Flavia Lugo de Marichal, Humanist of the Year 2013


“Life is made of memories, of knowledge that has nothing to do with erudition or science and that is a mix of life experiences and learning that comes from stories heard and read that we incorporate into our beings.”[1]

Joaquín Rubio Tovar

First of all, I want to state my deep gratitude to the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities and its Board of Directors for the honor granted to me tonight, to all my friends here with me, and to my friend, poet and lawyer, Miguel Arzola, for his introduction.

Memories lead us to unhurriedly contemplate the broad sweep of life. They appear suddenly when a smell awakens them, when a song makes us sigh, or when we hear this or that name and the memory searches in its photo archives and gives life to a distant experience that we sometimes visualize unclearly, or we imagine in a different way.

Memory tries to preserve the experience the way it happened, but in the constant play of life there are rules, players, winners and losers that we forget or change. This character, so organized, is patient because we continually knock at the door of his house, come in with a whirl and begin to look around, trying to find the lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that appears endless.

What a powerful ability we have to transform memories! We transform the events in recalling them, rewriting them, carving each detail to fit our preferences and we store them in this jewelry box we create for special memories.

We all have all kinds of memories, but the ones we treasure are different from the rest. They appear frequently and give us the gift of that instant when we sigh and that is, as George Sand said so well, “the perfume of the soul.” It is a perfume that is perceived and treasured only by those who possess it. Colombian storyteller and writer Gabriel García Márquez comments that: “Remembering is easy for those who have a memory. Forgetting is difficult for those who have a heart.”

Today, memory reminds me of many people who played important roles in this story that I have lived of creating stories. I can say that I am one of the lucky ones on the planet who has known love in its variety of forms and this powerful sentiment has accompanied me in this journey of words and images. I dedicated many hours of my life to telling and writing stories. These are similar to memories because they appear suddenly, thanks to a word, a sound or a color. We all know that stories have been with us since time immemorial. They are the basis for all creation because, in the end, we tell others something that we see or hear, astonishing or baffling.

My wealth is the words and images of nearly 87 years of life, and I can say that I am one of the privileged ones who learned to listen to, remember and tell stories. The walls of my memory are full of images that have resisted the passage of time and have humanized me.

Magda Figiel, of the Institute of Women’s Studies in Rome, explains in a very simple way what it means to humanize: “To humanize is to make the world more human. It implies a sensitivity that allows the identification of social trends that go against the good for people as well as sensitivity toward the personal situation of the specific human being: his feelings, physical and moral sufferings or illusions and hopes… The humanizing contribution is very necessary in a culture that loses the sense of human dignity and tends to treat the human being as an object. What is lacking is the rediscovery of the sense of the value of the human being, as well as that of the institutions that have nurtured society.”[2]

British writer Doris Lessing says that the exercise of writing is the task of “creating your life.” A work of “creating the memory.” And here I am “creating my memories” full of characters and stories, which, step by step, are transformed into children’s stories and humanize me.

[1] Joaquín Rubio Tovar, La vieja diosa: de la filología a la post modernidad, Capítulo final: Las humanidades y los hombres (Alcalá de Henares: Centro de Estudios Cervantinos, 2004).

[2] http://www.mujernueva.org/articulos/articulop.phtml?id=7582

My house was also a cave because, what home does not become a nest or refuge? The world of stories is full of all kinds of houses that we call home: stables, palaces, gingerbread houses or magical houses like that of Baba Yaga.[3] The thing is, this home, the house, the dwelling is the place where the rich and succulent dish for the soul called a story is patiently prepared.

My first memories where stories reigned and happened were born in the house located on a small hill at the entrance to La Jolla de las Calabazas, in Barrio Magas of Guayanilla.

It had a spiral staircase – still there today – and from the balcony we could see in the distance a piece of the Caribbean Sea and a mountain, which my sister and I called the Wandering Jew Mountain, from a story told by ña Petra and which I will explain later.

