriguez Julia. No mere sightseeing tour, this is culture through immersion, a circuit of San Juan's historical and intellectual vistas as well as its architecture. In the allusive cityspace he recreates, Rodriguez Julia invokes the ghosts of his childhood, of San Juan's elder literati, and of characters from his own novels. On the most tangible level, the city is a place of cabarets and cockfighting clubs, flaneurs and beach bums, smoke-filled bars and honking automobiles. Poised between a colonial past and a commercial future, the San Juan he portrays feels at times perilously close to the pitfalls of modernization. Tenement houses and fading mansions yield to strip malls and Tastee Freezes; asphalt hems in jacarandas and palm trees. "In Puerto Rico," he muses, "life is not simply cruel, it is also busy erasing our tracks." Through this book-available here in English for the first time-Rodriguez Julia resists that erasure, thoughtfully etching a palimpsest that preserves images of the city where he grew up and rejoicing in the one where he still lives.

About the Author:
Edgardo Rodriguez Julia taught literature and creative writing at the University of Puerto Rico

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“To read San Juan: Memoir of a City is to trace and retrace the contours of a lived space, of neighborhoods populated by fascinating real and imaginary characters, of a centuries-old history radically transformed in the last sixty to seventy years.”—Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, University of Michigan

“An elegant pirouette through civic as well as personal history.”—Antonio Skármeta, from the foreword

“Detailed with a vibrant nostalgia . . . . This book is filled with insights into the dramatic changes he experienced as Puerto Rico moved from an agrarian society to an industrialized modern economy.”—Gustavo A. Mellander, Hispanic Outlook

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780299203740
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Publication date: 5/24/2007
  • Series: THE AMERICAS Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 188
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Puerto Rico. Among his many books are La renuncia del héroe Baltasar (1974, translated into English in 1997 as The Renunciation), El entierro de Cortijo (1983, published in a bilingual edition in 2004 as Cortijo’s Wake), La noche oscura del Niño Avilés (1984), and Sol de medianoche (1999).

Peter Grandbois is assistant professor of English at California State University, Sacramento.

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Read an Excerpt

San Juan

Memoir of a City

By Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá
The University of Wisconsin Press
Copyright © 2005

Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-20374-0

Chapter One Ubi Sunt

The landscape of my childhood has disappeared and also that of my adolescence. In Puerto Rico, life is not simply cruel, it is also busy erasing our tracks, our footprints, besieging our memory. The first tyranny is part of the human condition, the second is a passion uniquely Puerto Rican.

The house I grew up in facing the Plaza de Aguas Buenas, now rechristened-take a guess-the "Plaza Luis A. Ferré," disappeared in the seventies. That house-with its corrugated tin roof and the long gallery we called el martillo (the hammer), the downstairs of which was occupied or not depending upon our business fortunes and the whims of my grandmother Ruperta, and the second floor dedicated to our living quarters, with the ausubo posts and the elegant wooden framework, and the roof that had to be replaced because of the Santa Clara winds-all of it was destroyed by the time Fania salsa was born at the Cheetah Club in New York.

The road from Aguas Buenas to Caguas, one of the most beautiful in the country, shaded by the thick canopy of flamboyanes and jacaranda trees as you travel from town to town, has also disappeared. I particularly loved driving up and down that hilly road-the genital, almost sexual, sensation of it-and the anticipation of glimpsing the mirages, the images of rivers, creeks and lagoons flowing over the pavement. Originally, sugar cane covered the countryside; in the sixties, cattle grazed on the land. My mother-who knew everything about birds-would tell me of the friendship between the herons and the cattle. Today, after passing what was once called la cantera (the quarry), we recognize, in the distant Valley of Turabo, a housing development built by Levitt & Sons that reaches almost to Caguas. Time's wounds run deep through the landscape of my youth. A four-lane highway stretches across the land like an elongated basketball court, replacing the old road and its canopy of flamboyanes. It is unlikely the traffic between Aguas Buenas and Caguas merited such an autobahn. The narrow, little bridge spanning the ravine in La Union is also gone. Whenever I crossed it, I knew that I was near Aguas Buenas or Caguas, depending on which way I was going. In the twenties, the bridge did not yet exist. The few cars-one of them my grandfather's-traveling between the two towns crossed over dried riverbeds, and during the rising of the river, the people from Aguas Buenas were reminded of their nickname, "The Cripples," as they were cut off from Caguas and didn't attempt to cross the Cañaboncito River. My mother would tell me all this on our way to Caguas, as her humor improved the closer to town we got. The new bridge, a gargantuan structure, has pillars designed to withstand a flood the size of the Danube.

