Adios to the Bling Bling Era

Formerly from Post Barrio Universe website,

What does Post Barrio mean?

It means a worldview liberated from the barrio/ghetto mindset which permeates many Latinx communities in the U.S. There is nothing wrong with sustaining roots with your community, with strengthening ties in solidarity, especially for political action. That’s not what I’m talking about.

My concern is with the persistent negative vision of “the barrio.” One rarely unchallenged. So many of our people assimilate and share that barrio worldview. To the point that it promotes cultural artifacts including bling fetishism, ghetto fab sportswear, impoverished language, lower self-esteem, among others. Enough material for many blog posts..

In this blog, I will try to discuss and offer my opinion on as many as I can. My main focus, however, will be on how attitudes stemming from this barrio worldview affect literary arts, in particular. But I’m equally fascinated by how it shapes contemporary Latinx cultural and political perspective.

And what are the characteristics of this barrio worldview?

The most salient, troubling feature is the deep sense of continual victimization. From this perspective, “victim” defines everything we do. This attitude turns successful Latinx individuals into targets of derision and blame from within their communities, sometimes leading them to undeserved guilt and alienation. The barrio mindset operates on difference. It falsely “benefits” you as a member of an oppressed group  to use as an emotional weapon against the dominant group. But this attitude leads to reductive thinking about pretty much anything.  It leads to close mindedness, and allows demagogues to manipulate Latinx communities. It leads to defeatism and apathy.

Perhaps the most devastating consequence of this Barrio Syndrome is how Latinx have accepted, as universal truth, the negative, heightened, exaggerated representations of their own communities and neighborhoods. Thus, the only acceptable authenticity of the barrio becomes one that focuses on the exaggerated pimped up, drug crazy, ultra violent, sexed up world of fatalism and degeneracy. Forget that the overwhelming majority of Latinos in these communities work and struggle to give their children a better life. That they are decent law abiding individuals, who do not use or sling drugs, or gang bang.

And how do I know this?

Because I grew up in the South Bronx during the burning times–when paid arsonists torched buildings.  Yes, gangs existed–some of those gang members were friends–and people were abusing drugs. But I always knew they were a minority. On my street, I knew many more good hard-working people. In my building there was a sense of neighborly concern and sharing. I hate that barrios like the South Bronx are still purposefully represented in such generalized untruthful negative ways for commercial reasons.

What made the South Bronx and similar barrios dangerous had more to do with the breakdown of the spirit, the loss of hope and agency, than drugs and crime which, were consequences of the former. According to the FBI and Bureau of Justice reports on crime, crime activity has actually been going down for decades. Yet the media continue to feed us this idea of national lawlessness, especially in our barrios.  Chicago, for example, has gained a reputation as “Chiraq.” But it’s not even in the top ten cities with the worst homicide rates . We will believe the negative outlook if the media continuously report the negative. To counter this barrage of misrepresentation we need a new vision, one that goes beyond this barrioization of our communities.

What does a Post Barrio Universe look like?

It’s a place where your ethnic collective supports but does not stifle you. A place where everyone considers you cool if you read, learn, and educate yourself. A world where learning about other cultures is ok. It’s a borderland where your culture is an integral part of American culture, and for that reason you do not own it. It is accepting that, as an American, you deserve the same rights and privileges as any other citizen. And you are not a victim. Your history is full of heroes and events that demonstrate our people have contributed greatly to the United States. We have also resisted oppression and continue to do so. We have fought and won battles for our rights. Let your history wisely guide your thinking and actions, but do not wallow in it, nor let others bury you in it.

If you are economically comfortable, be proud of your achievements. Be grateful to those who worked their asses off to get you there. But never, ever, think you are better than those brothers and sisters in the barrios who want the same future. Don’t insult them by putting your middle-class background down to “belong,” and don’t romanticize the negative of the barrio by wearing prisonwear or a “gangsta” lifestyle that you don’t even understand. Let’s focus on what’s positive in our barrios, and let’s treat what is negative with a critical eye, not an apologetic or exploitative one.

Cultural Workers: Stop Writing the Ghetto.

As for cultural workers–writers, artists, film makers–we do not need the propagation of more negative stereotypes of our communities couched in “streetwise urban language.” If you’re still writing about the violence, about Latinos who are only “sucios,” still objectifying Latinas sexually, focusing on drugs, pimps, dysfunctional families, etc., without shedding critical light on these topics, please stop.

Ask yourself what you are doing. Stop and realize that you are only seeing your people through the eyes of mainstream, hegemonic culture.  You are just practicing an inverted form of classical double-consciousness.  You are just feeding their need for racist, stereotypical, commercial material. Use your talents to create and represent our people in a more progressive light. In a more honest and genuine context. In the barrios there are stories of grit, conflict and determination that have nothing to do with drugs, pimps, violence and other clichéd themes often associated with Latinx.

The Post Barrio Universe is my way of approaching Latinx life and culture from a perspective that celebrates poet and spoken word performer Oveous Maximus‘ words: The Bling Bling Era is Over! The Bling Bling Era is Over! Now, if that thought could only start sinking into the brains of all our Latinx family and artists.

