The Signe family is blessed with two daughters. Consuelo, the elder, is thought of as pensive and book-loving, the serious child-la niña seria-while Mili, her younger sister, is seen as vivacious, a ray of tropical sunshine. Two daughters: one dark, one light; one to offer comfort and consolation, the other to charm and delight. But, for all the joy both girls should bring, something is not right in this Puerto Rican family; a tragedia is developing, like a tumor, at its core.
In this fierce, funny, and sometimes startling novel, we follow a young woman’s quest to negotiate her own terms of survival within the confines of her culture and her family.
In reflecting on The Meaning of Consuelo, Julia Alvarez expresses what one finds at the heart of the book that makes it both beautiful and sad at the same time: “A bittersweet tale of the price one pays to re-invent the story handed down by one’s antepasados and familia. Consuelo is both herself and every mujer, and her story her own and that of her island, torn between self-discovery and safety.”
It’s not a light read. How could it be? From the very first chapter, we realize that what follows is the unfolding of la tragedia that would forever change Consuelo and her family. The novel tackles a number of difficult themes such as mental illness, sexuality, gender, rejection, poverty, independence, tradition, and progress. Like many other books we’ve featured, this is a coming-of-age story. Our protagonist, Consuelo, struggles for the right to define herself at the same time that she grapples with the mental illness of her sister, society’s rejection of her gay cousin, and the growing tensions between the traditional Puerto Rican culture of gente decente and the increasing influence of progressive America.
I think it’s fairly safe to say that Consuelo’s family is a dysfunctional one. Her family fails to successfully handle the homosexuality of her cousin Patricio, or the mental illness of her sister Mili. The family appears unable to accept either situation, as these are not issues of gente decente. In different ways, the family loses both Patricio and Mili as a result of the decisions they make. This isn’t to say that the family is ‘all bad.’ We all know that families are complex, and they come with both the good and the bad. Tempered by the expectations of what it means to be a mujer decente, Mami’s family is one with a history of strong women. Surprisingly, it is Mami’s mother, Abuela, who is the most explicit in her support of progress toward gender equality. While she may cling to the traditions of past generations of women, she does embrace the technological progress that made life easier for women: “She then vowed to invest in every product that allowed her the luxury she had never had as a wife and mother—time for herself” (p. 26). To a certain degree, it’s painful to watch Consuelo’s relationship with her parents unfold as she ages. To her parents, Consuelo is the strong, dependable, serious child who needs little parenting or attention, and as a result, little love. She is certainly strong, but it is troubling to watch as she struggles through her teenage years not only alone, but also responsible for her mentally ill younger sister. As many of our students may also have to deal with equally complex family dynamics or feelings of isolation, the novel creates the space to connect those experiences to classroom learning and discussion.
There’s something difficult about watching Consuelo come-of-age on her own, with little support from her parents, but there’s also something empowering in seeing Consuelo decide for herself how she will be defined. The idea of being the outsider, el fulano or la fulana, is an important one in the story. At the beginning of the novel it’s used as a means to separate the gente decente from others; it’s a way to enforce the economic and social stratification of society. Both Consuelo and the reader are introduced to the complicated notion of the outsider through the neighborhood transvestite. He’s good enough to come through the backdoors to do manicures, but must be completely ignored if seen out in public. But by the end of the novel, something changes, at least for Consuelo. She’s realized that there is a certain power in embracing the idea of la fulana. Shunned for the choices she makes with her boyfriend, Consuelo accepts the role of la fulana, and is empowered in doing so. By refusing to play the role of the shamed fulana, Consuelo’s peers find they have little power over her. Other reviews have called Consuelo “gritty and brave.” I agree. Here is a protagonist that suffers through experiences that many of our students may be all too familiar with. She survives, and on her own terms. She chooses how she will define herself, not limiting herself to the traditions of her family or her society. This is the takeaway, the real lesson we want all of our students to master.
Our complete educator’s guide is available here.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out the links to other reviews below:
If you’re interested in hearing what the author herself has to say about her work, check out the following online interview:
- Bookmark: Interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer
- Teaching Multicultural Literature interview with Judith Ortiz Cofer