Long before it became cool and trendy (again), and long after it ceased being the laboratory where the most vibrant vindication of black culture in America was concocted; sometime (but not too long) after WWII and sometime (but not too far either) before the riots of 1964 triggered (or did they simply herald?) a wave of violence and confrontation that would peak well outside the realms of racial tension with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; somewhere in the middle between these momentous bursts of energy and their respective anticlimactic slumps, Harlem, that enigmatic neighborhood in the upper reaches of Manhattan, served as home away from home to thousands upon thousands of Puerto Rican (and other Latino) immigrants who came to New York in search of a better life.
That is the setting of Spiks, a succinct collection of seven short stories paired with six other capsules or “miniatures” that brutally and strikingly reflect the reality encountered by these “new Americans.” Written in 1956 by precisely one such member of the northward march that was meant to bring prosperity and wellbeing—that was supposed, let’s face it, to bring a minimal measure of civilization to a people deemed to be backward—Spiks is inevitably bleak and even grim in its depiction of the lives of Puerto Ricans in New York, of New Yoricans, in the 50s. But perhaps the book’s greatest insight comes from Soto’s frank portrayal of his own people—a complex bunch with wildly differing expectations who mostly lead miserable lives but who in many ways are not so much victims of circumstance but rather the perpetrators of their own demise. In some sense, Soto is keenly aware of the major challenges and precarious conditions that punctuate the existence of Puerto Ricans in New York but at the same time he is not overtly sympathetic or unnecessarily sentimental about it: he remains true to his stories, damningly so, and this affords them with a distinct edge, with an element of double condemnation that never allows the reader to fall into a well-defined comfort zone.
Pedro Juan Soto was born and raised in Puerto Rico, in the outskirts of San Juan. In 1946, at the age of 18, he moved to New York, specifically to Spanish Harlem, where he joined a large community of Puerto Rican émigrés who had made of the northeast corner of Manhattan their home ever since the island had been awarded full US citizenship status in 1917, in the advent of US involvement in WWI. This was the aftermath of yet another cataclysmic conflict, although for Soto it was an educational period that would confront him with a reality starkly different to his island’s, that would put him in direct contact with the violence and the prejudice prevalent in a largely unwelcoming city and that would infinitely broaden his perspective—after all he’d gone to complete his pre-med undergraduate course at Long Island University.
But this also happened to be the pivotal moment in the development of Puerto Rico’s relations with the US at a wider political level. During the nine years Soto remained away from the island, from 1946 to 1955, Puerto Ricans first gained the right to elect their own governor and almost at the same time relinquished much hope of ever becoming independent with the passage of the so-called Gag Law of 1948; they staged massive protests against the yoke of colonial rule from the US in 1950, and in 1952 turned out en masse at the ballot boxes to approve the new constitution, which made official its status as an associated free state in commonwealth with the US. Soto’s absence during this period marked his relationship as a local intellectual with the rest of the Puerto Rican establishment for the rest of his life, forcing him to face a new form of violence and a different kind of prejudice in his own homeland.
Spiks is Soto’s first work of consequence, and the fact that it was only published upon his return to Puerto bears significance. While the bulk of the stories unfold in New York, the collection opens with the start of a journey—not only a metaphoric one—in “Captive,” a story that deals with the forced departure of Fernanda, a 17-year-old nymphet whose burgeoning sexuality has resulted in an adulterous relationship with her sister’s husband, all of whom live under the same roof. Fernanda is chaperoned by her grandmother at the airport as they wait for her to board the flight that will take her to the safety of her brother’s home, that will place her in an environment where she can grow, not only in terms of age, where she can learn two languages, and “get more for any secretary job than here… You gotta work hard, but you get good money.” Fernanda, however, is not interested in working hard or in growing—all she wants is the man she idolizes to the point where she sees him lurking behind corners at the airport, waiting for the chance to bid farewell to her behind her grandmother’s back.
Cleverly structured into pairs of short and super short pieces, Spiks develops a rhythmical counterpoint through strong if brief characterizations that build a credible, complex and somewhat dismaying social environment of their own. The world of Spiks, beautifully erected on single-page “miniatures” that predate by well over half a century the rise in popularity of flash fiction, is the same world that Arthur Laurents would later portray in West Side Story, a tale that unfolds across town,on Upper West Side rather than East Harlem, but that nevertheless is laden with the same degree of violence and prejudice, of struggle between integration and assimilation that permeates throughout Soto’s stories.
The game of pairings laid out by the structure of Spiks is further developed across the collection by echoes from many of the characters who show up, reformed, disguised or simply reincarnated in later stories. Thus, for instance, Fernanda finds her opposite number in a schoolgirl who seduces her teacher in “Miniature 5,” while Rosendo, a lazy but decent husband in “Scribbles” is cancelled out by Microbio, the violent pimp of “God in Harlem” who brings an end to the aspirations of his heavily pregnant hooker girlfriend (as well as to the whole collection) with a horrendous physical attack that might or might not result in her aborting the child.
As a collection, Spiks is dominated by the use of vernacular Puerto Rican slang and by the overpowering presence of strong female characters who largely rule all aspects of Soto’s universe except for violence. Which is no minor exception. But if Spiks begins with a young woman’s journey away from the perils of licentiousness and poverty in Puerto Rico only to confront us with violence, loneliness and even greater poverty in New York, the collection comes full circle with a nicely crafted end in which, after suffering unspeakable abuse, Nena feels her bloated belly (where her child might or might not be alive) and realizing that “God is here” she suddenly knows “neither pain nor hate nor bitterness.”
Thus, the journey in Spiks is ultimately one of introspection, one that might start at any airport but that ultimately must lead to peace with yourself, one that must necessarily be traveled alone. It was a journey that Soto would need to explore time and time again during his life, experiencing the pain of rejection in New York as well as in Puerto Rico—an outsider in both places.
Soto taught literature at the Río Piedras Faculty of the University of Puerto Rico and remained an outspoken figure. Violence and prejudice, the two guiding lines of much of his work, would come to the surface again in Usmaíl (1959), a novel that focuses on the use of Vieques by the American army as a bomb-testing ground, and Hot Land, Cold Season (1961) another novel that deals with the hostile reception extended to the protagonist on his return from a long period abroad. Pain, however, reached a different level in the life of Soto in 1978, when his third and youngest son, Carlos, a pro-independence activist, was killed by police forces in what came to be known as the Cerro Maravilla massacre. His 1982 novel, A Dark, Smiling People won the Premio Casa de las Américas but his great project to novelize the killing of his son never came to fruition. Soto once said that he saw himself as a product of the violence he had witnessed and suffered over the course of his life—a product of Harlem in the 40s and Puerto Rico in the 50s.
When he died, in 2002 at the age of 74, his diary of the massacre of Cerro Maravilla was still unfinished: in the end, the violence, the pain, and the fear not to do them justice proved too much to process. But the journey—the journey still remains.