© Eleanor Parker Sapia
My novel, A Decent Woman, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, begins in turbulent 1900—two years after the United States invasion on the shores of Guanica, Puerto Rico and a year after the San Ciriaco hurricane devastated the Caribbean island.
Brief synopsis of A Decent Woman:
Ponce, Puerto Rico: A Decent Woman is the story of Ana Belén, a black Cuban born into slavery, who despite hiding a tempestuous past, becomes a proud midwife in La Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico, where she meets sixteen-year old Serafina. After the widowed Serafina marries into a prominent Ponce family, a crime against Serafina will forever bond her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor and her new marriage.
Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.
At the beginning of the second decade of U.S. rule in Puerto Rico, after the invasion of the island in 1898, women of differing social classes began demanding the right to vote and black Puerto Ricans protested against racism and repression across the island. In 1917, the United States entered World War I and ‘granted’
Puerto Ricans citizenship with the Jones Act and Puerto Rican men entered the conflict in Europe. English was decreed the official language on an island with a majority of native Spanish speakers.
Gripped in an economic crisis, thousands of Puerto Ricans fled to the United States in search of work, and on the island, thousands fled the mountains to the coastal towns in search of work. A seamstress in a Puerto Rican sweatshop could earn one dollar a day while the same work done at home earned her a few cents a day. Between planting and harvest times of coffee and sugarcane, farmers and laborers were laid off without a salary; many died of hunger and disease. By 1917, women had joined the workforce as tobacco strippers, hatmakers, seamstresses, coffee shellers, laundresses, and embroiderers, and soon demanded fair treatment, higher wages, and protection against managerial sexual and physical abuse.
“Petitions from people begging for work or the funds to emigrate flooded the governor’s office. Many Puerto Ricans faced starvation, especially in the countryside. Suicides of working people were reported daily in Ponce newspapers.”
“A year later, ten thousand Puerto Rican laborers held the First Congress of Women Workers, where in addition to the aforementioned, they evoked the rights of every women and her family to have ‘a comfortable and healthy home’, insisted on the implementation of universal women’s suffrage, and called for a special session of the legislature to address the women’s concerns.” Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1970-1920 by Eileen Findlay.
Ponce, Puerto Rico, my home town, was the birthplace of the first organization of feminist activism, La Liga Femínea, and became an important center for feminists. After Prohibition began, upper and middle class Puerto Rican women began focusing on themes of decency and indecency in their communities by forming moral reform projects, such as the protection of children of working class mothers. Society women with new public roles began defining motherhood and familial relations of Puerto Ricans, and during this time, many children were taken away from their mothers and raised by “proper families”. The society women, white women, early feminists, believed that with proper education and guidance, their black and mulatto working sisters could be reformed and turned into proper women of society. Of course, the feminists would decide when and if that happened.
Middle class and upper class women then joined forces with the Protestant clergy and when the government prohibited the making and sale of alcohol, prostitution was also outlawed. These were lean times for women who were finding it difficult to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their children; yet, the United States Army encouraged the women entering the training camps on the island to entertain the soldiers, and still, Puerto Rican men slept with women other than their wives, playing woman against the other woman.
The early feminists were not dissuaded and the second anti-prostitution campaign began with the arrests of women suspected of prostitution, and the arrests of couples for living together without a marriage license. Jails and prisons were built to house the “wayward” women in an attempt to clean up the streets, combat venereal disease, and help preserve “la sagrada familia.”
On October 11, 1918, an earthquake occurred, with an approximate magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale, which was accompanied by a tsunami, which reached 19.5 feet high. Like Hurricane San Ciriaco, again the island suffered with death, devastation, and chaos. The tremors continued for several weeks.
