The Meaning of Consuelo

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The Signe family is blessed with two daughters. Consuelo, the elder, is thought of as pensive and book-loving, the serious child-la niña seria-while Mili, her younger sister, is seen as vivacious, a ray of tropical sunshine. Two daughters: one dark, one light; one to offer comfort and consolation, the other to charm and delight. But, for all the joy both girls should bring, something is not right in this Puerto Rican family; a tragedia is developing, like a tumor, at its core.


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The Signe family is blessed with two daughters. Consuelo, the elder, is thought of as pensive and book-loving, the serious child-la niña seria-while Mili, her younger sister, is seen as vivacious, a ray of tropical sunshine. Two daughters: one dark, one light; one to offer comfort and consolation, the other to charm and delight. But, for all the joy both girls should bring, something is not right in this Puerto Rican family; a tragedia is developing, like a tumor, at its core.

In this fierce, funny, and sometimes startling novel, we follow a young woman's quest to negotiate her own terms of survival within the confines of her culture and her family.


"Judith Ortiz Cofer has created a character who takes us by the hand on a journey of self-discovery. She reminds readers young and old never to forget our own responsibilities, and to enjoy life with all its joys and sorrows."--Bessy Reyna, MultiCultural Review

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Judith Ortiz Cofer opens for us a window of understanding into the riches of Puerto Rican culture. Her brave, gritty narrator, Consuelo . . . is the perfect tour guide through this compelling, deeply honest novel about the pain of family secrets.--Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness

"A bittersweet tale of the price one pays to reinvent the story handed down by one's antepasados and familia. Consuelo is both herself and every mujer, and her story her own and that of her island, torn between self-discovery and safety."--Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

"Funny and affecting, this rite of passage novel celebrates familia y cultura, and artful ways to escape them unscathed. Judith Ortiz Cofer is one of our most gifted authors."--Latina

