Review of Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012 (Abriendo caminos: antología de escritoras puertorriqueñas en Nueva York 1980- 2012) for A Gathering of the Tribes By Adriana Scopino
Like the figure of the woman facing a blue web in the painting la on the cover, Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980- 2012 (Abriendo caminos: Antología de escritoras puertorriqueñas en Nueva York 1980- 2012), the Puerto Rican woman poet in New York City is both her unique self and creative expression and part of the web of social, cultural and economic realities of the city in which she finds herself. Recent anthologies of Puerto Rican writing and poetry such as Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings - An Anthology Paperback by Roberto Santiago, Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times by Roberto Márquez, and two anthologies from the 1990s, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe by Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman and Puerto Rican Writers in the USA: An Anthology Paperback – May 1, 1991 edited by Faythe Turner, have included women writers or writers living in New York City, but none have set out to do what editor Myrna Nieves has done here. Each anthology is an artifact of a particular time and place. For Breaking Ground, Nieves assembled forty-six writers from twenty years of poetry readings at the Boricua College Winter Poetry Series to document a place and time in the evolution of Puerto Rican literature. Although the parameters of the anthology may seem narrow (the writings of Puerto Rican women poets and fiction writers who have lived in New York for at least ten years during the years 1980 to 2012), the results of the collection are panoramic: memoir, short fiction, spoken word, lyric, narrative poetry, erotica and use of both languages Spanish and English and powerful, unforgettable writing. Very well known writers such as Carmen Valle, Esmeralda Santiago (When I was Puerto Rican) and Sandra María Esteves, share these pages with writers not so well known to a wider American audience; well established writers next to up and coming writers.
While walking on Delancey St. this morning, I came upon a circle of five women on the sidewalk all facing each other. It was like a football huddle where the team connects to a mutual vibe of purpose before they disperse to play in their separate positions. Breaking Ground gives the reader this feeling because all the women in the collection are multi faceted artists and devoted to their communities as healers. Some of these poets do so not only by being activists but also by working their art directly with prison populations, health clinics and youth groups. And some of these women are healers as they broadcast the Puerto Rican experience of creativity- the producers, radio and television show hosts, playwrights, performance artists who bring their work to a larger audience or the teachers and professors who inspire in an academic setting, adding their voice to the literary canon. The anthology has the effect of a very diverse group of women connecting to each other through their art.
Nieves writes in the introduction that the writers that read at the series engaged with the audience on a variety of issues. This paradigm replaces the poet in the ivory tower for the poet on the frontline of social and cultural change. In the anthology the poets confront the realities of racism, cultural and social issues and misogyny. Two poems describe the first experience of awareness of separation from other children because of their heritage and how that first pain of being thought of as “other” manifested. In Diana Gitesha Hernández’s “Poem for Mami” the different foods she ate from other children at lunch contribute to a feeling of being different, “the only Puerto Rican in a school where/none had heard of us, yet/and they would say…/”Hey, Puerto Rico...ain’t that in Africa or something!?”(p.206). In Lydia Cortés searing poem “I Remember,” the speaker says, “I remember the teachers who said, ‘You don’t look Puerto Rican’/expecting me to say thank you very much/I remember overhearing some say Puerto Ricans/don’t care about their children, Puerto Ricans/aren’t clean/I remember the heat of shame rising up/changing the color of my face/I remember praying no one heard what the teachers said,/ no one saw my hurt red as a broken heart” (p.130).
Some poets write about knowing that their community is at a disadvantage because of racism and the social and economic conditions perpetrated by its corrosive force on the social fabric. Listen to the poem by Susana Cabañas “It’s Called Kings” “you know you are poor when you have to count your pennies in America to get high to forget how angry you can get in America in the land of milk and honey brother kills brother for a woman for a life for a piece of land we shoot each other up because we’re so angry we are so angry.” (p. 98). Magdalena Gómez, “A Colonization We Don’t Like to Talk About,” writes about the internalized racism of self-limiting beliefs in her description of what her women relatives in the Bronx felt they needed to do to survive. “These women are/the wheel inside/my forehead.” (p.200) .
