The Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera

The Taste of Sugar

The Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera
English | 2020 | General Fiction/Classics| ePUB | 2.5 MB

Marisel Vera emerges as a major voice of contemporary fiction with a heart- wrenching novel set in Puerto Rico on the eve of the Spanish-American War.

It is 1898, and groups of starving Puerto Ricans, los hambrientos, roam the parched countryside and dusty towns begging for food. Under the yoke of Spanish oppression, the Caribbean island is forced to prepare to wage war with the United States. Up in the mountainous coffee region of Utuado, Vicente Vega and Valentina Sanchez labor to keep their small farm from the creditors. When the Spanish-American War and the great San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899 bring devastating upheaval, the young couple is lured, along with thousands of other puertorriquenos, to the sugar plantations of Hawaii-another US territory-where they are confronted by the hollowness of America’s promises of prosperity. Writing in the tradition of great Latin American storytelling, Marisel Vera’s The Taste of Sugar is an unforgettable novel of love and endurance, and a timeless portrait of the reasons we leave home.

Alegro Villanueva had a slave for a mother and un hijo de la gran puta for a father, who had sold his son to pay off family debts. Alegro Villanueva’s master in Ponce had a deathbed revelation, involving an angel and a goat, that in 1863, a decade before slavery was abolished throughout the island, somehow led to Alegro Villanueva’s freedom. Alegro Villanueva didn’t stay long enough to hear his master’s reasoning; he fled up to Utuado, where he worked from dawn to dusk and slept on a pallet of straw. In some ways, he found the life of a jornalero similar to his life as a slave. La gente needed permission for everything from the Spanish authorities—even a fiesta or dance required a license and a fee, dinero that nobody had; they were even charged a few centavos to sing un aguinaldo, which was always sung at Christmastime. So many laws to break a person’s spirit, so many laws that had to be broken.

When Alegro Villanueva and Ysabel Cortés got together, they didn’t wish for anything, as Ysabel’s parents had on their wedding day. Ysabel Cortés had witnessed how wishes turned out for her parents; and Alegro Villanueva already had his wish granted—he was a free man, at least as free as a jornalero was permitted to be. Alegro Villanueva took on credit from the plantation’s tienda de raya a few essentials like a roll of cloth for a hammock, candles, a pot, but not plates. They were lovers; they could eat from the same pot. There was much food for sale: rice, sugar, bacalao, lard, beans. Alegro Villanueva couldn’t afford rice at four centavos a pound, or American lard at twenty-four centavos a pound. They would have to be satisfied with plantains and bananas. Bacalao and rice and beans were only for when times were good, and they were never good, especially for jornaleros in 1863. In seven years, Alegro Villanueva and Ysabel Cortés had five children who were always hungry. When Alegro Villanueva grew malanga, a root vegetable, on a tiny plot of land that didn’t belong to him, he told his wife, “Hay que vivir por la izquierda aquí en Puerto Rico pero sin perjudicarse.” When Ysabel worried that if he were caught, he’d be sent to the penitentiary, he agreed that it was a risk. But shouldn’t a father do what was necessary so that his children wouldn’t starve?

Years before, Alegro Villanueva had eaten arroz con gandules with eggs in his late master’s house. When he told his wife, who had never eaten arroz con gandules or even an egg, it sounded like a fairy tale. Alegro Villanueva would tell the story to his family often throughout the years as if the dish could fill their empty bellies. Sometimes he would embellish the tale. Golden eggs had smiled at him on top of the fluffy rice seasoned with chunks of pork like treasures and studded with so many freshly picked gandules that it had been impossible to count them; the delicate fragrance of the rice had lingered in his mouth for days. But one night Ysabel Cortés yelled at him not to utter another word of that maldita meal! Not unless he wanted her to slit his throat with his own machete. She had never before raised her voice to him. He looked at her as if she had el demonio inside her. He took the children with him when he went to ask at the other bohíos if anyone knew of a spell that would cast off his wife’s demon.

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