The Washington Post
Judith Ortiz Cofer's light-hearted bildungsroman, The Meaning of Consuelo, casts an affectionate glance at a young woman's coming-of-age in Puerto Rico. Set in San Juan in the 1950s, the novel wrestles with the demons and household saints that accompany Consuelo Signe on her journey to maturity. It is a rite of passage played out against the background of a culturally undesirable change. — Wendy Gimbel
Publishers Weekly
Puerto Rican novelist, essayist and poet Cofer (The Latin Deli, etc.) chronicles the childhood and young adulthood of Consuelo, a bookish girl growing up in a San Juan suburb in the 1950s. Cofer's novel is richly descriptive of the shifting mores of Puerto Rican culture and the historical particularities of the era (especially the growing American presence on the Caribbean island), but its deeper elements-Consuelo's growth into maturity; her sister's developing schizophrenia; and the demise of her parents' marriage-lack originality and are plagued by an overabundance of foreshadowing. Consuelo, her name signifying comfort and consolation, looks out for her younger sister, Mili, whose name derives from the word for miracle. The novel begins on a foreboding note: the local transvestite, Maria Sereno, interrupts a casual game of catch between the girls. They scamper into the house, scolded by their mother: "We do not associate in public with people like Maria Sereno." Life grows steadily gloomier for Consuelo: she botches her one high school romance; her beloved gay cousin, Patricio, moves to Nueva York; Mili starts acting strangely, singing to herself and speaking in tongues; and her father has an affair with a lounge singer at the hotel where he works. Cofer relies heavily on signposting, with lines like "It would be a while before we came to understand the true meaning of the word tragedia," which slow the narrative. Precise, near-sociological glimpses of island life in the 1950s-the introduction of mahones, or jeans; GI loans and new housing developments; the reassuring taste of sugar cane-add substance, but this is a plodding, overly deliberate effort. Agent, Liz Darhansoff. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Consuelo Signe is growing up in Puerto Rico during the fifties when Operation Bootstrap changed lives forever. The older daughter whose name means comfort and consolation, Consuelo takes seriously her role as guardian of her younger sister, Mili, whose full name Milagros means miracles. Their father is a proponent of all things American, whereas their mother loves the tropical wild Puerto Rico that is vanishing. As the girls mature, Consuelo continues to look after high-strung, impulsive Mili; witnesses her mother's attempts to deal with their father's affair; and observes the roles of men, women, and children in families of gente decente or decent people. She sees the scandal when her beloved cousin becomes an outsider because of his homosexuality and the hypocrisy of the women's treatment of a cross-dressing neighbor manicurist. After Mili's behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, she is diagnosed as schizophrenic. Consuelo loses her virginity on her fifteenth birthday, and the boy brags about his conquest at school. But Consuelo refuses to be humiliated, shows her strength as a woman, and gains the respect of her fellow students. It is decided that the family will move to New York in the hope of finding a better life, but on the eve of their departure, Mili drowns and her body is never found. Their mother returns to her parents' home, their father walks continually along the beaches searching for Mili, and Consuelo goes to meet her future in New York. Although not written specifically for younger readers, this coming-of-age story will expand readers' awareness of Puerto Rican history and culture and will provide an opportunity to view life from a young Latina's point of view. Themes ofloss, family, relationships, and culture mingle in this complex, engaging story, which mature teens will relate to and enjoy. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2003, Farrar Straus Giroux, 200p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Sherry York
Library Journal
A poet, essayist, and novelist (e.g., The Latin Deli), Ortiz Cofer here crafts a story at once grim and humorous. Consuelo lives with her family in 1950s San Juan, Puerto Rico, a time of expanding American influence. As her name suggests, bookish Consuelo is expected to offer consolation to others (younger sister Mili is always the center of attention). The older she gets, the more responsibility she must shoulder, first for her sister, tragically afflicted with schizophrenia, and then for her parents' shattered marriage. Her only solace is her best friend, gay cousin Patricio, who teaches her the value of imagination before escaping the confines of family for New York. Eventually, Consuelo follows, but the reader doesn't breathe a sigh of relief-there has been too much tragedy. Throughout, the beautiful language makes it clear that Ortiz Cofer is a poet; the descriptions of her native Puerto Rico are rich and layered. Unfortunately, the plot drags a bit, and Mili works less well as a character than Consuelo, whose growth is interesting to watch. The best parts are perhaps the lighter, more humorous details-e.g., the father's obsession with modern American inventions. Recommended for larger public libraries.-Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The young narrator and her native Puerto Rico go through major transitions, in this reflective second novel by Cofer (The Line of the Sun, 1989; stories: The Year of Our Revolution, 1998, etc.). The rules are very clear in the 1950s, Consuelo shows us as she describes a neighborhood transvestite who is good enough to come to the back door and do her mother's nails, but "in public we were to pretend we didn't know him." He's a fulano (outsider), and though our narrator is expected to live up to her name and be a consolation to her parents, quietly rebellious Consuelo fears her feelings might also place her outside the strict local order. Her father, maintenance engineer at a San Juan hotel, worships everything American and modern; her mother clings to island traditions. Her younger sister Mili (short for Milagros, "miracle") is cheerful and light where Consuelo is serious and dark, but Mili's increasing strangeness is only one of the developments bringing new tensions to the family. "My cousins and I were speaking a language that separated our world from that of our parents," Consuelo writes, "a slang peppered with terms like 'rock-and-roll' that had no direct equivalent in our native tongue." When Consuelo sleeps with a boy who tells all his friends, she doesn't die of shame but finds the strength to reject his judgment: "I was not like my mother who had to get the permission of all her relatives and ancestors before making any decisions about her life." She's guided by her cousin Patricio, who finds freedom in New York, and by Lucila, a fellow student from the slums who is everything the gente decente in Consuelo's family scorn. Cofer's luminous prose anatomizes both the constrictionnature of traditional Puerto Rican life and its beauty. We understand Consuelo's abiding love for her homeland as well as her need to get away. Perfect for girls growing out of YA titles, and adults will also savor this lovely coming-of-age tale for its elegant language and nuanced but definite judgments about manners and morals. Agent: Liz Darhansoff
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807083871
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Series: Bluestreak Series
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 626,256
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Ortiz Cofer was born in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, and grew up on the island and in Paterson, New Jersey, before her family moved to Georgia. Ortiz Cofer is the author of ten books, including The Line of the Sun, The Latin Deli, and Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood, and her work has been published in numerous anthologies. Her book An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio has received several distinctions, including the American Library Association REFORMA Pura Belpré Honor Award, and it was also named a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
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Read an Excerpt

The Meaning of Consuelo



Copyright © 2003 Judith Ortiz Cofer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0374205094

Chapter One

Fulano (a) n.m.: so-and-so, what's

María Sereno walked in his leisurely way toward the cart selling piragüas that appeared on our street corner every day at noon. The fulano of our neighborhood, María Sereno, born Mario Manuel Santiago Sereno, wore tight red pedal pushers and a man's T-shirt over an obviously empty brassiere. His image contains my earliest understanding of a key phrase in my family's conversations: el fulano or la fulana; used to refer to the outsider, he or she never called by name.