Junot Diaz: This Is How You Lost Me

I’m done with you, Junot Diaz. I’ve been meaning to tell you this for some time now, but the time never felt right, and there was always the fear. The fear of repudiation for committing the blasphemous, heretical outrage of critiquing one of our own, especially the Poster Dude of Latino Literature. After much inner debate, I swore never to teach your work in any of my classes. Your stalking presence, however, recently confronted me in a collection of short stories I had already assigned to my creative writing class. The discussion of your story, “Miss Lora,” pushed my anger and disgust to surface in volcanic torrents. Again, I had to explain my criticism of this story, and how it fits into your work that I have concluded up to this point in your career is toxic and therefore not material I want to teach in any Latinx literature course or generally anywhere.

My main problem with your work is primarily centered on the continual, obsessive representation of what one of my creative writing students aptly termed “suciopaths.” What else can you call the Dominican men who inhabit your fictional world, and not just Yunior and Rafa, those two deviant brothers who suffer from arrested development across three critically acclaimed books. I have read your three books meticulously. I have taught them. And I cannot find one redeeming Latino in any page you have published. As a Latino, father of two young men who will go forth to confront a world already inhospitable to Latinos, and who have been taught to be proud of their Puerto Rican roots; as a husband married and faithful to the same Puerto Rican woman for 27 years; as an educator and scholar of this literature who tries to present his students the complexities of Latinx culture in the United States honestly in all of its historical and social contexts—these hyper-macho, sexually suped-up narrow-minded, insensitive, emotionally and apparently genetically engineered “sucios” are troubling to me in what they misrepresent in the texts that you continue to spawn. Troubling because even the most intelligent white feminists support these over-the-top representations as gospel truth. Their arguments that essentially claim this type of machismo is real and widespread—without critically questioning its generalization—only confirm their whiteness and their lack of knowledge of Latinos. Do they know any Latinos? Have they read any other Latinx literature where the depictions of men are more balanced and genuine?

Unfortunately, you have sold out your fellow Latino brothers—easy targets in our society—to sell your books. You have created in them straw men roaming in a world of violent and sexual exotica to titillate and satisfy the cravings for the Other of suburbanites and hipsters who will never have a clue what it is to live in a barrio. And through these hombres de paja you have expressed the most misogynist, sexist, gratuitous depictions of women I have read in contemporary fiction and ironically you have managed to remain relatively unscathed. Indeed, you are heralded for depicting the “reality” and misogyny of this machismo on steroids from individuals who have no clue what the majority of real Latino males are like, nor apparently care to know anything about their lived experiences . You have taken machismo, a complex historical, cultural form of patriarchy, and transformed it into a distorted, reductive, simplistic sexual version to suit white literary consumption.

To add insult to injury a jury of your “peers” has decided to reward you with honors for doing so, while deserving established, more prolific Latinx fiction writers have yet to reach the level of recognition that has been heaped on you. For example, Viramontes, Alire Saénz, Urrea, Castillo, Goldman, Mohr, and Alvarez, to just name a few. One has to raise the question: why are these other writers not acclaimed to the degree you are? I would submit that it is because the fictional worlds they represent do not fulfill the consumerist needs and expectations of the elite who decide and dictate what we should read and who gets anointed “Literary Worthy.” Some of their work is simply too politically edgy and true for even white liberal tastes. It is outrageous, for example, that the only two Pulitzer Prizes ever awarded to Latinx fiction writers have been a Dominican-American (you) and a Cuban-American (the late Oscar Hijuelos), when Mexican American and Chicano writers have a longer history of literary production than any other Latinx group. Why is that? In my opinion, the answer is two-fold: One, most white critics don’t know squat about the universe of Latinx writers. And, secondly, and most importantly: Mexican American and Chicano writers still sustain a social and activist dynamic to their writing that grates against the mainstream. Yours, sadly, does not.

In an article in La Respuesta, Xavi Burgos Peña writes how you responded testily to questions and comments laced with racist undertones thrown at you by the mostly white audience at the Chicago Humanities Festival a year ago. Your anger stemmed from the frustration of the audience laughing at some of the serious ideas on white supremacy and privilege that you were putting down. Anyone who has followed your career will not question your progressive politics as you have articulated them in these types of forums, and by the work you have pursued on behalf of projects like Freedom University.

Pero ‘mano, why would the laughter surprise you? Those folks came to the forum because of your work. How disconcerting it must have been for most of them to hear you talk about white privilege when such topics are not to be found anywhere in your work, or if they are, they are buried behind the sexual depravity and general dysfunctionality of the Latino men at the core of your narrative. How confused and offended they must have felt to hear you break it down when you yourself have been privileged by white privilege. If you hadn’t been, you would not be in possession of a Pulitzer and a MacArthur Prize and all those New Yorker publications. They love you because you make them laugh; you stroke them to literary orgasm; in true liberal fashion, they read you and feel exonerated for the guilt they possess for being privileged. You have been performing literary minstrelsy and then you expect to be taken seriously when you talk about serious issues? They came to be entertained and to hear you speak on what your writing has been granted the authority to speak on: machismo and the blight of the violent, sexually charged Latino male experience.

What your career so far demonstrates is the damage that the mainstream commercial publishing industry can enact on talented developing Latinx writers when the machinery extols and privileges them uncritically. I refuse to promote the hegemonically sanctioned negative representation of Latinos found in your books. I am jumping off the bandwagon. When I was teaching your work—compelled by the sense that I needed to expose my students to the leading figure of Latinx literature today—I had to find a way to justify it to myself. So, I often used your work to explore how the publishing industry insidiously promotes a racist agenda and white privilege through writers of color. But I found I could do that much more effectively by teaching Percival Everett’s Erasure. I have no reason to bring your noxious work into my classroom anymore. There is nothing in them that my students need to read to learn about Latinx literature or culture that I cannot find in other more balanced representations. I hope you find your way. I hope one day you can consciously align your worldview with your art and be a truly committed writer in the Raymond Williams sense of the word. Just be ready to lose all that love presently coming your way.

