Before the turn of the century, while the rich in Madrid, Paris and Rome capped their sumptuous dinners with sips of Puerto Rico’s exquisite black café, the anemic men, women and children who harvested the precious crop lived in squalid huts and rarely saw a scrap of meat. Brutalized by grinding poverty, theirs was the harsh world of Manuel Zeno-Gandia’s La Charca, published in 1894 and widely acknowledged as the first major novel to emerge from Puerto Rico. In the colloquial Spanish of Puerto Rico’s hill-country, una charca is a stagnant pond, a body of brackish water. Puerto Rico’s Spanish colonial society, says Zeno-Gandia, was an immense charca of human beings, oppressed by poverty, ignorance and disease. His bitter melodrama offers stark contrasts: the beautiful Puerto Rican countryside, a veritable Garden of Eden; yet within that “regal panorama,” starved, diseased human beings clung desperately to life.