The flip-flops on his big feet made a slapping beat to the subtle back-and-forth swaying of his hips. His black hair was slicked behind his ears, a coquettish curl wrapped around an earlobe. The women hanging clothes in their backyards or taking a break on their porch rockers stared unashamedly at María, smiling in a superior way or raising an eyebrow at one another. The piragüero, a war veteran with a metal leg who sold ices,would sometimes let out a long wolf-whistle as he watched María approach. María Sereno just kept walking regally toward his daily treat of a shaved-ice cone topped with thick, sweet tamarind-and-strawberry syrup, which he would noisily suck on while standing there in front of man, woman, and God. He'd lick it with his long pink tongue. His eyes would be closed in some kind of sugar ecstasy, and then he'd smile enigmatically at no one, in particular-like a Puerto Rican Mona Lisa-and head back to his mother's house where he lived in a room with its own private entrance.

His mother was a widow on a pension and María Sereno was her only child. At the age of twenty-eight, he was still her dependent, since the farthest he would go toward male attire was pedal-pusher pants, which kept him from finding a decent job; any man who hired him would be exposed to ridicule too. He did manage to bring in a little money as a manicurist-a trade at which he excelled. He attended to the hands of women in their own homes, but community rules were strict; María Sereno could never be found in one of our casas decentes by a husband or any other adult male; instead he had to knock by prearrangement at the back door and be willing to fall into deception should one of the men arrive unexpectedly. "He came begging for my old nail polish again, the sinvergüenza," the woman could then say, shaking her head in amused dismay at the disapproving husband or son. "You know how they are. Next he'll want to exchange recipes." And María Sereno would hang his head like a reprimanded child and slink away. That was the deal.

When there were no interruptions by the man of the house, María Sereno would arrange his tools over a black velvet cloth on someone's kitchen table and begin concentrating on the hands of the day. He took pride in his work. My mother was a regular customer, though my sister and I were sworn to secrecy about María Sereno's monthly visits to my mother's kitchen. It was up to me as the oldest to keep Mili, who was only four, from telling. Mili liked María Sereno. She had confessed to me that she wanted to be a nail-painter like him when she grew up.

In public we were to pretend that we didn't know him. But Mili sometimes forgot. That sunny autumn afternoon, Mili and I tossed a rubber ball back and forth across the little square of yard in front of our new, modern cement house that sat on a street planned according to the geometric designs of North American developers. Our yard was precisely the same size and shape as our neighbors' yards, although there were still, as I quickly learned, subtle indicators of privilege. For example, the well-tended roses, the pruned hibiscus hedges of legitimate house owners were missing from our leased space. Our father was a veteran, and we had earned our suburban life, though we did not own our house. My mother did not see any need to tend a garden on land that did not belong to her. Our barren plot let everyone know that we were not setting roots in this place. Therefore, they were hardly obligated to include us in their communal lives. So, it was as a kind of outsider myself that I began to watch the little dramas of the street and learn the language I'd need for the roles that I was soon to play.

From early on I saw María Sereno go through his daily show of defiance, and the women practice their front-yard deceit. Only eight, I did not know duplicity from manners. It was all what you were told to do, what you had to do to be gente decente, decent people, which is what we all thought we were or wanted to be-except for María Sereno. María Sereno strolled past our yard just as Mili missed catching the ball. He stopped in his tracks, hands on hips, and watched us, apparently fascinated with the pink-and-yellow sphere rolling toward him. Then he looked at Mili and raised one of his heavily drawn arched eyebrows-like those of American movie stars-and opened his mouth in mock horror. Mili giggled, apparently as delighted as I was by María Sereno's ability to transform himself from man to woman, the ultimate clown's trick. I caught my breath as I saw him grab the ball with his free hand-he was still holding the snow cone in the other-and take a few steps into our territory.

I knew I was to yell for Mami if anyone violated our family borders in this American-style neighborhood of strangers-thrown together by circumstance rather than by fate or birth-so unlike her pueblo where families and friends lived next to one another. But I froze. Was he friend or foe? He came inside our home often by invitation, though only through the back door. My mother put her beautiful hands into his big ones like she did with Papi-the only two men she touched that way. I stood there frozen in my indecision as María Sereno knelt in front of my little sister, handed her the ball, and, taking her grimy little hand in his, pronounced her nails "Un desastre, mi amor."