The Ghettoesque Stylings of Justin Torres’ We, the Animals

I always approach any new book written by a Latinx writer and acclaimed by the predominantly white body of reviewers with trepidation.  As you can imagine this anxiety occurs often considering the scarcity of reviewers actually knowledgeable of Latinx literature and the inordinate power of the mainstream critical mass to dictate tastes and trends.  And almost without fail, I’m disappointed.  Not only with the book, but also the reviewers, the writer, and the whole hot mess that is publishing today.  Such was the case with Justin Torres’ “novel,” We, the Animals.”

What we have with this book is a closeted memoir.  Torres seems to want to write a coming of age/coming out memoir with this book.  That it was marketed as a “novel” probably had more to do with legal issues over releases and the desire of his handlers to sell Torres as a novelist than contemporary novelistic aesthetics.  Even in this postmodernist world, where “everything goes” in literary production, this narrative screams for the structural depth, narrative coherence, density and expansion that any reader expects from a novel, especially one based on strong autobiographical material.  The core of this narrative—Torres’ grappling with his sexual identity—is essentially buried through roughly the first one hundred pages.   Actually, not a good writing strategy for any long narrative, be it memoir or novel.

After reading various vignettes about his family, each one increasing in dysfunctional angst, we are thrown into the coming out section of the book for the last three chapters.  As readers, we are expected to make sense out of Torres’ hurried attempt to tie all the loose ends.   Justin Torres is a gifted stylist and strong at the sentence level, but he is unable to bring it all together at the end.   This is one case where less was not more.   Given the opportunity to write a novel, he could have developed this thread much more meticulously and woven the earlier parts better.   At any rate, the powers that be have branded it a novel.  I wish that they had released it as a memoir instead, because at least Torres’ dysfunctional family and personal issues, as heartbreaking and poignant as they are, could be read as one individual’s story rather than becoming yet another part of the ghettoesque fictional legacy that negatively universalizes and marks the Latino experience in the United States.

The enthralled remarks of many reviewers who blurbed this book focus on language.  Torres has a sparse, elliptical, lyrical style that captivates by absence and suggestion.  Daniel Alarcón is right to mention that every page “sings” because each one is imbued with raw, poetic intensity.   Alarcón continues to write that “every scene startles.”  That statement, however, I have to question.  It would not startle anyone who consistently reads Latinx literature today to read a scene where a father punches a young son in the face and crotch.  A novel that contains oversexed “characters,” especially a “dark and Afroed” Puerto Rican man with a “stout, fleshy dick” who the narrator compares to an animal.  In fact, the entire family is depicted often—consider the title—using animal metaphors.  Not surprising some of the words and phrases used by reviewers to describe this novel are: “feral,” “ferocious,” “wilderness,” “between the human and the animal,” “snatches the reader by the scruff of the heart,” “ravished,” “savage,” and so on.   Is this a matter of a bunch of excellent writers riffing blurbs on the animal theme?  Perhaps.  But who offered them this trope as a fulcrum?  The author.  Who also utilizes an overused literary template that, besides containing the ever-present abusive, sporadically absent, sucio father, includes, inevitably, a barrio environment full of violence, sex, and drugs.

Following Junot Diaz’s contribution to the ghetto genre, Justin Torres transports the barrio from the customary urban area to someplace seemingly different.  He takes the animals out of the urban jungle and transfers them to “hillbilly country,” but of course keeping them locked in that same old cage called poverty.   The inescapable oppression of that impoverished life is also a given in this exhausted story.  There’s never any way out.  It’s all about epic failure.   The characters never seem to find any answers, any agency or transformative power.   Apparently, these Latinx writers are intent on dragging Latinx characters through a twenty-first century version of naturalism.  By the end, after a mental breakdown seemingly over his family finding his journal full of his sexual fantasies, the narrator finds himself institutionalized, now sleeping with “animals in cages and in dens.”

Piri Thomas constructed a writing career based on this type of story. But Thomas’ memoir, Down These Mean Streets, was mostly authentic and honest, and forty-six years ago it was new and fresh.  He was writing about his hard life.  None of the Latino writers writing this ghetto or barrio genre today can claim the life Thomas lived.  They’re college educated.  They may have come from working class backgrounds but they did not serve any time in jail, did not fight in gangs, get shot up, or almost die from hard drugs.  And if they did, Thomas already wrote about those topics with power and authenticity.   So, almost a half of century after Thomas’ memoir, can’t we move on to telling different stories about our communities?  Can’t we shift our creative gaze somewhere else? For sure, the barrio needs to be written, but not always from this repressive, limited and limiting tired perspective.

