The Gift

06/03/2024

    Given the prevalence of the Catholic Church in Latin American life, it may seem odd that its presence hasn’t been greater in its fiction. Edwin Williamson notes that when Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico were forming in the early part of the 19th century, “no other issue gave rise to greater disputes between liberals and conservatives than that of the role of the church in the life of the independent nations.” (The Penguin History of Latin America) Yet in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories, Thomas Colchie makes no mention of faith at all, emphasising far more the fantastic elements to be found in the work over any religiously inflected miracles. Given that Brazil has the largest number of Catholics in any one nation (around 130 million), and that Argentina, Chile and Mexico all have strongly Roman Catholic populations, we might assume a much stronger presence in the work. “About four-fifths of Argentine people are at least nominally Roman Catholic” and, even though, “the majority of them are non-practicing…the faith’s influence, however, is strongly reflected in government and society.” (Encylopedia Britannica) Yet when we think of Borges, Marquez, Cortazar, Bolano, Paz and others, religion isn’t what chiefly comes to mind.  

   Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferre hasn’t been especially interested in religion either, regarding as her “…explicit project the depiction in her novels and short stories of a particular process in Puerto Rican history: the story of cultural and social transition brought about by the American occupation of the island and the shift of power from a rural aristocracy to an urban professional class.” (‘Pandora's Log: Charting the Evolving Literary Project of Rosario Ferre’) So says Lee Skinner, and anyone who has read the story collection Sweet Diamond Dust and the epic novel The House on the Lagoon will concur. Yet ‘The Gift’ is clearly a religiously set story even if we might see within it the usual Ferre preoccupations suggesting that the nunnery setting is a premise more than a theme. It is a way of drawing out class and race divisions in an environment where these should have been eradicated under the glory of God.  

  Here we have two friends, Carlotta and Merceditas Caceres, one of mixed race, the other of German ancestry. Merceditas’s family may often be regarded as citizens of nowhere but, whatever the potentially inverted racism of such a remark, they receive it without insult. They know that, unlike many a citizen of the country, they are citizens of the world: easily capable of taking a plane to the mainland (the US) whenever they wish. The family is proud of its Germanic blood and its members’ blonde hair, and they play tennis, sail on yachts and tan themselves by swimming pools. This is old money and very white indeed. Carlotta’s family is new money, with her father, Don Agapito Rodriguez, owning a chain of supermarkets and determined to modernise the town. The story makes much of business interests and familial wealth and the reader may wonder what place a page and a half on the accumulating fortune of the Cacereses, against the backdrop of tobacco, sugar and rum industries throughout the 20th century, have in a piece of short fiction. 

    Yet the point is to bring out the difference between new wealth and old, and to show how the church can tolerate mestizos in their convent if that new money contributes to the coffers, but will promptly enough eject the traditionally oppressed if they look like they are falling back into poverty. As the story notes, “it was true that Don Agapito Rodriguez’s considerable assets had contributed greatly to the democratization of the admission requirements of the academy”. However, when it looks like he faces bankruptcy his errant daughter can be thrown out ostensibly for her unusual behaviour, as she appears in garish make-up and speaking loudly, but most especially because the father will soon be of no use to the convent. “Don Agapito’s economic ruin could bring about a serious loss of the academy’s credibility in banking circles, as well as its eventual disrepute.” If ‘The Gift’ is a religiously set story, its interests reside chiefly in economics and also race and gender. Carlotta stands out for her friendliness but she stands out even more because of the shade of her skin, which “condemned her, even among the ‘new girls’ to relative isolation. She was the first mulatto student to be admitted to the school in its half-century of existence.” While the Rodriguezes, the Torreses, and the Moraleses that are now allowed entry into the school will be of mestizo blood, Carlotta is something else again. A mestizo will have the mixed heritage of a white European and an indigenous person; the mulatto will have their roots in white Europe and Africa. In a nuanced racism that will leave the Germanic top dog and the mulatto with mongrel status, the friendship between Merceditas and Carlotta is probably more miraculous than anything God can conjure up in the nunnery. When at the beginning of the story we hear that “nobody expected Merceditas Caceres, on the day Carlotta Rodriguez was expelled from the Sacred Heart, to hang her silk sash from the doorknob, drop the medal of Congregation of the Angels in the alms box, and walk out through the school’s portico arm in arm with her friend…” the carefully coded cultural world of Puerto Rico has been turned upside down. 

