The late young adult writer Judith Ortiz Cofer published the coming of age novel The Meaning of Consuelo
in 2003. Set in 1950s Puerto Rico, the novel follows the trials and tribulations of an adolescent girl as she navigates her own burgeoning womanhood, her family’s inexorable shattering in the face of a slow-building tragedy, and the clash between the traditional gender roles espoused by her family and newer ideas about female empowerment and independence coming from the influence of America on the island nation.
The Signe family prides themselves on being gente decente
, or decent people – in other words, a family that lives according to the customs and traditions that have been firmly enforced in Puerto Rico through generations. Correct behavior rules are laid down by Mami, who is deeply conservative, and her father, Abuelo, who resents the way American involvement in Puerto Rico is threatening to erode its rich culture. On the other hand, Papi and Abuela are less vehement about the old ways – both are fascinated by the new technology available to households, while Papi is enraptured by American modernity in general.
Caught in the middle are the family’s two daughters: serious, studious Consuelo, and her frivolous and vivacious four-years-younger sister, Milagros – nicknamed Mili. The adults treat the two girls differently. The older they are, the clearer it becomes that Mili isn’t simply a light-hearted space cadet. Instead, she is starting to show signs of emotional and psychological problems that are unspeakable within the family setting. Because, by contrast, Consuelo is stable and functional, the family leans more and more heavily on her to be dependable and responsible for Mili’s safety – because Mili is often in her own world, she is often unaware of her surroundings and liable to wander off. They ignore Consuelo’s needs almost entirely.
The family’s strong denial of Mili’s increasing problems is rooted in the idea that the world is divided into gente decente
and those who are instead shunned outsiders, called el fulano
or la fulana
depending on gender. People who live according to “the mores of the strictly structured older society gradually disappearing from modern Puerto Rico” shouldn’t have visibly dysfunctional family members. Those who disobey these strictures end up being treated like the neighborhood transgender woman, Maria Sereno, a funny and outspoken character (born Mario, and referred to as “he” in the novel). Maria is good enough to do the Signe family’s manicures, but only by coming in the back door and disappearing before their husbands return from work. In public, the Signe women studiously ignore Maria.
As Consuelo cares for Mili, she is also trying to figure out herself. At school, she doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends. In fact, the only person her age she is close to is her cousin Patricio. They play with puppets that Patricio makes, often acting out scenes from Papi’s job as an engineer in a San Juan hotel where he often deals with annoyed American tourists.
Soon, however, the family realizes that local gossip about Patricio is right – he is gay. Almost immediately, the young man begins to be shunned, and Consuelo is no longer allowed to play with him. In a bittersweet solution, his understanding father moves with Patricio to New York, a place where he believes the young man will be able to get a fresh start away from the stifling atmosphere of having to live up to an unachievable code. Consuelo finds herself both grieving the loss of her closest friend and experiencing jealousy that she cannot similarly escape.
Instead, Consuelo searches for other avenues to rebel against what is expected of her. One such possibility seems to be the European classmate, Wilhelm, who seems to really like her. However, after Consuelo decides to sleep with him, losing her virginity, he rejects her almost immediately afterward. To add insult to injury, somehow all of her classmates find out that she has had sex; she sees the incredibly unfair way Latin cultures characterize participants in a heterosexual act of sex: the male is seen as both a winner and the victim of female temptation, while the female deserves shunning and condemnation.
This experience proves to be the turning point for Consuelo’s conception of herself. Rather than buckling under, she decides to embrace the role of la faluna
, feeling strong in her decision to reject the gossip and taunts of her classmates. Instead, she uses her “silent outrage and unflappable personal pride… to get even like a lady—brilliantly, and without uttering a word.”
Mili’s condition grows increasingly worse, and Mami and Papi are clearly in tremendous pain because they know neither what is wrong with her, nor how to fix it. Eventually, they are told that Mili is suffering from schizophrenia. Papi can’t even bring himself to discuss the possibility, but slowly they come to the realization that the U.S. might be the best place for Mili to get treatment. They decide to move there and start making preparations to uproot their whole life.
However, just before the big move, Mili suddenly disappears and is later found dead from drowning. This is the last straw for the family, which almost entirely comes apart at the seams. Mami is no longer able to silently put up with Papi’s extramarital affairs, and Consuelo sees that if she doesn’t get out from under their dysfunction, she will be forever trapped within it: “Though sad about her sister's disappearance, she knows she has fulfilled her role as protector of the family.” The novel ends as Consuelo decides to leave Puerto Rico to move to New York to live with her uncle and Patricio.