It is disgraceful and disturbing that this barrio/ghetto template still survives today in its newer, insidious forms.  At one point, referring to their suffocating socioeconomic condition, the narrator’s father says, “Nobody’s ever escaping this.”  I worry that Latinx writers will not be able to escape from the present publishing environment and the cage it has built for us.  I worry that Latinx writers cannot seem to transcend this concrete ceiling, mainly because the current publishing machinery feeds and privileges this toxic crap.  The literati apparently still love to fetishize the Latinx experience as exotica, and the writers who unleash these urban fantasies are thrown the scraps of praise as they haunch in their cages scribbling away.  That this phenomenon extends to all forms of cultural production, including films, videos, music, etc., continues to be a source of anxiety for me and it should be to every thinking person in our communities.

Image: Ghetto4Life, Banksy.

50 Absolutely Must Read Kick Ass Latinx Novels

I’m not a fan of anything prescriptive, so I’m usually weary of lists.  So why write a list of Latinx novels? The idea came to me as I reviewed a similar list someone had posted on Goodreads.  It claimed to be a list of “fiction about Latino/Latina culture by Latinx authors.” As I perused the list I noticed that some books were actually not fiction at all—Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, for example—and the majority were written by Latin American writers.  As a professor of Latinx Literature, it pains me to see that someone who apparently loves reading and takes time to construct such a list, does not understand the fundamental difference between Latin American and Latinx writers.   The latter are writers of Latin American or Hispanic ancestry living in the U.S. who principally, if not exclusively, write in English.   Latin American writers are from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean who write in Spanish.  The distinction is not arbitrary or nuanced.  There are profound cultural, historical and linguistic differences.

But clarification, as important and valuable as it may be, is not the sole reason to compile and post a list of 51 Essential Latinx Novels.   As I asked myself what type of list would be essential–a “must read” list–for anyone not familiar with this literature, I pondered the various criteria for the list.  I want to make it clear I am not claiming to have a definitive list here.  This is an exploratory list to initiate thinking and present an introductory framework for reading in the field.  As with any list, there will be disagreement. Please post a comment, if you believe I’ve egregiously left out someone who should be on the list. Second, these are novels and do not include other genres that would appear on other lists of notable Latinx works of literature.

Please understand the criteria I’ve constructed to come up with these novels, which follow:

1. Novels that most literary critics and historians consider either foundational or seminal, or have in some way influenced or reformulated the discourse on this corpus.
2. Novels that have added new ideas, concepts, or approaches to the lived experiences of Latinx from the United States.
3. Novels representative of authors who have demonstrated, if not mastery, a dedication to novelistic craft and art.
4. Novels that, as a whole, represent a strong introduction to the expansive nature of Latinx literature and thus Latinx experience.
5. Novels that have opened or expanded the borders of Latinx literature.

Some of the authors on this list have written other fabulous novels. They made it difficult to choose only one; in those cases, I kept my criteria in mind. In some cases—Hinojosa and Ruiz de Burton, for example—I felt it necessary to include more than one novel.  At any rate, I hope this list will inspire you to read more of their work.

My listing of Latinx novels should not, in any way, be interpreted as an attempt to privilege that literary art form. In the future, I’d like to compile a list of similarly notable short fiction collections and poetry.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have included my novel, The Accidental Native.   As a fiction writer, I seriously have taken to heart Toni Morrison’s charge to write books that you want to read that aren’t written yet.  Such was the case with The Accidental Native—the first and only novel so far about the Puerto Rican reverse migration.  That is one reason among others why I believe it belongs on this list.   In all sincerity, if this novel had been written by another author, I would feel compel to teach it in my Latinx Lit courses. For ethical reasons, I do not. However, because I strongly believe it fulfills some of the established criteria, and since this is my blog after all, at the risk of sounding solipsistic and self-aggrandizing, I have included it on the list.

Review the list; use it for your own literary interests, pursuits, amusement, or whatever.   Let me know what you think. I’d like to hear from you.

Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Revolt of the Cockroach People.
Alarcón, Daniel. Lost City Radio.
Alire Saenz, Benjamin. Carry Me Like Water.
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies.
Ambert, Alba. A Perfect Silence.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima.
Castillo, Ana. So Far From God.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street.
Corpi, Lucha. Eulogy for a Brown Angel.
Cruz, Angie. Soledad.
Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Di Iorio, Lyn. Outside the Bones.
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Sor Juana’s Second Dream.
Goldman, Francisco. The Ordinary Seaman.
Hinojosa, Rolando. The Valley.
Hinojosa, Rolando. Klail City.
Hinojosa, Rolando. Rites and Witnesses.
Hijuelos, Oscar. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Islas, Arturo. Rain God.
Limón, Graciela. In Search of Bernabe.
Lopez, Erika. Flaming Iguanas.
Mendez, Miguel. Pilgrims in Aztlan.
Menéndez, Ana. Loving Che.
Mohr, Nicholasa. Nilda.
Olivas, Daniel. The Book of Want.
Ortiz-Cofer, Judith. The Line of the Sun.
Paredes, Americo George Washington Gomez: A Mexico-Texan Novel.
Perez, Loida Martiza. Geographies of Home.
Plascencia, Salvador. The People of Paper.
Quiñonez, Ernesto. Bodega Dreams.
Rechy, John. City of Night.
Rivera, Thomas. And the Earth Did Not Devour Him.
Rodriguez, Abraham. Spidertown.
Rodriguez, Joe. Oddsplayer
Rosario, Nellie. Song of the Water Saints.
Ruiz de Burton, Maria Amparo. The Squatter and the Don.
Ruiz de Burton, Maria Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It?
Suarez, Virgil. The Cutter.
Tobar, Hector. The Tattooed Soldier.
Torres, J.L. The Accidental Native.
Troncoso, Sergio. From This Wicked Patch of Dust.
Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Vazquez, Richard. Chicano: A Novel.
Vega Yunque, Edgardo. The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into The Impenetrable
      Loisaida Jungle.
Venegas, Daniel. The Adventures of Don Chipote.
Villarreal, Jose A. Pocho.
Villaseñor, Victor. Macho.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. Their Dogs Came With Them.
Yglesias, Jose. A Wake in Ybor City.

