Book Title: THE THINGS WE DIDN’T KNOW
Character Name: Luis José Rodríguez
How would you describe your family or your childhood?
My family is from the mountains in Utuado, Puerto Rico. My father had a tobacco farm with animals and crops. We are five: Bartolo, Perfecta, me, Epifanio and Felipe. Our parents died many years ago, and Bartolo still lives in a small farm in Puerto Rico, but the rest came here to Woronoco to live and work here where I work at the paper mill in Woronoco, Massachusetts. We could no keep the farm no more. We cannot selling our crops. That’s why we are here, working at the paper company.
What was your greatest talent?
I like playing the guitar, singing and improvising aguinaldos at parrandas, our Christmas festivities.
Well, I tell you I used to have a wife. But she leaving me with these two children. She go back to Puerto Rico.
Biggest challenge in relationships?
My biggest problem with a woman now is finding one that will live here with me in Woronoco with me and my children. I have to working here, but woman no like it in Woronoco. So I have a hard time to find one.
Where do you live?
In a little town called Woronoco. In Massachusetts. It’s a little town where there is a paper factory, and they rent houses that they made for their workers. And the rent is a little better than anywhere else. So I living there with my children and many family and friends came from Puerto Rico, and they living here, too.
How do you feel about the place where you are now? Is there something you are particularly attached to, or particularly repelled by, in this place?
I liking Woronoco. I’m a country man, a jíbaro, so I liking the mountains and the river here. And the people in the factory treating me nice. But my favorite thing here is my Oldsmobile. In Puerto Rico, I can never buy a car like I have here in Woronoco. And some people no like it here, but I have no problem here. You know why? Because with my car, I go wherever I want whenever I want. I don’t have to be here all the time. I can go in my car.
Do you have children, pets, both, or neither?
I having children, yes. I have Andrea, 9 years old and Pablo, 8. But I don’t have animals because look at me. I’m alone with two children. I don’t have time to take care of animals.
What do you do at the paper mill?
I do whatever they ask me to do. Sometimes I work pulling the trolley with a hundred boxes of paper going out in the train. We having to take those boxes to the dock and then load the train wagons. Sometimes, I working in the paper cutter. (Luis shows his fingers to interviewer.) See that finger missing one piece? That’s an accident on the paper cutter. That machine has a very big roll of paper, and it coming out in sheets and cutting the paper the size you want to fit into the boxes. I do many things at the factory.
That was the day I came home and not finding my wife and my children. Yeah. She taking them away to Puerto Rico. And I come home and there was no food, no children nowhere in the house, and I find a letter she leaving for me on the table saying she went to Puerto Rico. And she did this without my permission. Caramba. That was a bad situation for me and for my children because they go to a poor place over there. My children have no need to go through that terrible experience. They have their home here. Where I am. With a refrigerator full of food and everything they need here. In my house.
Greatest source of joy?
When all my family is together and we’re celebrating and singing in our festivities, that’s the most happiness for me.
What do you do to entertain yourself or have fun?
I sing and play guitar. I visit friends in Westfield. And sometimes friends coming here, and we play dominoes under the trees, and the women in the family cook, and I bring out the rum pitorro. I making it myself, the rum. And I saving it for those special occasions.
What is your greatest personal failing, in your view?
I no have failure in my life. I reach in my pocket and have change. You hear that? Money in my pocket. I have my Oldsmobile and a refrigerator full of food for my kids. Some people don’t have money to buy a chicken. But I no have that problem because I work at Strathmore Paper Company. I have a pension, I have insurance, I have vacations. Paid. I have no failure.
What keeps you awake at night?
I no stay awake at night. I have to work in the morning. When I go to bed, I pray to Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, and I telling him to take care of everyone in my family and then I go to sleep. He taking care of us. I have faith.
What is the most pressing problem you have at the moment?
My wife left me alone with two children, and I have to go to work every day. What am I going to do? I don’t know how to raise a girl. The boy is intelligent in school. Maybe, he can be a lawyer one day, but I don’t know about the girl. Her grades are so, so, you know what I mean? I don’t know what I’m going to do about her.
Is there something that you need or want that you don’t have? For yourself or for someone important to you?
I need to finding a wife. A woman for this house like is supposed to be. The woman in the house and the man working. A woman that can do cooking, the clothes, cleaning the house, all the things a woman is supposed to be doing. That’s what I need.
Why don’t you have it? What is in the way?
I can’t find a woman who will live with me in Woronoco. And some women no like that I having children. But I know I will find one because I have a lot to offer a woman. You see, a woman with me doesn’t have to work like those woman working in the tobacco. Getting dirty. Under the sun. No. No wife of mine is going to work anywhere. I have a good job. With me, a woman will have everything. We have everything here, a good home, food, a new car, and a few miles away in Westfield we can go buy anything we need. It maybe will take some time, but I’ll find a woman that agrees to stay here with me and my children. I find her.
The inaugural winner of Simon & Schuster’s Books Like Us contest, Elba Iris Pérez’s lyrical, cross-cultural coming-of-age debut novel explores a young girl’s childhood between 1950s Puerto Rico and a small Massachusetts factory town.
Andrea Rodríguez is nine years old when her mother whisks her and her brother, Pablo, away from Woronoco, the tiny Massachusetts factory town that is the only home they’ve known. With no plan and no money, she leaves them with family in the mountainside villages of Puerto Rico and promises to return.
Months later, when Andrea and Pablo are brought back to Massachusetts, they find their hometown significantly changed. As they navigate the rifts between their family’s values and all-American culture and face the harsh realities of growing up, they must embrace both the triumphs and heartache that mark the journey to adulthood.
A heartfelt, evocative portrait of another side of life in 1950s America, The Things We Didn’t Know establishes Elba Iris Pérez as a sensational new literary voice.
Women's Fiction Historical [Gallery Books, On Sale: February 6, 2024, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781668012062 / ]
Elba Iris Pérez is a theatre director, historian and author from Puerto Rico. She is the inaugural winner of the Simon & Schuster Books Like Us First Novel contest. She is the author of this history book,El teatro como bandera, and the novel, THE THINGS WE DIDN'T KNOW.
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