Though Rosa is short, it has depth enough to contain a whole life.
The novella opens with a young girl interviewing Rosa for a school project. She’s writing a biography, or as much of a biography as a ten-year-old can manage. Naturally, there are some things that Rosa won’t tell her, some things the girl isn’t ready to understand. Adult readers can understand, though, and Rosa’s past spins out in her thoughts as she remembers the good times and the bad. We see her childhood, her abusive marriage, and her children.
Rosa’s story isn’t entirely about her past, though. Alternating with memories is her present. Rosa lives with a Puerto Rican man, Laureano; his daughter and her infant son, just starting to walk; and a billy goat who has to be tied to a concrete block in the backyard to keep him secret. (Not long after, the billy is joined by a nanny, and then by their kid.) She works as a nurse’s aide and has a complex but nevertheless beautiful relationship with one of her patients (or “consumers” as they must be called these days). Her daughter is in the army and her son, at the start of the novella, is in jail. She is also an illegal immigrant.
Past and present neither crash nor collide in this novella. Instead, they marry into a seamless whole. Through Rosa’s past, we gain a better understanding of her present. We gain a better understanding of her, for how can we truly understand anyone if we don’t know where they come from?
This question (and its answer, that we can’t) are the reason I love this novella so much. In a time so fraught with suspicion regarding illegal immigrants, it feels more important now than ever to read their stories, in both fiction and nonfiction. Fiction can be more difficult to trust, but the author treats Rosa not as part of a story but as a person, with her own strengths and failings. She is free to make mistakes, just as she is free to reach for triumphs. All of these triumphs are completely human, just like all of her mistakes.
Rosa is a magnificent display of empathy, a chance to see through the eyes of those who are all too often dismissed with either disdain or pity. Rosa – the woman and the novella – does not ask for any of our pity. She does not ask for understanding. She only presents herself and her story, and what we make of it is up to us.
Brain Mill Press
Barbara de la Cuesta