The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico

by Sarah McCoy
The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico

by Sarah McCoy



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It is 1961 and Puerto Rico is trapped in a tug-of-war between those who want to stay connected to the United States and those who are fighting for independence. For eleven-year-old Verdita Ortiz-Santiago, the struggle for independence is a battle fought much closer to home.

Verdita has always been safe and secure in her sleepy mountain town, far from the excitement of the capital city of San Juan or the glittering shores of the United States, where her older cousin lives. She will be a señorita soon, which, as her mother reminds her, means that she will be expected to cook and clean, go to Mass every day, choose arroz con pollo over hamburguesas, and give up her love for Elvis. And yet, as much as Verdita longs to escape this seemingly inevitable future and become a blond American bombshell, she is still a young girl who is scared by late-night stories of the chupacabra, who wishes her mother would still rub her back and sing her a lullaby, and who is both ashamed and exhilarated by her changing body.

Told in luminous prose spanning two years in Verdita’s life, The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is much more than a story about getting older. In the tradition of The House on Mango Street and Annie John, it is about the struggle to break free from the people who have raised us, and about the difficulties of leaving behind one's homeland for places unknown. At times joyous and at times heartbreaking, Verdita’s story is of a young girl discovering her power and finding the strength to decide what sort of woman she’ll become.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307460080
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 224
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

SARAH MCCOY is the family columnist for Your Health Monthly magazine and has taught writing courses at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and at the University of Texas in El Paso. As a child, she spent much time in Puerto Rico visiting her mother’s family. She lives in El Paso with her husband.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

May 1961
For my eleventh birthday, Papi made piraguas. He left balloons of water in the freezer until they were solid, then peeled the plastic off like bright banana skins. On the veranda, he used his machete to shave the globes into ice chips. Hard bits of cold spit out where the ball and blade met, landing on my arms and legs, cheeks and nose. Papi said it was a Puerto Rican snowfall, and laughed long and deep. Mamá and I did, too. She sat beside me under Papi’s snow until we shivered and held each other close to warm back up.

After the balls were chiseled into a pile of white, we poured passionfruit syrup over it and ate right from the bowl. The sweet flakes made my mouth cold and itchy, and I had to suck my lips to warm my tongue. We couldn’t eat it all, though; it turned to a puddle under the sun. Papi said snow did that, changed into everyday water. I’d never been in a snowfall before. I didn’t know.

That night, the first heat wave of the season swept over the island and nobody could sleep. I lay in bed, the outside
fever making my underwear dig into my skin and itch.

“Papi, tell me a story,” I said. Miserable, I wanted the everyday to shift to dreams.

“You’re too old for stories now. Why don’t I read about Jacob and Isaac?” Mamá liked it best when he read from the Bible at bedtime. She believed it would help me dream good things. Papi took a seat in my bamboo chair. The ceiling fan clicked around- around. “Or maybe Daniel in the lion’s den?” He winked at me.

When I was little, I had a crush on the brave and mighty Daniel who played with lions. Mamá disapproved. She said that it wasn’t right for someone to have romantic feelings for a dead man, never mind a dead holy man. Papi said it was better Daniel of the Bible than Roberto Confresi, the pirate.

“Can’t I hear the story of my name?” I asked.

In Puerto Rico, everybody had two names. One was printed on a birth certificate. Another was the one you were
called, the name you answered to, and that name always came with a story. Mamá’s birth certificate said “Monaique.”
Papi’s said “Juan.” But nobody called them that because those names had no story.

They called Papi Faro, “Light house,” because as a child he loved to watch the flashing light on Aguadilla Beach. My
abuela, Mamá Juanita, said they often went to Aguadilla to visit her brother’s family. On one par tic u lar visit, the family stayed up late listening to troubadour songs, and just before bed, Mamá Juanita noticed that Papi wasn’t with
the group. Everyone searched the house, but he was gone. Then, from the kitchen window, she saw a small, soft hump sitting outside on the beach rock. It was Papi. He stared out toward the sea, watching the light house beam slice the black again and again. When she asked what he was doing, he said, “Keeping watch.” Mamá Juanita called him Little Faro, and the nickname stuck.

