If I Bring You Roses


By Marisel Vera

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A passionate story of love and hope that has "everything you want in a novel—flawed, complicated characters, lush descriptions, breathtaking plot, and a fierce beating heart" (Tayari Jones, New York Times bestselling author of An American Marriage).

In a small town in Puerto Rico, Felicidad Hidalgo spends her days serving busybodies in her aunt's bakery, and her nights dreaming of home. Closing her eyes she can almost hear the sweet songs of tree frogs, reminding her of the mountain village of her childhood, and the family she hasn't seen in nearly a decade. Her new life in town has delivered her from poverty, but not from loneliness—until the afternoon Aníbal walks through the door.

Aníbal Acevedo is not in need of a wife, but when he meets Felicidad while visiting family, he is stunned by the power of his attraction. Almost before he realizes what's happening, he has taken the girl into his bed and into his home—in Chicago. Yet soon the young lovers discover that married life is anything but idyllic. Can they find the courage to overcome the obstacles and temptations of their new world and rediscover the passion they once shared? Or will each find love and redemption in the arms of another?


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


Chapter One

June 1942

Felicidad's dress stuck to her thin frame, and her bare feet felt the burn of the sunbaked road. She clutched her books against her stomach. She'd had no breakfast except for coffee and had refused lunch: a lump of peanut butter plopped down directly on a tray. The Missus had been angry at her ingratitude and had mocked her, saying maybe she thought herself above the others, Felicidad with the made-up name, a name that wasn't even Puerto Rican because she certainly had never heard it before. Felicidad, ha! She wasn't likely to find much happiness because she was going to die of starvation first.

Felicidad longed to tell the teacher that her name was a wish, a hope her parents had for her life to be a happy one. Instead she stood under the almácigo tree, as the teacher directed, while the other children, even her brother Ruben, ate the school lunch, glad to ease their hunger. She picked at the copper-colored bark that peeled off in papery flakes before plucking a few leaves, intending to give them to her mother. When her sister Isabel was alive, Felicidad would bring the leaves daily for Mami to brew tea to cure Isabel's terrible itching. How she hoped Mami would be cooking in the kitchen. But sometimes when Felicidad came home from school she would find her mother lying on her bed clutching her head, murmuring words that didn't make sense, the baby crying.

Papi decided the children and all the housework were too much for Mami and decreed that the girls would take turns going to school. This was Felicidad's lucky year; next year would be Leila's. The girls knew it could be worse; they could be like the Martinez Gutierrezes up the mountain who kept the daughters at home and the sons in the fields. Even Felicidad's older brothers had some schooling.

Her younger brother had run home ahead of her when the school day ended, but she lingered under the spell of the blue sky and the lush green of the mountain. The air was still with the heat of the afternoon and heavy with the fragrance of the wildflowers that grew abundantly along the country road. She made a game of walking under the shade of the light green leaves of the eugenio trees, glancing up at the brilliant blue sky through the large, broad branches. But she should hurry; she was liable to get a little slap for dawdling.

Felicidad saw a man walking toward her. Maybe he was a vagabond, a mendigo like Mami's cousin Primo Samsón.

She wished it might be Primo Samsón, although it was unlikely since they had had a visit from him only last year. Mami had shared their dinner with him, lamenting that she didn't have any rice because it was scarce since the war, but at least there were a few beans and codfish and always cornmeal.

Felicidad's mother had given Primo Samsón a sheet from her own bed; Papi had said, Mujer, are you as crazy as your cousin? Who knew what kind of fleas or disease Samsón carried with him. Mami had said, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After all, he knew that pobre Samsón hadn't been the same since he lost his land and his wife left him. While she cooked, Samsón had sat on the stoop of the lean-to kitchen, the inside of which was black with smoke.

