The short story “Eye-Openers,” written by contemporary and award-winning Puerto Rican writer Ana Lydia Vega, is a story about a group of strangers, consisting of four men, including the driver and two women, traveling together to a common destination in the north of Puerto Rico. The plot of the story revolves around the tales told by each of these passengers, which were initially meant to keep their driver awake and themselves safe but ended in a pissing contest between the sexes. The main story is told for one of the passengers, a young lady who was revealed as a writer at the end of the story. Vega gives the reader a glimpse of the practices, beliefs, traditions, prejudices, and mores of Puerto Rico, especially the attitude of the sexes towards each other and their gender. Employing prolific wit and language, creative and clever literary style, Vega succeeded in conveying to the readers the causes, like lack of faith, which underpin the sexual divide that exists between Puerto Rican men and women.
Vega cleverly manipulated language and the different elements of the short story to convey her perspectives, at least, of Puerto Rican society. The setting paved the way for the expression of these perspectives through the narratives of the different characters and the varied reactions of the other characters to these narratives. Although the story was presumably written originally in the Puerto Rican dialect, it is nevertheless evident that the writer employed humor to temper the severe social message of her theme. The effect is to make the story less preachy and critical and allows the reader to enjoy reading rather than be offended or be distressed by the present social condition. This effect is reinforced by the mood, which exudes joy and happiness. Vega also used characters who were the ultimate personification of the very theme she wanted to convey. Moreover, she employed symbolism and the different aspects of Puerto Rican socio-cultural realities like religion, beliefs, traditions, biases, and culture to emphasize her short story’s themes.
The Story’s Theme. As discussed previously, Vega’s work is steeped in the socio-cultural dynamics of the Puerto Rican society. She portrayed machismo or the exaggerated sense of masculinity of men, which they primarily equate with their sexual prowess and women conquest. Puerto Rican women, on the other hand, were represented by Vega, as basically distrustful of men, possibly an upshot by the latter’s inability to be faithful with one woman and also by the failure of men to stand by their women. Vega likewise pointed out the superstitious nature of Puerto Ricans and society’s bias for light-skinned people. She also underscored the double standard according to men and women, where the former’s unfaithfulness is tolerated and joked about while the latter’s infidelity earns scorn and criticism. The fundamental differences between men and women caused the sexual divide and tension between the sexes, the main theme of Vega’s story.
To expand and emphasize the subject, Vega elaborately crafted five stories within the main story. Except for the second tale, each of the narratives is a complete story in itself replete with the setting, characters, plot, theme, conflict, mood, and dialogue. To impress the reader with the idea above, the male passenger from Manaubo thus narrated a highly sexist tale; the young.
Kid a brief and precise story although steeped in superstition; the charismatic woman regaled everybody with a superstitious and horror-filled tale whose moral lesson is that men are unfaithful and false; the male passenger from Guayama responded with a very chauvinistic tale which undermines women’s values, and; the charismatic woman ends the tale-telling by a story that threw every grime and dirt on manhood, a tale that nobody could top. This elaborate set up resulting in the story having to accommodate five sub-stories cost the development of other aspects of the story, especially character development and plot structure. Consequently, the story in its compressed form was not able to afford the development of different aspects of the story because of the big room occupied by the theme development.
The Use of Setting. Vega chiefly used the story’s setting as a vehicle to initiate the introduction of her themes and socio-cultural perspectives. Immediately presenting the story’s background in the first sentence of the first paragraph, this clever move emphasizes the fact that the ‘Eye-Openers’ is crowded by a considerable number of sub-plots which are complete short stories in their own right and therefore space and time need to be efficiently used in its inherently compressed setting. Thus the very first line of the story reads, “An explosion of red clouds lighted the sky, and the shadow of yagrumo trees lay in long slanting lines across the Guavate Forest when our driver made the disturbing confession that he could barely keep his eyes open.” Immediately the reader is apprised of the fact that the story is taking place as dusk is setting in. The mention of the driver implies the setting to be specifically within the interior of a moving vehicle. Moreover, the car where the action is taking place moves within the vicinity of an isolated and wooded area.
The setting of the story provides for the clever justification and expository vehicle of Vega’s themes. The fact that dusk is setting in as the vehicle transporting the motley group of Passengers traverse a stretch of isolated highway with a tired and sleepy driver on its steering wheel, excuses, and justifies the narrative tales that each passenger contributes to keeping the driver awake and themselves alive. The setting is a convenient and clever ploy because it allows the writer to present her perspectives of men, women, and society in general through the eyes of the passengers. The idea of confining a group of strangers in a public transport traveling in a secluded area forced by circumstances to tell their tales and reveal by accident, their nature, views, and biases are ingenious.
For example, Vega’s view that the Puerto Rican men’s exaggerated sense of machismo is tied to the notions of sexual prowess and women conquest was well exemplified by the Maunabo passenger’s tale of a man with twenty-seven wives and more than thirty-seven children and counting which were met by giggles and laughter by the other male characters. Likewise, Vega succeeded in impressing the reader that Puerto Rican women have an untrusting attitude towards men, which she expressed in the narrative of the other woman passenger she described as charismatic.