Similarly, Cenén Moreno’s poem “El Pueblo Grita, Presente” is a kind of parable about the community at large responding to the devastating effect of racism, first by showing resistance to the government and then by organizing and speaking to each other, (quoting the column of the poem written in English) “The people speak to each other/ The Government becomes frightened/The people organize themselves/ The Government assumes/ a state of alert/ The people become/Responsible for themselves/ The Government attacks/ The People defend themselves/ The Government runs away/ The People create/ National Cooperatives/ The
Government cries out People/ The People Cry out/ Present. “(p. 284).
Many poets consider the impact of the White Culture and Latino Machismo on women. “Me robaron el cuerpo” (p. 245) by Nemir Matos-Cintrón is a devastating indictment of the patriarchy’s usurpation of a woman’s authentic experience of herself for images of what it can use and can control “ Me robaron el cuerpo y vendieron mi alma/a cosmopolitan/ a la alta costura a wall street/y me tallaron a imagen y semejanza/ de la mujer femenina mujer virginal la mujermujer”. Translated, these lines are: “they stole my body and sold my soul/ to cosmopolitan/ to high fashion to wall street/ and they carved for me an image and likeness / of the feminine woman the virginal woman the woman woman”. Similarly, María T. Fernández (A.K.A. Mariposa) in “Poem for My Grifa-Rican Sistah or Broken Ends Broken Promises” writes about the chemicals her and her sister put in their hair growing up to conform to an image of white beauty and how that made them feel. Thus the anthology shifts from macro to micro, the greater vision and how it is experienced on the individual level. Sandra Garcia Rivera’s poem “La Loca’s Response” (p.186), seems to respond with power and self love, likening herself to a righteous force of nature, to the misogynist culture’s label of women as crazy. “I/respond /with melody as chilling/as a sword fatally engaged - /in honor of Mother, /my song’s breath,/the scent of fresh burning sage…” (p.187).
Some younger writers look at racism in its new and subtle forms: Marina Ortiz’s gives a poetic answer to the question “what are you anyway?” in “It’s the Blood, Stupid!”( p.308). Raquel Z. Rivera’s “While in Stirrups” is about being interrogated by a white female gynecologist and the kind of sexual and cultural racism young women similar to herself experience (p. 345). Even the title of the piece suggests, through the vulnerability of the position, a power imbalance in the relationship to the culture at large.
Many writers take on the patriarchy’s distortion of relationships between men and women. Susana Cabañas “Oh man” (p.98) suggests that the abuse of women and the negative impact on families by men is also rooted in rage and a sense of homelessness in the new country. Esmeralda Santiago’s poignant story “A fuerza de puños,” (p. 350) is about a woman trying unsuccessfully and without support to escape a relationship, showing how machismo, another facet of the patriarchy, leads to abuse and divides women, in this case mother from daughter. “’Sister’ …Ain’t Nothing But” by Marina Ortiz shows the language with which Black and Latino men use to both put women on a pedestal and objectify women and see them only as things to be used (p. 309): “and when I hear you say come here sister/because you need to support your brother/because this is all the manhood we have left/because we have needs that must be met/” and how in that opposition women must find their own fulcrum. Nemir Matos-Cintrón meditates on how race enters sexual relations in “Revisiting Cuban Poet Nicolás Gillén’s Poem: “Todo mezclado” (p.247).
Related to this dilemma of division caused by the patriarchy, these women writers have written about how a kind of racism can pervade their own community. María T. Fernández (A.K.A. Mariposa)’s poem “Ode to the Diasporican” (p. 169) responds to racism within the culture: being looked Ídown on for not being born in Puerto Rico, “¡No nací en Puerto Rico./Puerto Rico nació en mí!”. Many of the poems in the anthology seek to unite differences in experience and creation that have formerly divided Puerto Ricans.