Felicidad's father had built the house, only thirty feet by twelve feet, from pieces of salvaged wood that had served other houses and showed the years of beatings from the tropical climate. The house rose on stilts among mango, panapén, and orange trees. Granada bushes and banana rhizomes grew in the shade of the large mamey trees. El batey, a yard of pounded dirt typical of the campo, surrounded the house. Felicidad's father had anchored a hollowed-out limb from a bamboo tree to the roof to drain rainwater down into a barrel. Mami and the girls used it to sponge-bathe at night while Papi and the boys went down to the river. Alongside the house was the pen where the family kept pigs when they had them.

Down the slope was the barraca, a thatched-roof hut, built low to the ground from plant fiber to store crops and to shelter the family during hurricanes. Felicidad's father had cut and tied reeds into bundles to fit the barraca's wood frame. A chicken coop built from scraps of wood and mesh wobbled on narrow posts like a tiny ramshackle house. A rooster with his harem of hens pecked the ground.

Mami had fluttered about listening to Primo Samsón tell stories about Puerto Rico and what he had seen in his travels, about how the island wasn't what it had once been. Felicidad had taken up her mother's piecework and sat in Papi's chair so that she, too, could hear the fairy tales without happy endings.

The mendigo passed her and said, Buenas, niña.

She turned off the road into the brush and walked uphill on a narrow dirt trail strewn with stones and broken branches. She stubbed her toe on a rock and walked on tiptoe the rest of the way. All she could think about was the pain in her stomach; Mami was sure to have saved something from her own lunch, even if only a cucharón of cooked cornmeal. Harina, beans, something.

The shouting frightened Felicidad out of her languor and jarred the tranquil afternoon. She stared up at the sky as if expecting Papa Dios to appear and reassure her, saying, Little Daughter, do not worry. She heard children shrieking over the howl of a wild animal.

She ran toward the sound, her feet kicking up dust and dirt and rocks and pebbles. When she reached the ravine that led to her family's home, the shouting became louder and she ran faster, half sliding down the path that led to the house. She tripped over a large twig and grabbed it, thinking in her fear that somehow she might use it to beat back whatever it was that was making that hideous sound and scaring her brother and sisters, most likely one of the mangy dogs that scavenged around in the countryside eating the eggs that the hens laid and sometimes the hens as well. She wondered where Mami was and why she didn't chase off the dog herself.

Felicidad came to the clearing. The sun glistened on the roof cobbled together from pieces of zinc that Felicidad's father had picked up here and there. Stones and large rocks littered the area surrounding el batey, where she found her siblings shouting up at the sky. Why were they doing that? Where was Mami?

And then she saw her. Her mother crouched on the edge of the roof, howling a high-pitched cry that did not belong to a human being.

Felicidad was confused. Why was Mami on the roof, why was Mami wearing that strange pink shirt and pair of pants with those black patches? And then her brother and sisters were upon her, clutching at Felicidad's dress and legs, and it came to her that her mother was naked, her skin burned by the Puerto Rican sun.

"Felicidad, why is Mami on the roof?" Five-year-old Juanita was crying.

"She won't get down." Eight-year-old Leila, a year younger than Felicidad, cradled the sleeping baby.

Felicidad dropped her books on the ground. "Take Juanita and the baby to Hilda's." She lowered her voice so that her siblings stepped closer. "I'll go get Papi."

"I'll come with you." Ruben was seven and would rather work in the fields with his brothers than go to school.

"Stay and watch over Mami," Felicidad said. "Pray she doesn't jump."

Chapter Two

Felicidad ran. She didn't notice her favorite mango tree, which always hid a juicy mango just for her between its leaves. She didn't breathe in the perfume of orange and lemon blossoms from the cluster of citrus trees. She ran past the tomatoes and onions and green peppers that her father had planted and tended by moonlight. Mami naked on the roof.

