Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012

Reviewed by Carla

Myrna Nieves, ed., Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012 (New York: Campana, 2012)

“I wanted an anthology that would document the efforts of so many Puerto Rican women writers, surviving, educating themselves and flourishing in the demanding and exciting environment of the City,” declares Myra Nieves as her purpose in creating this anthology. The collection includes prose, traditional poetry, and spoken word, from writers born in both Puerto Rico and the United States, and who have experienced the effervescence of life in New York. We encounter forty-six well-known authors from different generations, cultivators of diverse styles, including Esmeralda Santiago, Anita Vélez-Mitchell, Giannina Braschi, Tanya Torres, Caridad de la Luz “La Bruja”, Sandra María Esteves, Maria T. Fernández (a.k.a Mariposa), Sandra García Rivera, Nicholasa Mohr, Raquel Z. Rivera, Luz María Umpierre-Herrera, as well as editor Myrna Nieves and former political prisoner Dylcia Pagán. The anthology is rich not only in its thematic content and plurality of styles, but also in its bilingualism. We find authors who write in Spanish, English, or Spanglish, or who integrate the strategy of code switching. Meanwhile, others show us their creativity by playing with syntax, as in the case of Madeline Millán (“Pezón” ‘Nipple’ 264).

The compiled texts convey the different experiences stemming from living in a patriarchal society. The authors portray how destructive machismo can be to the feminine psyche, a phenomenon that, as the narrator in Esmeralda Santiago’s text tells us, suggests that the man should assert his dominance and control over the woman, even “a fuerza de puños” (“through the force of his fists”; “A fuerza de puños” ‘Through the force of his fists’ 353). According to the verses of Susana Cabañas, many women tolerate physical abuse and prefer that their companion “beat me” (“Oh Man” 98) in order to fulfill the roles that society imposes on them. These assigned roles insinuate that a woman’s dignity lies in her relation with the opposite sex and that her duty is to do the maximum to “mantener la imágen” (“maintain her image”; “Breathing” 304) as related by Myrna Nieves, even though this means enduring humiliations, attacks on self-esteem, and infidelities with “That Damn Woman” (“Mapping” 214) as recounted in Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s story, or the harassment alluded to by Sandra Garcia-Betancourt’s lyrical voice, a voice that describes how men intend to “medirme las caderas/ picarme con sus picos/ arañarme con sus pezuñas y acariciarme con sus colas” (“measure my hips/ bite me with their beaks/ scratch me with their hooves and caress me with their tails”; “Comparándote”  ‘Comparing You’ 175). Likewise, the voice alludes to the double exploitation of women in capitalist society, seen in the dual obligation to generate income and take care of housework. However, this labor passes unnoticed and, as Nieves states, “no figura en los libros” (“is off the books”; “Epopeyas secretas” ‘Secret Epics’ 299).

Another of this anthology’s recurring themes is how machismo not only subordinates the woman, but represses her sexually, denying her power over her own body. Raquel Rivera’s text challenges this macho presumption: “Why deny our lusty physical reality? Why bow down to the double standard that views male sluts with permissiveness but female sluts with contempt?” (“While in Stirrups” 346). Not only do the authors condemn the control that society imposes on women’s bodies, but they also critique the aesthetic pressure that the feminine sex lives under. Lydia Cortés decries this in her poem “Mascara” (128). Nemir Matos-Cintrón suggests a similar argument in her text “Me robaron el cuerpo,” (“They Stole My Body”) where she alludes to such pressure as one of the many strategies that capitalism has established to subordinate women and maintain social hierarchies. She writes: “Me robaron el cuerpo y vendieron mi alma/ a Cosmopolitan/ a la alta costura a Wall Street” (“They stole my body and sold my soul/ to Cosmopolitan/ to haute couture and to Wall Street”; 245). Marina Ortiz also protests aesthetic pressure and denounces how this has led many women to feel uncomfortable with their bodies and therefore to develop low self-esteem: “yes, indeed, our species has learned to covet/ those wonder bras and push-up butts” (“Species: Sadly Separate” 310). Likewise, Lourdes Vasquez portrays the theme of feminine sexual exploitation in her story “Escenas con Geisha en salon de baile” (“Scenes with a Geisha in the Ballroom”; 406).