There, stories ruled. Stories took life and we, my sister and I, took journeys to other places where unexpected fantastic or real characters enthralled us with all kinds of answers. Gianni Rodari explains it well: “The child, hearing a story, not only tries to understand the narrative, but also establishes analogies, deductions, seeks to understand the meaning of the words, creating an activity of decoding.”[4]

In the house where I lived the first eight years of my life – my first universe, as Gastón de Bachelard said in the beautiful book The Poetics of Space,[5] comes to life before my eyes and I can remember every corner where I played with my sister. We had no running water, no electricity, but we never missed it. From the balcony of this house, I began to watch the world go by. I can now say, enjoyably, as Rafael Alberti did in his fifth book, The Lost Grove: “What a nameless comfort not to lose the memory, and to have my eyes full of times past!”

That house, a beloved cave, did not have drawings of bison on the walls. Its stories were printed and that was our greatest treasure: the books. In our room, we always had a collection of Cuentos de Calleja, little books, very small, that did not cost much, which is why we had many. These little books were very important in our lives because through them we came to know the stories of Andersen, of the Brothers Grimm, and others. I marvel to think that in those two or three inches were tales complete with illustrations.

“Telling a story,” Sara Cone Bryant explains, “consists of transmitting this message and sharing it with others… Nobody can transmit a message he does not know, or explain that which he does not understand. You cannot give what you do not have. Therefore, the first thing demanded of us is that we begin to feel the story we want to tell, from the simplest emotions or thoughts to the most profound.”[6]

I had the good fortune, from my infancy, to be surrounded by great storytellers who taught me new words and helped me learn about other places and characters that still today pass through the hallways of the house of my memory.

My mother was the first storyteller I remember. She read us stories from the Calleja at night and it seems I can still hear her voice, loving and lyrical. When Meya, my older sister, learned to read, she read the stories to me. My sister was like sunshine and her voice was clear and crystalline. She would have been a great story writer, but she chose teaching and music. She used her voice to sing stories and sang El Villancico Yaucano. The storytellers’ voices are never forgotten. Their intonation, their grace, and their smoothness amaze all who listen.

My father, who loved reading adventure novels throughout his life – Dumas, Verne, Salgari, Fenimore Cooper, etc. – told us stories that went on for days and days. Every day, he invented a new adventure. Years later, his grandchildren, the son of Meya and my children, were also hypnotized by my father’s storytelling ability and by the number of adventures he invented almost daily.

I think my father lived through this world of constant adventures. He lived them with such passion that he made them his and maybe that is why he was a great storyteller. If he had been born in the time when human beings went from barbarism to settlements, and the storyteller, in addition to entertaining the tribe, was custodian of the tribe’s traditions, my father would have been that storyteller. He was a Quijote who told us with details and patience everything about the world of adventures he loved.

In the end, every storyteller experiences all kinds of adventures through the stories he reads and memorizes for the telling. They are great adventurers of the word. Always looking for powerful stories they can turn into the succulent food for those who know how to listen and I learned at an early age to listen to these family storytellers who helped me learn about other worlds and other characters that were humanizing me without me knowing it at the time.

My father’s stories created in me a desire to know more and to understand those who belonged to distant and different cultures.

[3] Baba Yaga: Ciudad Seva, Cuento folklórico ruso

[4] Gianni Rodari, Gramática de la fantasia

[5] Gastón Bachelard, La poética del espacio (México: Breviarios del Fondo de Cultura Económica), 2010, Cap. 1, p. 34.

[6] Sara Cone Bryant, El arte de contar cuentos (Barcelona: Editorial Terra Nova), 1976.

Mario Vargas Llosa says that “For Scheherazade, telling stories that capture the attention of the king is a matter of life or death. If Shahriyar lost interest or was bored by her stories, she would be sent to the executioner at the first light of dawn. This mortal fear sharpened her fantasy and she perfected her method, and it led her, without her knowing it, to discover that all stories are, in the end, one single story that, beneath the verdant variety of characters and adventures, shares certain secret roots, that the world of fiction is, like the real world, one, diverse and unbreakable[…] When King Shahriyar pardoned his wife — in truth, he asked forgiveness and repented for his crimes – he was someone who had been transformed by stories into a civil person, sensitive and a dreamer.”[7] Scheherazade humanized the sultan. She took him from the dark tunnel of barbarism and taught him to listen to stories, leaving him fascinated by the word.