She ran past the fields of malanga and yuca and yautía and calabaza and sweet potatoes, past the little patch where Papi grew tobacco, which he shared with his brothers. Mami naked on the roof. Somehow, she put one foot in front of the other, running toward the field of corn that she could see at a distance. She ran without thinking how she would tell her father when she found him. Her throat was dry. What she would do for a little tazita de café. Her heart beat the refrain: una tazita de café, Mami naked on the roof, naked, naked on the roof, una tazita de café, Mami naked on the roof, naked on the roof.

She spied an obreo hidden among the tall stalks of corn.

"¡Miré!" She stopped to catch her breath. "My father, Juan Vicente Hidalgo. Have you seen him?"

El obreo was hand-hoeing the ground and didn't pause in his work. Like most farmworkers, he wore a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants despite the heat. His feet were bare. He nodded to the left.

"Over there. Your father and your brothers."

Felicidad ran between the rows of corn, moving through the airless tunnel of tall, green stalks. The leaves of corn brushed against her arms and legs and she felt her breathing constrict as she ran faster toward the end of the rows, finally bursting through the stalks and colliding into her older brother Vicente. In his threadbare shirt and too-short pants, Vicente was tall and bone-thin as they all were, including their parents. Only Don Agostos's wife was plump, and everyone said that was because he owned the country store and she could eat from the jars and tins as she pleased. Why was that jar of olives that Pancho Pacheco bought last week not quite full?

Vicente caught her by the elbows and shook her.

"Mami," she said, but it was indistinguishable from a croak.

"Felicidad, con calma." Vicente was missing his four front teeth and he pressed his lips together into a straight line, imitating their father. He relished his authority over his siblings because he was the oldest and a boy.

"Mami is on the roof, Mami is on the roof naked," Felicidad said.

"This better not be a game you little kids are playing." Vicente's fingers tightened on her elbows.

"I swear it's true." Felicidad struggled to get free. He had forgotten he was holding her.

Vicente called out to their father; Papi came running.

He pushed back his hat from his eyes. "Your mother?"

"She's on the roof, Papi," Vicente said.

"Get the boys." Papi disappeared into the stalks.

Felicidad wondered why her brother hadn't told their father that their mother was naked, but he would find out soon enough.

They ran in a little pack, father first, elder brother next, and Felicidad lagging behind the twins, Julio and Eduardo. She wished that this day was just another day when she would wake in the dark, trembling and calling out to her mother to protect her from the Spirits that roamed restless in the night. She often dreamed of Spirits running in these very mountains on this very same path. Felicidad heard their footsteps pounding the ground as they ran in the moonlight, rustling the leaves of the banana and plantain trees.

Now she listened to the footsteps of her father and brothers and Felicidad prayed that somehow she had been mistaken about her mother on the roof, naked.

She heard a woman's voice, normal as the afternoon sun, and thought, Mami, that's Mami. The others reached the clearing to the house before Felicidad and stopped, so she knew without seeing that her mother was still on the roof.

"Get the rope," Papi told Vicente. "Felicidad, get your mother's dress. Julio and Eduardo, come with me."

In el batey stood Hilda la mulata, midwife and nearest neighbor.

"Ay, Don Juan Vicente, la señora is very bad." She was toothless like most poor country folk. "I sent my Berto with Ruben for the priest."

"Why did you do that? This is family business," Felicidad's father said.

"It was either the priest or the curandero," she said.

"¿Curandero? Witch doctor!" Papi said.

"Forgive me, but your señora is obviously possessed by an evil spirit." Hilda pointed up to the roof of the house where Felicidad's mother perched precariously on the edge.

"Son of a bitch!" Papi spat in the dirt.

Felicidad wanted to hide behind her mother's skirt as she had done as a little girl. She ran to get her mother's dress.

Inside the house, a kerosene lamp sat on the table covered with a dingy oilcloth. Two machetes with their blades pointing down were wedged in the wall behind Papi's chair. Next to it was the requinto guitar that Papi had carved out of roble wood. He hadn't played it in a year. Felicidad and her siblings fought for the chair on the rare occasions when Papi was away, but Mami would cede it to Vicente as the oldest male. Papi had built a wood bench, but the children preferred to eat outside on tree stumps in el batey or perch on a favorite branch, taking turns climbing and holding plates for one another.