The Use of Characters. Vega successfully assembled a mixed group of characters in ‘Eye-Openers’ that made the transmission of her themes more emphatic and striking. In the story, there are six characters, one of which is narrating the story from the first-person point of view. Of these six characters, four are men, and two are women. The menu consisted of the driver, a passenger from Maunabo, a Walkman-toting youngster, and a passenger from Guayama described by the narrator as a retired schoolteacher type who turned out to be a fireman. The women are composed of a charismatic woman dressed is a white habit tied by a rope with red bells at both ends at the waist, and the narrator, a young lady.
The different characters whose personalities are as varied and as opposing as the nature of the themes of the story serve to highlight the tension in the issue. The driver’s happiness and openness conflict with the severity of the charismatic woman, and the secretiveness of the young lady-narrator. The irreverence of the Maunabo passenger is striking in the light of the apparent loyalty of the charismatic woman who comes dressed in the usual white habit caught in the waist by a rope worn by religious devotees.
These tensions in the characters preface the inherent and characteristic strain of Vega’s themes, machismo, the chauvinism of men, and the distrust by women of men, which underpin the sexual divide between Puerto Rican men and women. Moreover, the characters reflect the socio-cultural condition of Puerto Rico like the bias for the white-skinned and against the darker-toned people, the religious piety and demureness of women, the general belief in superstitions by the populace, and the characteristic warmth and sociability of Puerto Ricans even with strangers.
With the character of the narrator of the main plot, Vega was able to mirror the role of the young Puerto Rican women, their shyness and reserve, but with a potential receptiveness to non-traditional ideas. This character is not as stern or rigid as that of the other woman passenger. Although this character is not an active participant as the other woman, it is through her eyes and senses that Vega bares the weaknesses and strengths of the other characters and the revelation of the themes of the stories.
The character of the woman described as charismatic and garbed in the religious clothes of a devotee is used by Vega to create half of the tension fundamental in her theme of the sexual divide. The character illustrates the general feeling of distrust by women against men, the Religious piety of Puerto Rican women, their spirituality, conservativeness, and widespread belief in superstitions and the unknown. With this character, Vega succeeded in homing in on her message that the Puerto Rican men and women are separated by their fundamental differences – the chauvinism of men and the women’s lack of faith in men.
The driver of the transport vehicle, on the other hand, allowed Vega to illustrate the warmth, happiness, humor, and friendliness of the Puerto Ricans and their love for tales and stories. Vega likewise used this character to resolve the conflict between the characters in the end. The driver serves as the balancing element in the story, although his chauvinism and exaggerated sense of machismo are evident as the rest of the male passengers.
Vega used the Maunabo passenger character to drive home the point that men equate their masculinity to their sexual prowess and the ability to bed as many women as they can. In Puerto Rican society (and perhaps in most communities), this male penchant can only earn at its worst, laughs, and giggles from fellow men.
On the other hand, the passenger from Gauyama provides, along with the charismatic woman, the conflict in the story. It clearly illustrates the clash between men and women brought about by men’s exaggerated sense of masculinity. This character also shows the double standard, according to men and women. While men’s infidelity is tolerated and made a butt of humor and jokes, women’s unfaithfulness is scorned as a falsity by the same men.
The young man’s character reflects the carefree attitude characteristic of the young people as well as his flirtatiousness with the narrator of the main story. Yet, traces of the older generation’s cultural and traditional views like being superstitious are still evident in the young man implying that the belief in superstition is deeply rooted in the culture of the Puerto Ricans and may be difficult to let go even by the present and future generations.
The Use of Language, Narratives, and Mood. Vega’s talent lies in the use and manipulation of language, as can be seen in how she employed it to drive home her messages to the reader. Vega’s dialogues were witty, irreverent, and fearless. In the Maunabo passenger’s narrative, for example, where he describes the sexual prowess of a character, he said, “I don’t know what the man had between his legs, but whatever it was, apparently the Virgin Mother herself couldn’t have resisted it.” This is interesting for two things: Vega wrote this short story in 1948, and Puerto Rico is predominantly Roman Catholic. It is not hard to imagine what kind of reaction this statement drew. The narrator of the story reacts by turning her head towards the window “to hide my sinful grin,” The driver has always responded with a big roar to “celebrate the minor sacrilege.” Vega’s employment of wit and humor in her dialogues and overall descriptions of characters and events have made reading the story interesting and enjoyable despite its supposed to be preachy message and essentially serious social content.
Also, Vega used each character’s narratives to reflect the prejudices, beliefs, and attitudes of the sexes towards each other and of themselves. The first story effectively conveys to the reader the writer’s perception that Puerto Rican men equated their masculinity with sexual prowess. Narrated by the Maunabo passenger, it is about a man who has twenty-seven women at once and fathered more than thirty-seven children by them and how he juggles his time from one woman to another, feeds all his families and solves his problem with the government’s revenue agency. This is greeted by hilarious laughter and giggles from the men-passengers and a contemptuous response from the only other woman passenger.