La Cárcel de Mujeres ~ The Women’s Jail
The morning after the Worker’s Ball, Ana and Emilia found María’s bed hadn’t been slept in, and none of the neighbors had seen their friend. Ana didn’t relish setting foot in the police station, and hoped the Chief of Police she’d met was on duty, not Officer Pérez. When the women arrived at the jail, they were directed to a young man in uniform, who didn’t look old enough to shave. Ana pulled Emilia aside. “Let me do the talking, Emilia. Please, say nothing.” They approached the desk. “I’m looking for María Santiago. She would have been brought here last night.”
The young man scrolled down a list of names. “M. Santiago. She was taken to the new women’s jail on the outskirts of town—the one they finished before the Fiestas. Good thing, too; we’re at full capacity here.”
“If you would kindly give us the directions, we will be on our way,” Ana said, sneaking a sideways glance at Emilia, who was trying to read the list from where she stood. Ana wondered who else might have been taken by the police the previous evening. The young man drew a crude map of the new facility, and handed it to Ana. “Thank you. We’d best be on our way,” she said. As the women turned to leave, the man blew Emilia a kiss, which Emilia ignored.
“Pig,” she said when they were outside. “Makes me want to quit and go straight.”
“Then why don’t you?” said Ana, in an irritated tone. “Get out of the business, Emilia. Nothing good can come from selling yourself.”
“I need the money, but as soon as I save up enough, I’m out.”
“Just don’t wait too long, my friend. You and María deserve a better life.”
“I don’t know what we deserve anymore, but I think we’re getting what we deserve now.”
The new women’s jail was an imposing, single-story, cement box with bars covering narrow windows. Inside a high fence, women walked in a circle as guards patrolled the perimeter. Ana and Emilia approached the fence, hoping to see María.
“I don’t see her,” said Emilia, craning her neck for a better view.
“Me neither. I’ve never been to a jail before, have you?”
“I was arrested once for propositioning a gentleman but only spent the night in the town hall jail. This here is serious business.”
Emilia approached a young woman smoking a cigarette, and Ana followed. “Nena, do you know a María? María Santiago. She was brought in last night.”
The woman behind the fence countered, “Do you have a cigarette?”
Emilia offered a cigarette through the fence but didn’t let it go when the young woman reached for it. “I’ll give it to you for information.”
“Yeah, we met last night, but I haven’t seen her today. Maybe she’s in the clinic; check with the guard over there,” she said, pointing to a guard shack at the end of the fence. Emilia let go of the cigarette.
“The clinic? Oh my God, Ana, let’s go.” They asked a female guard about María, and were told she was being held for further testing. “Testing for what?” asked Emilia.
“Are you family?” asked the guard, eyeing them up and down.
“No, we’re close friends of Miss Santiago,” Ana said, offering the woman a few coins as a bribe.
“Well, if your friend is found to have a venereal disease, she’ll probably be transferred to another clinic. They don’t allow visitors there,” the woman said in a dry voice. Out of nowhere Emilia began to cry, which surprised Ana. Emilia’s crying grew louder until the woman whispered, “Listen, I’m not supposed to give you any information, but your friend is being evaluated in the clinic—the building in back. My friend is working that shift. You can’t miss her; her thick spectacles make her eyes look enormous. Tell her Alicia sent you. She’ll let you in for a quick visit if your friend is still there.”
“Thank you,” said Emilia, drying her eyes. Ana and Emilia raced to the door marked “Clinic.”
“By the way, I know you and María are close, but what was that all about?”
Emilia grinned, “We got in, didn’t we?” Emilia knocked sharply on the door, and a woman who fit the guard’s description opened it. Ana spoke first. “Alicia sent us. We’re looking for our friend, María Santiago.”
“Alicia.” The woman snorted. “That figures. She’s got a soft heart, that one. Who are you looking for?”
“María Santiago. Is she here?”
“Yes, she’s here. She’s in examination room number one; follow me. I have to warn you, though. Your friend was pretty drunk and mouthy when she was brought to the jail. Pérez and his crony got a little rough with her when she didn’t cooperate.”
Ana’s heart froze. “What did they do to her?” asked Emilia, a little louder than Ana had hoped.