Tin cans and cups made from the inner shells of coconuts and plates of higüero wood were stacked on a shelf. Spoons, also from higüero, along with Papi's silver knife and fork, rested in a box. Three frying pans of varying sizes, a small strainer, and a large ladle hung on hooks nailed to the frame of the house. A pair of seamstress scissors dangled upside down on a nail. Draped over a beam to keep it dry and clean was a colador to strain coffee: a piece of cotton fabric, permanently stained brown, stitched around a circle of wire.

Felicidad's mother stored each day's portion of coffee beans in a tin that once, long ago, held caramels. Two empty bottles without labels were wedged between the wall and frame. A sack of root vegetables sat on a makeshift shelf. Next to it was a stone molino for grinding corn into flour.

A bunch of bananas not quite ripe hung suspended from a ceiling beam. Beneath it was the massive mortar and pestle for grinding coffee beans that Papi had sculpted out of a tree trunk. Nailed to one wall was an elaborately carved Jesus on a large wood crucifix, a gift to Mami on her wedding day. A picture of the crucifixion drew one's attention from the bed. On the wall Papi's good shirt, pants, hat, and various pieces of clothing hung on nails, which served as the family's closet.

Papi had partitioned part of the house with a faded piece of cloth to make a family bedroom. In the main room the twins rolled out a catre while Vicente slept on old clothes or whatever he could find. Felicidad and her sisters and Ruben slept two by two, head-to-toe, on top of a quilt spread on a casoneta, a frame with springs; over their heads hung the baby's coy, a sling with a flat base that dangled from the ceiling like a hammock. Across from the casoneta was her parents' bed, with its mattress of dry plantain leaves and pillows stuffed with corn husks. On the floor, between her parents' bed and la casoneta, was an escupidera, which the family used at night as a latrine. The enamel basin was large enough to squat over and had a handle for carrying. Felicidad, as the oldest girl, emptied it out and rinsed it every morning.

A bird flew in the open door. Felicidad looked up, afraid that it might be a bat. Last year a family of bats had settled on the rafters of the house, and Papi had beaten them with a broom to get them out. She shooed the pretty blue bird out the window.

Vicente untied the rope from the coy.

Mami had folded her dress on top of the wood trunk that held her prized possessions including the porcelain figurines from Spain of various holy saints.

Felicidad heard footsteps on the roof, her father shouting, her brothers calling out, and a deep growl that, by now, she knew came from her mother; then she felt a weight flinging itself off the roof. Mami. Felicidad's hands shook as she picked up the dress.


She hurried outside, her mother's dress in her outstretched palms as if in offering.

Felicidad couldn't understand how her mother could be standing in the yard, kicking at Felicidad's father with her bare feet, clawing at him with her fingers.

"¡Condenada mujer!" He cursed a few more seconds and then wrestled his wife to the ground.

"Bring that goddamn dress!"

Felicidad scurried over. She didn't realize she was crying.

"Stop that goddamn whining and dress your mother," he shouted at her. He turned to Felicidad's twin brothers. "Boys! Get some water."

Papi pinned Mami down between his knees and braced her elbows against the ground. Felicidad's mother moved her head side-to-side, saliva leaking from her mouth; her legs thrashed beneath him. Tears welled in Felicidad's throat and she coughed.

She wanted to recite to her mother all the prayers that she had murmured to them each night, phrases that merely reassured Felicidad of her mother's presence. But for Mami, they were blessings, reaffirmations of her faith, of her surety of God's pledge to them, that somehow he would take care of them.

But all Felicidad could say was Mami, Mami, please. With Hilda's help she managed to tug the dress over Mami's head and pull her arms through.

"Vicente," Papi said. "Tie the rope to her wrist."