They called my mamá Venusa because as a girl she nearly drowned while surfing the northwest coast of Puerto
Rico. Papi told me how a wave rolled over and pulled her down to the coral bottom. The Ocean King saw her there,
her black hair streaking the blue, and thought her so lovely that he decided to change her into a mermaid. The seaweed wrapped her legs and the coral caged her. Mamá prayed for a miracle—to return to our island. Then, just
when she thought her skin would change to scales, a rush of water pushed her from the King’s prison, up through
the blue- green, until her eyes saw the sun and her skin sparkled pink. She’d been gone so long that everyone believed her dead, lost to the ocean world. But she was reborn, like the goddess Venus.

Those were the stories we lived by. Who my parents were, who I was. My birth certificate said “Maria Flores Ortiz- Santiago,” but they called me Verdita. Papi kept all our certificates on the shelf in his study beside three dead
roosters with black marble eyes. The names were as lifeless as the cocks with their sawdust guts. Only our nicknames
were alive. Papi told my story best.

He leaned back in the chair. “Venusa, Verdita wants to hear her story again.”

From the kitchen where Mamá scrubbed the scales off codfish, she laughed. “She’s like you. Head in the clouds.”
But I was glad to be like Papi. Mamá wasn’t a good storyteller. She forgot parts or added things from the priest’s
sermons. Papi always remembered it right and always began the same way.

He closed the Bible. “Your story started long before you left your mamá’s body, before you took your first breath. Your soul spoke to me from heaven.” I curled up my toes and closed my eyes, concentrating on Papi’s words.

In a dream, Papi stood alone on a strange and colorful beach, unlike any in Puerto Rico. The ocean was unusually
calm, and the air was silent except for the lull of the breeze through the coconut palms. No lick of seaweed or burrow of crayfish—the sand sparkled in rainbow pebbles. In the distance was Mamá, her wavy hair caught in the breeze, black against the light. Papi went to her.

I imagined the beach like the photograph I kept in the crack of my mirror. In it, Mamá stood between bright
umbrellas and candy-colored towels, a beach carnival. Her head was thrown back, her mouth open, and I could hear
laughter through the glossy paper. On the back was written Visit to Orlando and Lita Virginia Beach, 1950. It was taken just before she got pregnant with me, just before Papi had his dream.

He leaned forward in the chair. “And just as I reached her, I heard a burst of water. A sea spout lifted some fifty feet in the air. So high that I had to shield my eyes against the brightness of the sky and the white surf. I was afraid it was the Ocean King come for Venusa at last. But she turned and smiled. She knew what I didn’t. From the top of the spout, a parrot with emerald feathers and two gleaming green eyes flew from the watery perch and landed on my shoulder.”

I took a deep breath and held it.

“That was your spirit,” Papi continued. “I have never seen such a beautiful bird on earth.”

Papi leaned in and kissed my forehead. I could smell the soap and the little bit of Old Spice aftershave that he used so long ago, when the day was first born. I breathed him in.

In my story, Mamá had a handful of sesame seeds, and she fed them to the parrot until it was full. Then it took
flight, spreading its emerald wings in the coconut breeze, up, up into the cloudless blue. It left behind a single green
feather. Papi tucked it in the front of his shirt for safekeeping, but when he woke from the dream, it was gone.

“And I was searching the bed looking everywhere for the feather when your mamá came into the room with a cup of café con leche. She asked me what I was doing, and I told her that I had lost something important. That’s when
she told me she was going to have a baby. You were inside her. And I knew the parrot in my dream was you.”

At this point in my story, I always got sleepy. My sheets hugged my body; my pillow cupped my head. I closed my
eyes but listened still.

“I told your mamá about the dream and she agreed. God must have put me on the shore of heaven so you could
come to us.”

I buried my face deeper into the darkness.

“The day you were born, I walked outside our house and noticed the whoosh of the breeze through the palms,
just like in my dream. Mamá’s water broke. She was in labor. We thought you were a boy at first—all the troubles
she had. I had to take her to the hospital in San Juan because the barrio midwife was busy delivering two other
children, and I knew she could not deliver alone.

“I sat outside of the operating room, waiting and watching for the doctor. Those were dark hours. But then a nurse came and took me to you. When I held you that first time, you opened your eyes and looked into mine. Big green eyes. Verde. Just like the parrot. And I knew we had met before. My Verdita.”