I have a vague memory of another storyteller, ña Petra, the washerwoman, whose features I have forgotten over time, but when I think of her, I always think of Retrato de Goyita, by Rafael Tufiño. She was the one who gave the mountain the pompous name of the Wandering Jew Mountain. Every night, from the balcony we would see on the mountain lights that never went out and she told us it was the wandering Jew. We never questioned it. Later, we learned it was men making charcoal. We suffered a great disappointment, but after all these years, I still remember what she told us that Jesus had said to the Jew: “You will wander until the end of time and when your tired feet want to stop, your heart will say, Go on!”

These years passed rapidly and soon, in 1944, I won a scholarship to study at the Colegio de las Madres. It was my fourth visit to San Juan. The marvelous portico and the chapel dazzled me. When they gave us the schedule of classes, the title of one of the classes we had to take in those days seemed a little strange to me: Humanities. The same thing happened to me as to Martorell. Nobody knew what it meant, but we had to accept the schedule we were assigned. No changes. No exit. And the class was taught by none other than the Dean, Mother María Teresa Guevara, a woman of deep preparation in the humanities and a lover of knowledge whose doctoral thesis was about the humanism of St. Francis de Sales. For two years, we began learning the great works and great mysteries of humankind and it was there that I learned that this name, humanities, covered nearly everything, and we not only studied, but also lived the humanities. Thanks to her, we had a Drama Club, and many of us participated for the first time in a theatrical work. There was a newspaper, in which many of us wrote an article for the first time, and a student government. Every Wednesday, we had an activity in which we made a show of our artistic works, which also encouraged companionship and healthy co-existence.

I graduated 65 years ago, but still some of my best friends are my classmates at the Colegio and we still get together to attend the activities held at our University of the Sacred Heart.

With this baggage, I went to the University of Puerto Rico to pursue a Masters in Hispanic Studies, and there I had the marvelous experience of living the Golden Century of Spanish at the hands of the wise master, Margot Arce, and diving into the nearly forgotten Puerto Rican literature, guided by the enthusiasm of Manrique Cabrera, or discovering the Cuzco that Garcilaso the Inca called the “other Rome of that empire” with Ciro Alegría, or avoiding many errors with our language with Rubén del Rosario, or being astonished in the class on diction, elocution and eloquence taught by Cipriano Rivas Cherif, in which I was the youngest in the group and which was attended by Margot Arce, Antonia Sáez, Rafael Enrique Saldaña, and others I do not remember.

I also enrolled in a theater techniques course. The teacher was a young Spanish artist, a Republican in exile, named Carlos Marichal. His name leads me to recall eighteen years of happiness. He always supported me in all my dreams. Together, we raised our children with love for the arts and the values that make sense of life. He also dreamed of big things for his children and for all the children of the world. His first gift was to illustrate a story of mine we gave to my nephew for Christmas in 1950. Ours was a “love story” that lives in the memories of my children and all who knew us, and that has led to many stories about him.

After finishing my studies at the University, I received a telegram from Mr. José Buitrago, director of WIPR Radio, the public broadcaster in Puerto Rico, inviting me to become part of the staff at the station. I immediately accepted and showed up for work on the appointed day. The Director of Programming, the playwright Francisco Arriví, interviewed me. He told me what I would earn and said I would be in charge of the program “Alegrías Infantiles,” which would air every day at five in the afternoon. He gave me a radio script – a story that had been adapted – of the well-known Las tres cabritas, and a book in English, Radio Writing, that would teach me how to write for radio. I did not say anything, because I was left wordless. I just thought. I was the youngest child at home, I did not know how to use a typewriter, I had never written a story, and I always thought stories were to be told to me. In short, I felt like the most useless person in the universe. But I needed to work. That same day, I read the script that I had been given, and that night I studied the book, and early the next day I went to the Campos Bookstore in Old San Juan, where I bought five children’s books. The following day, full of all of this but certain of nothing, I sat down in front of my typewriter like a lamb going to the slaughter. The story I chose to adapt was one titled El Sueño de Andrés. With two timid fingers, I began to peck the typewriter. Minute by minute, hour after hour, until four in the afternoon. My co-workers watched me with concern and, I think, with a lot of compassion. One of them, I don’t remember which, called me “the hen pecking corn,” but I had finished. I had completed the ten pages needed to fill the time. Thus began my time as a writer of children’s stories: not by choice, but by necessity.