Should I have screamed then? We were not to let any man who wasn't in our immediate family of father, grandfathers, and uncles touch us. Women we knew were allowed to caress and kiss us-somehow that was different. But was María Sereno a man or a woman? I could not tell in the bright sunshine of that tropical afternoon. My mother kept saying he had been born a boy. But that was years ago, long before my time. Had he turned into a woman after that?

In total confusion-knowing that we were being spied upon by many eyes up and down our street, by women who would tell Mami that I had let him/her come into our yard and not yelled for her like I had been told to-I turned and dragged Mili kicking and screaming into the house. Gasping, I pushed her toward our mother, who had been mopping the pink tile floor, one of her favorite activities. She mopped daily until she could see her own reflection on the squares imported from Cuba, where Fidel Castro was hiding in the mountains and biding his time before he freed our sister island from its corrupt dictator. She seemed lost in thought, probably daydreaming about that rebel leader whom I had heard her call handsome and muy macho, but now, startled, she let the mop drop. Mili grabbed her waist, screaming that I had hurt her. I was glued to the window facing our yard. I saw that María Sereno had dropped his snow cone on the gravel and was picking up the paper cup. I saw the piragüero's face contorted with laughter, saying things I could not hear. He was slapping his metal leg as he looked this way and that, like he was a ringmaster in a circus making certain both sides of the audience had gotten the clown's joke. María crushed the paper cup and stood up. I could feel my mother close behind me with Mili still wrapped around her middle. María rolled the cup around in his palms like I did when playing with dough, then, glancing to both sides of the street as the piragüero had done, he reached his hand under his T-shirt and stuffed the paper ball inside it. The result was that he looked like he had grown a lumpy little breast, just one. He then began to walk in the slow regal pace that had been interrupted by our game, and healed toward his mother's house at the end of the street.

My mother watched him too. Her quick breathing told me she was gathering her anger; she reminded me of the new vacuum cleaner Papi had recently bought from a door-to-door salesman. It had been a strange purchase made by a man who did not realize that it's neither easy nor necessary to vacuum ceramic tiles, but who was anxious to provide his family with all the latest amenities of city life. He had been too proud to return the purchase and, in the process, to admit his ignorance to another man, who probably knew exactly what he was doing to this poor jibaro.

Mami used the vacuum cleaner on a small rectangular hooked rug just so she could vacuum something and please Papi. The machine always threatened to swallow Mami's little rug in one breath. And that's how Mami seemed to me right then, sucking in her fury, about to blow up. She carried Mili and dragged me into the kitchen.

"Sit down, niña." She ordered me into one of the plastic-covered green metal chairs. All the women we knew had bought them at the Sears store that had just opened in Hato Rey. I sat down and folded my hands on top of the matching green Formica table. I had learned that a submissive posture in the face of parental fury always helped. I started hiccuping a little in preparation for full-fledged sobbing if necessary. I wanted to preserve the tender skin of my calves, which had only recently felt the sting of her new plastic flyswatter, also bought at Sears, a tool she never used on the island's insects, only on her daughter's legs. Mili was staring at me in horror. I knew she had not meant to betray me quite to this extent. El Matamoscas, the evil flyswatter, was about to go after her only sister, her major source of amusement. She started making distress noises too.

But Mami was not going to let our despair spoil her demonstration. "Silencio, both of you." She grabbed the rubber ball, which Mili had been holding like a life preserver to her chest, and, using only her fingertips as if it were covered with slime, Mami dropped it into her shiny aluminum sink, opening the faucet full blast on it. Then she poured disinfecting pine floor cleaner over it. Mili squirmed in her chair, perhaps thinking that Mami intended to do the same to her. My sister was filthy as usual, since she liked playing with the chameleon in our backyard, building modern American-style communities for them out of mud and gravel. Mami sometimes picked her up for a bath with the same expression of disgust on her face as she'd had in handling the ball.

"Now I'm going to tell you this, both of you, but it's up to you, niña, as the oldest, to make sure you don't forget my warning. You are not to talk to that man in public again."

"But Mami ..." I couldn't help myself. As usual, when I heard a contradiction spoken by an adult, I felt the urge to point out the truth: that Maríá Sereno was not a stranger to us. "He does your nails ... he's your friend ..." "How dare you talk back to me, niña? You are an entrometida and a malcriada. Now come here, both of you."

