Jesus y Concha Colon: a Puerto Rican story of love, tradition, migration and modernity in early 20th century New York.
In turn Concha's letters to Jesus, though far fewer in number, also offer an intriguing, if limited, view of the voice of a Puerto Rican woman moving not only from the Island to New York, but from a traditional role to a more modern one. (3) In some letters she calms and soothes him, but she can often be found challenging him. Ultimately, the letters reveal a love story that grows vast enough to embrace a growing love for New York City and the struggle for dignity for all workers, a devotion to Puerto Rico and the fight for independence, and a commitment to the new "colony" of Puerto Ricans facing so many struggles abroad. Examining the love letters of a political activist and writer from the earliest migrations of Puerto Ricans to New York offers access to the foundational role of love in bringing social change and offering hope. It is in this light we can consider that Alice Walker entitled her memoir about her life as a social activist, Anything We Love Can Be Saved (1997). I examine the specific alchemy of love and self-expression in Jesus Colon's letters to Concha as a means of understanding the pivotal role of love in his coming of age as both a writer and an activist. Centralizing his private self-actualization through these letters is a choice to prioritize the inner lives of activists, not just their outer works, and the ways these inner lives sustain and shape them.
Born in 1901 in Cayey, Puerto Rico, Jesus Colon nursed a traditional "Boricua" pride in a progressive political community of tabaqueros in Puerto Rico, which was deepened by exposure and commitment to a cosmopolitan circle in New York City that included international socialism, the communist party, and many modernist ideas that were far from home for many Puerto Rican men of his generation. His archives reveal that many more were involved in such political activities in the early twentieth century than has ever been brought clearly into focus, but it also points to the unique and early nature of his own awakening (Vazquez 2009). Equally generative was Concha's eventual active role in these radical politics, and how that shared milieu played a role in their love story (Delgado 1998, 177). Her role as his early archivist is especially important as we consider how she was "writing" their story by capturing the documents that would tell it in ways his published work might not.
Reading letters is always an act of voyeurism in that only after they are archived are they ever intended for an audience beyond the two writers. It was common practice in letter writing circles to share letters out loud with close friends, family, or groups for whom the information was relevant or engaging, (4) and in migration circumstances it was even more common for letters to be sent to, and by, those who could read and write then shared among the many who could not; love letters, however, are generally a breed apart. They are intimate documents inspired and fueled by a desire to keep alive through words what is threatened by distance, or unseen, but deeply imagined, obstacles of every sort. They are private, and they feel private even as you read them almost one hundred years after they were written. According to literary tradition, there are many reasons to delve into the archives in search of love letters: to find the muse of a great writer (Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald), to find the story of the life of the muse during a time when women were not allowed or expected to write anything but letters (Victor Hugo and Juliet Douet), to explore the secrets told in the privacy of letters and compare them to the official story (Ahmet Midhat Efendi and [The Poet] Fitnat Hanim), to trace the emerging voice of a great writer as his/her voice is made public or is changed by love (Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne), and perhaps to discover something of the private version of a public persona and discover that it is quite different from what was imagined (Hemingway's lost love letters.) These are usually letters from, to, or between the already famous or well known, or at least after the fact of their achieved fame.
However, love letters, even when they are not archived or attached to public figures, still fascinate. In finding and reading her grandparents love letters, Elise Juska writes: "I am reading them as some sort of project. Because I am the writer in the family. Because I am single and have no children and have the time. I am reading them to learn about a part of my grandparents' lives, to ask them about it while I can. Maybe I am reading to discover some insight about love--the beginnings of a marriage that has endured for nearly seventy years--because at thirty six I have failed repeatedly at finding it myself" (Juska 2013, 173). In truth, love letters fascinate, in the same way that love stories do, for the inscrutable mystery at their center even when the details are hashed and rehashed hundreds of times. If the lessons of love cannot be gleaned in them, at least the lessons of life can be, and in the letters of Jesus y Concha we also have the life lessons gathered by a people granted American Citizenship in 1917 without ever having left their island homes or learned a word of English (Acosta-Belen and Santiago 2006). Jesus y Concha lived the story of how the Puerto Ricans came first in very small numbers to a New York City where Spanish was not spoken, and they were not welcome, to coming in such large numbers that in 1946 alone more than 40,000 arrived in New York City, and by 1960 there were almost 600,000 Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (Acosta-Belen and Santiago 2006, 80-83). The letters, beautifully written and filed with poetic and political contemplations, also tell a story that confronts stereotypes about Puerto Ricans and education that come to dominate the public perception for many decades, despite Colon's earliest efforts to combat them. Finally, the letters also serve as a reminder that though they were exceptional, given who the writers became, they likely were not the only such letters traveling between the island and New York City. They act as a placeholder for considering the generation of Puerto Ricans who first arrived and fought for their love stories and our history all at once.
The letters themselves are deeply buried, both in the history of the transmigration of the Puerto Rican people in New York City in the early to mid-20th century, and in an enormous and meticulously kept archive (21 cubic feet) housed at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, CUNY. However, they, like the published work of Jesus Colon, have been lost and found more than once. (5) Jesus's letters to Concha inspired a play performed by Pregones Theater and a CD of the songs adapted for the performance from Jesus's letters and other written work, arranged and sung by famous Puerto Rican balladeer Danny Rivera. (6) Concha's letters to Jesus were used in articles by Linda C. Delgado to include Rufa Concepcion Colon [Concha] in Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia (2006), and an article entitled "Rufa Concepcion Fernandez: The Role of Gender in the Migration Process," included in the book, Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives, edited by Felix V Matos Rodriguez and Linda C. Delgado (1998).
