Sunday, October 07, 2012


Series Continues with a Novelist and a Poet

For those of you new to my blog:  In March 2012,  I began writing a series of reviews of famous books written by modern American Latinas. The series was designed for Jesus Trevino's outstanding blog, Latinopia ( With Jesus' permission, the reviews are then cross-posted here. We call the series "BOOK REVIEWS: MODERN AMERICAN LATINAS' ICONIC BOOKS."

These books are all award-winning, trailblazing books written in the 20th century, starting in 1974 and continuing into 1996. There will be a total of 12 reviews. The selected authors are highly regarded and have won numerous honors, most of them being recipients of the vaunted American Book Award, a prestigious prize. The books I review are considered to be modern-day classics in ethnic and American literature, many of them taught in schools across America. These Latina authors were pioneers in various ways, and they serve as role models, inspirers, and standard-bearers for millions of people across our nation and in many parts of the world.

On this blog you can read the first four of my reviews. These are as follows:
  • Nilda, by Nicholasa Mohr (published in 1974)
  • Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, by Estela Portillo (1975)
  • Emplumada, by Lorna Dee Cervantes (1981)
  • Loving in the War Years, by Cherrie Moraga (1983).
Numbers #5 and #6 highlight a Chicago writer now living in Texas (Sandra Cisneros, author of the breakthrough novel, House on Mango Street) and Pat Mora, an El Paso native now living in New Mexico and the author of Borders.

Please feel free to leave a comment after each review. I hope you'll be stirred to read the books featured in this series and to learn more about each of these authors. (Books are available through your favorite bookseller or Also, please spread the word to your friends, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors about these inspirational women. Tweet, post to Facebook, or use any other social media...or good, old-fashioned conversations to bring attention to our authors.
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“La Sandra,” as Sandra Cisneros has sometimes been called by her fans, is perhaps the most famous American Latina writer alive today and possibly of all time. Her books have been translated internationally and are taught in grade schools and universities across our nation. As a multiple award-winner in her long, distinguished career, Cisneros has had a tremendous influence on the contemporary renaissance and evolution of Chicano/Latino literature in the United States.

Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros created stories and poems since elementary school. She knew early on that she wanted to be a writer and, as a young graduate student in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970’s, already had a vision for her work: “to write stories that ignore borders between genres, between written and spoken, between highbrow literature and children’s nursery rhymes, between New York and the imaginary [Mexican] village of Macondo, between the U.S. and Mexico.”

This she wrote in her eloquent “Introduction” to the 25th anniversary edition of her break-out classic, The House on Mango Street. And this—all of this—she accomplished beautifully in her book.

A Book ‘Between Genres’

This book is difficult to categorize. It’s called a novel, but it’s a collection of tiny vignettes, many of them barely a page long, most of them a snapshot of someone who lives on Mango Street, someone whom the book’s narrator, young Esperanza Cordero, knows directly or indirectly. Mango Street is in a poor section of Chicago (modeled after Bucktown pre-gentrification, according to Cisneros). The houses are cramped and rundown, with peeling paint and little or no yards. The children play on porches and streets, amidst a motley crew of poignant, disgusting, endearing, and enigmatic neighbors and storekeepers who run the gamut from drunken bums to nuns.

Unlike a novel, the book does not have a plot in the traditional sense. The thread that holds this book together is the recurrence of various characters—most of them Esperanza’s peers and family—from section to section, though many characters appear only once. Cisneros calls this “story cycles” and purposely chose “little stories...connected to each other.” Each “chapter” (not traditional chapters either, but “a little story” instead) can be read as a stand-alone. The vignette may be as simple as a child’s description of clouds, or as complex as girls mocking a dying woman.

Cisneros states in her book’s Introduction that she wants to make her writing accessible to all, wants her readers to see themselves in her writing. The House on Mango Street is formatted to be read in one or two sittings and is something that Latinos/as can indeed relate to. It deals with issues at the heart of many adolescents’ evolution—gender roles, family dynamics, biculturalism, sexual identity, social responsibility, prejudice, domestic abuse, and poverty. The narrator, Esperanza, in the space of one year, learns about these issues either personally or through the suffering of friends and neighbors on Mango Street.

The Simple Complexity of People

Like a deft artist, Cisneros paints pictures of her characters in tight, economical brushstrokes. She says little about them in restrained, simple language, and picks unobtrusive details to show us their essence. Darius the fool chases girls with firecrackers and sees God in cloud formations. Marin sells Avon, wears tons of makeup, and dances alone under the streetlights when her family goes to bed.

There’s Aunt Lupe, crippled and bedridden from a diving accident or a fall (nobody knows), who lives an abysmal life lying limp, head tossed back, blind, waiting to die, yet nurturing Esperanza’s writing ambitions. Through Lupe, Esperanza learns about compassion and the frailty of life.

The many characters who appear only once are amazingly memorable. Often females young and old, they endure indignities and abuse at the hands of males who restrict and dominate them. Yet Cisneros describes these females as an unbiased journalist would, without judgment or anger.

