Puerto Rico is a place that too often escapes the notice of the average United States citizen. Its status as a territory of the United States, not a state and not exactly its own country, cause it to be forgotten when discussing history in the classroom. We don’t talk enough about the contributions that the people of that island have made to the world, and we don’t get enough exposure to what they have to offer — except, perhaps, when it comes to Bacardi. And while rum is important, it’s not everything.
For the casual book enthusiast visiting Puerto Rico, it might be disappointing to do a Google search and find that there aren’t a whole lot of bookish things that pop up in the search results. Just because they are not obvious, does not mean they are not there. Here are a few ways to explore the literary side of the island, starting in San Juan.
Since Borders closed in 2011, independent bookstores have made a name for themselves on the island. Among the favorites is Libreria la tertulia, Viejo San Juan. A “tertulia” is a social gathering, an opportunity to get together and talk. In this case, they talk about books, as do the numerous authors that visit the store. Their Facebook page chronicles each visit, showing a crowd full of enthusiastic readers listening and interacting with their favorite authors. The Rio Piedras location uses their Facebook to recommend some pretty awesome books. If you read libros en español, then you’ll want to check them out.
If you’re like me, then you find it fascinating to spend time in the places that we read about in books. For fans of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, Old San Juan is the place to be. The exact locations he mentions in the book are no longer there, for the most part, but there are plenty that can serve as realistic stand ins. And If you’re interested in rum (as he so clearly was), then you can visit Casa Bacardi. They do tastings, I am told.
To get a taste of Puerto Rican literature today, your best bet is to visit the island in mid October, during their annual Festival de la Palabra (Festival of the Word). In 2015, the festival honored the poet Francisco Matos Paoli, as well as playwright Jacobo Morales. The theme for the event was Writing in Violent Times. Details for 2016 have yet to be announced, but it’s sure to be worth the visit. Not only do you get to experience the literature and culture of Puerto Rico, but you’ll be introduced to new voices from all over the Spanish-speaking world.
On the other side of the island, far from San Juan, there is another way to get a taste of local literary life is to visit the Casa Cruz de la Luna, an experimental theatre company run by playwright Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya. The space is currently undergoing a transformation, becoming a “permanent live museum of interactive fictions” designed by Adyanthaya. It will be a truly unique space, and it will offer a truly memorable experience for the literary traveler to Puerto Rico.
Literature is alive and well on the island. Use this guide as a starting point, and please come back and tell us what other sites we should take notice of. We’d love to hear your suggestions.
*Note – We learned of the death of noted Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferre on February 18 after completing this post. She is known for her fiction and poetry, and she won the Liberatur Prix for the German translation of her short story “Maldito Amor.”
If you want to prep for your trip to Puerto Rico, or you just want a glimpse of the culture and history from a woman who has been such a large part of it, read her 1995 novel La casa de la laguna (The House on the Lagoon).