I knew those two words. They were used mainly to indict your own children. The first one meant that even if what I had pointed out was la pura verdad, like we were always supposed to tell our parents, I was still trespassing into adult territory by bringing it up; being a malcriada was even worse. It literally meant that I had not learned better from her; it was an admission of total disappointment in my upbringing. I shuffled over to the sink like a beaten-down prisoner of war, slapping the tile with my flip-flops. Unfortunately, I was wearing nothing but a sundress, which left my skinny legs totally exposed to the bite of the dreaded flyswatter. Mili was now gripped by fear-trembling and uttering choked little sobs. But all Mami did was yank our hands under the stream of lukewarm water and scrub them with Palmolivé soap, which killed almost all germs and bacteria, according to the advertisements in her women's magazines. Palmolivé soap and Jergen's hand cream-the preferred hygienic combination of her house, used both for health and for beauty.

Mami had been seduced by the first advertisements she had seen on television and had remained loyal to the products in the same way her mamá professed blind faith in the power of her herbal medicines, disdaining anything that came in a sealed jar. Mami had a less decipherable list of set-in-store rules about people and relationships that Mili and I were to internalize without question. After we grew up and got married, she assured us, we could make our own rules for our own casas y familias. Until then, she spoke like the Pope, with infallibility. "You never know what you can catch from people like that," she would say. Then she'd send us in to take a shower together. We'd be made to stay indoors the rest of the beautiful sunny day, and play in our room with the Venetian blinds drawn shut to remind us of our lowly status as disobedient children, and of our total dependence on her. Mami was the keeper of the keys to our freedom. To her we owed every privilege, even that of playing in the sun.

That day was no different. "We do not associate in public with people like María Sereno," she announced as she sent us to our room. All afternoon Mili made herself costumes from assorted pieces of our wardrobe-attempting to transform herself into a little María Sereno, stuffing a scarf with socks and tying it around her flat chest, and insisting on painting her nails with the watercolors we were not supposed to play with except under our mother's supervision. Nothing I said made any difference to my sister, who had a way of turning herself into a self-contained, fully automated doll when she wanted to, as unresponsive to others as any stuffed bear on our bed, but manic about the details of her fantasies. Her staged one-girl plays were elaborate-the only element she didn't care about was an audience. These were her fantasies, and she didn't need anyone else to enjoy them. Mostly I picked up after her to keep us both out of trouble. There was no way for any of us to know that Mili's talent for losing herself-as if inside her there was a hole she dove into, like Alice in Wonderland-was also the start of our family's spiraling toward what we would always call la tragedia, the events leading to the terrible day that changed everything for each of us, forever.


Excerpted from The Meaning of Consuelo by JUDITH ORTIZ COFER Copyright © 2003 by Judith Ortiz Cofer. 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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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 25, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This book was truly great.

    This book was truly great.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2010

    The Meaning Of Consuelo.

    The Meaning of Consuelo

    The Meaning of Consuelo, a book written by Judith Ortiz Cofer, gives everybody the opportunity to understand Puerto Rican culture. This amazing novel is narrated by the main character, Consuelo Signe. This novel is about her life, and the certain events lead up to the Signe family's tragedia. I read this book, and really enjoyed it. Judith Ortiz Cofer incorporated a lot of Spanish vocabulary into the book; and the back of the book contains a glossary with the definitions of the vocabulary. There were things that I personally liked about the book, and things that I didn't like. I like how the author talks about Puerto Rico, and explains what the scenery looks like. She also gives a good idea on what the characters look like, and what their personalities are like. One thing that I found interesting was how the author made Consuelo look like the care taker of her younger sister Mili. Since Consuelo's mother asked her to take care of Mili every day, that was all Consuelo ever did except for going to school. In other words, Consuelo didn't really have the social time with her friends that every teenage girl needed. Judith Ortiz Cofer put a lot of effort to make this book very understandable for readers all over the world. I strongly recommend this book to girls, or anyone who likes to read about the cultures of the Hispanic world. The Meaning of Consuelo is definitely a book that everybody should look into reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2007

    The Meaning of Consuelo

    The Meaning Of Consuelo is a book set in Puerto Rico. It follows the life of Consuelo, a young Puerto Rican girl. It starts out when she is eight years old. Consuelo is the main character, she is portrayed as quiet, serious, and calm. She is the complete opposite of her younger sister, Mili, which is pointed out many times throughout the book. It is shown that Mili is favored over Consuelo, because of Mili's outgoing personality. I really enjoyed this book, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a great book. I enjoyed it because you really got a sense of the culture of Puerto Rico.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2005

    Thumbs up!

    This book was very good. I liked how realistic it was. I felt as if I were really in 1950`s PuertoRico. I would of just liked a little more in the ending. But otherwise, great.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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