Sleep washed over me like one of the waves on Papi’s dream beach, soft and soundless.

Reading Group Guide

1. What role does food play in Puerto Rican culture? How does McCoy use specific foods to bring the characters together?

2. What kind of narrative voice has McCoy chosen for this novel? How do we connect with Verdita’s character through that narrative style? How does the child’s point of view enhance or detract from the book’s impact?

3. Freud’s theory of the primal scene asserts that when a child is faced with the sudden awareness of his or her parents’ sexuality and intimacy, it shocks the psyche and sets the child’s libido into motion. How do you see this affecting Verdita in chapter 1 and throughout the novel?

4. The discovery of identity is a common theme in coming-of-age (bildungsroman) stories. At the beginning of the book, Verdita’s persona is directly tied to her parents. Finding her identity requires her to recognize the separation between who they are as a unit (Venusa and Faro) and who she is as an individual. Simultaneously, she battles with who her parents are in the intimate setting (Mamá and Papi) and who they are in public (Monaique and Juan); who she is in private (Verdita) and in public (Maria-Flores). Discuss this and other social dualities Verdita faces in her coming-of-age struggle.

5. How is Verdita’s coming of age in 1960 Puerto Rico different from a girl coming of age in America during that same period? How are they similar?

6. How have the Taino Indians and the indigenous island culture adapted to each of its colonizers (the Spanish and the Americans) and the African slaves brought by them? How do you see each of these influences in the novel? How does this compare to America’s “melting pot” identity?

7. Much of Puerto Rican and other Latino fiction focuses on themes of migration to New York, Chicago, Miami, or other Latin-populated cities. How is this story different? How is it similar? Discuss what you’ve learned about the island culture that you didn’t know before reading the book. How is this culture different from the Puerto Rican immigrants in the United States?

8. At the beginning of chapter 3, Papi discusses Puerto Rico’s possible statehood. Do you believe Puerto Rico should be a part of the United States? If so, why and what benefits does statehood offer? If not, why and what detriments come with it? Would it affect Puerto Rico’s identity in a good or bad way?

9. A magical worldview is a common characteristic of the Latino culture. While McCoy’s storytelling is more realistic, how and where do you see elements of magic in the characters’ lives?

10. What is the role of myth and story in Puerto Rican culture? How does it influence both individuals and the community?

11. Verdita believes in God, but her understanding of Him and how the supernatural interact with the mortal is perplexing. The magical tales of the church mingle with the ones told within her family, the ones of Puerto Rico’s heritage and history, and those of America. Many of the overlapping concepts contradict one another. For example, in the novel: Is there a king of the ocean or a God in heaven; would one make seashell wishes, or prayers at the altar; is there a Santa Claus, or Three Kings? In what other areas does Verdita struggle to find truth? Can you reconcile these conflicting truths?

12. The Greeks described love as a three-pronged fork. One prong is the fundamental emotion of compassion: philia, storge, and agape (cherishing, belonging, and self-sacrificing). The Greeks contended that upon coming of age and the budding of sexuality love branches into two additional prongs: eros and epithumia (romance and desire). How does McCoy portray philia, storge, and agape in the novel? How does she portray eros and epithumia?

13. Gender roles are addressed in the novel’s text and subtext. What are the Puerto Rican gender roles in the home? What are they in public? How do these compare with the projected American gender roles?

14. Patriarchy is a traditional characteristic of many Latino families. How do you see the Santiago family following in that tradition? How do you see them diverging from it? How does Verdita view femininity (represented by Mamá, Delia, Mamá Juanita, Titi Lola, the puta in San Juan) and masculinity (represented by Papi, Omar, Blake, Naranja)?

15. How is sexuality portrayed throughout the novel? Are women encouraged to embrace their sexuality or shun it? Discuss the conversation between Verdita and Mamá on page 121. How does Verdita deal with her sexuality and the sexuality of those around her? How does religion influence this?

16. Duality of culture is a major theme in McCoy’s novel. How does American culture impact the traditional Puerto Rican society? How does it affect the language, the foods, the religion, the traditional gender roles of men and women, and so on?

17. In the end, after Verdita evaluates both the good and bad of life in America, why do you think she still chooses to leave her homeland? What brings her to this decision? What do you think Verdita will find when she lands in the United States—will her expectations be met? Will she be disappointed?

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