The woman answered tersely, “If she was doing something illegal, then it’s her own fault she’s in here. That’s the way it goes.”
Ana squeezed Emilia’s arm, knowing her temper. “Please let us see our friend. We all make mistakes,” Ana said, not wanting to antagonize the young woman in any way, but feeling Emilia’s urgency, as well. “We don’t have much time.”
“Follow me, but make it quick. Officer Pérez is making his rounds.” Fear gripped Ana when she heard the name and she prayed they wouldn’t run into the man. When the guard opened the door of the examination room, they saw a woman lying on a low bed, facing the wall. Ana immediately recognized the dress María had worn the night before. She and Emilia approached the cot. “They’ve tested your friend for syphilis; they do that to all the women.”
“María, María?” Emilia whispered, tapping the woman’s arm. María sprang to a sitting position, with deep fear in her eyes, and hugged her knees. Ana was startled by what she saw. María’s dress hung off her left shoulder and was missing several buttons. Her hair, usually worn pulled back, was wild and loose, and her make-up was smeared.
“It’s us; Ana and Emilia! What have they done to you?”
The guard kept watch at the door, looking down the hallway in both directions, “Hurry!”
“Ay bendito, María. We’re here,” Emilia said, sitting on the cot. María started to cry, and allowed Emilia to put her arm around her.
María’s eyes suddenly grew large. “Get me out of here, please.”
Ana knew the medical staff wouldn’t allow them to take María home until the test results came back. She had to distract María. “What happened to you, nena?” As the question came out of Ana’s mouth, she realized she didn’t want to know.
María composed herself enough to speak. “I honestly don’t remember what happened. I was drunk and tired, and they let me sleep it off. Then I was in here, and examined by a devil with dirty instruments that I’m sure he doesn’t use on decent women. I was so humiliated,” María sobbed.
“Was he a doctor?” María nodded. At that moment, Ana wanted the gods to send peace to María, and much suffering to whoever hurt her.
As if reading Ana’s mind, Emilia hissed, “This man should be made to watch his women suffer.”
“Are you taking me home?” asked María in a childlike voice. “Can I go now? Is that why you’re here, to take me home?”
Ana and Emilia looked at each other. Ana was uncertain of what to tell her, and it was Emilia who spoke up. “María, they’ve tested you for syphilis.”
María’s voice became shrill. “But, I don’t have that! You know me, Emilia. Tell them I’m clean; I want to go home! Ana, you tell them.”
“María, listen,” said Ana, taking her by the shoulders. “We’ll find the doctor. You stay here and stay calm, all right?”
“Ana’s right; we have to find the doctor.”
“Okay, I’ll rest. I’m so tired.” María lay down facing the wall, and closed her eyes. Ana found it incredibly difficult to leave the cell when the female guard urged them to hurry.
“Béstias,” hissed Emilia as they followed the guard down a narrow corridor. “We have to get her out of here. She won’t make it in this place with these beasts.”
“I know, I know, Emilia. Please be polite with the doctor for María’s sake!” When the guard opened a door, Pérez was sitting at a desk, reading a newspaper.
“Shit,” murmured Emilia, “Now what do we do?” Ana watched the guard slink out of the room without saying a word.
Pérez looked up when the women approached, and eyed them suspiciously. “I know you. So, you’re not a prostitute, eh, Doña?” he said to Ana. “Well, if you’re not, what are you doing in the company of this puta?”
Ana controlled herself, and squeezed Emilia’s arm as a reminder to remain calm. “We want to see the doctor who examined María Santiago. Where can we find him?”
“Santiago? Hmm, I seem to recall that name,” he said, and then yawned. “That would have been Doctór Toro. He happens to be in his office right now, second door on the left,” he pointed down the hall. “Good luck, girls. Tell María I said hello.”
“Hijo de la gran puta,” Emilia cursed under her breath. They found the doctor eating at a desk, in desperate need of a napkin as he bit into a chicken leg. His lips and chin shone with greasy tomato sauce as he looked at them through thick eyeglasses perched on his bulbous nose. He seemed surprised to see them.
