Award-winning, first-time novelist Marisel Vera pens an honest, heart-felt, often sad tale of an idealistic, naïve Puerto Rican girl named Felicidad who goes to America to be with the man she loves.
The story, told from an author omniscient point of view, begins in the early 1940’s in the Puerto Rican countryside and ends about ten years later in Chicago. It follows Felicidad’s life from the time she’s a young jíbara living in appalling poverty in the mountains to the time she gets married and moves to America.
Young Felicidad lives in a tiny shack with her parents and siblings. Her father works in the fields and can barely support them. At times, Felicidad must be happy with only one meal a day. Their living conditions are so deplorable, she must tie her locks in a bun so that flying roaches in the latrine will not make a nest in her hair. Her sister dies because they can’t afford medical care. But worst of all, her mother is losing her mind. Unable to face the situation they’re in, one day her mother climbs naked onto the roof. The priest, of course, says she’s possessed by the devil.
Then Felicidad is sent to another town to live with her uncle and his wife, who own a panaderia. Though her uncle is kind and quiet most of the times, her aunt finds every opportunity to criticize Felicidad and treat her like a servant. Felicidad, naïve and good-natured, does her best to put up with her. She slaves in the panaderia and remains submissive, but she dreams of a prince who will love her and “rescue” her one day. Years pass and Felicidad doesn’t hear a word from her family. She misses them terribly and would like nothing more than to visit them, but she wonders if the feeling is reciprocated and, afraid of rejection by her own flesh and blood, she stays away from them.
One day, a handsome man walks into the panaderia and Felicidad is swept off her feet. Aníbal Acevedo, a man of the world as far as women go, is taken by Felicidad’s innocent beauty. To everyone’s shock, a few days later, he asks her to marry him. Felicidad is ecstatic, filled with idealistic illusions of happiness, but is Aníbal capable of fulfilling his dreams, when he has another woman waiting for him in Chicago?
Marisel Vera’s prose flows beautifully. In a skillful, often blunt manner, she paints a painfully realistic picture of the jíbaro. In a way, Felicidad’s story is a Cinderella story but with an unusual twist. The two protagonists, Felicidad and Aníbal, come to life through the pages, each one so very distinctive from the other. It is especially fascinating to be inside Aníbal’s mind and see the world from his perspective, a brutal contrast to Felicidad. Their love story is bitter sweet. But most of all, the author gives us a powerfully sad glimpse of the jíbaro in the 1950’s in Chicago, their difficult lives and tribulations, the prejudice they had to confront. Vera is definitely a new Latina voice to be reckoned with, and I look forward to reading more of her work.