In thinking about what to look for, or closely "read," in these letters, Jesus Colon himself gives guidance. In one of the boxes from the archives there is a typed formal essay labeled "section 1/assignment 1 entitled: Why I am Studying Writing" (Colon, 1, Archive, Box 9, Folder 11). The essay is a very basic attempt to give his biography as a writer. It is only two pages long (shorter than many of his letters to Concha), and it is odd if only because of its timing. In it he writes, "In January I will be sixty five" (Colon, 1, Archive, Box 9, Folder 11). Since he was born in 1901 this essay would have been written in 1966, a full five years after the publication of his first book, A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches, in 1961. The essay points to many things about his writing: his work in English was a conscious and political decision, his writing in English had persistent ESL errors (though the voice, creativity and style remain distinctively his own) that were clearly edited out by someone for his published work, (7) and he was, at the age of sixty-five, still exploring the very reason he ever wrote in English, "I am a Puerto Rican. If I write better English, I will be in a better position to counteract the misconceptions that are written almost every day about the Puerto Ricans in the United States" (Colon, 1, Archive, Box 9, Folder 11). From this, his own stated mission to address the misconceptions about Puerto Ricans, came the idea that his letters to Concha form the foundation of a story never told: a Puerto Rican love story that grows up, politically and emotionally, on the page. On the great fame of West Side Story and Tony and Maria, Jesus himself explained: "We Puerto Ricans have even been subjected to treatment in the Broadway drama and a fabulously successful musical show. But invariably this treatment harps on what is superficial and sentimental, transient and ephemeral, or bizarre and grotesque in Puerto Rican life--and always out of context with the real history, culture and traditions of my people" (Colon 1982). Although love letters could be said to have a significant amount of material that could be categorized as "sentimental, transient and ephemeral," they also reveal, especially over long periods like the letters between Jesus y Concha, the quotidian and the deepening of the bonds that support his goal of exposing "the real history, culture and traditions of my people" (1982, 9).
In Jesus Colon's letters to Concha we can trace his moral, political and intellectual development. We can also trace in those letters some of his earliest published works in Spanish, such as the series entitled "Cartas inmorales a mi novia," which he wrote and published under the pseudonym Pericles Espada in Grafico in 1928. (8) The newspaper was noted as representing and serving the Puerto Rican Community, as was Colon himself, by Colon's friend and contemporary Bernardo Vega, who purchased the newspaper in 1927 from Ramon La Villa (Vega 1984, 149). Of the paper's goals and status Vega wrote, "Grafico was the best paper in the Puerto Rican community so far ... no case of discrimination against a Puerto Rican was not condemned in the pages ... in a word, it served, within its limited means, as a faithful eyewitness for the Puerto Rican Community in New York" (1984, 49). It is essential then to examine how one of the first series of cronicas Colon publishes is in the form of "imaginary" letters to his girlfriend. Although he does so under a pseudonym, the content and structure of the letters are immediately familiar once you have had the opportunity to read his original letters to Concha. Starting from the time frame he uses to open the first letter, "hoy cumplimos diez anos escribiendo de amores ... diez anos escribiendo de dos as tres cartas por semana" (Colon 2001, 37), in 1928, when this was published, he had in fact been writing to Concha since 1918, exactly ten years, although by then they had been married for three years. It is clear he used the foundation of his letters to her as a starting point for his philosophical letters from Pericles in Grafico. Even the opening greetings, amada mia, mi bien amada, mi querida unica, to the imaginary letters read like an homage to Concha and his letters to her.
Edwin Karli Padilla Aponte, in his excellent and comprehensive introduction to Jesus Colon's published works in Spanish-language newspapers, Lo que el pueblo me dice (2001), especially his analysis on the use of the structure of cronicas, offers a somewhat limited view on the choice to write love letters as a form. The limitation of the analysis may in fact be his never having had the opportunity to read the love letters young Jesus wrote to Concha. Padilla Aponte explains Colon's transition from his first style of using humor and sarcasm under the pseudonym Miquis Tiquis to the more philosophical tone of the letters from Pericles in this way:
Jesus Colon necesitaba una prosa seria capaz de abordar temas trascendentes. De esa necesidad nacio el seudonimo Pericles Espada ... portador de meditaciones mas profundas. Estos trabajos periodisticos se titularon "cartas inmorales a mi novia" siendo la novia una alegoria de la patria, y aparecieron ... como cartas ... el pretexto de responder a supuestas dudas, preguntas o comentarios de la novia en una carta anterior daba motivo para la insercion del tema deseado. (2001, 24)
What Padilla Aponte does not realize is that the girlfriend may be, as he posits, an allegory for the "patria" and also a real woman who helped Colon to clarify his ideas about everything from love of country to doubting God. Padilla Aponte also imagines the girlfriend's doubts as a convenient literary device for inserting desired themes as if the "intended" audience had asked for them. What is not understood here is that Colon's actual love letters to Concha capture the coming of age of a Puerto Rican boy as he becomes a man, and a writer, through the deepest and most long-lasting relationship of his life. He frequently opened the letters addressing questions she had asked or doubts she has presented in previous letters. Despite having dropped out of high school in Puerto Rico, and finishing in night school in Brooklyn, Jesus Colon became an intellectual, a writer, and an activist in two languages. However, before he wrote political articles in radical newspapers and vignettes "disguised" as letters to an imaginary girlfriend that would eventually be published, he wrote letters to Concha professing love, exploring his own ideas about life in New York and sharing his philosophical impressions with her; essentially, he was sharing his writing, and his desire to write, before he had completely come to understand it or declare it to himself. In his writing assignment, nearly sixty-five years old, he cautiously explained:
I am studying writing because this is what I will like to be: a writer, above everything else in the world. I rather be a writer than Governor of Puerto Rico. I could say even President of the United States: but I will not say it because nobody will believe me. I am studying writing because that's what I have been doing for years. Only that now, instead of studying from scores of second hand books (some new ones) bought at random and studied them without order or reason, I study now in a famous writer's school ... To put it in a nutshell, since boyhood, I wanted to be a writer above everything else. I have been studying writing for years from Spanish and English textbooks, though not in a systemized way. (Colon, Archives, 2, Box 9, Folder 11)
He was also, unknowingly perhaps, studying writing and becoming a writer in his letters to Concha, where he is frequently found mounting arguments, describing new and exciting things he is experiencing in great detail, and trying to inspire and sometimes even chide her into becoming more of a reader and writer herself. To be clear: the letters also push at the boundaries of traditional love letters. One of the most fascinating letters is a rare undated letter that seems to fit into the ten-year mark (1928) of his published "Pericles letters" time frame--there is a reference he makes of wishing Concha had been reading over "the past ten years" and the fact that she does not yet seem to be fully engulfed in her role as his political partner yet (Colon Archives, Box 7, Folder 12).