     The gift of the title is a mango, a present from the carnival committee, with Carlotta lined up to be the first Creole queen in the town. It isn’t a symbol of Christopher Columbus’s kidney despite its title, but of Juan Ponce de Leon’s adventurousness: “he brought that variety of mango over from India, from a city called Columbus, and planted it himself on the island.” She may be correcting one error but is replacing it with another: Juan never landed in India and there is no such city there, as Merceditas well knows. What matters is that she gives it to Merceditas as a symbol of their friendship, and it offers an interesting contrast to the sacred heart of Jesus that gives the school its name. It also becomes actively useful to the story near the end, when the now rotten mango is given by Merceditas as a putrid gift to a nun who has just finished attacking Carlotta, with a “stream of curses that flew out of her mouth…lashing her friend with a veritable maelstrom of insults.” This comes not long after Mother Artigas has taken a large pair of scissors to Carlotta’s beautiful locks, hair that Merciditas had always admired. And it is done by a woman who herself had been admired from a certain perspective the narrator has earlier made a point over; hence the significance of gender in the story. Artigas’s education was extensive and she has more than one doctorate from foreign universities. She is even perhaps feminist. “She believed that women had an undeniable right to knowledge, having been unjustly barred from it by men for centuries, and the only obstacle that for a while made her hesitate on her decision to enter the convent had been the clergy’s traditional feminization of ignorance.” 

   But there she is at the end of the story just another bigot, cursing and cussing like a poorly educated heathen. She is a woman who can absorb change in some ways but not in others: she can countenance arguments concerning educational emancipation but not ones over racial equality, especially when Carlotta emphasises the very sexuality Mother Artigas has renounced. Even Merceditas says to her friend one day: “why the gypsy bangles, the whore’s love of beads, the floozie rings.” The narrator describes her as “made up and scented like a street tart” and we may wonder whose perspective this offers in a third-person tale that travels freely from Merceditas’s interiority and her family history, Mother Artigas’s past, and the details about how Carlotta’s father made his cash. It would seem the judgement of the environment rather than that of an individual, as though whatever one’s personal view of Carlotta’s dress sense it couldn’t but seem shocking in The Sacred Heart. Here is an antiseptic environment and nothing will challenge it more than the sensual and the sensuous, with Carlotta a voluptuous revolutionary, someone who makes out of the senses a radical claim. Merceditas knows that any proper change would rest with Carlotta, not with Merceditas, especially, and not with Mother Artigas. “Her friend lived in a world in which action was what mattered, action that eased other people’s sufferings in particular; while she lived in a world of thought.” 

   But what is action if not the senses activated and utilised, and what is a convent but the repression of action and the senses, an environment that takes symbols of faith and turns them arid? Ferre uses the mango as the opposite of an enduring symbol; it is both one that gets transformed in Carlotta’s offering and decomposes during the diegesis. It is initially a symbol from the carnival committee, becomes a sign of affection when Carlotta gives it to Merceditas, and becomes an ironic gift when Merceditas hands it over to Mother Artigas before walking out of the school with Carlotta. In analysing the use of mangos as symbols, Urvi Kumbhat says “the mango rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit, especially in diasporic literature. This is an old observation—the character Amrit in Atima Srivastava’s novel Looking for Maya...snubs diasporic writing as consisting merely of ‘mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers.’” But Ferre turns it from a colonial sign, to a personal gift of affection, to an insult. It is the opposite of a hard symbol as it turns to mush.

     Perhaps one way of understanding a revolutionary mindset, while at the same time comprehending what we might call symbolic flexibility, is to view both the revolutionary and symbolic as malleable modes. The conservative mindset and the established symbol are not, and why they often come together in traditions that mustn’t be lost. Ferre’s work is often an exploration not just of capitalist developments as she covers in different ways vast swathes of monetary time in for example both Sweet Diamond Dust and Other Stories, and The House on the Lagoon, but also how transformations take place through time. It is partly why in ‘The Gift’ she includes the sort of details that would usually be deemed irrelevant in many a short story. Yet she sees these historical shifts allow her to propose that in its own small way, ‘The Gift’ illustrates another one. There Merceditas is, the white, Germanic hard-working student adored by the nuns and socially fortunate going back generations, walking out with the practical, un-studious and disgraced mulatto who only made it into the school on the back of her nouveau riche father’s wealth. It is a fortune now deemed as worthless as Carlotta has always been in the eyes of the nuns, the pious who would accept it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to let Carlotta pass again back through their gates