We see Esperanza’s Mexican great-grandmother, her namesake, only long enough to know she was kidnapped as a young girl and forced into marriage, living out her life in bitterness toward her husband, who squelched her individuality and potential. She serves the young Esperanza as a symbol of what not to be.

Then there’s Esperanza’s incredibly beautiful classmate, Sally, who is beaten cruelly by a domineering father who fears she’ll run away like his sisters did long ago. After a while, Sally, stoic despite her bruises, defiantly engages in sex, knowing her father’s rage awaits her. She chooses a desolate path as an escape, teaching Esperanza the urgency of forging her own identity before it’s too late.

The Primacy of Poetry

Those who didn’t know that poetry was a first love of Cisneros would guess this from the book’s imagery. The simplest things are endowed with little grace notes that surprise us, for Cisneros’ language is not what we ourselves would have invoked. Thus, the house on Mango Street has “windows so small, you’d think they were holding their breath.” Neighbor girls have “popsicle lips” and laughter “like shy ice cream bells.” A neighbor woman’s feet are described as “plump and polite, descended like white pigeons from the sea of pillow.”

But the most poetic portion of the book, near its end, is the chapter titled “Four Skinny Trees,” which is a prose poem from start to finish that symbolizes what Esperanza is and plans to become. A young woman about to embark on her own future, Esperanza describes “the four raggedy excuses planted by the city” thus: “Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They...grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.” The young girl’s final analysis of the trees is a description of her own resolve to follow her dreams and succeed: “Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach.”

Cisneros’ Place in Latina Literature

As this series about pioneering, modern-day American Latina authors has shown, Cisneros was not the first to be published. She was not the first to receive a coveted literary award. She was not the first to be acknowledged by non-Latinos as a writer whose work cut across cultural groups. Other Latinas whose books have been reviewed here—Nicholasa Mohr, Estela Portillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Cherrié Moraga—beat Cisneros to those accomplishments.

But Sandra Cisneros was the first modern American Latina to be published by a major mainstream publisher. She is thus often credited with opening the door to other Latina/o authors’ acceptance by the mainstream. So it is her name which oftentimes pops up first on the topic of Latina authors. It is Cisneros whose work is widely anthologized in multi-cultural books, whose work is selected for literature curricula across American schools. It is Cisneros who embodies the melding of two cultures, the Mexican and the American. With many prestigious awards for her talent, Cisneros has set a standard of excellence that awes. She is, after all, “La Sandra.”

Her other books include the novel “Caramelo” (2002); the short story collection “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991); the poetry books, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” (1987) and “Loose Woman” (1994); and the anthology of excerpts from her works, “Vintage Cisneros” (2004). Her website is .

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BORDERS, by Pat Mora

Pat Mora’s poetry book, Borders, sets its tone immediately, with the title poem placed alone just before the thematic sections of the book unwrap themselves. Mora makes a distinction between men’s and women’s communication right off the bat, citing a researcher who says, “ and women may speak different languages that they assume are the same.”

Thus, the first border is laid down by Mora: the line separating how the sexes communicate. “So who can hear/ the words we speak/ you and I, like but unlike,/ and translate us to us/ side by side?” the poet asks. She establishes a framework of contiguous separations—borders—where “like” is “unlike,” and we are “similar but different,” existing “side by side,” but still needing translations for comprehension. She’s speaking about all of us, of course.

Her book goes on to evoke and explore borders large and small, known and unknown, old and new, faint and glaring. The poet draws on her lifetime of living on and near borders, beginning with her birth in El Paso, Texas, her home for most of her life before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Mora has straddled the border between cultures and languages, has navigated the “like” and “unlike” for her entire life. As her book depicts, borders can be cruel or innocuous, but they ultimately reveal us to ourselves.

Cruel Borders of Hardship

Her book is filled with snapshots of people from all walks of life, people identifiable for their hardships as much as for their triumphs. Mora starts with the famous pioneering author and university leader, Tomás Rivera, whose hands “knew about the harvest,/ tasted the laborer’s sweat” but also “gathered books at city dumps...began to hold books gently, with affection.” Then, his hands “wrote the books/ he didn’t have, we didn’t have,” and hugged “the small brown hands” of children gathered round in admiration, “his hands whispering his secret/ learn, learn.” Rivera was the consummate cross-over, a migrant child of illiteracy who won prizes for his books and inspired legions of modern Latinos/as to demolish obstacles. Again, Mora establishes her framework with this, the second poem in her book, showing us how inhumane borders can be erased.

Other people, however, struggle with the limitations and discrimination imposed by borders. In “Immigrants,” Mora describes the lengths immigrant parents go through to “Americanize” their children, as they “wrap their babies in the American flag,/ feed them mashed hot dogs and apple pie.” Always, the fear of rejection and marginalization haunts them. In “Echoes,” the poet practically speaks through clenched teeth as she recounts how a party hostess insisted that her guests “just drop the cups and plates/ on the grass. My maid/ will pick them up.”