This letter is fascinating on many fronts, starting with the paper it is written on. Colon composed the letter on stationary from Camp Nitgedaiget on The Hudson, a place described as meaning "no worries" in Yiddish, also known as Camp Beacon. It was a vacation resort for both Jewish progressive liberals and Communist sympathizers who held an idealistic worldview." (9) In the letter he is addressing Concha's interest in attending, but he goes on to tell her that she is most likely interested in the natural pool, or the good food, or the beautiful vistas he has described, but that she is not ready for the "other world" the camp really represents, the world of the "real proletariat" because she has refused to read. Colon writes, "Concha, mi Concha, !si tu hubieras leido en estos diez anos!" He underlines the word read twice, and then proceeds to describe to her a world that could not have been more confounding to a traditional Catholic woman raised in Puerto Rico (or your average working class immigrant in the New York, for that matter). He describes a section of sunning terraces where he proceeds to remove his bathing suit among a mixed-gender group, also in the nude, who proceed to discuss and argue about politics. In the letter he seems utterly frustrated by Concha's old-fashioned allegiances to what he considers outdated morality, and he proceeds to rip into the "tipo average" of Puerto Ricans that would not understand the joys or modernity of this "other world." He has clearly put her into that type, but he is also offering a means of escape, by telling her to read the progressive political pamphlets she has called "boring and dry." This letter mirrors in many ways a letter he writes later, under the assumed name of Pericles, for publication, where he chides the imaginary girlfriend for her desire to receive letters full of love and poetry. In the real letter he writes in a very paternalistic tone to Concha,
Mira hijita mia yo te traigo luego que leas quince o vente folletos que andan por mi cuarto de estudios y que tu nunca te has ocupado de leer. Porque son tan secos y tan sosos, ?verdad? No hablan de amor, de clarion de luna.
Dear child of mine I will bring you as soon as you read fifteen or twenty pamphlets that are strewn around my study and that you have never bothered to read. Because they are so dry and flavorless, right? They don't speak of love and moonlight. (author's translation)
In his first published letter as Pericles he writes to the "imaginary girlfriend" that he is changing the tone of his letters and plans to write in a new style and to explore the difference in education and atmosphere that exist between them, and that she clearly thinks marriage will be "all kisses and moonlight" (2001, 37). This intention of setting a new tone is very clear in the real letter from Camp Nitgedaiget that he closes with imagining what his sister or Concha's mother would say about what he has told her of his summer in the "other world" and their perception of its immorality, which he chases down with his new philosophical understandings. He then moves to assuage Concha's fears or possible jealousy by writing, "ahora no te pongas por lo que escribo a imaginarte cosas tambien con 'tu moral.' Tu negro llegara completito e intocado" ("I will return untouched") is his disclaimer, but he is also rejecting her readiness for such an experience. It is easy to imagine that he is simply not ready to allow his wife to participate in the modern and entirely foreign concept of public nudity, despite his own joy in it, and is trying to scare her away. Regardless of the complex intentions, he writes a five-page letter on that stationery from the "other world" and describes it with great clarity and rigor. He is honest and open with his wife in a way that is modern and egalitarian, even if only in the written word. Yet, like his public letter-writing identity Pericles, he disdains her demand for romantic words and poetry. His own notions of the possibilities of his writing are clearly expanding, even as he uses the same format of the love letter, he pushes at its boundaries in both the published versions and the private.
One of the most astonishing things about the letters is how young both of them were when the letters began and how mature each already seemed. It was a time when Puerto Rican seventeen-year-olds were regularly called off to war, left school to work and marry, left their countries alone to venture to a new land and considered themselves men and women. These letters reveal a Puerto Rican male youth who is almost unrecognizable to our cultural stereotypes today. If anything, the stereotypes, and the social exclusion of young Puerto Rican men, have intensified in many ways that would be both heartbreaking and infuriating to Jesus Colon, so much so that despite being the longest-standing Latino group in New York City, Puerto Rican men have the highest dropout rates from high school in the city. (10) These were precisely the kinds of statistics he hoped his writing would work against. In his letters to Concha, Jesus reveals a different story, one of a young man arriving from Puerto Rico and working low-paying odd jobs, confronting racism with things like Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" hanging on his wall to inspire him (Colon 1982, 39), (11) writing poetic letters of love, going back to night school, coming to political consciousness, becoming a community activist, labor organizer and writer, all while discovering himself in relation to a woman with whom he would share his life, as well as his creative and political journey.