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Gift

Given the prevalence of the Catholic Church in Latin American life, it may seem odd that its presence hasn't been greater in its fiction. Edwin Williamson notes that when Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico were forming in the early part of the 19th century, "no other issue gave rise to greater disputes between liberals and conservatives than that of the role of the church in the life of the independent nations." (The Penguin History of Latin America) Yet in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories, Thomas Colchie makes no mention of faith at all, emphasising far more the fantastic elements to be found in the work over any religiously inflected miracles. Given that Brazil has the largest number of Catholics in any one nation (around 130 million), and that Argentina, Chile and Mexico all have strongly Roman Catholic populations, we might assume a much stronger presence in the work. "About four-fifths of Argentine people are at least nominally Roman Catholic" and, even though, "the majority of them are non-practicing...the faith's influence, however, is strongly reflected in government and society." (Encylopedia Britannica) Yet when we think of Borges, Marquez, Cortazar, Bolano, Paz and others, religion isn't what chiefly comes to mind.

Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferre hasn't been especially interested in religion either, regarding as her "...explicit project the depiction in her novels and short stories of a particular process in Puerto Rican history: the story of cultural and social transition brought about by the American occupation of the island and the shift of power from a rural aristocracy to an urban professional class." ('Pandora's Log: Charting the Evolving Literary Project of Rosario Ferre') So says Lee Skinner, and anyone who has read the story collection Sweet Diamond Dust and the epic novel The House on the Lagoon will concur. Yet 'The Gift' is clearly a religiously set story even if we might see within it the usual Ferre preoccupations suggesting that the nunnery setting is a premise more than a theme. It is a way of drawing out class and race divisions in an environment where these should have been eradicated under the glory of God.

Here we have two friends, Carlotta and Merceditas Caceres, one of mixed race, the other of German ancestry. Merceditas's family may often be regarded as citizens of nowhere but, whatever the potentially inverted racism of such a remark, they receive it without insult. They know that, unlike many a citizen of the country, they are citizens of the world: easily capable of taking a plane to the mainland (the US) whenever they wish. The family is proud of its Germanic blood and its members' blonde hair, and they play tennis, sail on yachts and tan themselves by swimming pools. This is old money and very white indeed. Carlotta's family is new money, with her father, Don Agapito Rodriguez, owning a chain of supermarkets and determined to modernise the town. The story makes much of business interests and familial wealth and the reader may wonder what place a page and a half on the accumulating fortune of the Cacereses, against the backdrop of tobacco, sugar and rum industries throughout the 20th century, have in a piece of short fiction.

Yet the point is to bring out the difference between new wealth and old, and to show how the church can tolerate mestizos in their convent if that new money contributes to the coffers, but will promptly enough eject the traditionally oppressed if they look like they are falling back into poverty. As the story notes, "it was true that Don Agapito Rodriguez's considerable assets had contributed greatly to the democratization of the admission requirements of the academy". However, when it looks like he faces bankruptcy his errant daughter can be thrown out ostensibly for her unusual behaviour, as she appears in garish make-up and speaking loudly, but most especially because the father will soon be of no use to the convent. "Don Agapito's economic ruin could bring about a serious loss of the academy's credibility in banking circles, as well as its eventual disrepute." If 'The Gift' is a religiously set story, its interests reside chiefly in economics and also race and gender. Carlotta stands out for her friendliness but she stands out even more because of the shade of her skin, which "condemned her, even among the 'new girls' to relative isolation. She was the first mulatto student to be admitted to the school in its half-century of existence." While the Rodriguezes, the Torreses, and the Moraleses that are now allowed entry into the school will be of mestizo blood, Carlotta is something else again. A mestizo will have the mixed heritage of a white European and an indigenous person; the mulatto will have their roots in white Europe and Africa. In a nuanced racism that will leave the Germanic top dog and the mulatto with mongrel status, the friendship between Merceditas and Carlotta is probably more miraculous than anything God can conjure up in the nunnery. When at the beginning of the story we hear that "nobody expected Merceditas Caceres, on the day Carlotta Rodriguez was expelled from the Sacred Heart, to hang her silk sash from the doorknob, drop the medal of Congregation of the Angels in the alms box, and walk out through the school's portico arm in arm with her friend..." the carefully coded cultural world of Puerto Rico has been turned upside down.

