Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Writer Rosario Ferré was an uncommon talent in two languages

Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré signing a book at Books and Books in Coral Gables
Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré signing a book at Books and Books in Coral Gables El Nuevo Herald

She was an author of uncommon talent in two languages. In both, her formidable wit pierced through identity politics and the taboos of an evolving patriarchal society. She wrote the kinds of sentences other writers underline to re-read. She told stories that made relatives squirm.

Rosario Ferré, grand dame of Puerto Rican literature, died Thursday in her home in San Juan of natural causes, her family said. She was 77.

In South Florida, her book presentations were packed with readers who marveled at her ability to write novels, essays and poetry in English and Spanish as if both were her native tongue.

The daughter of the late governor Luis A. Ferré, she belonged to one the island’s most prominent families, and without remorse or regret, she penned intimate family sagas in which the political, historical and personal intertwined. One such portrayal, The House on the Lagoon, launched her career in English and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1995. It was followed by the also critically acclaimed Eccentric Neighborhoods and she toured the United States like the literary royalty she was on the island.

“Rosario’s outstanding human qualities were tenacity, no fear of criticism, and thoroughness,” her cousin, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, told me. “She deeply researched her subjects, then wrote prose with a poet’s vision.”

Her life was like her novels — inspired, storied, authentically lived.

Named after a Cuban grandmother she never met, Ferré was the quintessential rebel daughter who bucked tradition and broke through the cultural silences of Latin American families of her generation. She married and divorced three times. After her children graduated from college and left home, she declared with impeccable humor in an essay her delight at having an empty nest where she was able to “write, smoke, and make love with whoever I want.”

She was a protagonist of the social change she often wrote about.

I met Ferré when I was an arts and culture writer in the late 1990s. I reviewed her books and attended her packed readings. In 2001, I had been sent to Puerto Rico by The Herald to profile a millionaire philanthropist who then decided he’d had enough of my tagging along and my questions — and mysteriously jetted off the island. I phoned the only person I knew (barely and mostly through reading her) in San Juan: Rosario Ferré.

Without hesitation, she invited me to her house.

It was one of the most enriching days of my writing life. Ferré was open, generous, and told nonstop stories. We talked for hours as she imparted lessons about loving and writing. At the time, Ferré was being criticized as a sell-out to U.S. interests. Her crime: publishing yet another novel in English, The Flight of the Swan, a fictional account of the path through Puerto Rico in 1917 of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.

The criticism, however, wasn’t keeping her up at night.

“Writing is a political act, and that alone is enough,” she told me.

I was grateful to the millionaire for leaving San Juan.

The leading woman of Puerto Rican letters turned out to be better company.