Writing to Concha clearly inspired Jesus on various levels. There are far too many letters to handle in such a short treatment. However, there are several interesting themes that are explored in many letters over the years that reveal the heart of the story of Jesus y Concha: their love for each other, Concha's influence as an inspiration for Jesus, the inherent conflicts and difficulties of migration, their political commitment, and their growing modernist perspectives and the tension these sometimes brought about in their marriage. The modernist symbol of machinery plays a role in their letters as well, as they both move from handwritten letters to typed letters and the form and tone of their letters change as a result. It would be too simplistic to assume it is simply the use of the machine that is changing the letters since each is also growing as an intellectual and in their relationship to each other. However, the introduction of the typewriter to print the letters changes the tone from love letters to letters of love and other things. Linda C. Delgado points out this transition:
Concha focused on her role as the dutiful betrothed living a very traditional life on the island. However, we see transitions occurring, in both of these people, as US influence becomes more prominent in their lives. Concha, who complained about Colon's terseness in her earlier letters [as he began to transition to typed letters] resorts to similar patterns as she learns to handle the typewriter better, and as she later becomes more competent in office work. (1998, 176)
Through this story of two young Puerto Ricans facing migration, the modern world, and the challenges of love in the transition from traditional to modern roles, it is possible to get a glimpse of the challenges faced, obstacles overcome, and the love shared by thousands of Puerto Rican love stories that began on the island and found themselves to be continued in New York City. These are the stories we never read about that Jesus Colon so hoped we someday would, and somehow through them come to know the Puerto Rican people as he knew them--for who they were to each other, not just the "problematic" strangers they appeared to be to everyone else. In honor of the intimacy of the letters, and the deep personal love expressed, I have chosen to use their first names, which is how all correspondence was signed or addressed. Particularly important to me is not to distinguish the one Colon (Jesus) by his last name, and the other Colon (Concha) by her first name. If anything was worked out in these letters, it was that they ultimately formed a partnership of equals at a time when such a thing was rare for husbands and wives, and despite their own personal tug of war against patriarchal traditions that were firmly entrenched for both of them.
It is useful to consider the powerful role of love letters in the life of a writer in the context of other famous love correspondence. Leland Person writes of Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Hawthorne's marriage was unquestionably the most important event in his emotional life, and the letters he wrote Sophia during three and a half years of courtship evidence his stake in that relationship. Although allowances should be made for a lover's enthusiasm, the letters testify to Sophia's remarkable power to make him know himself--to make him 'be'"(Person 1987, 212). Hawthorne fell in love in his thirties with some literary achievement already under his belt. Jesus began writing his letters as a seventeen-year-old boy, and can also be seen revealing himself to himself as he revealed himself to Concha. Without question, his relationship with her was the most important event in his emotional life, but it was also a critical one in his literary and political life as well. Years later he even credits her with inspiring him to write one of the sketches that appear in his first published book:
The other evening my wife, Concha, was asking me: "Why don't you write a sketch about the man who, though he was seeing you for the first time in his life, placed a ten dollar bill in your hand when you told him you were out of work. Then he said you could pay him back some time in the future." After a pause my wife continued: "I remember that Sunday, soon after we were married, that you told me: "Today we are going to pay ten dollars to a man" ... "So why didn't you write a sketch about him?" my wife insisted. "Because there are things that happen to you in life and if you write about them, nobody will believe you." "I suppose that's why some people say that truth is stranger than fiction," Concha added a little philosophically. (Colon 1982, 28)
Though he goes on to tell another story, and not the one she has requested, she has clearly served as an inspiration for it and a willing audience as he explains, "My wife did not say a word because she knew that I was to start one of those episodes of my youth, of which she knew very little" (Colon 1982, 28). The implication of this line is that despite all that he had written to her over those long years it had only been the tip of the iceberg in terms of what she still did not know, and she was, even years into their marriage, still listening, still eliciting, still asking him to tell her who he was and how it had come to be that way. That she knew the story about the ten dollars, and still wanted him to write it, reveals that in fact she valued his stories, perhaps more than he did at the time. Concha's willingness, even desire, to hear exactly what he has to say, even if she has heard it before, is clearly linked to his emerging voice as a storyteller. Concha served for Jesus a similar role to the one Sophia seems to have served for Hawthorne. Person explains: "Sophia's thoughts and feelings--Sophia's words--help him to recognize and express his own" (1987, 214). Though this may appear an archaic celebration of the secondary status of muse from a feminist perspective, in the context of thinking about the centrality of self-love and the love of others in political resistance and resilience, it is crucial to navigate the terrain of "seeing" the muse carefully and without easy reliance on tropes of status and the value of public life over private life. Finally, in 1961 his first published book is dedicated to Concha despite his having been married to another woman, Clara Colon, also a political partner and writer, ten years after Concha's death. Concha's imprint on that book, the stories he tells in it and the character she "plays" in it are clearly extensions of a role she initiated in their letter writing.
In the Pericles letters to an "Imaginary or allegorical girlfriend," Jesus addresses a debate about the existence of God to a girlfriend who was born "near the local church and whose aunts live in a convent" (Colon 2001, 38--author's translation). Although it is easy to read that whole letter as an excuse to put forth his atheism, traces of its reality in relation to Concha are clear in a vignette about his mother-in-law, for whom he hangs a picture of Jesus Christ on his wall when she comes to visit them in New York City (Colon 1982, 101). In the vignette he writes, "I realized I had a problem on my hands seriously affecting the future of our family. What should I do? ... Early next morning I went to a Catholic religious store. I asked to see an image of Jesus. I picked one that seemed to be very human. From there I went to the nearest Five and Ten and bought a framed picture of some fruits ... and placed the image of Jesus in the frame. Now it looked as if I had bought both image and frame in the same store" (1982, 103). In a turn of phrase worthy of the most agile cultural critic, the real Jesus separates the "image" from the "frame" so as to appease his wife's family religion and his own beliefs. The vignette goes on to show how this one small appeasement, replacing a painting of fruits with a painting of Jesus, allows him to build a better relationship with his mother-in-law and even influence her political beliefs. In much the same way that Padilla Aponte explains how Pericles handles religion in his letters, and must ultimately back away from it because it alienated the readers of the day: "En la carta numero tres intento desconstruir el concepto de Dios y la de religion siguiendo el metodo materialista dialectico ... Esta incursion al tema religioso por Pericles Espada pudo haber ofendido a gran parte de sus lectores quienes eran catolicos y probablemente haya sido esta la razon por la cual este tema desaparecio en sus cronicas posteriores" (Colon 2001, 27). This is just one small example of a theme that was certainly worked out in his letters and life with Concha, and appeared in his imaginary published letters as well.