The second story conveys to the reader that Puerto Ricans are generally superstitious people. This story is told by a hip, walkman-toting young male passenger in a characteristically succinct manner. It is about how a curse is causing a lot of buildings, things and even women to Burn-in his grandmother’s town. The short manner by which this tale is delivered does not elicit satisfaction from its audience, implying the unsophisticated taste of his audience.
The third story often illustrates the superstitious nature of Puerto Ricans, the bias against lighter skin, and the racism towards dark-toned skin. It also highlights the tension between the people on board, in particular the Guayama man and the other passenger woman. The story revolves around a moneyed woman and his son, who fell in love with a dark-skinned woman. The son cannot be prevailed upon by the mother’s objections. As the story went, weird things started to happen to climax in the couple’s child being on fire. The listeners assume that it was a spell cast by the mother and are mortified to know that the daughter-in-law was sent to an asylum. The narrator of this tale, the charismatic woman, ends this with a remark on men’s falseness.
Starting from the previous remark of the charismatic woman, the male passenger described as a retired school teacher type, gets even with the incredible tale about a woman who made it every night with a battalion of firefighters of a neighboring fire station as her husband lays asleep, rendered impotent by a cup of linden tea laced with sleeping tablets. This incredible tale mirrors the way Puerto Rican men see women – as sex objects. This tale is told to impress the charismatic lady that women are more unfaithful and weaker than men.
Not to be outdone, the battle of the sexes goes on as the charismatic lady hugs the spotlight again, turning around the story and giving her own “version” of what purportedly transpired. Her version makes the husband the real culprit, a pervert who did everything reprehensible like orgies with prostitutes, sex with children even animals – every dirty perverted act imaginable, leaving the other contender – the school teacher type – flustered and irritated but incapable of topping it yet with another taller tale.
The mood of the story likewise made the reading and appreciation of Vega’s theme easier and interesting. Vega adeptly sets the spirit of the story with lightness and humor; the reader could almost step into the scene and join the group’s engrossment and merriment in the tale-telling. A most notable character in the story is that of the driver, whose roars and hilarious reactions set the tone of the story, creating an atmosphere of lightheartedness, fun, and merriment.
In the story, the word ‘fire’ appeared several times. It first appeared in the tale of the youth, where he describes his grandmother’s hometown as a place where there is a perpetual burning of buildings, things, and even people. Next, the charismatic lady mentioned it in her story of the bewitched family, again in the word ‘firemen’ by the passenger from Gauyama and, lastly, during the anticlimax when the same passenger was revealed as a fireman. The name may have been employed by Vega to symbolize tension or conflict, which is descriptive of the situation inside the car between the men and the women passengers. The clothing of the charismatic woman can also be a symbolism of religiosity, devotion, or purity. The walkman of the teen male passenger can be symbolic of the new generation of modernity.
The title itself of the story is symbolic. Superficially, the word ‘eye-openers’ was used to refer to the collective efforts of the group to keep their driver awake and hence, themselves safe. However, a reflection of the story and its themes would suggest that the title has a deeper meaning and symbolism because it could also imply the effect that the tales and the varied reactions of the passengers to them had on the narrator. Perhaps the title refers to the implied possibility that these tales opened the eyes of the young writer or narrator to the socio-cultural realities of Puerto Rican life.
All in all, Vega’s “Eye-Openers” has succeeded in exposing the weaknesses and strengths of the Puerto Rican socio-cultural life in a fun, prolific, and wit-filled language. Vega’s views on men and their sense of machismo, the women’s lack of faith in men, society’s biases especially favoring the fair-skinned, the Puerto Ricans’ superstitious nature, and their general friendliness and openness even amongst strangers were as clear as the daylight, all laid bare in the short story. However, despite the social relevance of the work in the Puerto Rican milieu, there is a palpable lack of character development and multi-dimensionality. The overcrowding of many sub-plots and sub-stories into the main plot has an obtrusive effect that sidetracked the reader’s attention from it. Also, there is linearity in the development of events. Although the sub-stories are varied, their nature and significance failed to sustain a rising crescendo that should have peaked in a climax.
However, Vega’s work is fun to read if only because of its witticism and irreverence that stopped at no barrier. The mood and humor were palpable and engaging, and despite their lack of dimensionality, the characters are alive, colorful, and interesting. A case in point is the character of the driver whose depiction as a lighthearted, easygoing, and fun-loving personality cuts across the story as real and truthful. One can almost hear his lusty and easy hilarity and see his belly rise and fall in time with every laugh and laughter.
What Vega has accomplished is giving the reader a socio-cultural glimpse of Puerto Rico and its people, traditions, beliefs, practices, biases, and general character. In all the stories, the main and sub-plots, Vega effectively expressed her views of men, women, the tension between the sexes and the Puerto Rican society in general through effective setting, mood, language, characters, dialogues, and an engaging plotline.