As the winter break winds draws to a close, I’m busy attacking the Common Reading Exam List with a vengeance. Last week, I got through passages from the Bible, three Nathaniel Hawthorne short stories (“My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, “The Minister’s Black Veil”, “The Maypole of Merry Mount”), and Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”. This week already, I veritably blew through Jesus Colon’s A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches.
This is miraculous in several respects: the first being that I had absolutely no inclination to read the book based solely upon the title. Criticism founded in any singular nationality is not something that I do, it’s not something that I’m comfortable with, and overall it represents a plethora of literary fields that I just do not connect to in any way, shape or form. The closest I’ve come to any nationalist reading has been Irish literature, and that’s only because of a summer spent living in Dublin and my deep-seated adoration of Wilde and Yeats. The title of this piece put me off; I have found by and large that any book based in a precept of national identity is just something I simply cannot relate to. As a result, I find such books drab, boring, and perhaps not pointless but certainly without a point that I care to read about.
This book was gifted to me for my birthday, so even more than the other items on my CRE list, I felt obligated to read it.
And I have to say, I’m so glad that I did.
Jesus Colon came to New York from Puerto Rico as a stowaway in 1918. He weathered some difficult times as one might imagine, but for that (if his writing is any indication of his actual temperament) never lost the spark of intellect, humor, and national identity that this book is steeped with. It is noteworthy in that it is the first book-length work on the subject of Puerto Ricans in America to appear in English. The vast majority of the book was written during the 1950s and it wasn’t published until 1961. It is written in a series of short sketches (ranging in length from one page to seven pages), some of which appeared in print in various periodicals which Colon wrote for but most of which were never seen in print until the book’s publication.
Noteworthy to me is the amount of wit and humor in what could easily turn into a sob fest (not without reason, mind you, I’m not trying to trivialize the plight of the immigrant worker). Colon’s style is light and quick. Like a fencer, he never beats a point over the head. He will touch and go, leaving you understanding, but still thinking. He is subtle while remaining explicit and that is another part of what I love so much about this book. I don’t feel talked down to, I don’t feel preached at, rather I feel taught. He is educational without being didactic and entertaining without being trivializing.
I also connect with Colon as a person. Colon paints himself as an educated man caught in a world set to minimize him. He lovingly embellishes details of himself as a reader/writer/man that any not-so-closeted literary geek will connect to. Things like feeling not fully dressed without a book tucked under his arm, his love for reading in the bath (and his method of doing so), and being able to recite Don Quixote because of his nostalgic childhood connection with the text appeal to me as a book nerd. Things like his sneaky usage of his wife’s decorative bathroom towels, his examination of the practice of singing in the shower, his propensity to spend his day off riding the bus lines to their very last stop then journeying back on another bus, and his hesitancy to liken a woman to “a goddess” because he has never seen one appeal to me as a human being.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, to me, is entrenched in an incident which occurs at the book’s very beginning. In Puerto Rico, cigar-factory workers would hire a man to read to them as they rolled cigars. This man, called the Reader, would often be more of a performer than a straight reciter. He would act out important passages of the books, commit them to memory verbatim, and perform them for the workers throughout the day. Colon admits that, despite the years which separate him from his childhood in Puerto Rico, he can still hear the voice of the Reader reciting key passages to him from famous works of literature. These books, these recitations, seem keystones in Colon’s interest in literature. They are his first exposure to books (at least as presented in A Puerto Rican…) and he admits, “I can still see that window and listen to that voice reading from the adventures of Don Quixote or the miseries and persecution suffered by Jean Valjean, books and characters that will be remembered many years after the latest ‘whodunit’ has been read and forgotten” (12). The performance, suffused in Colon’s bones, stayed with him over any contemporary work he read for himself. It made the literature longer-lasting to him and provided scaffolding for the rest of Colon’s literary career.
To me, this is utterly indicative of the power of literature in performance. You can read a book, certainly, but how long will that book remain with you? How long will that reading be called into your memory? Unless you are among the lucky percentage of the population with photographic recollection, chances are it is not that first reading which will stick but rather subsequent readings and conversations that occur from it. On the other hand, you can go see a play. A performance. Something that can (and will) never be repeated in exactly the same way again, and how long will that remain with you? A truly memorable performance is easier to digest, more suffusing, and easier to remember than a truly memorable read. Colon’s experience stands testament to this.
Overall, if you are at all interested in old New York, equal rights, Puerto Ricans, the labor movement, writing, reading, or just good literature, you should really give this book a go. It’s a two-hundred-page-slip-of-a-thing divided into perfectly digestible bite-size bits, so it’s an ideal commuting buddy, bed-side book, or on-the-go-waiting-for-random-things read.
Rating: I will cheat on the bard.
Colon, Jesus. A Puerto Rican in New York And Other Sketches. New York: International Publishers (2002). Print.