In “The Grateful Minority,” the poet describes Ofelia “scrubbing washbowls.../ mopping bathrooms for people/ who don’t even know your name.” The poem’s narrator cannot understand how Ofelia, as well as other “brown women,” can “whistle while/ you shine toilets, smile gratefully/ at dry rubber gloves, new uniforms,/ steady paychecks...content in your soapy solitude.” These women “bloom/ namelessly in harsh countries.” Perplexed, the poem’s speaker says: “I want to shake your secret/ from you. Why? How?”

The Subtle Borders of Life

But other borders—symbolic, emotional, or spiritual—are more subtle and often less painful. Section II (untitled) of Mora’s book speaks of family love, of the generations, and the passage of time. In “To My Son,” the border between childhood and adolescence is symbolized by the worn-down swing set, now sitting silent in the backyard, abandoned years ago. The border between doting affection and tough love is embodied in the word “no” repeated like a litany in “The Heaviest Word in Town.” The border between security and fear strikes the poet in “Waiting Room: Orthopedic Surgery,” as she waits nervously for her broken child to be made whole again.

Some borders transcend time, and Mora, particularly fond of elders, captures these poignantly. In “Pajarita,” the “small, gray Mexican bird/ brittle of bone, flutters at ninety/ through the large American cage/ all the comforts/ except youth.” The saintly grandmother straddles life and death as each day passes. In “Los Ancianos,” the poet describes an old couple holding hands as they traverse the plaza, “both slightly stooped, bodies returning to the land.” Walking the fine line between the present and eternity, “They know/ of moving through a crowd at their own pace.”

Our Individual and Collective Borders

Since borders are demarcations, there are always two sides, and marginalization is unavoidable. There is “us” and “them,” “their way” and “my way.” With this duality, prejudice and stereotypes become fact, and it takes concerted efforts on each person’s part to blur the borders traversing our lands and our interactions, so people can become simply one huge expanse of humanity.

Pat Mora’s heartfelt, spiritual book is a paean to how these borders imbue our lives, but how hurtful borders can be eased, or removed, when we embrace how everything is interwoven and we are, ultimately, one. Mora the poet is the sum total of her parts. As she has said in interviews, she cherishes her cultural heritage and often imbues her writing with it. Her writing is her attempt to facilitate communication and understanding among diverse peoples. She communicates with evident warmth, love, and compassion.

Known nationally for more than 30 books of poetry, essays, and children’s writings, Mora has received numerous literary awards, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literacy Award, the Southwest Book Award (4 times), Premio Aztlán Literature Award, and the Pellicer-Frost Bi-National Poetry Award. She has also received two honorary doctoral degrees and is best-known for instituting the nationally-celebrated event, “El día de los ninos/El día de los libros” (“The Day of the Children/The Day of Books”). Advocacy for children’s literacy is an abiding passion of Pat Mora. Her website is  .

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012


Dear Readers:

As you know, in the past few months, I've been writing a series of book reviews of iconic, pioneering literature written by modern-day, American-born Latina authors. These were written, and are being written, as a guest reviewer on Jesus Trevino's dynamic blog, . Some of these reviews have also been, and/or will be,  cross-posted on another awesome Latino literary blog, Mike Sedano's and Daniel Oliva's . I urge you to visit these two blog sites, bookmark them, "like" them, and keep up with them. It's a great use of your time!

With Jesus' kind permission, I've also been cross-posting my reviews on this blog as well. All of them appear below as prior postings.

As a recap: These are the iconic authors, their ground-breaking, award-winning books, and the year of publication of their books:
  • Nicholasa Mohr: Nilda (novel; 1974)
  • Estela Portillo Trambley: Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (short stories, one novella; 1975)
  • Lorna Dee Cervantes: Emplumada (poetry; 1981)
The fourth in this series, a look at Cherrie Moraga's barrier-breaking book, appears below.Writing as an openly gay Latina, Moraga opened the doors to debate and dialogue about homosexuality, but--more important--about women's issues more specifically, and about social justice and the oppression of people of color more broadly. Now out of print, the book is still available on and through other online booksellers.

I welcome your comments on this. Thanks for dropping by!

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Loving in the War Years, by Cherríe Moraga (1981)

This is a brave book, of a type that had never before been published in the United States. This is a timeless book that has one foot firmly planted in the 1980’s and the other just as solidly rooted in 2012. This book could, in fact, have been published yesterday, for its pain and truth and observations on humanity ring just as true today as when it first saw the light of day.

This is a trailblazing work that dared give public voice to something lying dormant throughout the literary history of American Hispanics: Latina sexuality broadly, and Latina homosexuality specifically. But though this book deals in large part with a topic that is still taboo for many Latinos, let no reader shy away from Moraga’s work. Doing so would be a lost opportunity to open our eyes and souls to understanding humanity better. Through essays, poems, brief stories, and journal entries, Moraga forces us to think deeply on why men and women interact as we do, why we follow traditions blindly, why social injustice is so globally entrenched, and why we hardly ever stop to examine our lives to understand what it is that our spirits truly need.

Loving in the War Years is at once Moraga’s intimate, autobiographical reflection on love in all its senses and nuances; and a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. It is at once yin and yang, at once left-brain, right-brain, at once heart-wrenching and coolly analytical. This book was written by a a a an a a lesbian. And yes, all of these are Cherríe Moraga. The book is such a pot of delicious stew, filled as it is with the flavors and aromas of multiple genres and perspectives, that it must have driven librarians nutty upon its publication. How to classify it?