Many of the authors stress that their dignity as a human being does not lie in fulfilling the roles dictated by society. Corazón Tierra does this when she presents the protagonist of her story “Casi desaparecida: Retorno al territorio de mi cuerpo” (“Almost Missing: Return to the Territory of My Body”; 360) as an extremely independent youth with intentions to fully live life. In the same way, María Arrillaga intends to create awareness of and excitement about a woman escaping from patriarchal assertions when in the text “Sueño” (“Dream”; 60) the narrator describes The Granddaughter as a character who represents a vanguard mentality. The character decides to seek “una tribu de mujeres quienes afirmaban la libertad del ser humano” (“a tribe of women that claimed human freedom”; 60) and, aware that her mother could unwittingly contribute much to social change, asks her mother, known as the Daughter, for advice. The Daughter is a wise character who did not have the courage to break through the oppressive values established by society. Even so, the Granddaughter writes: “Necesitamos de tu experiencia, comparte con nosotros” (“We need your experience, share it with us”; 60) The Daughter answers the Granddaughter that “no es bueno conocer el miedo, la imposición o el aislamiento” (“it is not good to know fear, imposition or isolation”; 61), but still admits that she fears “las imposiciones de la Abuela” (“Grandma's impositions”). The Granddaughter says “Soy un espejo de ti. Soy de tu tribu” (“I am a mirror of you. I'm from your tribe”). It is these words that help the Daughter realize that she possesses the same capacity as the Granddaughter to live life without “[carecer] de nada” (“[lacking] anything”).

The anthology also presents poems that flatter the woman who decides to go beyond social patterns and challenge established roles. So do the verses of Maria T. Fernández (a.k.a. Mariposa): “Esto es para las comadres/ que nunca querían ser heroínas/ porque murieron luchando/ luchando por una vida sin opresión/ un mundo donde se respetan las mujeres” (“This is for those women/ who never wanted to be heroes/ because they died fighting/ fighting for a life without oppression/ a world where women are respected”; “Porque es una cosa solamente de nostoras” ‘Because this Only Concerns to Us’ 171). Likewise, Rhina Valentín encourages similar ideals, projecting herself as a spirit that resists the impositions: “I am the Goddess/ La Reina/ The Leading Lady/ Anacaona!!!!/ That tends to wander/ A bit/ A free spirit/ Floating on Earth/ Influencing History/ A shining star” (“In the Presence Of” 379). Simultaneously, we see that several poets pay homage to those heroines of Puerto Rican and Latin American history who have stood for breaking social parameters and fought in places where women are normally marginalized, and whose contributions have sometimes been underestimated. Although several women have excelled and challenged the oppressive values, the poets Prisionera-Paula Santiago, Gloria Vando, Sheila Candelario, Carmen D. Lucca, and Sandra García-Betancourt fervidly exalt the figures of Lolita Lebrón, Julia de Burgos, and Frida Kahlo.

The anthology also projects how social subordination is exacerbated for female immigrants or those women who belong to any racial, cultural, or ethnic minority, since they not only have to live under the oppressive values of their culture of origin, but also experience marginalization caused by racial hierarchies. This ethnic discrimination is the result of capitalism, traditional colonialism, domestic colonialism, or the fact well-raised by Maritza Arrastía: “victors write history” (“The World’s Guerrillas Take the Front Page” 53). Racism sometimes leads to the subordinate subject reiterating the dominant subject’s discourse, even when it means denying elements of their cultural heritage or defending the same system that oppresses them. This is reflected in the poems of Evangeline Blanco (“The Figueroas” 74), Magdalena Gómez (“A Colonization We Don’t Like to Talk About” 200), Diana Gitesha Hernández (“A Poem for Mami” 205), Lydia Cortés (“I Hated Lydia as a Kid” 127), and María Mar (“Carta a mi hermano” ‘Letter to my Brother’ 235). On the other hand, the writers also express pride in their negritude and their faith in Santeria, and speak out against the imposition of European values. This is reflected in the work of Susana Cabañas, Maria T. “Mariposa” Fernandez, Prisionera-Paula Santiago, Sandra María Esteves, Caridad de la Luz “La Bruja”, and Hilda Mundo-López. Sandra Barreras del Río, like Esteves, expresses a strong anti-Catholic sentiment, arguing that the imposition of traditional Christianity in the Americas represented one of the largest genocides in the history of mankind. Meanwhile, Barreras del Río challenges the Catholicism’s repression of the body: “My son is a newborn pagan, already accomplished in the difficult task of enjoying life to its fullest carnal ecstasies” (“Piñones” 67). And Ana López-Betancourt questions the traditional concept of a “just God” when she says, “pain is having a baby/ on Saturday night/ when god is off-duty/ and out with the guys” (“Pain Cluster” 222).