In Caguas, the Plaza Gautier Benítez, the Art Deco movie house, and the Teatro Alcázar still stand. Even the gothic-style parish, the Notre Dame School, and the Ildefonso Solá Morales Park, where Victor Pellot Power ("Vic Power") ruled over first base, are little changed. In 1955, when I was living in Aguas Buenas, Caguas was my Paris, the road between the two towns my Champs Elysées. Sometimes, in the afternoon, my mother celebrated the days she felt free from the grip of oncophobia by treating me to a banana split at the only diner in Caguas's plaza. We would go by carro público.

Not long after, we moved to the avenue of "Progress." It was 1957, and I was eleven. My father, always optimistic and heedless of the dark warnings of my neurasthenic mother, bought a house for eighteen thousand dollars on Avenida 65 de Infantería. There was little traffic, then. Cars passed so infrequently that on weeknights we played baseball and hide-and-seek in the avenue. My father assured us that they would build a frontage road in front of the house to distance us from the deafening road noise when the traffic increased in the years to come. Our home would once again face a quiet street. "It is already in the works," he would say. In any case, the house would appreciate more on the avenue. The "progress" my father believed in demanded such sacrifices from us. My mother's peasant mistrust suspected that such a road would never be built. So it was that our house remained without the famous frontage road, and we lived on the bank of an uncontrollable, savage Progress, a deafening river of cars. And the nights of my asthmatic childhood were assailed by horrific accidents in which gas tanks would explode practically under my window. My mother said that my father had never made a good deal in his life. Today that house is gone. In its place, and stretching almost to the stoplight on the Expreso Trujillo Alto, is Toñito's Auto Parts, specializing in Mazdas. The street running behind this tiny development, called "el Alamein" because it was built after World War II, is still a middle-class residential street, as it was in the fifties. My mother wanted my father to buy a house on that street, probably because she was raised in a small town where the shutters from her balcony opened to the life outside. I lived in that house with the promise of the frontage road until I was twenty-two.

From my new Champs Elysées on the 65 de Infantería, only the south and east sides of the San José Preparatory School I once attended are now visible, rising above the Buen Consejo neighborhood. The noble building in which I studied was designed by Rafael Carmoega, an unjustly forgotten Puerto Rican architect. The 65th Infantry Shopping Center is also still there; in 1957 it had a huge sign that, in keeping with the optimism of the time, proclaimed, Todos. The houses that once lined the avenue-still awaiting that quiet frontage road-are now businesses with such a proliferation of signs that they cancel one another out in their quest for recognition. The old monument to the 65th Infantry Regiment has also disappeared, leaving in its place a statue of a Puerto Rican soldier wearing a winter cloak in the rugged mountains of Korea. The old monument was simple, sober, minimalist, and modern-the bronze cross of Malta in relief, framed in cement. The present one is extravagant, rhetorical, and grotesque in its realism. The original was erected two years after the war, the new one fifty years later. A little higher up, at the traffic light where McDonald's now sits, there used to be a place called Lugo's, where Papo Newman became a man. After all, the Avenida 65 de Infantería was our street.

I live in Guaynabo now. Let's just say my life arced through the University of Puerto Rico and Calle de Diego in the Sabana Llana sector. The University remains, as do the Río Piedras town plaza and the Green Village Condominiums, where I lived for thirty-one years. From my terrace here in Guaynabo, just before dawn, I gaze out at the hills of Jagüeyes and Bayamoncito. It is as if time has reversed, for alongside the walk-up where I live, the Peñagarícano family refuses to sell, stopping the construction of another new and more expensive housing project. They continue to breed cocks, both mañaneros and vespertinos, which crow all day.

From my vantage point, overlooking the hills of Guaynabo and Aguas Buenas, I have a view of the thick forest of palms and meaítos, an African tree that my mother oddly called bucayos. In this forest preserve hemmed in by the suburban landscape, in the trees that almost reach the railing of my balcony, live four magnificent macaws. I don't know whether they are Puerto Rican or exotic. Anyway, as the blondes of Guaynabo say, the birds make quite a fuss when they take flight and are often seen in Torrimar and Garden Hills.

Further down, next to the Peñagarícano family, lived the famous jurist, Don José Trías Monje. His ancestral home, with its swimming pool, has disappeared. As a university student, I used to visit that house, where his son, Arturo Trías, and I discussed poetry and literature. In that area today, they've constructed a walk-up ambitiously named Granada Park.

Though few believe it, Guaynabo has always conjured the literary. José Luis González spent his childhood and adolescence near where I live on the Martínez Nadal Expressway, where the Bellas Artes Center sits today. I know this because in his book La luna no era de queso, the first volume of his incomplete memoirs and one of the best autobiographical novels in Puerto Rican literature, José Luis mentions that he lived very close to the rural residence of Rafael Martínez Nadal. He describes the breeding of the pro statehood leader's fighting cocks, and tells us how he once saw the drunken figure of a young poet arrive at that house, a dabbler in politics who wore a filthy suit and kept his cotton pants up with either a necktie or a rope. Always a good narrator, José Luis concludes that section of his memoir with a description of this eccentric, well-bred youth who by 1940 would transform the country. He never mentions the man's name, identifying him only by his appearance. From the topic of the criollo, cock-breeding Republican, we move to the "Petit Yankeeism" à la Disney World of the Guaynabo mayor, Hector O'Neill, a man who doesn't understand much English besides the "Yield" and "One Way" signs that decorate Guaynabo, city of five stars!

In 1933 Don Rafael Martínez Nadal signed into law what in Governor Gore's time had been relegated to back alleys, and suddenly cockfighting was once again legal in Puerto Rico. The cockfighting club Canta Gallo was built alongside Martínez Nadal's house on the outskirts of Guaynabo, the law signed with a feather pen taken from Martínez Nadal's own illustrious rooster, Justicia. As always with him, it was an irascible act.

As we travel today across San Juan in the northbound lanes, approaching the Bellas Artes Center, we seeMartínez Nadal's house on the left-hand side of the expressway that bears his name, opposite the enormous parking lot for Kmart and Ruby Tuesday. The house has no distinguishing characteristics, except that it is painted white and blue, the colors of his party (the PNP), and indeed it may not be the same one that José Luis knew in his adolescence. It looks like a house from the fifties or sixties, built on the site of the ancestral home. Viaducts and expressways, the many intersections and frontage roads, always render history invisible. Only while walking can memory glean fragments of the past; the speeding car is the enemy of remembrance.

The walk-up where I live is named Lincoln Park. It is located on the site of the old Lincoln Military Academy, which was founded by the infamous Colonel Valdés, self-proclaimed expert in space flight and honorary member of NASA. According to a friend who grew up near here, this area was known as Cuatro Calles because a stretch of the old Bayamón-Guaynabo highway, now Route 833, intersected with the highway to Los Filtros at the foot of the hill called, not surprisingly perhaps, La Lomita. Los Filtros was a filtration plant run by the Aqueducts and Sewer Authority during the forties. Back then it must have been very much on the outskirts of the metropolitan area, at the top of the hill nearest to Guaynabo. You had a view from there of San Juan's coastal plain to the north and of a much more rural Guaynabo than today to the south. It was our Mulholland Drive: the place where we could look out over the growing anthill of lights extending outward from the city below. At the foot of La Lomita district, there is a parking area with a railing made of pipe. I wonder if it was originally conceived as an observation point, a rest stop with a panoramic view. Today, the local truckers stop there to wash and wax their vehicles. On clear days, from the heights of La Lomita, you can glimpse the Capitol and El Morro, Isla Verde beach, Ocean Park, Condado, and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Atop La Lomita sits an abandoned house. Here the view is nearly three hundred and sixty degrees, encompassing San Juan as well as the hills of Guaynabo and Aguas Buenas. The house is boarded up. It was the site of a tragedy. Someone told me it was a suicide, such a profoundly inward act that the beauty of the country can never make up for it. The tragedy of that house would fill a novel.