The gift of the title is a mango, a present from the carnival committee, with Carlotta lined up to be the first Creole queen in the town. It isn't a symbol of Christopher Columbus's kidney despite its title, but of Juan Ponce de Leon's adventurousness: "he brought that variety of mango over from India, from a city called Columbus, and planted it himself on the island." She may be correcting one error but is replacing it with another: Juan never landed in India and there is no such city there, as Merceditas well knows. What matters is that she gives it to Merceditas as a symbol of their friendship, and it offers an interesting contrast to the sacred heart of Jesus that gives the school its name. It also becomes actively useful to the story near the end, when the now rotten mango is given by Merceditas as a putrid gift to a nun who has just finished attacking Carlotta, with a "stream of curses that flew out of her mouth...lashing her friend with a veritable maelstrom of insults." This comes not long after Mother Artigas has taken a large pair of scissors to Carlotta's beautiful locks, hair that Merciditas had always admired. And it is done by a woman who herself had been admired from a certain perspective the narrator has earlier made a point over; hence the significance of gender in the story. Artigas's education was extensive and she has more than one doctorate from foreign universities. She is even perhaps feminist. "She believed that women had an undeniable right to knowledge, having been unjustly barred from it by men for centuries, and the only obstacle that for a while made her hesitate on her decision to enter the convent had been the clergy's traditional feminization of ignorance."

But there she is at the end of the story just another bigot, cursing and cussing like a poorly educated heathen. She is a woman who can absorb change in some ways but not in others: she can countenance arguments concerning educational emancipation but not ones over racial equality, especially when Carlotta emphasises the very sexuality Mother Artigas has renounced. Even Merceditas says to her friend one day: "why the gypsy bangles, the whore's love of beads, the floozie rings." The narrator describes her as "made up and scented like a street tart" and we may wonder whose perspective this offers in a third-person tale that travels freely from Merceditas's interiority and her family history, Mother Artigas's past, and the details about how Carlotta's father made his cash. It would seem the judgement of the environment rather than that of an individual, as though whatever one's personal view of Carlotta's dress sense it couldn't but seem shocking in The Sacred Heart. Here is an antiseptic environment and nothing will challenge it more than the sensual and the sensuous, with Carlotta a voluptuous revolutionary, someone who makes out of the senses a radical claim. Merceditas knows that any proper change would rest with Carlotta, not with Merceditas, especially, and not with Mother Artigas. "Her friend lived in a world in which action was what mattered, action that eased other people's sufferings in particular; while she lived in a world of thought."

But what is action if not the senses activated and utilised, and what is a convent but the repression of action and the senses, an environment that takes symbols of faith and turns them arid? Ferre uses the mango as the opposite of an enduring symbol; it is both one that gets transformed in Carlotta's offering and decomposes during the diegesis. It is initially a symbol from the carnival committee, becomes a sign of affection when Carlotta gives it to Merceditas, and becomes an ironic gift when Merceditas hands it over to Mother Artigas before walking out of the school with Carlotta. In analysing the use of mangos as symbols, Urvi Kumbhat says "the mango rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit, especially in diasporic literature. This is an old observationthe character Amrit in Atima Srivastava's novel Looking for Maya...snubs diasporic writing as consisting merely of 'mangoes and coconuts and grandmothers.'" But Ferre turns it from a colonial sign, to a personal gift of affection, to an insult. It is the opposite of a hard symbol as it turns to mush.

Perhaps one way of understanding a revolutionary mindset, while at the same time comprehending what we might call symbolic flexibility, is to view both the revolutionary and symbolic as malleable modes. The conservative mindset and the established symbol are not, and why they often come together in traditions that mustn't be lost. Ferre's work is often an exploration not just of capitalist developments as she covers in different ways vast swathes of monetary time in for example both Sweet Diamond Dust and Other Stories, and The House on the Lagoon, but also how transformations take place through time. It is partly why in 'The Gift' she includes the sort of details that would usually be deemed irrelevant in many a short story. Yet she sees these historical shifts allow her to propose that in its own small way, 'The Gift' illustrates another one. There Merceditas is, the white, Germanic hard-working student adored by the nuns and socially fortunate going back generations, walking out with the practical, un-studious and disgraced mulatto who only made it into the school on the back of her nouveau riche father's wealth. It is a fortune now deemed as worthless as Carlotta has always been in the eyes of the nuns, the pious who would accept it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to let Carlotta pass again back through their gates


© Tony McKibbin