After three months, I decided I would invent stories instead of adapting them. Adaptations concerned me. I always had a great respect for what others had written and in the process of adaptation to another medium, many important details could be lost that could diminish the original work, so I took on the task of inventing them. But it cost me a lot. Clearly, it cost me a lot. I had greatly improved in my typing, and my nickname had changed from “the hen pecking corn” to “typewriter lightning.” Nobody had ever asked me what children liked, and in that era there were no books or manuals about how to write for children. I remembered the endless stories my father told, in which witches naturally flew on broomsticks from one country to another, where fairies and elves were numerous and children could be adventurers or heroes, and I realized that any topic, told in an interesting way, could be fun for children. I learned that the development had to be logical, the more illogical the topic. I applied the principles I had learned from my father, I remembered the unforgotten stories of Calleja and I threw myself into the adventure. Without being tiresome, I incorporated morals into the stories and told experiences of my childhood, and over time, I became competent at writing a story from a blank sheet of paper. Despite the distances that separated me from Andersen, I thought of him: “Sometimes it seems that every wall, every flower, shouts at me, look at me a little, look at me and understand my story. And so I pay attention to the story.” Afterwards came the recording, which was something incredible. In that era, there were no impressive consoles for sound. We did the special effects ourselves, guided by a master of sound called Harold Martin. For example, for the gallop of a horse, we all pounded our chests. There was a lot of creativity, and above all, a great desire to do a good job.

[7] Mario Vargas Llosa, “Contar cuentos” http://elpais.com/diario/2008/06/29/opinion/1214690412_850215.html

I wrote many original stories that were burned in the fire that destroyed most of our studios at Stop 20. Also lost were valuable programs, such as some of those of Federico de Onís, on El Quijote, and by Cipriano Rivas Cherif, with the title of “The Theater in My Time and My Time in the Theater.” But nothing stopped us. We improvised in a studio in the house of the director, José Buitrago, and from there we went on the air live.

Because I was forced to write every day, I developed, even without realizing it, an incredible ability to invent. When I woke up with an arid mindset, I went to the office in search of help. On one occasion, it was Wilfredo Braschi, that marvelous human being and respected journalist, who suggested a topic about which I wrote a very funny story. Another time it was Abelardo Díaz Alfaro, who, in addition to the nickname he had given me of “typewriter lightning,” added: “the only person who really lives stories in Puerto Rico.” Abelardo, Wilfredo and I shared an office and I felt proud to be located with these two distinguished writers.

In this exciting journey of having to create a new character daily, there was one who stayed with me for a long time: my imaginary friend. Or maybe he was with me from the time I was little. Many children have had imaginary friends. One of my daughters talked with a horse. Sometimes she would talk in very animated way when she was alone. When I asked her who she was talking with, she answered as if it were totally normal, “With a chorse” (sic). Another had an imaginary friend she called Lizi and every night she had to stand in front of the mirror to say goodbye to her. Sometimes, these friends appeared and accompanied them, taking them by the hand, and teaching us that within us are voices and songs.

The story about The Invisible Friend was lost in the fire along with so many others, but although it was a very simple story, I will always remember it. Years later, already a mother of three daughters, and still writing stories for WIPR from home, I thought about how The Invisible Friend could be made into a theatrical work for children and I wrote it. I felt quite satisfied and, above all, at peace, because I no longer would have the invisible friend peeking out of the cracks of my awareness, but its destiny was the same as many others: in the box of written things never published. However, it seems the invisible friend was not satisfied or was destined for a better future. Years later, Angelina Bauzá, a friend and the director of a school in San Juan, asked me for a work to present in her school and I gave her The Invisible Friend. I could not go see it because I was very busy with my six children, but Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero saw it. He had resigned his post as Director of the Drama Department of the University of Puerto Rico to create the Theater School Department of the Education Department. One night he called me: “I saw a work that they say is yours but it doesn’t have your name. I liked it a lot and would like to buy it to present it in the schools. I want to buy the author’s rights for ten years. How does five hundred dollars sound?” And I said, “That much?” He answered, “Flavia, a writer’s work is valuable.” The invisible friend continued having capers. The first time it was presented, in 1964, the great artist Antonio Martorell designed the set and wardrobe. Since then, The Invisible Friend has been presented in almost every town in Puerto Rico.

