Short Stories That Provide the Perfect Introduction to Puerto Rican Culture

San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the oldest city in the United States
San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the oldest city in the United States
Kris Pethick

The world would be lost without its stories. They help us understand what happened and why, and human beings can also, we hope, learn from them. These short stories, by Puerto Rican authors and legends of the island, provide a history of its evolution and attempt to explain why things happened as they did. They don’t always have happy endings, but they do always have something to teach us.

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Puerto Vallarta church

Emilio S. Belaval’s short story “Spectralia” points a finger at the corruption of the church in Puerto Rico. It tells the story of young Pacita, who is being punished by seven curates for leaving the deathbed of her mother, but Pacita tells them that she only did so for a moment when a man came to the door. “A shepherd without a shirt brought a bunch of yellow welds and white roses to the door for me. His body was pierced by three arrows,” the young girl told them, but they did not believe her. They made her walk the streets to the San José Plaza in shame, and ordered that she do penance for five months, during which time she would get nothing to eat but the alms she collected. The curates continued to punish her, by gradually relieving her and her mother of all their belongings, including “furniture, the lamps, the rugs, the tableware, the silver from the cupboard, Doña Carlotta Mariana’s own jewelry, even the monumental crucifix of gold before which the sinful girl used to kneel.”

No one in the village believed Paz was a sinner, and they would gather each time the tutors made her walk the streets to show her shame. Young children dressed in white to join her in her penitence. The people lined the bricks with flower petals, and on each corner would be food and alms for the penitent. Pacita called and called to her savior to help her, but he did not appear.

Finally, a priest intervened and ruled that “Your sins were inventions, and they will be investigated by the church.” As the troublemakers raced back to the home to try to take the last of the coins in the mattress, the shepherd appeared to them, and they were chastened. All the things that had been stolen were restored to Pacita, and peace came back to her home.

“The Death of Salcedo”

This is one of the most widely told stories about Taíno history and the uprising of the native people against the Spaniards, and dates back to 1511. Playwright René Marqués also told this story in his “Three Men By The River.” The Taíno knew that Juracán was an evil destructive god, and that the Caribs were probably sent by him, so they at first believed that the Spaniards were sent by Yucajú, and that they were good spirits sent to help them. They were very wrong, but because they had never seen any beings like the Spaniards, with their white skin and horses, they thought the Spaniards were immortal.

Guaybana was the nephew of the chief Agüeybana, and upon his uncle’s death, Guaybana told his fellow warriors that they had had enough of the Spaniards’ mistreatment, and that it was time to fight back. He thus set out to prove that the Spaniards were not immortal. He and another Taíno man drowned a Spanish man, Salcedo, in a river, to see whether he would rise from the dead. When he remained dead, Guaybana proclaimed that the Spanish could not be immortal, and the planning of the revolt began.

“Salomé & Acuaca”

See the picturesque Río Grande de Arecibo valley than go spelunking at Cueva Ventana

In 1680, Don Julián Correa owned the Hacienda Cafetalera El Consejo, the most prosperous in the area, but his greatest pride was his beautiful 17-year-old daughter Salomé. Every afternoon, Salomé would ride her horse to and walk along the banks of the Abacoa River and rest in the shade of a hundred-year-old tree. One day, she went out for a walk and her father insisted that Juan, the son of the rich landowner Don Ramón Rivera, accompany her, because he wanted them to marry.

They reached the riverbank and dismounted from their horses. Salome spotted a beautiful flower floating on the river and leaned over to grab it, only to slip on a stone. She lost her balance and fell into the swift current of the Abacoa. She cried out to Juan for help, but he had no courage, and only shouted that he would go to the hacienda for help. Salomé thought she would die, but then she saw through the sky a bronze and copper bolt that fell from the cliff as if from heaven. Suddenly, she felt powerful arms around her that brought her safely to the riverbank. When she opened her eyes, she saw that her savior was a young man with brown skin and eyes the color of honey. Salome fell in love with him instantly, and asked him who he was. He replied, “I am Aruaca, the last of the Taino warriors, son of Urayoán and Cecilia, the Spanish, grandson of the cacique Abacoá.”