A Tale of Two Anthologies: A Review of Boricua en la Luna

Formerly from Post Barrio Universe blog

There are always sociocultural and political forces behind the birth of any book. Given the scarcity of Latinx books that realization becomes more pronounced with every book which makes it to publication. These were my thoughts as I finished reading Boricua en la Luna, an anthology of Puerto Rican writing, that came out in 2019. 

As a writer, editor, and literary scholar, I am always fascinated by how a book comes to be. That goes double for any Latinx book. For example, the urgency to voice the plight of Californios in Maria Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don. How art and politics propelled the Quinto Sol Prize during the Chicano Renaissance and made possible Tomas Rivera’s novel, And the Earth Did not Devour Him. Or, four years later on the east coast, the publication of the seminal Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings, under similar historical conditions.

When I saw the call for submissions posted by Elena Aponte, the editor of Boricua en la Luna, I was thrilled and intrigued. Up to then, there had been only one such anthology. In 1995, Random House published Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings, an anthology edited by Roberto Santiago. Clearly, after twenty-five years, another anthology was overdue. Santiago’s anthology developed out of his own experience and struggles with his identity as a colonized person of color. 

Such an experience, lived by many Boricuas, includes becoming aware of one’s culture and history. More importantly, it requires reclaiming it, because the Anglo-American hegemony obscures, devalues and often derides it. Among the many lies told to Puerto Ricans was that there weren’t any Puerto Rican writers. That’s what an English teacher told novelist Abraham Rodriguez. In 1995, Boricuas set out to challenge that claim and open the world to the Puerto Rican literary tradition.  

“I wanted to do something that would foster interest in the island and the people living there, and to share the love Puerto Ricans have for their home and each other.”

The circumstances behind this new compilation of Puerto Rican writers were different. Elena Aponte was a graduate student when on September 16, 2017, Hurricane Maria ransacked the island and claimed 4,645 lives. Along with millions of other Diasporicans, she watched in horror at the devastation and grueling aftermath. She worried and wondered what she could do to help.  In her introduction, she writes that she wanted to do more than donate. “I wanted to do something that would foster interest in the island and the people living there, and to share the love Puerto Ricans have for their home and each other.”  She decided to do this work out of national pride and solidarity to raise money in support of the recovery. She has done that and more.

This is an enjoyable collection of contemporary Puerto Rican writers and artists.  The three sections—Historia; Familia; Maria—include poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and art that address themes intrinsic to the Puerto Rican experience (ethnic identity, colonization, diaspora, cultural customs, etc.). They also include other more universal themes (family, love, sexism, racism). The book’s flow and organization is carefully laid out so that readers can easily make connections between the three sections.

The section on Maria, central to the genesis and spirit of the anthology, is not isolated from the other two. This tragedy is one among many in Puerto Rico’s history. Like others, it demonstrates the inadequacy and failure of the colonial status, which has wrought pain, suffering and continual diaspora. Like others, it has impacted our families and by extension the core of our cultural sense of nationhood.  

“As we read [Puerto Rican writers], we quickly begin to realize that it isn’t possible to separate Puerto Rican art from its politics.”

This book does not shy from political issues because as Aponte rightly states, “It is inherently political to be Puerto Rican.” A sentiment shared by Roberto Santiago in his introduction: “As we read [Puerto Rican writers], we quickly begin to realize that it isn’t possible to separate Puerto Rican art from its politics. Strip one aspect away and you’re left with an incomplete portrait.” Besides the desire to share Puerto Rican writing, and the political nature of it, these two anthologies differ in distinct ways.

There is something intimate about Boricuas en la Luna. Puerto Ricans, on the island and in the diaspora, will immediately recognize the inviting title. It alludes to Juan Antonio Corretjer’s famous poem, which ends with the words: I would be Boricua/Although born on the moon. Reading this book feels like a homecoming after a long absence. Listening to stories. Catching up with familia as you drink a fría or eat food you haven’t savored in a while. It feels like community. Not only because of the diverse voices—which range from first-time published writers to established ones—but because each contribution represents an act of communal sharing and grieving.

Santiago’s anthology is a good book but one that suffers from overreach. It set challenging editorial objectives. One, to introduce a mainstream audience to 500 years of Puerto Rican history and culture in a 400 page book. Secondly, to unite island and diasporic writers within one text. Despite its lofty goals, the book was primarily a mass market project. So, you sense that some of the selections—Freddie Prinze, Geraldo Rivera—are included for commercial purposes. Besides that, the repetition of some well-known writers limited the space for other worthy writers: Ed Vega Yunqué, Frank Lima, Jesus Papoleto Meléndez, Bernardo Vega, Arturo Schomburg, Tato Laviera, Luis Rafael Sánchez, Luz Maria Umpierre, to name a few.