Several of the authors criticize cultural colonialism and rail against imperialism, expressing their support for Puerto Rican independence. This current issue is discerned in the work of Marithelma Costa ("Viajes Organizados" ‘Organized Trips’135), Cenén Moreno ("El pueblo grita, presente” ‘The People Shout, Present’ 284), and Maria Riquelme ("Clandestinos" ‘Clandestines’ 340).  Others, such as Nancy Mercado, exalt the image of the father of Puerto Rican nationalism, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos (“The Master Pedro Albizu Campos” 254). Similarly, the former political prisoner Dylcia Pagán not only expresses her support for the struggle to emancipate Puerto Rico, but also describes how political compromise cost her two extreme sacrifices: her freedom and being away from her child; her poem "The Little Warrior" (318) presents us with the woman, the political fighter, and the mother.

The critique of imperialism is not limited to Puerto Rico’s situation; some poems express solidarity with other struggles against military occupations and call for an end to human rights violations. Carmen D. Lucca and Cenén Moreno convey strong support for the Palestinian cause, as well as forceful denunciation of genocide in the Middle East. García-Betancourt supports Palestine while condemning injustices committed in Rwanda. Several authors draw connections between the Puerto Rican independence movement and other worldwide struggles.  For example, in "Brothers in the Same Page" (27) by Stephanie Agosto, the lyrics call in the same stanza for peace for the island of Vieques and the world, and also demand the release of former Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Agosto also establishes links between the African-American and Puerto Rican struggles when comparing the figures of Malcolm X and Don Pedro Albizu Campos in her poem "Connections" (28).

Various authors decry the colonialism and imperialism of the United States and Europe against Puerto Rico, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. They also critique the conditions of social inequality that permeate in the United States and the circumstances of poverty and injustice produced by social inequity, as in “Olvidados” (“Forgotten”; 107) by Sheila Candelario and in “ Is There a Doc in the Hood?" (312) by Marina Ortiz, among others.

Another recurring issue of the poetry of several Nuyorican authors is the cultural hybridity in which many Puerto Ricans of the diaspora live. At the same time, they argue that Puerto Ricanness transcends geographical space and is an element that goes beyond linguistic records. So say María T. “Mariposa” Fernández ("Ode to the Diasporican" 169) and Caridad de la Luz "La Bruja" ("Nuyorico" 152). Some authors not only express pride in their Puerto Rican roots, but also refer to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence from the point of view of the diaspora, as Carmen Puigdollers does in "Asisto al banquete para celebrar la parada” (“I Attend the Banquet to Celebrate the Parade"; 329). Moreover Alba Ambert, in her story “El octavo continente” ("The Eighth Continent”; 40), addresses the difference between exile and diaspora, referring to the political persecution experienced by those Puerto Ricans who support the struggle for independence and are forced to emigrate from Puerto Rico.

Other authors express a fairly universal perspective that extends beyond national issues; Carmen Valle conveys an exquisite feeling of freedom, courage, and adventure that transcends ethnic and cultural boundaries. Meanwhile Yarisa Colón not only declares that she is “despojada de cualquier patria” ("stripped of any country”; “Declaration in Progress” 118), but also expresses detachment from any nationalist and essentialist discourse. In her poem "Esto no tiene nombre” (“This Has No Name"; 117), she also challenges the idealized image of Puerto Rico found in much of the traditional insular and Nuyorican literature.

The anthology is also notable for its erotic content, as it is not limited to raising a protest against society’s sexual repression of women, but also includes the work of authors who write verses full of intense sensuality. Examples are the first stanzas of “Oído de mi matriz” (“Ear of my Matrix"; 149) by Elizabeth Cruz, certain passages of "Mapping” (212) by Llanos, and several poems by Luz María Umpierre-Herrera. The latter presents a double challenge to social parameters in that her poetry is not only erotic, but also speaks openly of lesbian love.

This anthology is important to conserving the legacy of many women in Puerto Rican literature. It accomplishes its purpose of describing the different experiences of a woman as a lover, as someone oppressed, as a warrior, an immigrant, a professional, a wife, a mother, a citizen and, in general, as a human being. It shows, as Nieves aptly asserts, that “it may very well be possible to transform reality when we recreate ourselves… [This book is] a basis from which women writers (and their readers) can apprehend the present and create a vision of the future” (23).

Reviewed by Carla Santamaria