Like Moraga herself—who is half-White and half-Mexican—Loving in the War Years is full of life’s contradictions. Moraga’s immigrant, farm-worker mother is the linchpin in her life, the one who taught the author everything about authentic love. It is she who insists on a strong education for her children, and who sacrifices mightily to enable Cherríe to attend top-notch schools and avoid the hardships and discrimination that she, an illiterate laborer, suffers. Yet the mother-daughter relationship is also tainted by the mother’s unpredictable aloofness and disregard for Cherríe’s individuality and worthiness as a woman. This tension sometimes leads Moraga to feel angry and hateful toward her, though she loves her mother above all.

Moraga’s White father is her ticket to a life among privileged people, the cause of her light skin, and ability to “pass” as White; yet his passivity and inability to love anyone render him irrelevant in her life. As Moraga evolves in her understanding, she realizes that it is her “Whiteness” that has spared her much of the prejudice and marginalization that her Latino schoolmates and neighbors endure. It is her “Whiteness” that got her into the best classes, the best colleges, and helped her rub elbows with the advantaged folks. But she also detests this Whiteness that made her an unwitting participant in the game of classifying people and thereby taking advantage of them. She feels like she betrayed her people.

This theme of being “la vendida” (“the sell-out”) runs through Moraga’s book and helps title its most compelling section: “A Long Line of Vendidas.” Moraga explores the various ways in which she was a “vendida”: leveraging her Whiteness for her academic and professional advancement; turning her back on schoolmates who weren’t in her elite classes; turning her back on lovers who created discomfort in her life; turning her back on Latino men as she defied her culture’s dictates. Her sell-out, however, is tempered by recollections of how her Latino culture turned against her throughout her early life: She wasn’t brown enough. She was half-White. She didn’t quite belong in their groups. Decreed guilty prematurely like an unlucky criminal, Moraga ultimately had no choice but to lean on her Whiteness as she became more independent, because her White half led her to greater personal freedom than her Chicana half did.

Freedom and oppression are major themes for Moraga. Her sexuality is an integral part of her identity, as she feels is the case for all women, especially Latinas. Yet it is her sexual identity as a lesbian that simultaneously frees and oppresses Moraga: she is freed from the Mexican culture’s mythical view of women as penetrated and depraved; and she is oppressed by society’s rejection (especially her Latino culture’s rejection) of homosexuality as depraved and “queer.” Through her poetry, essays, and heartfelt stories that lay bare her soul yet are not self-pitying, Moraga shares with us her painful journey in recognizing her “queer”-ness at the tender age of ten, hiding this part of self from her family, fighting it by engaging in heterosexual affairs for several years, then accepting her lesbianism as her authentic sexuality. It is a touching journey that meanders in non-linear recollections throughout her book in and out of childhood, in and out of adolescence and young adulthood. She finally settles on intellectual discussions of women’s issues delivered professorially toward the end of her book.

Women, she says, are defined by our gender, and sexual politics rule our lives, with male supremacy controlling our access to freedom. Moraga describes marriage as man-made for the purpose of controlling women’s sexual activity. She focuses laser-like on women’s reproductive issues and sounds amazingly like the women activists of 2012 in her denouncement of patriarchy: “Female sexuality must be controlled, whether it be by the Church or the State....Patriarchal systems...determine when and how women reproduce.”

Echoing current political campaigning, Moraga wrote in her 1983 book: “In the U.S., the New Right’s response to a weakening economic to institute legislation to ensure governmental control of women’s reproductive rights.” She went on to condemn Conservatives’ “advocacy of the Human Rights Amendment, which allows the fetus greater right to life than the mother. These backward political moves hurt all women, but especially the poor and ‘colored.’” Crediting the Black Feminist movement’s Combahee River Collective for her inspiration and perspective on oppression, Moraga adamantly sees global oppression of any people as being rooted in a toxic mix of racism, sexism, and classism. We can’t address one without the others.

Loving in the War Years has ample artistic merit simply because of its poetic weaving of words and feelings. Moraga speaks from the heart. Its status is heightened, however, because this was the first book written and published in the United States by a Latina lesbian. Also one of the first modern American Latina feminists, Moraga’s career has been marked by university teaching assignments across the U.S., prestigious literary awards and fellowships, and solid recognition of her playwriting talents. Currently an Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University, California, Moraga is the author or co-editor of more than a dozen books, chief among them the prize-winning collection of feminist writings titled This Bridge Called My Back. Visit her website at  .

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TAGS: Latinopia, Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years, feminist writers, gay authors, Jesus Trevino, Nicholasa Mohr, Estela Portillo Trambley, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Daniel Oliva, Michael Sedano,Thelma T. Reyna.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This is the third book review in my new series spotlighting the works of modern pioneering American Latina authors. The 12 iconic works selected for this series cover the time span 1974-1996, beginning with the modern Chicano "renaissance" in literature, in which American Latinas/os began publishing in greater numbers than ever before in our nation's history. The other authors and their classic, award-winning books previously featured are Nicholasa Mohr's Nilda (1974), and Estella Portillo's Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975) [see below].