There are several important facts about the letters that stand out. Though it is implied (by reference in the letter) that they began earlier, the first archived letter from Jesus to Concha is from 1920. There is a complete box of letters from Jesus to Concha in sixteen folders dated from 1920 to 1948 with a significant gap in letters from 1938 to 1948. These letters, according to the archivist, and all available supporting evidence, were in fact archived and saved by Concha herself, as she served as secretary in many of the organizations Jesus started or participated in (Delgado 1998, 178) and had saved all of his letters to her in small bundles tied in ribbons. It is unclear if the small folder of about seven letters from her to Jesus is the result of her own hand in editing them out of the archive before she died, or Jesus having not saved them or removing them himself. Lastly, all the letters were written in Spanish. Although both did small symbolic code switching with words in English, it never appears as a form of communication for them, as it does in his letters from his second wife Clara. (12)
The letter he sends Concha on March 21, 1921, is one of a pattern where Jesus sets out to clarify meaning, correct her understanding and even chide her for being insensitive. He attempts to abstract her words from her physical being, thereby restoring her to his fantasy of perfection and even preemptively forgiving her without her asking to be forgiven. It is an interesting exploration of both his struggle to accept her as she is, and his growing powers as a writer as he engages in what could be considered meta-writing. In these letters Jesus essentially explores his own understanding of words, power, intent, and authority. He both rejects her responses on the basis of feeling verbally slighted and attempts to correct her understanding of what exactly he meant. In effect, he quotes her previous letters, deconstructs them and responds by quoting and clarifying his own. It was writing about writing and constructing meaning. It is interesting to observe this critical literary activity, which he was never able to participate in through any formal school setting, in his letters to Concha. It was also often writing about maintaining an image of her that was untainted and pure, "angelical" (never angry with him or fighting back, which in fact she did often). In 1921 Jesus was still attached to an idealized love and a very traditional paternalistic relationship with Concha, where even the smallest rejection or slight was bitterly felt. He was also alone in New York facing cold winters, bitter disappointment, racism, economic hardships and loneliness (Colon 1982).13 She, like her letters, was a beacon of hope and solace for him, and he powerfully used language to attempt to keep her continually what he needed her to be: perfect. Trying to sound loving, even when hurt, he used writing and words to point out the error of her ways, and restore her to his imagined purity. In this letter, she had responded to one of his previous letters in which he claimed that he would perhaps die without her letters. She wrote back, "If for any reason I were to stop writing to you, I am certain that you would not die." His response, to just that one line in her last letter, is eight pages long:
Tu ultima carta, en verdad, no la habia contestado, no porque no hubiese tenido tiempo, no porque no venian ideas a mi mente para escribir; pues vinieron muchas. Mas fue tan grande la impresion de tu carta, fue tan heterogeneo el efecto, que aun escribiendo estas lineas no se que decir; que contestar. Una carta que empezaba con, "My dearest" ?que efecto puede hacer sino un efecto "dear"? Pues te dire, no podia hacer otro efecto; pues tu carta venia de ti, fue escrita por ti. (Colon Archives, Box 8, Folder 3)
I had not answered your last letter, in truth, not because I didn't have the time or because no ideas came to mind, for actually many came. It was more the impact of your letter, which was so great and far reaching, that even as I write these few lines I don't know what to say; how to answer. A letter that began with "my dearest" what effect can it have but a "dear" one. It could have no other effect because it came from you and was written by you. (author's translation)
Establishing that her use of the phrase "My dearest" to open her letter could only have a "dear" effect on him, if only because it is written by her and has touched her hand, begins his reversal and rejection of what she has written in that one line about his not dying were she to stop writing. His long and highly charged response includes calling her words both "flowers and insults," but noting that the insults are transformed if only because he is certain they were not what she intended. In his attempt to separate his perceived insult from her actual body and self he writes:
Tus guijarros no hieren porque no eres tu la que los tiras. Son como producto de una influencia extra corporea de otro ser ... de un momento dado y de una hora cierta ... Tu no eres asi como te pintas en tu ultima carta: tan imperativa, tan subrayadora. Eres asi como esta en ese retrato que estoy viendo mientras escribo: angelical; como los angeles, simple, como los angeles humilde.... (Colon Archives, Box 8, Folder 3)
Essentially he claims it was an "out of body" experience that produced in a specific time and place an effect that was not truly hers, and that she is not as that letter portrays her, "imposing and demanding," but is instead as she looks in the picture of her he is looking at. Thus he describes her as "angelic, simple, humble." In a fascinating example of his art imitating his original letters, Pericles opens his last published letter: "Recibi tu retrato. Eres en el lo que siempre has sido: simple, inocente, sublimemente bella" (Colon 2001, 47). In both the real letter to Concha, and the published letter, he presents a classic description of the idealized wife in paternalistic cultures around the world, "simple, innocent, sublimely beautiful" and he is clearly hanging on to it as a vision of her though he already knows it is not true, and he himself is inspiring her to finish high school before coming to New York. In his attempts to idealize or correct her, we can see the power of her presence in his life, and his own conflict between his desire for a modern wife of shared political ideals, and a traditional Puerto Rican wife of shared conservative social norms in relation to her husband. Linda Delgado writes, "We also see in these letters conflict between Old World traditions and those changing as a result of modernity. Colon and Concha sort out their views on women and their role in American culture (1998, 176-77). This project they undertook together to see a partnership between man and woman as viable comes full circle in his vignette "My Wife Does Not Work," which was written for the worker's newspaper Oye, Boricua but never published, and translated from Spanish to English and published posthumously in The Way it Was and Other Writings. It may be Jesus Colon's ultimate love letter to Concha. In it he writes:
"My wife doesn't work" You don't know how many times I have heard these words from the lips of many married men! They pronounce these words with a certain little proudness like they're were doing their wives a favor. And what is the truth behind this resounding phrase, "My wife doesn't work?" The truth is that the woman who stays home doing house chores works as hard and many times harder than the man that goes out to work. The saddest thing about all of this is that women's housework is hard to see or remains unacknowledged or unappreciated. (1993, 67)