Vicente knelt on the ground and did what he was told. He already had the hands of a man and the quick, deft fingers of one accustomed to field labor. He had worked alongside Papi since he was old enough to follow behind him, dropping seeds in the holes his father dug in the ground. He had spent a total of three years in school. He could read and write a little and that would need to be enough.

"¡Ay!" Vicente yanked his hand away. Blood streaked down his wrist in a thin line from where his mother had scratched him.

Papi gave his wife a little shake. "¡Mujer, por favor!"

There was a note of sadness, a tinge of exasperation in his voice, the tiniest hint of a cry that betrayed all the days of working under the punishing sun, the disappointment of backbreaking effort for so little yield, the fear that despite how hard he tried, he wouldn't be able to fill his children's bellies.

Her mother lay sprawled in the dirt, her father's strong farmer's hands gripping her fragile wrists. Her brother's jaw was clenched so that he wouldn't cry, dirt streaked down one pimply cheek.

Hilda whispered to Felicidad, "Go get a wet cloth to pass over your mother's forehead."

Felicidad ran back to the house and removed a rag hooked on the wall in the lean-to kitchen. A large green coconut husk filled with water was set aside for cooking. Her mother took special care that the cooking water should always be clean, but Felicidad stuck her dirty hand in the shell and cupped water twice to her lips. She wanted to cry with the guilt of it, from her fear of her mother's irrational behavior, of her father's despair, her brother's pain.

She dipped the rag into the water and hurried outside, water dripping on her skirt. Hilda took it from her and gave it a good wring.

"Pass it over your mother's forehead." She handed it back to Felicidad.

She didn't want to touch her mother, this screaming woman, this crazy woman naked on the roof, this wild animal lunging at her family.

Hilda gave her a little push.

Felicidad wiped Mami's brow with trembling fingers, but rather than calming down she began thrashing and screaming again.

"Vicente, we're going to tie her to that tree," Papi said.

They stared at him, sure that they had misheard.

Papi was already half dragging, half carrying her. Mami pulled at the rope, digging her heels into the dirt, but Papi kept his grip on her arm, walking with the firm determined strides of a man in control. Vicente wrapped the rope around the tree trunk; Papi tied Mami to the trunk, her back against the bark, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.

Her brothers hurried up the hill carrying lard cans filled with water on their shoulders. They didn't question why their mother was tied to a tree.

Papi sent Eduardo to the house for a cup, filling it with water from one of the cans. He pinned back his wife's hair and poured water into her open mouth. She sputtered, wetting the collar of her dress.

"Rosario, why are you behaving this way?" Papi let go of her hair.

Surely, their mother had heard the pain in her husband's voice, the plea to his beloved Rosario? In that moment Felicidad believed that life would ease back to the sameness of yesterday, with Papi working the land and Mami caring for home and children.

Mami reached out a bare foot and kicked Papi hard in the shin.

"¡Coño!" He limped away.

"Felicidad, you'll have to manage dinner today. Boys, go back to work," Papi said. "I will stay here with your mother."

Vicente gave Felicidad's shoulders a little squeeze then tilted the five-gallon can to pour water down his throat. He passed the can to his brothers before heading back to the cornfield.

*   *   *

Hilda was sitting in Papi's chair peeling malanga and yautía with a knife. Felicidad carried in the can of water, bending at the waist from the weight. She poured water into a tin can that had once contained tomato sauce.

"Give me some, too," Hilda said.

Felicidad offered hers and got herself a cup made from a coconut, refilling it twice.

The midwife stared at a piece of salted codfish soaking in a pan of water on the table. She talked over the howling from the yard.

"These hard times are bad enough, but to have a baby born dead? Oh, how I hated my job that day. Of course, your mother got pregnant with Raffy right after, but then your sister Isabel died. What woman wouldn't go a little mad?" Hilda glared at the codfish as if it were responsible for all the trouble.