The reason behind these problems may have had something to do with reprint rights and costs. Moreover, Roberto Santiago, an award-winning journalist and writer, is not a literary scholar. That may also have led to the omissions. Whatever the reasons, for an authoritative text of Puerto Rican literature for a quarter of a century, it is a bit disappointing.

Boricuas en la Luna has a grassroots literary vibe. It is inclusive in content, diversity of genres and writers. Its grasp does not overreach. The narrow scope of the book still allows the pieces to delve into issues and themes covered by its predecessor. The main difference is that now it presents them in an updated, contemporary fashion. It is not the perfect anthology. The limited budget obviously constrained the book’s graphic possibilities. Not every piece will blow you away. I am not suggesting that this current anthology supersedes the earlier one. We should see them as accompanying texts. And we could always use more similar anthologies. Nonetheless, Boricua en la Luna is a timely book. Not only because of Hurricane Maria, but because it comes at a crucial moment in Puerto Rican history.

The oldest colony in the world, Puerto Rico is at a crossroads and this anthology draws attention to its people. Human beings living, creating, loving, and surviving under the weight of a prolonged, indifferent, and stagnating colonization. It introduces Puerto Ricans and other Americans alike to Puerto Rican history and culture. This is a vital step for both to apprehend Puerto Rico’s present colonial condition. In other words, it necessarily nudges Boricuas into the American imaginary. A place where often we do not exist in a positive light, if at all. It does so with an array of provocative, engaging pieces that will make you cry, laugh, and think.

Notes from the Boondocks of the Nuyorican Imaginary, or Writing Outside the Circular Firing Squad

I’m displaced to the second power.  I’m Nuyorican and haven’t lived in New York city for decades.  In fact, I’ve been a Nuyorican living in Puerto Rico for most of that time.  Now, I find myself in the margins of puertorriqueñidad, living in the boondocks of the Puerto Rican imaginary.

Some would consider living outside of a Puerto Rican enclave crippling for a self-denoted Nuyorican writer. I certainly think there’s value living and writing in New York, but I think it can also be detrimental and stifling. New York is one of the most provincial places you can find.  (Think Steinberg’s New Yorker cover).  Writers of color can fall into little cliques, especially when it comes to our ethnic thing.  In the case of Nuyorican writers, we become too defensive about being Puerto Rican to the point of ignoring or downplaying critical problems that are homegrown and internal to our culture.  We become obsessed with fronting authenticity and lose the drive to be original and creative.  We put a tight circle around ourselves and write from that comfort zone.  We end up writing to other members of the circle and excluding others.  And the politics of such artistic tribalism can be brutal and self-serving—a circular firing squad.

Physical space need  not ground community in this digital age.  I have been fortunate to live and visit different places in the country and across the Atlantic.  All those places have shaped who I am and how I see the world and as a consequence it has shaped my artistic vision, my world view.  I’m a better person and writer for it.  So, I don’t specifically attempt to stay connected to the literary scene in New York City per se.  I prefer to stay connected to the city for its cultural value, to stay connected with friends and family and those writers whom I respect and admire.

The focus of my work now is not centered on Puerto Ricans living in New York.  I may choose to write on that, but it is not my north star.  I am searching for subject matter on Puerto Ricans that goes beyond any one limited scope, and that is fresh and different than what we have been reading lately.  In the case of my novel, The Accidental Native, no one has written on this return migration to the island in fictional form.  Puerto Rican writers in the island don’t seem to care much about that, and Puerto Ricans in New York seem intent on continuing to write about the New York experience, at times from a narrow, stifling perspective.

Being on the outside is actually advantageous. I don’t worry about stepping on any toes.  I don’t belong to any particular writing clan. I do not have to tolerate the divas and sycophants, the self-proclaimed literary gurus or the Ministry of Authentication that any such literary circle–anywhere and at anytime–will tend to germinate. Quite liberating and stress free. I visit the city occasionally to get myself recharged; the internet is great for keeping abreast of things. I have an idea of what’s going on in these different scenes; not all of it I care for, some of it is exciting, some absolutely banal.  But because I don’t live there, I can’t directly engage with it all.  I don’t have immediate access to the Nuyorican Literati.

That distance allows me freedom to think and create outside that circle. These days I am gravitating to historical material, like that story I’m developing about Puerto Ricans at the Carlisle Indian School.  I have another idea about Puerto Ricans moving to Hawaii, still another about the sterilization program.  I’m always looking for ideas not necessarily Nuyorican in the prototypical sense.  When people think Nuyorican—if they do at all—they usually think “urban” and everything else that goes with that. The collection I’m working on has ten stories that don’t deal exclusively with New York.

Perhaps, it is time that we redefine what is Nuyorican. Perhaps it is time that “Nuyorican” morph into “Diasporican.”  It is certainly time to infuse new themes, images and ideas into the Nuyorican perspective of the urbanscape.  Aurora Levins Morales attempted to put together a collection of Otherican writers, those Puerto Rican writers living and writing outside of New York  City. Unfortunately, the collection never made it to print.  The working concept behind that anthology is still valid and promising.

The Jeanine Cummins Syndrome

In Al Dia, Beatriz Garcia writes on the latest casualty of what she calls the Jeanine Cummins Syndrome. You might remember the latter as the author of American Dirt, the novel that received much flak for cultural appropriation. Now, it’s Alexandra Duncan, YA author. Harper Collins was ready to publish her novel, Ember Days, about a Gullah conjure woman. Duncan withdrew it after criticism surfaced. I’m not a fan of censorship of any kind, although I’m equally passionate against cultural vampirism. There has to be a balance, though.