This was, perhaps, his most public, albeit veiled, declaration of how important and maybe unacknowledged Concha's presence in his life had been. In this vignette Jesus questions the way women's "work" is valued and the future potential for gender equality, a position that brought his radical modernist perspective into conflict with the more traditional aspects of Puerto Rican society, which may have played a part in the vignette not being published. He imagines:
The day will come when a woman may be able to make more money than her weekly allowance, which would be a mortal blow to masculine claims of superiority ... And who knows if, with the passing of time, that woman begins to read a newspaper like this, that represents her class-the working class. And from then on ... anything goes! (1993, 67)
This clearly points to a major transition for Jesus as he moved from the letters where he was making every effort to keep her "angelic." It is also important to consider the positions from which each of them were writing and managing a modernizing sense of the world. Their first seven years of letters are negotiating tools, not only between two lovers, but between two worlds. Concha sits in her insular catholic home responding to letters in which Jesus is not just growing older, he is becoming a socialist and a New Yorker. She herself is transformed through the confrontation with, and agile navigation of, his own metamorphosis. Although, he struggles for many years in their letters to balance his desire for modernity, and his longing for his "pure and angelic" Concha, their equality is built on her willingness to ask questions and disagree, and his commitment to reading her letters and taking each doubt and question as seriously as Pericles pretends to take those of his imaginary girlfriend.
However, what is most indicative of how formative these letters are for him remains how he relates to her as a writer, and uses their letters to clarify his own voice and intentions. In the letter in question above he quotes her letter by saying he was sitting on an old chair in his room when he came to the line "Pero si estoy segura que por cualquier circunstancia que yo te dejara de escribir, seguramente usted no se moriria." That she uses the formal "usted," which they rarely use in their letters, is a sign that she is responding to something in his tone that had upset her as well. He goes on then to quote what he said originally in his letter and then explain that surely she understood he did not mean that he would literally die, but rather that he would die psychically or spiritually. The most moving and poetic segment of the letter is his description of the feeling of oblivion, which he articulates as the feeling he meant to portray, as the result of her not writing to him anymore. It reads very much like the oblivion of being a migrant, alone, unmoored and surrounded by a kind of anonymity that feels like death, and which only news or people from home can cure:
In other words I did not mean to say that I would die in the sense of being buried etc.. I meant that my life, like so many others, would be like the ones that walk about in the light of life without so much as calling any attention to themselves, without doing anything of value, like those who are nothing ... I meant to say that I would die because life, as it is really defined, is not merely living: Living to live and eat and sleep; and working to eat and sleep; that is not life. Those who live like that are living as if they were dead and that is what I would be-one of those many, from that enormous tide that confuses, that drags, that is dead; without illusions and without hope ... and that is what I would be if the brilliant lighthouse, to which my life is directed ambitiously filled with hope, and by which it is illuminated along this complex ocean of giant waves, were to close its light to me ... very soon I would become confused in the waves....
(Colon Archives, Box 8, Folder 3--author's translation)
This reads not only as a powerful declaration of his love for her, and her enormous impact on him, but also as his growing awareness of the power of this love to inspire him to see the mass of anonymous workers as being lost and in need of light. He was alone in that mass when he arrived in New York, and her letters were a source of light and inspiration that would spread from a personal love story to a deeply political love for his people, and working people in general, that they would also share together. In Bernardo Vega's memoirs he mentions Jesus Colon thirteen different times, and each time it is in reference to some community or political organization, event or newspaper that Colon is the head of, founder of or within which he is an important participant. His centrality in these organizations, and Concha's work alongside him, is inextricably linked to the founding of the Puerto Rican community in New York City, which would grow beyond what any of them then imagined. This work began in those letters when, alone in NYC, his love for Concha, his self-respect and his love for community were being challenged daily, and his sanctuary was the space provided by her compassionate and attentive exchange of ideas.
The rest of the letter continues to try to make her see exactly what he meant and why it hurt so much to have been misunderstood, and claiming that surely she understood "the beautiful rhetorical notion that in love all exaggeration is acceptable."
This letter stands in stark contrast to one that he would send June 30, 1925 (Colon Archives, Box 8, Folder 3), just before they are to marry, which he addresses to her as "Mi pasiva temeraria" (rough and loose translation: "To my passive aggressive"). He spends a week detailing, through a seven-page typed letter with numbered points, all the ways in which she must obey him if in fact they are to marry. This letter is a response to some sort of family drama with his sister, and he is full of rage. He vacillates between a "machista" rage in which he declares that she is to obey him if she expects to become his wife and a wallowing self-pity in which he declares, "If you don't love me, I will try to console myself thinking that you are not the first to force me into the solitude in which I expect my life to unfold." The letter is long and bitter and ends with a threat and a declaration that may indicate something of the drama that might have unfolded:
Decide to obey me and make me happy and be faithful to me in everything I ask and you shall see. Above and beyond all the hugs and kisses of all women, Te quiere siempre, Jesus
This particular letter, typed and full of personal emotional turmoil, turns a page as Concha is getting ready to arrive in New York City herself. Again, the focus on his use of the written word to both see himself and others more clearly is marking his path toward the kind of writing he would later do, and it is also a private space to vent the frustrations and difficulties he is facing in New York City, which he later crafts into his most polished and long-lasting works. It is also an excellent example of how the wording takes the fluid, and sometimes languid explanations of earlier letters, and turns them into bullet point manifestos. There is, in this letter, a dance between that which is modern, in the epistolary form transformed by machinery and modernity into a typed manifesto, and what is traditional and conservative, namely his demand that she be obedient. The letters mirror the lives of these early migrants navigating poverty, discrimination and isolation in New York City, and colonialism and social conservatism at home in Puerto Rico. All the while growing and pushing at their own boundaries through their exposure to the loving, and often forgiving mirror, each held up for each other as they attempted to cross an invisible bridge into modern life.