Two years ago, I was called by Luis Salgado, a young Puerto Rican living in New York, theater director and choreographer, the choreography assistant in the musical In the Heights, winner of a Tony award, founder and director of the organization Revolución Latina. He had participated as an actor in three different productions of The Invisible Friend when he was a child. He told me that all his life he had dreamed of making the work into a musical and the time had come. And then came the obligatory question: “How much will you charge me?” And I responded with the answer I almost always give: “Nothing. But if you produce it, pay for my trip and lodging to come see it.”

And there I went with my cane and one of my daughters. The presentation took place in the Museo del Barrio with an orchestra, dancers, marvelous sound effects and lighting, beautiful songs and a full theater every day. In the end, it was a gift to me from The Invisible Friend. 

The characters have always spoken to me and have helped me dream, because in the end, when you write, you are transported to another space, a pleasant journey to the world of creation.

I learned to be patient and listen to stories that showed different paths and decisions. On many occasions, I identified with one character or another and could understand many of the things around me in the world. With them, I learned about the traditions and folklore of other cultures. I scared away nightmares, and fulfilled great adventures from that wooden cave located in Guayanilla. I acquired vocabulary and learned that each word has its own special music. My feelings took life when I told a story and each time I wrote one for others to listen to, both of us were humanized in that harmonious dance the story took us to. I became an accomplice with the word and together we brought happiness to thousands of children in that story hour.

The ten commandments of children’s rights is a manifesto that was published for the first time in Venezuela in 1970. One of those rights is:

Every child, regardless of race, language or religion, has the right to hear the most beautiful stories of the peoples’ oral traditions, especially those that stimulate imagination and critical thinking.[8]

And I would add: All children should have the opportunity to play with words and experience the transforming music of literature, a melody that helps human beings find their value in the world.

To conclude, I want to read a paragraph from one of the letters that Carlos Marichal wrote to me. These letters are part of the love story I talked about. That love that made me grow, live with intensity and know the true essence of another human being. That love that humanizes us and makes us create and continue creating to leave the beauty of life in the memory of others.

“Publications for childhood: books, magazines, theater. This is a great dream of mine: Publications for childhood. I have always thought that in this field I could achieve some interesting things and do instructive and aesthetic work. Aesthetic in presentation, design and illustration. I also can rely on an indispensable element: You and your experience as a writer of children’s stories. It would not only issue books of stories, but also print books of games, illustrated so the child will find in the book what he does not find in the street, in school or at home. These editions could be printed with a system that is economical but still meets the typographical and illustration standards of expensive editions. We could use linoleum, wood, lead or photoengraving and type could be set by hand in 14 and 18 points. We launch the ship of fantasy on favorable seas and ‘All aboard!’ With this we would not only create a series of works, but also we would share with children their joys, dreams, fears and hopes. Let’s not wait. Let’s go ahead!

Theater: Here I have another great possibility: a marionette theater for children. This would be not only an interesting field from a human, artistic and educational point of view, but also one full of marvelous surprises. You know it and you have heard me talk about it, so I insist this is another possibility.

You would have, in me, an assistant and coworker willing to do everything to fulfill this task of creating for children a world full of illusions, dreams and joy.

Let’s work for this and one day in the not too distant future we will say: Raise the curtain!”[9]

Thank you.

[8] Decálogo de los derechos del niño”, en Temas para la educación. Revista digital para profesionales de la enseñanza, Núm.1, (marzo 2009). Federación de Enseñanza de CC.OO. Andalucía.

[9] Carlos Marichal, Dibujos y notas, Carta a mi esposa. Yauco, 1954. Edición limitada a un ejemplar.

Author: Flavia Lugo
Published: May 04, 2015.

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