These book reviews were originally posted in Latinopia ( ) and are cross-posted here with permission of Latinopia's host, author Jesus Trevino. The fourth book review, to be published this month, is of Cherrie Moraga's ground-breaking Loving in the War Years (1983). Stay tuned!

by Lorna Dee Cervantes

Lorna Dee Cervantes (b. 1954) is a California native of Mexican-American and Native-American heritage. Her impact on Chicana poetry prior to and since the publication of her iconic, American Book Award-winning collection of poems, Emplumada (1981), has been tremendous. Her fellow Latino poet, Alurista, once referred to her as “probably the best Chicana poet active today,” and others consider her to be one of the pre-eminent Chicana poets of the past four decades. During the Clinton presidency, Cervantes was invited to a special White House event honoring the top 100 poets in the United States at that time.

Her path to fame began with the Chicano activism and literary movement of the 1970’s. In 1974, she began reading her poetry publicly and now counts over 500 readings, poetic performances, and lectures in venues including the top universities in America: Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Brown, Vassar, and Cornell. Besides the American Book Award in 1982, Cervantes has won over 20 notable prizes, fellowships, and other honors, such as the Latino Book Award, Latin American Book Award, Patterson Prize for Poetry, and two Pushcart Prizes. Cervantes is a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

As an academic for most of her career, Cervantes continues to exert a major influence on American Latina poetry, despite authoring only three poetry collections besides Emplumada. These are: From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991); DRIVE: The First Quartet (2006); and Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems (2011). She founded the literary review Mango in the 1970’s and was co-editor of the multicultural poetry journal Red Dirt. Her poems have been anthologized since the 1990’s and have attracted wide critical study since the 1980’s.

Emplumada –which means “feathered” as well as “pen flourish”—treats the social issues of Cervantes’ day that still rattle our sensibilities: poverty, domestic and drug abuse, sexism, racism, classism. We relive these through the eyes and heart of a 27-year-old Latina clarifying her place in life. Cervantes occasionally spices her 39 poems with Spanish words and phrases that resonate with her Hispanic readers yet do not detract from the universality of her clear-eyed observations.

Her poetry makes us weep in recognition. Or weep for the deep slashes to humanity that she lays bare in her unvarnished way, capturing the pain we often inflict on one another in unconscious or purposeful ways. Her book begins with one of the more powerful poems, “Uncle’s First Rabbit,” a compressed retelling of 50 years of misery. At the age of 10, Uncle is forced by his drunken, violent father to shoot, then bash to death, an innocent rabbit. The rabbit’s dying cries remind the child of the night his father kicked his pregnant mother till her aborted baby died, his tiny sister’s cries like the rabbit’s. Throughout his military years and his own marriage, the Uncle is haunted by his father’s abuse, and he can’t escape the “bastard’s...bloodline” within himself, a man tormented by demons who one night “awaken[s] to find himself slugging the bloodied face of his [own] wife.” The Uncle’s humanity gasps its last breath as he watches his dying wife in bed and thinks: “Die, you bitch. I’ll live to watch you die.”

The theme of abuse runs like an unavoidable snake through several of Cervantes’ poems. In “Meeting Mescalito at Oak Hill Cemetery,” a 16-year-old girl “crooked with drug” momentarily escapes her family life by drinking alone in a cemetery but then, at home, “lock[s] my bedroom door against the stepfather.” In “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” spousal abuse strikes multiple generations of a family: Grandma, who “built her house, cocky disheveled carpentry, after living twenty-five years with a man who tried to kill her.” Mama endures “glass bottles shattering the street, words cracked into shrill screams” when her man “entered the house in hard unsteady steps, stopping at my door, my name...breath full of whiskey.”

In “For Virginia Chavez,” one of the more gentle, evocative poems of the book, the speaker describes her loving relationship with a young woman, a kindred spirit whose path in life splits from hers. Years later, they reunite, and the speaker sees the abused Virginia “with blood in your eyes, blood on your mouth, the blood pushing out of you in purple blossoms. He did this.” Embracing, the two women, whose lives have evolved in diametric ways, lean on their bond of friendship for sustenance. As in other poems, it is the inner strength and solidarity of women that help them prevail.

Cervantes also celebrates love, often by weaving this with nature, with the natural rhythms of existence that are often overlooked in harried lives. For her, nature is a balm that opens eyes and rekindles the spirit. In “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” the speaker describes her partner thus: “Every night I sleep with a gentle man to the hymn of mockingbirds, and in time, I plant geraniums.” In “For Edward Long,” she salutes an old mentor, writing: “You taught me to read all those windsongs in the verses of Stevenson....I still gaze at the fall winds you once taught me to describe.” In “Como lo Siento [How I Feel It],” lovemaking becomes allegory: “[An owl] lifted from the palm. She showed me how I rose, caught in the wind by your skin and tongue. I feel scooped from the banks like clay....I’m paralyzed by joy....I’m a shell in the cliffs, a thousand miles from sea. You tide me and I rise, and there’s no truth more simple.”