In the later letters from 1948 (Colon Archives, Box 8, Folder 16), there is an active transmigration story being told, as well as a more mature marriage reflected, and a political intrigue foretold. He asks about her health, which seems to be the reason she returns to Puerto Rico for long spells, he asks her to bring books back from Puerto Rico and also tells her he will try to find the newspapers and books she is requesting he send to her (marking her own transition into her life as an active reader). He tells of new arrivals in New York, and the progress of the organizations, and asks about all those back home. He also writes to her about what he thinks of the coming elections for the first elected Puerto Rican Governor of Puerto Rico in 1948. Ominously, he is often reminding her to be careful what she writes in her letters implying that their politics may be a source of trouble for any that she might mention. This foreshadows when Jesus Colon is investigated, and called to testify, by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and writes a statement read at the Foley Square Courthouse. (Colon 1993, 100). Through all of these letters of love, and other things, their original passion is still keenly felt in the way he closes the letters:
Many kisses and hugs for the prettiest and best girl in the world, Yours, Jesus I shall continue to adore you always, Jesus With more desire to see you than to write to you, tu negrito, Jesus.
The last letter in the archive is dated November 23, 1948. She is in Puerto Rico, and he is on his way to meet her there. He tells her not to tell others since he only wants to be with family when he gets there.... and with her enjoying life and going to the beach:
Lo mucho que vamos a hablar y las muchas cosas que vamos a ver juntos! Vamos a gozar de lo lindo. Vete preparando a ir a la playa conmigo. (Colon Archives, Box 8, Folder 16) So many things we will talk about and so many things we will see together. We are going to enjoy the beauty of things. Get ready to go to the beach with me. (author's translation)
He also jokingly tells her that he is sure she didn't even think to take a bathing suit, and since she won't tell him herself he will find out from someone else and bring her one. Even in this last letter there is a clear sense of devotion made all the more poignant since they never had any children together and become a world unto themselves, which may also point to the ways the absence of children allowed Concha to emerge as a more equal partner in the political work of forming the early Puerto Rican community in New York City. The archive is filled with evidence of her participation and influence, and offers many more directions in which to explore her evolution from "angelic" girlfriend to life partner, and political companion.
Mi negrito de mi corazon, mi negrito socialista, my dearest negrito ... Concha's own letters open with similar terms of endearment though she does go out of her way to call him a socialist as a term of endearment more than once. This could denote a pride in his political commitment or an acceptance of its importance in his life. Her letters to Jesus are small in number, and reflect a pre-occupation with getting him to write longer, more loving letters, as he did at the start of their courtship. The letters also demonstrate her own growing anxieties and jealousy being away from him for so long, and her attempts to assuage his temper when he sends her the letter that demands obedience. In her response she fought back against his accusations, but repeatedly swore to obey his desire that she cut ties with his sister and her husband. The pressures of maintaining the relationship long distance certainly took their toll, and she did not leave enough letters to be able to examine the full breadth of her responses. She also took on the task of making sure he was clear about his own misunderstandings, but declared that she was frustrated by how many obstacles had been put in the way of their getting married. After the long typed response, she hand wrote a postscript essentially laying out several logistics for a way that would get her to New York to the home of a family known to her parents so they could marry. In a very modern move she took matters into her own hand by planning everything, and was able to leave for New York shortly after. Concha's letters leave only a trace of her voice, but her love for Jesus is felt strongly as she writes:
Mi felicidad y mi dicha esta en tu carino ... Bueno daddy mio ya estaras tranquilo y sabras que el amor de tu Conchita para ti es lo mas grande que existe en el orbe entero. (Colon Archives, Box 5, Folder 3)
My happiness and good fortune is in your affection.... So, my daddy, you will soon be calm and know that your Concha's love for you is the biggest things that exists in the whole world. (author's translation)
In adding the love letters to the body of work that is considered as the historical and biographical record of Jesus Colon's life and work, we are adding love to the ways in which Puerto Rican history can be read and understood. It is not just a list of "problems" but also a constellation of love stories between individuals, and between a people and their embattled "patria," language, citizenship and cultural identity. Jesus y Concha's love letters offer a glimpse into the evolution of a love story which is also political and reveals the continuum of the Greek categories of love: agape, phileo, storge and eros taking shape over time. The letters offer insight on how the early Puerto Ricans helped each other, maintained ties and communications and also forged new paths and identities in a modern world, and the centrality of love in the force and determination to do so. Hawthorne writes to Sophia, "Are we singular or plural, dearest? Has not each of us a right to use the first person singular, when speaking on behalf of our united being? Does not I, whether spoken by Sophia Hawthorne's lips or mine, express the one spirit of myself and that darlingest Sophia Hawthorne" (Person 1987, 214). This spirit of oneness is perhaps the whole point of every love letter ever written.