Aruaca lifted her and carried her to the hacienda, where Don Julian had the men of the hacienda begin shooting at Aruaca. They snatched Salome from his arms. Aruaca tried to defend himself, but there were too many for one warrior to take on. Don Julian intended to kill the young man, but Salomé jumped between them, saying, “You owe my life to this man, it was he who saved me from death in the currents of the river, while this coward beside you abandoned me!”

Don Julian restrained the anger he felt for Aruaca and the Taino, and as “payment” for his saving his daughter, he threw some coins at the young warrior’s feet. Aruaca left quietly, and did not pick up the coins.

The young girl returned to the river in the hopes of seeing the man she loved. There, Aruaca confessed that he had always watched her from the window of the Cueva Ventana and had fallen in love with her. After their reunion, they met every evening at the river. Salomé’s father became suspicious, and one afternoon he followed her to the river. When he saw her in Aruaca’s arms, he began to shoot at him. Salomé stood between her father and her lover, and was shot by her father’s bullet.

An anguished Aruaca climbed the cliff and entered the cave. He took water from the spring and began to cleanse her wound; the miraculous water revived her. Salomé, feeling weak from the blow and the loss of blood, agreed with Aruaca that he should go to the hacienda to give the good news to her father. They said goodbye, promising their eternal love, and Salomé promised that she would wait there until he returned. When Aruaca arrived at the hacienda to give the news to her father, Don Julian shot and killed him, and he never found out that Salomé was alive.

Salomé lived for 150 years before she died of a broken heart. They say that through the darkest corridors of the cave Salome and Aruaca still walk together.

“The Devil’s Sentry Box”

There are many stories about why soldiers kept disappearing from a guard post at Castillo San Cristobal.These legends include the guards being taken away by evil spirits or washed away by large waves, but Manuel Fernández Juncos shares a different and more believable story, one which, it seems, was told to him by one of the soldiers who disappeared.

He was a soldier at San Cristobal, and did guard duty in the sentry box many times. It was an awful job, cold and wet and dark, and the shift seemed endless. One evening, against the rules, this soldier took a cigar with him to help him pass the time. A wave came up and soaked his tinderbox, so he could not light it. Frustrated, he saw a light in the distance and, again breaking regulations, left his post and went in search of a light for his smoke.

When he got there, a family was having a celebration. There was music and dancing and girls, especially one dark-skinned beauty whom he took a fancy to. When he finally tried to pull himself away from the place, it was raining so hard that he decided to wait a little longer. He met the beautiful woman and began dancing with her and lost track of time. When he heard the bells of the fort announcing the changing of the guard, he was mortified and ran back. But he was not fast enough, and the new guards came on before he could get there. Abandoning your post is punishable by death, so he ran away, stole a boat and started a new life elsewhere.

“The Night We Became People Again”

José Luis González vividly describes the tension of living between the two worlds, of Puerto Rico and the United States. In this story, we follow a young man as he works diligently to improve the life of his family, and his crazy journey when he and his friend race home for the birth of his first child, during which the City of New York has a complete blackout. They are caught on a subway train, then have to run all the way to the apartment, but he makes it on time, and his beautiful son is born.

The story has a beautiful ending, as the people of his Puerto Rican neighborhood all gather on the roofs of their apartment buildings to play music and drink and celebrate the blackout. At first it is not clear why, but then we realize it is because they can see the stars, as they had not done since they left their island. They had even lost the stars in the night sky, but for now, they are clear and lovely again.

“The Innocents”

Pedro Juan Soto wrote this short story about growing up in 1970s New York after moving there from Puerto Rico. His small family, headed by a single mother, struggles with all the issues of moving to a new place, especially to a place as foreign to them as New York, while her adult son also struggles with mental illness; her adult daughter desperately wants to do what is best for her family, but also wants to have a life of her own.

These stories can all be found in Cuentos: An Anthology of Short Stories from Puerto Rico by Kal Wagenheim and Stories from Puerto Rico by Robert L. Muckley and Adela Martínez-Santiago.

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