“What do you need?”
“Are you Doctór Toro?”
“Yes, I am,” he said, finally wiping his mouth.
“We are…I mean, this is María Santiago’s sister,” Ana said, pointing at Emilia, knowing he wouldn’t speak to them if one of them wasn’t a family member. You examined her last night.” Ana couldn’t tell whether he remembered María or not. “Do you remember her?”
“Yes, yes, what about her?”
Ana continued in a terse tone she couldn’t control, “Have you already taken blood samples?”
“Yes, I have,” he said, visibly irritated. “Look, if you want the results, you’ll have to wait outside. Who are you again?”
“This is María’s sister. We’ll be outside. Thank you, Doctór.” Ana pushed Emilia out the door.
“Do you think she has syphilis? What’ll we do if the results are positive?”
Ana shook her head. “I don’t know, Emilia, but let’s not lose hope until the results come back. It’s all in God’s hands now.” Despite the cold, metal chairs they sat on, Emilia soon fell asleep against Ana’s shoulder. Ana sat quietly, invoking all the gods and goddesses to protect María, and as she prayed, her eyes grew heavy. The women were roused by a nurse, who ushered them into the doctor’s office.
“Your friend is clean. No infectious disease,” said the doctor to no one in particular. Ana hated his use of the word “clean”. He put down the file, and looked at the Emilia. “We encouraged your sister to undergo sterilization. She did very well.”
Emilia’s jaw dropped. “What?” She looked at Ana, who was sure they were thinking the same thing—María would have never have submitted to sterilization.
“She is being released now,” Del Toro said, signing a paper on his desk. “Wait for her at the front gate.” The doctor turned back to the paperwork on his desk, and then looked up. “That is all,” he said, looking surprised that Ana and Emilia were still standing in his office.
“Where is her signed consent?” Ana was amazed at her presence of mind in light of the shocking news, and Emilia’s face echoed her sentiment. The doctor rifled through the papers on his desk, and produced the one María had signed.
Emilia leaned over the desk. “I don’t believe this. María wanted children; I know this. You must have tricked her into signing! She must have been drunk, because she never would have signed this sober!”
“Your sister is a single, working woman with no husband,” he said to Emilia. “Who would have taken care of her children while she worked the streets? You? Ponce has too many street urchins as it is. Like hundreds of other women, your sister doesn’t use birth control. She wasn’t the first, and she certainly won’t be the last woman to be sterilized in this city.”
“¡Abusadór! She probably trusted you, and you abused her innocence! You tricked my sister into signing. Who are you to deny her rights as a woman? You will rot in Hell for what you’ve done to her.”
“We are doing what needs to be done.”
Ana restrained Emilia as she reached for a heavy-looking paperweight sitting on the doctor’s desk, knowing what direction she would have thrown it. The paperweight would have knocked some sense in the man, but it would have also landed Emilia in jail. “Let’s take María home, Emilia. We’re finished here.”
Facebook: facebook~ Eleanor Parker Sapia
Historical novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia was born in Puerto Rico and raised as an Army brat in the United States, Puerto Rico, and many European cities. As a child, she could be found drawing, writing short stories, and reading Nancy Drew books sitting on a tree branch. Eleanor’s life experiences as a painter, counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker, continue to inspire her writing. Eleanor loves introducing readers to strong, courageous Caribbean and Latin American women who lead humble yet extraordinary lives in extraordinary times. Her debut historical novel, A Decent Woman, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, has garnered praise and international acclaim. She is a proud member of PENAmerica and the Historical Novel Society. A Decent Woman is July 2015 Book of the Month for Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is currently writing her second historical novel titled, The Island of Goats, set in Puerto Rico, Spain, and Southern France. When Eleanor is not writing, she loves facilitating creativity groups, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago a second time. Eleanor has two loving grown children, and currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia.