By: Charlie Vázquez
The sinister history that binds Puerto Rico to its literature haunts us to this day…
I began working for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, the brainchild of celebrated author Dr. Mayra Santos-Febres, since 2011, something that has given me the opportunity to discover Boricua literature and to ask lots of questions about it. The first that came to mind as I was browsing book tables at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in 2013 was: I’m surrounded by hundreds of books by Puerto Rican authors, so why didn’t I grow up knowing anything about #BoricuaLit whatsoever? (I’ll be exploring English-language long-form writing here, despite an eruption of small presses on the island archipelago happening in Spanish.)
The good news is that we’re at a thrilling crossroads, a literary renaissance where we have the opportunity to remove the condemning shackles of literary colonization, to increase our awareness of our writers and their works as individuals and as a people. We can learn about the works of our authors, who produce books of genre fiction and creative non-fiction as any other culture does; writers who often struggle with recognition in their own communities. A nearly invisible legacy—at least in my case—as I didn’t grow up in a family that read Puerto Rican literature and know of many others who experienced the same thing.
Puerto Rican letters didn’t flourish until the 19th Century, owing to the late arrival of the first printing press to the colony in 1806, where the illiteracy rate was reported to be 80% at the time. Eighty-percent! This was due to the prohibition of written works by the Spanish, an oppressive mandate designed to keep Puerto Ricans from banding together in solidarity, decreasing the chances of the government being overthrown. This has had long-term repercussions in regard to Puerto Ricans and our knowledge of, and our engagement with, our literature to this day: what was once a mandate became a way of life.
Spanish has had the advantage in long-form Puerto Rican letters, but this is changing, as a new expansion of English-language Puerto Rican literature has begun. This movement, which I’d like to propose branding #BoricuaLit for purposes of dissemination, is building on legacies begun by pioneers of English-language Boricua writing such as Esmeralda Santiago, Piri Thomas, Ed Vega, Judith Ortíz-Cofer, Nicholasa Mohr, Marta Moreno-Vega, Giannina Braschi, Irene Vilar, Steven Torres and Luis C. Miranda. Surely there are many others drowned out by Internet noise in our Age of Self-Publishing and I’m not including academic writing here.
Storytelling in early Puerto Rico found life in oral forms such as the décima and we see echoes of this today: spoken word poetry and oral storytelling are more popular in the Diaspora than the written word is (outside of academia) and this can be attributed to history: it was illegal to write and read in Puerto Rico for the first three-hundred or so years of the colony’s existence if you weren’t a priest or an aristocrat. On this side of the Diaspora, it’s taken the maturing and evolution of the Baby Boomer generation (post-1940s migration) to master English enough to engage with long-form narratives and multiple points-of-view, which require more literary prowess than first-person testimonials.
If the first English-language Puerto Rican writing was credited to Jesús Colón in the 1950s, this means that our movement is only about 65-years-old. Puerto Rican youth in the Diaspora (as well as on the island archipelago) can read books authored by their own writers these days, in a way that wasn’t possible for my mother’s generation—or mine. This is great news for all of us. But publishing is a business and #BoricuaLit authors and their books need to be supported and bought if we hope for the industry to launch more of us. So who are our contemporary fiction and creative non-fiction writers and what are they writing about?
Eleanor Parker-Sapia, a Washington D.C.-based novelist, published A Decent Woman in early 2015, a historical novel that examines the challenges shared between a white “criolla” woman of the gentry and her less privileged black friend in early 1900s Ponce. Parker-Sapia exposes a dangerous island past rife with brutal and forced sterilization and other crimes committed against women in a corrupt society, at the beginning of the U.S. administration. The historical research and breathtaking backdrops made for a sublime reading experience; the characters came to life on the pages.
Theresa Varela launched her first mystery, Nights of Indigo Blue, a series-in-development that features protagonist Daisy Muñiz, a Brooklyn investigator who negotiates her troubled past while sleuthing the murder of a local surgeon. This book follows on the publication of Varela’s first book, Covering the Sun with My Hand, which won an International Latino Book Award. Bronx-based author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa published Daughters of the Stone in 2009, an intergenerational examination of a lineage of Afro-Puerto Rican women on the island and in New York, which has earned her a loyal, international following as well.
Sofia Quintero is the author of several books and just published a young adult (Y/A) novel, Show and Prove, which is set in the South Bronx in 1983 and features two point-of-view characters, Smile and Nike, best friends transformed by events around them, as well as from within. Quintero joins the ranks of veteran author Judith Ortiz Cofer and Sonia Manzano, another Y/A Puerto Rican storyteller who played María on Sesame Street for 44 years and has published books. These works are on par with those of international Latina authors such as Isabel Allende and Julia Álvarez, who publish highly-successful Y/A books in addition to the literary fiction they are best known for.
Children’s. middle-grade and Y/A books are always in demand and writers such as Yadhira González, Raquel Ortíz, Maria Aponte and Rosemary Rivera have contributed to that canon with much success. Memoir and personal journey testimonials have been extremely popular in the last few years and we’ve seen titles by Julia Torres-Barden and Gloria Rodríguez fill that void with a lot of community support. Nancy Mercado and Myrna Nieves have made great strides in organizing texts by Puerto Rican/Nuyorican women, but these lean toward mixed discipline collections and essays that require an entry of their own. Scholar Lisa Sánchez-González writes in various genres with an emphasis on folklore and children’s stories.
Torrey Maldonado published Secret Saturdays in 2012, a middle-grade coming-of-age story that explores the friendship between two male teens-of-color in the hood; how racism and poverty shape and impact their lives, a much-needed title aimed at a demographic that needs to find itself on the page. Manuel Meléndez, another International Latino Book Award winner, is an author whose work has evolved rapidly over the course of his last few books of noir-flavored fiction and poetry. Meléndez delves into the world of the tragic and horrific, as with his last novel Battle for a Soul, and will be featured with yours truly in the upcoming anthology San Juan Noir, edited by Mayra Santos-Febres for Akashic Books due later this year.