The first archived letter, though difficult to read, written on May 25, 1920, from Jesus to Concha, echoes the same sentiment: Amadisima amada, no hay por que estar timida...?no somos y seremos eternamente uno? Jesus writes to Concha when he is only nineteen years old, and she is seventeen, that she should not be shy since they are, and shall eternally be, as one. Jesus and Concha preserved these letters but could not have imagined, or perhaps they did, that such a love story would someday be shared as a way of knowing Puerto Ricans as they hoped they might be known, in the way they loved one another, and how that love inspired them to fight for one another every step of the way.
That the oneness shared with Concha became a sense of oneness with the Puerto Rican community, and the working class all over the world, is evidenced by his lifetime of work founding and serving community organizations and political causes for justice. This is not, of course, an argument for how anyone who falls in love or writes love letters will grow into solidarity with their community or the world. Nor is it an argument for some sort of "pure" love or "special capacity for love" that informs this particular couple or community. However, it is an opportunity to consider the power of love letters as a space where Jesus Colon went to share a private romantic love that grew wide enough to encompass compassion for, and hence action on behalf of, a wider community. This happened because it was mirrored back to him as valuable and important. The love letters are also a unique space to examine the tensions, and sanctuary like safety, of a receptive audience whose opinion mattered to him, and for which he continued to evolve his skills of persuasion and expression that later became the foundation of his singular voice in his published work. The letters are beautiful because Jesus loved to write, and yet, the beauty of the letters also point to an inspiration, and a validation of his talents, given to him by his beloved Concha. This highlights an example of literary reciprocity evidenced in other examined correspondence relationships, and is offered here as a small window into a private realm that sustained and shaped a life of public service, to the Puerto Rican community and the wider progressive community of New York City, with love.
(1) Archives of the letters span the years of 1920 and 1948 and are contained in boxes 8 and 6 of the archive.
(2) These terms appear as early as 1920 and as late as 1948 in the last available letters to her in the archive.
(3) There are only a few of Concha's letters preserved in the archive, but they trace her evolution from a love struck teenager handwriting letters to a secretary/clerk in an office typing off a quick note to Jesus due to limited time, and then mapping out and organizing the details of her migration so as to facilitate their marriage.
(4) Concha mentions having read one his letters to several family members who all agreed with him.
(5) Jesus Colon's most famous work, A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches was published in 1961, but did not receive much in the way of critical or public attention. It was rediscovered and re-issued through the work of Juan Flores in 1982. Though he is slightly better known as a result, no comprehensive biography has been done to explore and disseminate his vast body of political, cultural and written work.
(6) Pregones Theater, 2005.
(7) Most likely his second wife Clara Colon (would need to be determined through more research).
(8) Collected in his Spanish language published works in Lo Que el Pueblo Me Dice (2001).
(9) Dutchess County Historical Society Yearbook 2015, The Civil War and Dutchess County (edited by Candace J. Lewis).
(11) Based on his vignette, "Kipling and I."
(12) Jesus Colon Archives, Box 6, Folder 5. Clara frequently begins her letters to Jesus in Spanish but moves to writing them completely in English.
(13) Many of the vignettes of his early years in New York touch on these themes, but they are most powerfully explored in vignettes 6, 7 and 10.
Acosta-Belen, Edna and Carlos Santiago. 2006. Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Colon, Jesus. 1982 . A Puerto Rican in New York, and Other Sketches. New York: International Publishers.
--. 1993. The Way It Was, and Other Writings: Historical Vignettes About the New York Puerto Rican Community. Edited and with an introduction by Edna Acosta-Belen and Virginia Sanchez-Korrol. Houston: Arte Publico Press.
--. 2001. Lo que el pueblo me dice. Edited and with an introduction by Edwin Kadi Padilla Aponte. Houston: Arte Publico Press.
--. n.d. The Jesus Colon Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Delgado, Linda C. 1998. Rufa Concepcion Fernandez: The Role of Gender in the Migration Process. In Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives, eds. Felix V Matos Rodriguez and Linda C. Delgado. 171-80. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
--. 2006. Colon, Rufa Concepcion Fernandez. In Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, eds. Vicki L. Ruiz and Virginia Sanchez Korrol. 166-67. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
Irizarry Rodriguez, Jose M. 2008. Evolving Identities: Early Puerto Rican Writing in the United States and the Search for a New Puertorriquenidad. In Writing Off the Hyphen: New Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, eds. Jose L. Torres-Padilla and Carmen Haydee Rivera. 31-51. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Juska, Elise. 2013. Other People's Love Letters. Good Housekeeping 256(2), 173-78.
Person Jr, Leland S. 1987. Hawthorne's Love Letters: Writing And Relationship. American Literature 59(2), 211-27.
Torres-Padilla, Jose L. 2002. When 'I' Became Ethnic: Ethnogenesis And Three Early Puerto Rican Diaspora Writers. CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 14(2), 181-97.
Vazquez, David J. 2009. Jesus Colon And The Development Of Insurgent Consciousness. CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies 21(1), 78-99.
Vega, Bernardo. 1984. Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of the Puerto Rican Community in New York. Edited by Cesar Andreu Iglesias. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Walker, Alice. 1997. Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism. New York: Ballantine Books.
The author (Melissa.Coss@bcc.cuny.edu), a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, is a writer and an Assistant Professor in the English department at Bronx Community College, CUNY. Her personal essay "Una Sinverguenza" (Shameless) was published in Callaloo, and her fairy tale "Pelo Bueno/Good Hair" was published in The Fairy Tale Review. Her book about Jesus Colon's life and work, Citizen, Radical, Rebel and Voice: 100 Years of Jesus Colon, A Puerto Rican in New York is under contract with Centro Press.
Caption: Figure 1. Jesus and Concha Colon. The Jesus Colon Papers. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives, Hunter College, CUNY.
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|Author:||Aquino, Melissa Coss|
|Publication:||CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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