Alexandra Duncan

Although I agree with some of Garcia’s points, calling the criticism “political correctness” is not the way to go. That’s a term that, like “cancel culture,” only serves to shut down dialogue. I find her assertion that “a writer without freedom is not a writer” problematic. At face value, it can be a truism. Imprisoned writers don’t have the ability to write, period. In what sense does she mean freedom?

If she means the freedom to write anything, I would agree. But I don’t agree with the comment that follows: “You can be an activist, a social educator or, at worst, a propagandist.” Interpretation: you won’t be a “real writer.” It’s reductive to think criticism of your uncritical choice of material necessarily limits your artistic vision. Her slight of activist and political writers is elitist and naive. All writing is political, and there is nothing wrong with using your writing as a form of activism. In fact, you can make a strong argument that we need more of it. In discussing these ideas, I’m always reminded of Sandra Cisneros’ comments about Latinx writers: “We don’t have the leisure to write about flowers in a vase.”

The criticism levied against Jeanine Cummins’ book was justified. She didn’t do her due diligence. But MacMillan still published it. I’m saddened to hear that Duncan withdrew her book from publication. Writers should write whatever they want with the full knowledge that their work may generate criticism. All artists should push themselves to take on challenging projects. It’s essential for growing your art. If you’re going to write a book that is outside of your cultural boundaries, you just better do the research and effort to get it right.

There is another issue that concerns me more about cultural appropriation. When a white writer writes about people of color, they steal an opportunity from a writer of color. For argument’s sake, though, let’s consider one point. If there is a dearth of material on a subject related to a specific community, is it ever valuable for an outsider to pen a well-researched and sympathetic book on it? Is it possible for a white writer to do justice to a story embedded in the experience of people of color? That’s the question.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo: Making the Word Flesh.

The story in The Poet X is not a new one, especially to Latinx literature. Fifteen year old Xiomara Batista struggles to navigate growing into her body within a machista, over-protective cultural environment. Her religiously fanatical mother monitors every move she makes and intends to keep her daughter pure in body and spirit. She does this by having her attend church and confirmation classes regularly.

In what has become almost a standard trope in Latinx literature, her father is ‘absent,’ although in this case not physically. He inhabits space in the house but it’s mami who raises the kids. So, the brunt of the tyrannical maternal parenting mainly falls on Xiomara. Her twin brother is obedient, a good student, and male (later we learn he’s closeted). Xiomara, on the other hand, is rebellious, questioning and views the world askance. She is also a young woman trying to fit comfortably into her “unhide-able” body. One her mother says is “a little too much body for such a young girl.”

You can trace the verse novel’s roots to epics such as Gilgamesh and the Odyssey. Although a clear narrative form, the epic still favors poetics. The modern verse novel attempts a stronger balance between those two strains of this hybrid genre. We’ve seen permutations as diverse as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (inspired by Pushkin’s nineteenth century verse novel, Eugene Onegin) to Nabokov’s brilliant, Pale Fire. Recently, the form has become popular, especially in young adult literature. Latinx writers have contributed greatly to YA fiction titles featuring verse. Among the stand-outs are Juan Felipe Herrera’s Downtown Boy, Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite, and the many written by Margarita Engle. It’s not surprising to find Elizabeth Acevedo’s award-winning contribution, The Poet X, added to this growing literary legacy.

What makes this story uniquely different is that Xiomara is a spoken word poet. This verse novel is therefore not your typical bildungsroman. It is, in fact, a künstlerroman: a writer’s coming of age story. Xiomara’s journey is not only about navigating through the confusion and variable emotions of adolescence. She is also contending with trying to find her voice as a poet. This theme makes the poetry in the book organic and central to the story.

Acevedo was a National Spoken Word Champion whose performance I’ve had the pleasure to experience. She is an exceptional spoken word poet whose voice and confidence are at their peak. The connection between writer’s life and the narrative is evident, although it’s hard to imagine that Acevedo could have ever been as shy and timid as Xiomara. That connection, however, gives genuine power to the storytelling. That is the sad irony of the journey narrated in The Poet X. Here is a young, talented woman whose culture and family operate to silence her even as they nurture her in other ways.

The titles of the three parts of the novel are revealing. They outline the progression of the story and its most important themes: Part I, In the Beginning Was the Word; Part II, And the Word Was Made Flesh; Part III, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness. Clearly, this book is about “the word.” How a poet discovers the power of the word and how that power resides within her body. How the poet eventually manifests that power through the written word. Finally, how the poet transforms that word into voice and discovers the sense of loneliness that every creative person experiences in the act of creating.

Like all good novels there are subtexts, of course. Acevedo deftly interweaves these other layers within the main künstlerroman motif. So, we follow Xiomara as her attraction to Aman develops into something deeper. Their prohibited (and sinful to her mother) rendezvous are rendered lovingly through Xiomara’s poems. These are the most touching poems in the novel as they combine an adolescent innocence with an emerging sensuality. She pours these feelings into her journal, which the mother finds, with explosive and dire consequences.

At the novel’s crucial moment, the mother, with all her religious wrath, squares up to a daughter who has found her voice and is no longer afraid to use it, or willing to relinquish it. What follows are a series of events that to this reviewer felt rushed, especially the transformation of the mother, who is such an intractable character that the resolution seems too pat. But perhaps the problem lies with the genre rather than Acevedo’s obvious talent.

The challenge in writing a verse novel is to maintain a balance between the qualities inherent in both poetics and narrative. Not an easy feat. In a standard novel, Acevedo might have had more space to flesh out the mother. She wrote over two hundred poems to bring coherence and structure to the story. It’s a challenge to write so many poems and have each one be a poetic gem when some of them have a specific narrative function. For that reason, some of the poems are powerful and sensuous, while others simply fulfill a need.

The Poet X is an enjoyable, riveting story that needed telling. This is a book deserving of its recognition and praise. Acevedo has written an award-winning verse novel that contributes a different perspective and voice to the genre and to YA literature.

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Love War Stories: If Love Is A Battlefield, Are Women Losing the Battle?

At a dramatic point in Alfonso Cuaron’s new Oscar-nominated film, Roma, Sofia, turns to her maid, Cleo, and says, “We’re alone. We’re all alone.” Her husband, Antonio, has moved in with his mistress. Cleo is pregnant and her lover disappeared immediately after she told him. Two women, from opposite ends of the class system in Mexico City, are left alone with the responsibility of the household and children. Meanwhile, their “significant others” neglect their responsibilities to pursue their own selfish interests. It’s a situation women around the world too often confront. One that begs the question: why do women even bother with love and relationships? That’s the burning question at the core of Ivelisse Rodriguez’s debut short story collection, Love War Stories.

The nine stories explore and deconstruct the myths and tropes associated with love. Rodriquez does not paint pretty pictures about love. These are gritty, raw and cynical tales about the vagaries of love and sex which recall Pat Benatar’s famous war cry: Love is a battlefield. In the hands of a less talented writer, this topic could degenerate into bitter, clichéd storytelling. Rodriguez, however, populates these stories with sharp and wise Latinas and infuses the narrative with humor and realism. That she also situates universal stories within a Latinx, and more specifically Puerto Rican, context adds a refreshing twist to the collection. More so, because she subverts those stories as they typically play out in Latinx culture.

The title story, “Love War Stories,” serves as a fulcrum for the collection. It establishes the battlefield, maps out minefields, and draws the combatants. In this case, they are not necessarily men and women. It’s more generational: mothers vs. daughters. It’s partisan: Non-believers vs. believers of love like Rosie Garcia, who has not yet experienced love and heartbreak. Something that her mother, the other mothers, and Rosie’s three friends have.

The mothers warn the daughters to “never trust a man” because he “only wants one thing and as soon as he gets it, he’ll be gone.” Their advice is conventional, yet cynical; resigned, yet resistant: “Marry, but don’t believe.” As a cautionary tale, they offer a yellowed newspaper clipping from the fifties. It’s about Carmencita. a fifteen year old girl from the island, who went missing after an unchaperoned outing with four boys, including her boyfriend.

Rosie and friends fight this war throughout high school, as their mothers, especially hers, attempt to prevent them from dating boys and sex. At college, Rosie’s friends suffer breakups with boyfriends they meet at school. On returning, they resign themselves to their moms’ viewpoint. Rosie is the lone holdout, still believing in the traditional view of love. She’s willing to continue fighting despite the “Decimated hearts…a battlefield of wounded soldiers.” Upset with Rosie’s continued efforts, Mrs. Garcia beats her. She warns “this was the way men would beat [her].” With each stroke, she tells stories depicting the plight of “las mujeres” throughout history.

Her friends eventually turn against her, because they understand her mother’s pain. Finally, Rosie confronts her father in an attempt to understand how after twenty-six years he could leave her mother. Of course, her father has no definitive answer. He surmises, “Love gets forgotten in the daily living.”

The other stories expound on the ephemeral nature of love. But they do so from the perspective of Latinas living through the pain of that reality. Whether it’s abandoned Tia Lola in “El Que Dirán,” waiting for her husband to return while confronting the social stigma that represents, or the obsessive Belinda stalking her ex and his new girlfriend in “The Belindas.” Or when such heartbreak leads the narrator in “Some Springs Girls Do Die” to muse on the routine in a day a girl completes suicide. “The Simple Truth” focuses on Puerto Rican literary icon, Julia de Burgos, the archetype of the bohemio’s mistress. Independent and artistic, this is a woman whom the male artist or professional of that generation (including the narrator’s father) could love for her beauty and intellect without commitment or responsibility.

Rodriguez’s women may be victims, but they certainly do not act as such. The stories reveal desperate women, but they are never passive. Their agency can be farcical as in the title story, or comical like in “La Hija de Changó,” where Xaviera and her three friends search for the meaning of love through Santeria. Or it can turn violent as with Veronica, in “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” who beats up a rival for her unfaithful boyfriend’s affections. Her action is more emblematic of the problem. She has inherited a social role which she plays with apprehension and ignorance, because “Girls will be girls.”

Human beings tend to channel their biological imperative to reproduce through the cultural mythology of love. In this collection, Ivelisse Rodriguez has done a superb job of representing the failings of that process. Like any intelligently written book, Love War Stories raises critical questions about its subject matter. In this case, why do we continue to approach love from archaic, patriarchy-driven tropes and myths? Especially, when they often fail our expectations and women are usually left with more than the loneliness.

Photo of Ivelisse Rodriguez: Amazon.com