Felicidad tucked the lard can of water under her arm and went through to the kitchen. A pot of beans was on el fogón—the poor woman's stove. Stones were set on a tabletop in a bed of ashes. On the smoke-blackened wall was a square cut into the wood, which served as a window; the matching square of wood was hinged to one side. It was opened in the morning and closed at night to keep out the harmful night air. Hammered to the base of the window was a wooden shelf sloping down into the yard, supported by more wood anchored into the ground. Lard, drained from the last time the family smoked a pig, was stored in a large earthenware container. A galvanized pail used for dishwashing or bathing sat on it.

The howling became louder. Felicidad and Hilda crossed to the open door of the lean-to. Her father had loosened the rope so Mami now sat on the ground. He squatted down, passing the washcloth over her forehead. They couldn't hear what he was saying to her.

"He's a good man, your father is," Hilda said. "Up the mountain a ways, Pedro Maldonado abandoned his family. Six children."

Felicidad turned to look at Hilda. The sun had baked her skin the color of bark and left it with as many wrinkles.

"Why did he leave his family?" Felicidad had to know.

"Because a man can or because sometimes the responsibility is just too much." Hilda's glance acknowledged that while Felicidad was still a child, soon the day would come when she, too, would learn the ways of men.

Felicidad wondered about this Pedro Maldonado. How was he different from her father? Perhaps his wife wasn't a helpful mate, perhaps she was sickly or didn't have sons, although girls sometimes worked in the fields. Maybe this Maldonado was just a bad man.

A ligartijo sprinted up the smoke-blackened wall and out of reach before Felicidad could get the broom to sweep the small lizard out.

In the evening they brought her into the house; Papi and Vicente held her up between them. Felicidad looked away from her tear-streaked face.

Father Manuel Cortez wore a long black cassock and a black hat and kept a silver rosary handy in his pocket. He glanced around the room. He had not often gone into the mountains. It was difficult to see in the dark house after the long ride in the bright sun, but he didn't need to see to smell. He took out his handkerchief from the pocket of his cassock and dabbed his nose. What was it? It wasn't a single odor in particular; it was the smoke of the fogón, it was the jíbaro habit of shutting himself up from the dangers of the night air. It was the stink of human beings living in a tropical climate, it was the escupidera, it was sweat and bacalao and the coffee beans crushed by maceta and pilón. It was living.

He had arrived on the island from Spain only six months before, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. His parishioners made fun of him behind his back for the thick brows that met over the bridge of his nose. Other than that, his congregation agreed that he could be worse looking.


  • "If I Bring You Roses is more than a love story powerfully and insightfully told. It is also a story about how class and ethnic discrimination impact relationships between men and women. The message is important; the writing is masterful...I highly recommend this book to readers interested in romance grounded in reality, in Latina culture, in civil and human rights for all people regardless of gender, race or ethnicity and to readers who are just interested in reading a really good, engrossing book."—Midwest Book Review
  • "A sensual and well-crafted story about courage and passion that brims with vivid descriptions and characters."—The Network Journal
  • "Marisel Vera is a gifted storyteller with an eye for the subtle motions of the human heart as it struggles with the disturbances of desire. This is a deeply felt and satisfying tale that brings attention to the courage required to sustain hope, love, and passion as a stranger in a new land. Vera understands her characters and brings them to us with lyric intensity, humor, and perfect pitch so that they live in us long after the last page is closed."—Award-winning author Jonis Agee
  • "If I Bring You Roses has everything you want in a novel-- flawed complicated characters, lush descriptions, breathtaking plot, and a fierce beating heart. With this brillant novel she at once excavates history, while weaving a story that is entirely new. With this amazing debut, Marisel Vera has burst onto the literary scene. I am eager to see what she writes next."—Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

On Sale
Aug 3, 2011
Page Count
368 pages

Marisel Vera

About the Author

Marisel Vera lives near Chicago, Illinois with her husband and children. Two of her short stories won the Willow Review literary magazine’s fiction prize in 2000 and 2003.

Learn more about this author