Manuel Meléndez’s sordid tales are preceded by a group of Puerto Rican crime writers that have been publishing since the 1990s, among them Steven Torres, Jerry Rodríguez, Michele Martínez and Alex Gallardo. The thrust of this Puerto Rican/Nuyorican crime thriller and mystery movement has been accredited to the success of Abraham Rodríguez’s South by South Bronx, which featured NYPD Detective Sánchez and put a Boricua spin on one of the United States’ most popular commercial fiction styles. The Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter is presided over by author Richie Narváez, the Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican author of Roachkiller & Other Stories.
I’ll digress to a history book, as it also qualifies as long-form narrative—and for another revealing development. Nelson Denis published War Against All Puerto Ricans in 2015 to unprecedented community support and enthusiasm, and although there’s been activity in certain academic circles to disprove many of his claims (nothing wrong with that), what’s most fascinating about his success is our people’s thirst for historical examinations of Puerto Rican roots and history. The popularity of War Against All Puerto Ricans has exposed an underserved book market eager for such titles and this deserves mentioning here—a momentum that could turn things in our favor.
Jonathan Marcantoni is an editor and author based in Colorado and has published three books to date, Traveler’s Rest, The Feast of San Sebastián and Kings of Seventh Avenue, storylines that examine issues such as human slave trafficking, government corruption and history. He’s forming the Boricua Book Club in partnership with Internet radio personality Wil Santiago Viera, for Viera’s Boricuas of the World Social Club blog talk show. Marcantoni will cover Puerto Rican classics as well as new #BoricuaLit publications from both the island archipelago and the Diaspora, and kicked-off on November 6th.
Lastly, there’s my writing, as we writers have to be our own best publicists if we hope for our work to be noticed. My increased interactions with diasporic writers and those on the island have shaped my most recent narratives, which have evolved to include more glaring Puerto Rican themes and characters. I’ve completed the first of a detective series-to-come featuring a former NYPD police officer-turned San Juan homicide detective, Dan Guerrero. While finishing the novel that brought him to life, I also completed thirteen horror tales set in Puerto Rico that comprise a book of their own. (More on those soon.)
I co-edited From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction in 2011 with author Charles Rice-González, which featured Puerto Rican short story writers Bronco Castro, Edwin Sánchez, David Caleb Acevedo, Danny González, Larry La Fountain-Stokes, Brian Pacheco and Robert Vázquez-Pacheco (no relation). Justin Torres, author of We the Animals, was also included—a great manuscript to work on after laboring on my 2010 speculative fiction novel Contraband. Charles’s novel Chulito followed, and to much popular and critical acclaim. All of our books featured gay/queer Puerto Rican protagonists—following in the footsteps of our friend Emanuel Xavier’s Christ Like, which “came out” in 1999.
The verdict: we’ve been writing and publishing whether people have taken notice or not. Factors such as niche- and self-publishing—added to insufficient marketing—are factors here, but we can improve this moving forward with new tools such as social media at our disposal… (and my sincerest apologies to anyone I might’ve overlooked in this research.)
So how can you support #BoricuaLit writers, you may be wondering? How can you help increase engagement between Puerto Ricans and our literature, in an era where reading for pleasure is becoming less popular in the culture-at-large to begin with? You can start by passing this magazine link on to friends who may be interested… Re-post/Re-Tweet away! I’ve compiled a Top 10 list to get you started.
Ten Ways You Can Support #BoricuaLit
Join the Festival de la Palabra page for info on #BoricuaLit authors and books. https://www.facebook.com/PalabraNYC/
Buy #BoricuaLit books! Connect with booksellers such as La Casa Azul Bookstore in New York and Revolución Bookstore and Tía Chucha in Los Angeles/SoCal. Buy from them when you can. You’ll be supporting Puerto Rican/Latino writers and small business owners. Book buying has changed with the Internet and many consider this the death of the bookstore (which we prefer to buy from), but even worse than buying online is not buying anything at all. Publishing is a business and sales are crucial.
You may not like to read, but someone you know does. Books are great and inexpensive gifts that can have a lifelong impact on someone’s life. #BoricuaLit gifts…
Start a #BoricuaLit book club. You can do this with as few as 2-3 people. Choose a book at the beginning of the month so everyone can purchase and read it, and meet at the end of the month to discuss it. Add wine and/or whatever else goes well with book chats.
Invite your favorite authors to your book club (or other related organizations) to talk about their work if they live locally or are passing through town. I’ve been invited to similar occasions and they’re a lot of fun and form lifelong friendships.
Promote #BoricuaLit books by authors you read on your social media channels. This has an enormous impact. Really.
Suggest titles to your professors if you’re studying Puerto Rican/Latino studies. Post your book lists for the world to see.
Blog about #BoricuaLit books you’ve read. People all over the world read blogs dedicated to specific book genres. Use the #BoricuaLit hashtag if you use Twitter, too. Make a video about your favorite #BoricuaLit books, describing your reading experience and what the book meant to you, and upload to YouTube. Post on your walls. Email it to the author if you can.
Go back to the article above. Search the Internet for authors and books I’ve written about.
Write a review for your favorite #BoricuaLit titles on their Amazon.com pages or elsewhere. Positive reviews encourage people to buy books!
Author Charlie Vázquez is Director of the Bronx Writers Center at the Bronx Council on the Arts and served as the New York City Coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra for three years. He is a Bronx native, a former West Coaster and can be followed at his Facebook author page or @charlievazquez on Twitter.