What it is like to grow up Hispanic in twentieth century America, whether in the American West or Southwest, in the Spanish-speaking barrios of larger midwestern cities such as Chicago, or in New York’s Spanish Harlem, is a story that largely remains to be told. It is becoming more and more apparent that the Hispanic population of the United States (including Puerto Rico) is a significant “minority” which must be listened to, which must be acknowledged. With more than fifteen million Mexican-American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Spanish “legal” citizens now living in America, and countless more “illegal alien” immigrants from Mexico, the Hispanic chorus of voices is one with much to say about America and about the ethnic experience.
Certainly, each particular subgroup has its own voice, as does each individual within the Hispanic culture. Nevertheless, Hispanics share many problems and aspirations, whatever their culture of origin, and in the last two decades particularly, the issues of bilingualism—whether to speak English or Spanish or both—go far toward defining the Hispanic experience in America, profoundly determining what it means to “grow up” Hispanic in any region of the country. These issues of language and its relationship with populist and elitist cultures are dramatized and given life in Edward Rivera’s excellent memoir—a series of remembrances largely realistic and “factive” but also imaginative and “fictive.”
Whether as memoir, novel, or prose suite, Family Installments reveals with poignant humor just how a sensitive and intelligent young man carries his Puerto Rican heritage with him during his assimilation into the much-talked-about and sometimes doubted and denigrated “ideal” of the American melting pot. In the process, the author shows that entering the American mainstream, living the American dream, and ascending the socioeconomic ladder is indeed still possible—but at a cost. Although a painful journey, it is by no means an either-or proposition whereby family and ethnicity are hastily abandoned or forgotten. Quite the reverse: one can grow up both Hispanic and American.
Family Installments also provides a wonderful rendering of the effects of language (oral and written) and a compulsive love of words on a special kind of individual—the writer. In this sense, Rivera’s memoir is part of a larger, universalized literary tradition: a narrative portrait of the artist as a young man.
Rivera’s “family installments” began to appear as early as 1971, when the first chapter of this book, a piece entitled “Antecedentes,” was published in the New American Review. During the eleven years in which Rivera worked on the book, various other chapters were published in such diverse periodicals as The Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingue and New York. As a result, each of the thirteen chapters in the volume stands as a self-contained narrative—whether a story or a vignette. Also, as a result of this kind of protracted composition over a decade of teaching, working, writing, and living, the finished product does not always cohere. There are gaps, and there are repetitions. Nevertheless, the overall chronological framework makes for a relatively unified and satisfying artistic whole.
The two main ingredients which make Family Installments...
(The entire section is 1389 words.)