USMAÍL, by Pedro Juan Soto
Before Vieques became a cause celebre for Al Sharpton, Edward James Olmos, Bobby Kennedy Jr, et el, there was USMAÍL...Now for the first time USMAÍL is appearing in an English-language edition making what is considered a Puerto Rican literary classic available to a wider audience of English readers...San Juan Star ( for full review click here)
…Still we must single out one novel, without which no outsider can ever hope to have an inkling as to what makes Vieques tick, USMAÍL, The Vieques Times
Take a Journey into the Heart and Soul of Vieques
The story follows the life of a boy born to a poor, black woman from the rural countryside, whose American lover, sent to Vieques to manage a government assistance program, abandons her upon learning that she is expecting his child.
But before her death, she bestows upon her newborn son a mysterious name, a name which will prove to haunt him for the rest of this life.
The Historical Context
But in spite of all these dues paid into the system he would never be accused of being politically correct. Puerto Rican artist/intellectual — ipso facto — politically incorrect, obviously anti-colonialist — outspoken and oft-quoted. Does he dare say “No,” when the establishment expects a “Yes?”
There’s lots of information about Pedro Juan Soto on the internet — from the Lonely Planet Travel Guide to San Juan to study courses at Wesleyan and Johns Hopkins. Mississippi State’s Quarterly even offers a book titled, Usmaíl: the Puerto Rican Joe Christmas, that promises parallels between Light in August and the Soto novel as well as a discussion of the Faulknerian influence on Latin American novelists.
Be that as it may, some local info
may be in order. Usmaíl makes repeated
reference to the display of black banners. During a good part of Pedro
life the Puerto Rico flag, flourished these days by Miss Universe, boxers
and other stars and champions, was criminally outlawed by colonial occupying
was never a resident of Vieques, but during these visits he paid careful
attention to what he heard and saw and was thus able to carry away a
deep-felt and faithful impression of the plight of these island people
in such unnatural conditions.
Time Magazine quoted the author in May, 1979, claiming “outright assassination.” He filed suit against the commonwealth government and against Federal authorities for their part in the cover-up. The governor stuck to his story. Soto investigated. The press investigated and wrote stories and books; the Puerto Rican Senate held hearings and brought in Sam Dash, the Watergate investigator; Hollywood investigated and produced a feature-length film. Years of investigations.
Political incorrectness was bucking the big guys. But finally, the outright assassinations were established, the Federal Marshal removed, five district attorneys disbarred and ten “heroic” cops jailed. The commonwealth settled Soto’s lawsuit for a million dollars to the victims’ families and the FBI and Justice officials published letters of apology to the people of Puerto Rico. Pedro Juan had originally only sued to gain plaintiff’s rights to access official files.
Back on campus professor Pedro Juan Soto was called “grouchy.” His incisive wit was too keen and cutting? But wouldn’t a man who paid such constant attention to details and nuances develop a natural awareness of so much more to be cynical about? Is all humor gallows humor?
Soto said students in his literature courses “...hate long books and I’m beginning to know what they mean.” Indeed his “Memoirs From My Amnesia” (published in 1991) contained only 134 pages. He told interviewers from the Caribbean PhD Program “let’s do it (the interview) in English then, I hate translators.”
by Charlie Connelly
USMAÍL is the story of a Viequense boy born to parents who come from different worlds, His mother is a poor black countrywoman; his father a red-haired federal government assistance administrator. They meet in the opening chapter. Abandoned by both parents -- his father deserted his mother when he learns that she was pregnant and his mother died shortly after his birth -- , Usmaíl navigated his way through a confusing life dependent upon his surroundings.
Though Connelly notes that Pedro Juan Soto was educated in the US and Europe in his biography of the author, he emphasizes Soto’s life as an anti-colonialist, an artist and an intellectual. Though from the main island (Puerto Rico) Pedro Juan Soto regularly visited his father, then a prisoner at the Fort. Connelly accurately writes that “[Soto] paid careful attention to what he heard and saw and was thus able to carry away a deep-felt and faithful impression of the plight of these island people in such unnatural conditions.” The translation of USMAÍL opens a window for English only readers to view the Vieques of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s through the perspective of locals.
The novel is socially and politically relevant to today’s Vieques. According to Connelly, USMAÍL is the seminal book regarding Vieques to this day. Its been around for a long time and I’m shocked that it hadn’t been translated.”
Read the St. John Sun Times article: "The Story Behind the Novel"