If the viaducts and expressways prevail, everything will become a frontage road, but not quite like the quiet road my mother wanted, rather that uncomfortable place no one pays attention to. It all becomes phantasmal, set at an angle difficult for the motorist to see. The urgency of the absence assaults us until we slow down. Only on foot can we once again feel its presence.

Where is the little house Juan Antonio Corretjer lived in? In 1966 I visited it for the first time with José María Bulnes. I was young and eager to know the history of Puerto Rican nationalism, honored to meet our national poet. As I remember now, that musty house was right across from the Club Caborrojeño. Constructed in the middle of the forest, the house had sunk somewhat into the hillside. Its tiny terrace, furnished with straw rocking chairs, made it slightly more modest than the house of that other bard from Trujillo Alto, Luis Muñoz Marín.

With my wife, Ilca, driving me, I searched along the stretch of the road that runs from Guaynabo to La Muda but found no sign of the place I remembered from my youth. I got out at a little café and inquired about the Club Caborrojeño. The man was old enough to know, and he was sober, unlike the stoned, glassy-eyed youth sitting on the bench. He told me that the Club Caborrojeño was on the other side, beyond the town, closer to the area of Guaynabo where I live. I returned to my car, Ilca assuring me that the trip was necessary to better know the place where we had lived for more than a year and a half. But my reason for it had to do with memory. In Guaynabo, the rural is always near; the slick, suburban, middle-class Lexus suddenly runs into Barrio Camarones.

My intuition was correct: the Club Caborrojeño sat very near the Martínez Nadal Expressway, cast away on the lip of modernity, though it is near Guaynabo's Bellas Artes Center. The Club has been abandoned, its shining edifice unkempt, paint peeling away. The grounds are in a state somewhere between neglect and sporadic care. Melancholy hovers in the air, the despair of a place that played host to countless parties and is now silent. I approach the man in charge of the property and ask about Juan Antonio Corretjer's house. "The house isn't there anymore," he says with bitterness and irritation. "It was there, where those pipes are ..." Ilca drives the car through an entrance adjacent to the Caborrojeño, and we find ourselves in a stand of undergrowth. Piles of black pipe cover much of the site. One can hear the incessant buzzing of the nearby Martínez Nadal Expressway. An abandoned and partially destroyed warehouse, its sign for "Met Imports" peeling away, adds to the desolation and ugliness of the place. Nothing remains of the little woods where I met that poet almost forty years ago. If the Caborrojeño, with its sculpture of the revolutionary Betances, has become such a melancholic place, like the Hotel Casino de la Selva when I visited it on my literary pilgrimage to Cuernavaca in search of scenes from Lowry's Under the Volcano, then Corretjer's memory obliges us to despair. Because the house of the poet is sacred ground, only there does the bewildered voice remain, sheltering the tribe.

In that house in the forest, I listened to the poet's wisdom, his apocalyptic vision, and many anecdotes about Albizu Campos and nationalism. Some of the stories were humorous, like the one about October 30, 1950, during the height of the Nationalist revolt, when he went to the store on the Guaynabo town square to buy milk, and how he walked up and down the plaza carrying the two jugs of milk so that no one would think he was involved in the conspiracy. To me, it seemed like something out of a Western, or something anticipating García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. There, surprised many times by my adolescent rashness, his Mephistophelean eyebrows would arch emphatically. On his terrace, I spoke with him about how food stamps were a deathblow to independence. When I said this, Corretjer arched his eyebrows even more. I remember when we received Carmín Pérez the week after she was released from prison. That rainy night Corretjer's wife, Doña Consuelo Lee, prepared a Cuban style mofongo, a "fufú," which Carmín ate cautiously, not yet used to life outside the prison walls.


Excerpted from San Juan by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá Copyright © 2005 by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Maps     xi
Foreword     xiii
Ubi Sunt     5
Avenida del Progreso, My Champs Elysees     15
A Long and Caribbean Street     26
In Search of the City of Letters     33
Toward the Martin Pena Canal     47
Santurce, Our Simulacrum of the Big City     52
Road to the Bohemian Lights     63
La Puerta de Tierra     84
A Clear Space, a Vigil for Poets     89
From Borinquen Park It Is One Step to Villa Palmeras     104
The Arc of Isla Verde     119
The City and the Forest     137
The Bridge     142
Glossary of Names     145
Glossary of Terms     159
Works Cited     165
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