Emplumada is timeless and will continue to be. Its strength flows from the beauty and unpredictability of Cervantes’ phrasing. She takes the ordinary and holds it up for us to see, dressed in descriptions that we ourselves could not conjure. Her language is simple, direct, deceptively unadorned, but it is disarming in its precision: “In rarefied air, absent as lovers, objects are blanched and peppered to gray” ; “I dust pebbles, turn them to sheen”; “our time was mooning away from us and leaving us in mudflats”; “the great peacocks roosted and nagged loose the feathers from their tails.” And always, Cervantes’ imagery enhances and drives home her points.

Cervantes is, in the end, a poet who prefers to see the proverbial glass half-full but whose life experience has shown her the half-empty part in sharp focus. In perhaps the most autobiographical piece in the book—“Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races”—she explains clearly how conflict indeed exists: “I’m marked by the color of my skin. The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly. They are aiming at my children. These are facts....I am a poet who yearns to dance on rooftops, to whisper delicate lines about joy and the blessings of human understanding....but the typewriter doesn’t fade out the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage. My own days bring me slaps on the face. Every day I am deluged with reminders that this is not my land and this is my this country there is war.”

The passage of time will only cement Lorna Dee Cervantes’ place in the literary tapestry of America. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Arts from San Jose State University, and attended the Ph.D. program at University of California, Santa Cruz. You can learn more about her on her Facebook author page and on her website:

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Monday, May 14, 2012


Starting a New Series for Multiple Blog Sites:
Reviews of Pioneering American Latina Authors

Last month, at the invitation of Jesus Trevino, outstanding author and host/writer of the esteemed blog ( ), I began writing book reviews of modern American Latina authors who are now regarded as "pioneers" in modern American Latino/a literature. My intent is to write one book review per month for a 12-month period. These reviews are aimed for and may be posted on La Bloga as well ( as on my site here.

In choosing the Latina authors for this series, Jesus and I collaborated, starting with his recommendations. Then I reviewed lists of Latina winners of the famed American Book Awards beginning in the 1960's and checked other prestigious national awards given in the United States. Almost all of the women in this series received the American Book Award, with a couple of them winning other major awards instead. I shared this list with Jesus, and we agreed on the 12 books to consider. In the spirit of modern "pioneers," we also limited our list to the time period spanning the 1970's-1990's, when the impact of Latinas publishing in English began in earnest, prior to the year 2000. The reviews will be presented in chronological order according to the books' publication dates.

The selected group of pioneer Latinas represents various genre: short fiction, novels, poetry, and nonfiction. Geographically, the authors come from across the United States: the Northeast, Southwest, the West, and other parts of our nation. All these women have one very important commonality: They blazed trails in bringing the Latina voice to the tapestry of our evolving Latino literature in the modern era. They have thus enriched our literature and expanded our horizons of human understanding. These women are artists in the greatest sense of the word.

It is Jesus' hope, as well as my own, that--after this series of pioneeer Latina authors--the spotlight can shift to contemporary American Latina authors; for, as the years pass, the list of top writers continues to expand. Book reviewing is fun and enriching for a number of reasons, and I hope to share my enjoyment with you.

The first of the series was published last month (see below): Nicholasa Mohr's autobiographical novel, Nilda (1974). The second book review will be posted soon: Estela Portillo Trambley's Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings (1975). All the reviews will appear first on, then possibly on La Bloga, then definitely on this blog. Thanks so much for tuning in each month.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Two Iconic Authors: A Latina Pioneer; and First Hispanic-American Pulitzer-Prize Winner

My two book reviews below first appeared in Jesus Trevino's amazing, enlightening blog, He granted permission for cross-posting these reviews here.
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Author of Nilda (1974)

Nicholasa Mohr (b. 1938) has been described as the most prolific and renowned Puerto Rican-American novelist. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Mohr represents the “Nuyorican” writers (“New York Puerto Ricans”), a group that first rose to national prominence for their considerable talents in the 20th century and who continue to attract readers today.

Since Puerto Ricans officially became American citizens in 1917, Mohr’s antecedents, though strongly tied to their island culture, were not immigrants, but migrants rather, in the often-alien, unwelcoming American city. Mohr grew up in the 1940’s, with World War II a gauzy backdrop, and suffered the proverbial slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination.

That Nicholasa Mohr became a published writer when she did is a stroke of luck for Hispanic-American literature. As a young woman, she was first and foremost a visual artist. By chance, her art agent once asked her to write 50 pages of childhood reminiscences for a possible book project. Although he subsequently rejected this writing in a humiliating critique, she shared this small manuscript with a chief editor who had solicited her artwork for someone else’s book. Mohr’s illustrations for that book were turned down, but the editor liked the 50 pages of reminiscences and contracted Mohr to write a novel based on those. Mohr completed the novel, NILDA, that same year. The rest, as they say, is history.