Many of the poems not only fight or oppose the forces of racism or the patriarchy but also seek to build bridges within the larger community. “I, Too, Am Black” a dynamic spoken word poem inspired by Langston Hughes by Caridad de la Luz “La Bruja” is one such example (p. 153). Along the same lines, Ana López-Betancourt’s poem “Orígenes” writes proudly of ancestors African and Puerto Rican, “The women have history--that’s all - / They chant like their tatarabuelas/They’re neither africanas nor criollas/” (p.219). Many of the poems explore the mystery of culture and heritage that causes connections, Sandra María Esteves “Spirit Dance” (p.160), “When Spirits dance Mambo/Elegbá opens the roads,/carnival colors fly in circles/Ancestors call our names/through drums that speak/mixing cultures in rhythms of/Spanish Saints with African slaves.” This is a poem that connects black and Latino cultures through mysticism and music. “Epopeyeas secretas” by Myrna NIeves (p. 298) looks at the matriarchy lines of Centroamérica. A poem demonstrating how women navigate the different streams of Puerto Rican culture and religion is Prisonera-Paula Santiago’s clever, lighthearted poem on “Mi religión” “¡Espiritista hoy, santera, aché, manaña,/pero el domingo, a la iglesia sin falta!” (p. 325).
These writers expound on a sense of Puerto Rico’s sweetness: how the old ways have survived. An example of maintaining a strong connection to the homeland through tradition is Nancy Mercado’s “Homemade Hot Sauce” (p. 257). Myrna Nieves writes about how the writer approaches reality, their sometime tenuous relationship with it, and how that is affected by the remembrance of the homeland, as in “Nonconformist,” (p.297). I like in this poem the switching between the two poles of reality and imagination and how it ends on the imagination: “This star-filled womb I inherited from my mother”. Another favorite for this reader is the final entry in the anthology by Anita Veléz-Mitchell (a writer born in 1916!) and her story “Aunt Lila’s Passion” which describes with great compassion the Puerto Rico of her youth and her aunt’s romantic and sexual suffering.
As Nieves says in the Introduction, the book seeks to inspire a greater understanding and appreciation of the variety of literary and cultural modalities that have emerged, “its hope of learning to value self and other.” She asks what is women’s unique experience of language that is found in this collection. There are Madeline Millán’s poems that bend, deconstruct and show the shifting ground beneath meanings, especially in a prose poem like “El Rastro” (p. 265), where words and feeling are slippery, “Si alguien que habla con palabras piensa por un solo momento ser dueño del sentido..” An example of a great lyric poem is Hilda R. Mundo-López “De que te quejas” (p. 292). There’s also a lovely poem by Lourdes Vázquez “Thalys” (p.404). Another favorite is Giannina Braschi’s frenetic, ironic and playful poem to NYC as its own character that is confronted by the individual poet: “El imperio de los suenos” (p.84) (The Empire of Dreams, what a great way to sum up NY). The second section concludes, “He visto con mis ojos los ojos de mi ciudad.” (“I’ve seen through my own eyes with the eyes of my city.”) It expresses that blending of place and soul that can happen for someone relocated. One of the writers I most appreciated was Sheila Candelario (p.104). In “Autoficción” she writes about the complicated relationship between herself and her unconscious and her art, “Soy el truco preferido de mi inconciencia.” (“I am the favorite trick of my unconscious.”) It clarifies how that makes her unknowable to others and herself.
I noticed how the selection for each writer can veer from lyric to politics. I am thinking of Alba Ambert’s “Habito tu nombre” (p. 37) a poem about the experience of love to the very political experience of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in ”El octavo continente (fragmento”) (p.40). Likewise, I am thinking of Maritza Arrastía’s “The World Guerillas Take the Front Page” (p. 53) to her poems on the spiritual connection to her mother and father “Poema a mis padres”(p. 48) or her poem to the mother goddess/Gaia principle, “Birth,” (p. 46). Nieves’ editorial choices show the great range and flexibility of each writer.
The great value of this collection is that it does not conform to a narrow view of literature based on academic poetry and thereby releases the opposition between poetry that is written for the page and poetry that is spoken. It demonstrates how the political anthems and lyric poems are part of one continuum. The writers in the collection seem to be speaking to each other. Raquel Z. Rivera’s thoughtful meditation on the history of her sexuality vibrates to Luz Maía Umpierre-Herrera’s poems celebrating her body, “my yellow margarita.” Read this wonderful collection and see for yourself.
Adriana Scopino is a poet and translator living in New York City. She has an M.F.A. in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from DrewUniversity. Her chapbook, Let Me Be Like Glass was published by Exot Books. Her translations of Argentinean poet Fabián Casas have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Great River Review and Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations.