Category Archives: Puerto Rican

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Parrots Over Puerto RicoCo-authors Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, whose last project  à deux was the glorious The Mangrove Tree set in the tiny African country of Eritrea, travel south to the Caribbean to present another memorable story of preservation and conservation.

Welcome to Puerto Rico, home of the Puerto Rican parrot, also called iguacas in imitation of their cry: “They lived on this island for millions of years, and then they nearly vanished from the earth forever.” Roth and Trumbore tell their avian story, intermingled with the island’s past, from the first island settlers that included the Taínos who hunted the parrots as both nourishment and pets, to Christopher Columbus who claimed the island for Spain, to the Spanish settlers who followed, to the stolen Africans enslaved to tame the land. Spain ruled Puerto Rico for centuries until it was lost in war to the United States, which claimed the island a U.S. territory in 1917.

Through all those millenia, the parrots suffered – their tree homes were devastated, they were hunted, killed, trapped, and what was left of their nesting areas were invaded by other birds. “By 1954, there were only two hundred parrots left.” Fourteen years later – why did it take so long? – the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program was established to “save and protect the parrots.” And yet by 1975, a mere 13 parrots flew through the rain forest … how will the bright green flocks be saved?

Part history, part morality tale, part political treatise, part inspiring redemption, Roth and Trumbore’s collaboration is as much a lesson for us old folks as it is a story to share with our youngest. The “Afterword,” with its many photographs, is proof positive of a hopeful future. The timeline that follows of “Important Dates in the History of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Parrots” demands we learn from the past as we work to ensure that future in the present.

Roth’s richly detailed paper-and-fabric collages dazzle eyeballs of all ages, showcased in Christy Hale‘s brilliantly clever book design. By just (just!) turning the book’s orientation 90° − so that you flip the pages up rather than turn them from right to left – Hale adds soaring height that underscores the parrots’ flight (and plight); she literally sends the story aloft.

Final note: This Roth/Trumbore/Hale accomplishment is a memorable example of why e-readers are just not enough (Luddites unite!); the magic will disappear on the screen. So to fly with the iguaca, you’ll definitely need to choose the page.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific, Puerto Rican

Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso

Tiger, TigerWarning: This harrowing memoir is the most difficult book I’ve read this year. Since I actually started it in 2012 (highly recommended by one of my editors), it’s actually the most difficult book I’ve read over two years (and more). To get to the final page (or track – narrator Susan Bennett reads with growing desperation, breathily evident especially in the last few chapters) took that long because I had to pause for multiple respites to escape the horror. Once read, you won’t be able to erase the images and words. Ever.

Margaux Fragoso survived 15 years with a pedophile, whom she met at age 7, her abuser 51. The relationship only ended when he committed suicide at 66. No spoilers, by the way. All that is in the Prologue’s first paragraph. “Hoping to make sense of what happened, I began drafting my life story,” Fragoso explains. To read about Fragoso’s mentally unstable mother with her own history of abuse who is hospitalized multiple times, her explosively abusive, philandering father, the other children who fall victim to the pedophile, the multiple failures of both the legal and social services systems to stop the pedophile, is heart-stopping terror.

To help you finish the 300-plus pages (or listen to 12 hours), might I suggest flipping to the Afterword for motivation: “By setting down my memories in this book, I’ve worked to break the old, deeply rooted patterns of suffering and abuse that have dogged my family through generations,” Fragoso writes about the childhood rape of her mother and aunt, ” … the trauma was passed down unchecked. … By insisting on silence and forgetting, my grandparents were probably trying to protect their daughters from more harm, but my own story is proof that they were tragically mistaken.” Silence and denial enable predators to commit their crimes. Fragoso miraculously survived; as that survivor, she charges into brutal battle armed with her most painful memories, hoping to heal herself and help others.

To bear witness as readers is nightmare-inducing, but perhaps necessary … the threat is closer than you may want to know. A parent (and civil rights lawyer!) in our children’s school was recently released, having been imprisoned for a mere five years on child (and infant) pornography charges: “‘… the most perverted and nauseating and sickening type of child pornography … the term ‘child pornography’ does not convey the depravity,’” the sentencing judge warned in 2007. The DC-area-based legendary swim coach who founded what is considered the top private swim club in the country, who coached thousands of swimmers including Olympic gold medalists and world record breakers, was sentenced last month to (only) seven years in jail for abusing one of his swimmers from age 13 until she went to college (supreme irony – here the victim’s last name is Currin, eerily just one letter off from Fragoso’s abuser’s last name, Curran). Silence and denial … you never know …

With sharp clarity and open vulnerability, Fragoso uses her very life to attempt to break the cycle for herself … and hopefully for many, many others.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Puerto Rican

Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago

I think I must have been a Boricua in a former life. I can’t seem to stay away too long from La Isla del Encanto (especially my favorite Isla Culebrita), and I get the fiercest cravings for Bebo’s and mofongo (it’s all about a full belly). So how thrilled was I to get an invitation to visit a friend’s book club to discuss Conquistadora, an epic historical novel set in Puerto Rico. Alas, alas, if I tell her fellow Boricuas what I really think, it’s likely they will never invite me back … so the truth might just have to stay here.

As a girl growing up in 18th-century Spain, Ana Larragoity Cubillas – a señorita de buena familia (you’ll hear that moniker often!) – discovers the journals of an ancestor who was one of the first visitors two centuries prior to Puerto Rico when it was still called Borínquen. Ana’s adventurous aspirations come to fruition when she marries into a family that has inherited considerable holdings in Puerto Rico. Ana, her husband Rámon, his twin brother Inocente, plan to tame the sugar plantation that they name Hacienda los Gamelos (yes, House of the Twins). Ana’s romantic notions of wild island life are hardly what her reality turns out to be, and yet nothing will make her give up the challenge to achieve her Hacienda dreams – not murder, not motherhood, not widowhood, not epidemic deaths, not betrayal after betrayal.

Slavery, colonialism, the evolving role of women, gender power plays – such important storytelling potential quickly sinks into messy, missed opportunity. The narrative, with its telenovela twists and turns, relies heavily on eye-rolling moments to sustain a sort of train-wreck momentum: Ana’s furtive premarital couplings with her convent schoolfriend (a distant relative of the twins) who gets relegated to saintly spinsterhood most of her life, the ménage-à-trois-marriage Ana endures with both twins, too many white male characters’ forcible production of a shocking supply of hapa slave offspring.

Beyond the narrative, most characters prove to be predictable one-note caricatures: driven Ana, weakling twins, wallflower Elena, wannabe Severo, hysterical Lenore, doting Eugenio, spoiled Miguel. The few moments of grace belong to the long-suffering – dare I say – noble slaves: Olivia who dreams of telling her future children her whole life story because she never even learned her own mother’s name, José who lovingly immortalizes the cholera-dead into a piece of beautiful mahogany because all that is left of his loved ones are scattered ashes. As the book ends with Ana barely in middle-age, I fear a sequel must be in the works.

Conquistadora is not my first Esmeralda Santiago title: her debut, a resonating memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, was definitely my favorite; its sequel, Almost a Woman, proved disappointing, which was my excuse for not picking up the next sequel, The Turkish Lover; her predictable novel America’s Dream remains unfinished; and now her latest might have to be my last. I confess the only reason I made it to the end had to do with my belly (did I not mention cravings?). Yes, really – the friend who so graciously invited me to meet her Boricuas, promised to reward me with Pastelon de Amarillos. I admit it: I will read (almost anything) for amazing food! After alternating between the 432-page book and the almost 18-hour audible version narrated by a subdued Santiago herself, I can only hope I’ve earned tomorrow night’s dinner.

Readers: Adults

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Latino/a, Puerto Rican

We the Animals by Justin Torres

As this debut novel is all of 125 pages (in hardcover), you have little excuse not to read it in a single sitting … not that you’ll want to be interrupted anyway. When it’s finished, you’ll be wishing for more.

That greed subliminally kicks in on page 1, with the first chapter, “We Wanted More.” Three young brothers – the youngest being the unnamed ‘I’-narrator – “… were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.” Their parents are not much older – their white mother, eight months pregnant, was just 14 when she convinced their 16-year-old Puerto Rican father “to do the right thing, which was to take her on a bus to Texas [from Brooklyn] and marry her.” Both are ninth-grade drop-outs, and while Ma was still in her “teenage years,” the couple settled somewhere upstate from Brooklyn, had three sons but rarely enough food, money, work, sleep, patience, even love. Ma and Paps, too, must have wanted more.

Ma works the graveyard shift at the local brewery and gets night and day confused. Paps works less predictably, cooks meals from his childhood, and tries to teach his hapa boys (“‘Mutts … You ain’t white and you ain’t Puerto Rican’”) to mamba – their “heritage” – just as he learned growing up in Spanish Harlem. Their relationship is volatile, with Paps disappearing, Ma mourning, Paps beating, Ma escaping. And yet, in between are lulls of humor and tenderness, smashing tomatoes in the kitchen, playing hide-and-seek in the close-curtained bathtub.

For years, the boys – a single three-headed entity called ‘we’ – explore, watch, tiptoe, laugh, avoid, imitate, learn. Their paths toward adulthood eventually causes shifts, and too soon ‘we’ splits into ‘they’ and ‘I/my’: “They smelled my difference … They believed I would know a world larger than their own. They hated me for my good grades, for my white ways. All at once they were disgusted, and jealous, and deeply protective, and deeply proud.”

Even as Justin Torres‘ coming-of-age narration ends with wrenching revelations and consequences, the final blow is buried in the acknowledgements (spoiler alert!): “Extra special thanks to Laura Iodice, my high school English teacher, who brought me books when I was hospitalized …” In the midst of trying to reclaim some calm at story’s end, you realize that some (most? how much?) of this searing, blinding title must be autobiographical in spite of its ‘novel’-label, and the heart can’t help but splinter for the young man whose desperate mother begged him to always stay her baby boy.

Reading Animals is reminiscent of discovering Julie Otsuka‘s When the Emperor Was Divine: both are powerful debut novels with a brevity that belies the dense intensity captured within the elliptical, careful, just-enough prose; both have breath-snatching endings. Interestingly enough, when you pull up Animals on Amazon, it’s paired with Otsuka’s 2011 National Book Award Finalist2012 PEN/Faulkner-winning The Buddha in the Attic, another spare gem. Sure, I’m probably reaching, but that strikes me as a sign of amazing things to come for Torres’s sophomore effort. Humor me, and mark my words …

Tidbit: Serendipity! Justin Torres is one of the National Book Foundation‘s oh so prestigious “5 Under 35” for 2012 (announced September 27, 2012 – yipppeee and whoo hoooo!). His book was chosen by the inimitable Jessica Hagedorn. Another of the 2012 judges was actually Julie Otsuka (!), who chose Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn. Might have to read that, too!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Latino/a, Puerto Rican

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

Not to confuse anyone, but I have to start with p. 177 because that’s where you’ll find a reference to “that cool new show Sesame Street” (which debuted 1969), because first-time novelist Sonia Manzano has been playing Sesame Street‘s Maria for the last 30+ years! While the title says Evelyn Serrano, the book’s revolutionary events are directly inspired by Manzano’s own experiences, as well as real-life newspaper headlines. Manzano even borrowed her protagonist’s name from her own grandmother, Guadalupe Serrano Manzano, and her cousin Evelyn.

Just so we’re clear now: Sonia is not Maria, but she is Evelyn although not her cousin Evelyn. Got that?

Rosa María Evelyn del Carmen Serrano announces on her 14th birthday she’s dropping ‘Rosa’ for ‘Evelyn’ – “the least Puerto Rican-sounding name I could have” – because “El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, U.S.A., did not need another Rosa, María, or Carmen.” Summer 1969 is hot, and Evelyn has been released from working in her parents’ stifling bodega to get her first job at the Third Avenue five-and-dime.

She comes home one day to find she’s been displaced from her bedroom by a flamboyant grandmother she’s never met before, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Abuela, Evelyn quickly realizes, is nothing like her subservient, long-suffering Mami. At first, the three generations of women hardly get along: Mami still resents Abuela for neglecting her most of her life, Abuela can’t understand why Mami doesn’t have a political bone in her body, and Evelyn just wants their bickering to stop.

Then the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, takes over the neighborhood streets with brooms, piling up the garbage that the city sanitation department seems to have forgotten and eventually setting it ablaze. They move from the streets to a local church, demanding to set up a free food program, offer clothing, and even health services for their struggling immigrant community. Abuela eagerly joins the protesters. Evelyn gets swept up in their change-making energy, gaining new pride in her Puerto Rican culture and history. Even Mami gets distantly involved, at first only to ensure Evelyn’s safety … but stays long enough to realize she can make her own contributions.

The tumultuous Puerto Rican history – on both islands, in the Caribbean and on Manhattan – certainly makes for an exciting read; as a novel, however, that excitement glosses over occasional narrative gaps, especially the lack of any mention of the new school year, since the story unfolds between summer to the following winter. As for characters, stepfather Pops’ backstory seems necessary to balance knowing that Evelyn’s birthfather died while Mami was still pregnant, and smooth-talking Wilfredo’s sudden redemption feels rather forced.

What Revolution might lack in continuity and literary finesse most likely won’t keep readers turning the pages. While Evelyn’s name graces the cover, Abuela’s larger-than-life presence, her buried memories, her emotionally complicated struggles, are what spark and inspire the evolution that becomes Evelyn’s revolution.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Caribbean, Carribbean American, Puerto Rican

Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio A•B•C by Quiara Alegría Hudes, illustrated by Shino Arihara

“A is for abuela. And abandoned car,” begins an adventurous afternoon for two friends – one Latina, the other Asian Pacific American – as they explore the familiar yet unique streets and corners of the little girl’s neighborhood.

From the Chino-Latino corner store to the fire hydrant “spraying summer rain,” to los jíbaros “jamming in the jungle of concrete,” to the muralistas “making murals of island vistas,” to all the Spanish words “I somehow still forget,” to a “universe of maple roots and sidewalk cracks,” this Neighborhood is a realistic portrayal of both the beauty and challenges of growing up amidst major city streets.

This is not your fantastical, all-shiny, too-perfect kiddie book: Mixed in with the city’s ever-changing vibrancy are also the broken bottles, plastic crate hoops, and noisy neighbors. Such reminders definitely give this book an advantage over too many fluffy bunnies and make-believe castles … not that there’s anything wrong with bunnies or castles, of course! We all need to dream … but Neighborhood‘s kiddie-friendly reminders of the more-real world also make for great reading moments, as well.

Author Quiara Alegría Hudes, by the way, also penned the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights – that lyrical talent is certainly in evidence here in her picture book debut. Shino Arihara‘s illustrations infuse Hudes’ words with joyful, unstoppable movement … check out the first spread alone, as the young boy’s parents lovingly look on at their son, his little body in quick motion running toward his smiling, waving, laughing friend as she is dashing out her front door, atop two concrete steps, joyous in her greeting. Friendship doesn’t get better than that!

Readers: Children

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Japanese American, Latino/a, Puerto Rican