With the well-received publication of NILDA in 1974, Mohr cemented her place in American literature. She was one of the earliest Hispanic-Americans to publish her writings in English in the United States and one of the first to write a young adult book in English. Mainstream America at that time had little interest in publications about Latino people. But Nicholasa Mohr’s book successfully crossed the divide. Since 1974, she has been the most productive and most renowned Nuyorican novelist, earning numerous major awards and publishing in a variety of genres: novels, short stories, novellas, and nonfiction. Her influence in other authors’ development has been significant, not just through her 10 published books, but also through her workshops and university teaching.

Nilda recounts the life of a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx from 1941 through 1945, as seen through the central consciousness viewpoint of the only daughter in the family and the youngest child, Nilda. Her family is poor, large, and as diverse in personality and outlook as her neighborhood. But these nine people, with their varying degrees of dysfunction and tension, are the source of stability and love that enable Nilda to navigate her childhood intact. She, as well as other Puerto Ricans, regularly encounters naked racism and marginalization, often at the hands of authority figures who should, paradoxically, be protecting and nurturing her: neighborhood policemen, nuns and priests at a Catholic summer camp, her teachers at school, and social service workers allegedly providing economic assistance for struggling families like hers. Worse, these perpetrators of racism are seemingly oblivious to their cutting words and actions. After policemen abuse her kind-hearted neighbor, Nilda notes that these cops “loomed larger and more powerful than all the other people in her life.”

The novel begins when Nilda is 10 years old and ends when she is 14. In this span of time, World War II begins and ends. Also, Nilda finds and loses religion; loses her stepfather; learns that her beloved brother Jimmy has impregnated and abandoned a young woman who is then sheltered by Nilda’s mother; helps care for her mentally unbalanced aunt; witnesses a policeman falsely accuse her friend of a crime and almost beat him to death; and endures other calamities that would have destroyed a lesser child. Through it all, Nilda is alternately petulant and carefree, defiant and obedient, aloof and moved to tears, frightened and resolute. Her best friend becomes pregnant and drops out of school. But Nilda exhibits the resilience of her mother and moves forward despite the biggest loss of all.

The Ramirez family is the broad backdrop of this narrative. Nilda’s mother, Lydia, is the matriarchal rock, an interminable font of patience, practicality, and initiative. She shepherds her family through quarrels, sickness, and despair and somehow manages to keep food on the table and consejos always flowing. Her strength comes from a deep religiosity that she tries to impart to her children, especially to Nilda, and from an almost martyr-like acceptance of her hard life. Her dreams are pinned on her children, especially her daughter, whom she constantly exhorts to study hard and make something of herself.

Nilda is tugged between her mother’s spirituality and her stepfather Emilio’s communistic, nihilistic rejection of faith. The parents’ polarity symbolizes the contradictions in the family members themselves: There is Jimmy—handsome, dashing, and utterly charming—yet embroiled with drugs and thugs and breaking his mother’s heart. There is Victor, the scholar and gentleman most suited for success, who is first to enlist in war and dash his mother’s dreams. There is Aunt Delia—old, deaf, and caustic—whose obsession with ghoulish newspaper reports is trumped by her vulnerability, which engenders the family’s loyalty to her. In a poignant scene toward the end of the book, we learn that Nilda’s mother, whose devotion to her family was the engine that drove her life, had deep regrets that embodied the most heart-wrenching contradiction of all.

People are the main ingredient of storytelling. People drive the plots and themes and embody the heart and soul of the structure we call literature. When people as literary characters are authentic and speak to us in voices we recognize, in voices that resonate with our own experiences, the written piece is successful. And if these characters engage in self-examination and reflection and share their insights with us, thus expanding our own self-knowledge as they reveal their own…well, the literature soars and takes us up with it.
Perhaps because Nilda is a young adult novel, or perhaps because it is a debut novel, it falls short in the latter criterion of excellence. Although the child Nilda is sympathetic and authentic, she rarely engages in reflection, even as a teenager, and this renders her less multi-dimensional than she could have been. The central consciousness viewpoint of the book does not allow us to enter the minds of the other characters, but Nilda’s thoughts could have been explored further.

Literary critics of ethnic-minority works have pointed out that early writers often focus on their personal minority experiences, which often include prejudice and various levels of cultural and racial oppression. It is the evolution of these authors’ art that eventually expands their creativity outward, to broader, more universal themes. Nilda, as a pioneering novel, captures the unique cultural experiences of New York’s Puerto Ricans in the 1940’s and therefore secures a solid place in the history of our literature as such. It still resonates decades later because its cultural depictions of family, love, individual pride, and resilience in the face of hardship still matter.

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Author of Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010)

Oscar Hijuelos, acclaimed Cuban-American author of eight books, wrote Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010) as a prequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1986). In the prequel, Hijuelos gives readers the back story of the supremely beautiful woman who broke musician Nestor Castillo’s heart in The Mambo Kings. And what a back story it is!

The book covers 45 years, starting with Maria in Cuba at the age of 17 and ending with her in Miami, Florida, at the age of 62. In this span, we see the pre-Castro island nation in all its glory, beauty, and seediness. We learn about the decline of life for Cubans once Castro assumed power, and we follow Maria and her toddler daughter, Teresita, when they emigrate to America with hundreds of others and struggle to build a new life.

In this span, Hijuelos lays the seeds for his themes and slowly unwraps each one like gifts we anticipate but also dread: the fleeting nature and complexity of love, even true love; the losses and suffering that even the good endure; the seeming indifference and cruelty of God; the importance of memory in our lives; and the essential role of family.

Beautiful Maria Garcia y Sifuentes is a 17-year-old naïve, illiterate country girl living in extreme poverty in a tiny village in western Cuba. Her two brothers, teenaged sister, and beloved mother have one by one died untimely deaths, leaving her broken-hearted and alone with her sometimes-abusive, sometimes-tender father. In 1947, Maria decides that she must seek her independence and leaves the only world she’s ever known to travel to Havana, a bustling, frightening city filled with goodness, coarseness, and evil. She becomes a dancer in a rundown nightclub and alone must navigate the dangers and temptations of the city’s night life.
Her gift—extreme beauty of face and body that draws barrages of attention—is likewise a curse. She tires of men trying to seduce her, trying to impose their coarseness upon her, and wonders if it’s possible to find a good man who can love her for more than beauty. She appreciates her gifts, however, and uses them to advance her career, rising to be the featured dancer in the club and working as a model.

Virginal Maria eventually takes up with an older man, Ignacio, who has a shady reputation as a small-time gangster but who is generous with his attention and money and provides her with respectability and stability. Like her father, however, he sometimes beats and denigrates her; and Maria decides to leave him. During a violent argument with Ignacio, she meets Nestor Castillo, a poetic, soulful, handsome musician who rescues her from Ignacio’s rage. Nestor’s humility and saintliness, as well as his physical beauty, immediately appeal to Maria; and she and Nestor soon become lovers. Their passion is intense and endless, depicted by the author in highly graphic, explicit detail.

Nestor, for all his talents in and out of bed, is poor and simple. His gifts—besides the anatomical ones well-documented by Hijuelos—lie in his songwriting and his undying commitment to Maria. But Maria, accustomed to luxury after living with Ignacio, can only imagine a life of poverty if she marries Nestor, who proposes to her repeatedly, each time being rebuffed. Although enamored of Nestor sexually, she is not sure she truly loves him, plus her financial comfort trumps life with Nestor. She thus returns to Ignacio, and the broken-hearted Nestor eventually leaves with his older brother, Cesar Castillo, for New York to start a new life. (The Mambo Kings depicts the brothers’ lives from this point forward.)

Maria takes pride in her rise from poverty and learns to read and write. As the years pass, her father, her last surviving family member, dies. Maria feels the loss of this last link with family very deeply. She also misses Nestor and realizes that she made a mistake in rejecting him. He writes her wistful letters of undying love, and reminds her of a song he’s perfecting in her honor: “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” Regarding Ignacio, she discovers several secret affairs. Each loss oozes a layer of hardness on Maria’s soul. Once devout, she now questions God and mocks him. She realizes that even love is “ephemeral and air.” The sweet, soft-hearted girl has become taciturn, critical, and jaded.

Maria comes to believe that having her own child will bring her happiness, and she wants Nestor to be the father. Although she learns that Nestor is now married and has two children, she believes Nestor still loves her, since he’s been writing letters to her since his departure to New York. She travels to New York to reunite with him and, hopefully, to be impregnated by him. Despite great qualms, Nestor agrees to meet Maria secretly and proceeds to ravage her like in old times. What happens after this secret reunion changes their lives forever and leads to great tragedy for both of them.

Hijuelos’ book is beautifully poetic in language and insights. He writes in a conversational style, filled with Cuban dialect, slang, and code-switching (alternating between English and Spanish), which makes his writing full of color and authenticity. Hijuelos creates memorable characters who are imperfect, who fill us with admiration and with revulsion. We can admire the tender-hearted Maria, but we can’t admire the young woman who chose money over love, or who, at the age of 50 and 60, is vain and largely unemotional. Nestor’s modesty as a young Cuban fills our hearts with respect, but his sexual foray as a married man shows his weakness. Still, these characters are human, and we can relate to them and learn from them.

Hijuelos has been criticized in the past for filling his books with too much sex, oftentimes in crude depictions. In this book, he can indeed be faulted for this. Although some sex scenes are described in evocative, literary language, the book could easily be reduced by dozens of pages with the elimination of redundant erotica that sometimes seems gratuitous. Hijueolos can also be faulted for his relentless repetition of “beautiful” throughout the book, and his descriptions of Maria’s beauty so oversaturated to the point of caricature. Again, this book could have been slimmer and still have been convincing.

No book is perfect. The importance of Beautiful Maria of My Soul is the author’s deft, unique treatment of how loss and unrequited love cut mercilessly into the human spirit; but also of how extremely humanizing family connectedness is, and how time and memories can mellow us out, if we remain open to possibilities, and we can find love in the most unexpected places. Hijuelos’ book expertly convinces us of this.

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TAGS: Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer Prize, Cuba, Cuban-American, Mambo Kings, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, New York, Nestor Castillo, Cesar Castillo, musicians, Thelma T. Reyna.