by Charlie Vázquez
As the New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, I have the unique fortune of working with authors and poets from both sides of the bilingual Puerto Rican diaspora. Someone once asked me why I expend so much energy in doing so and my answer was: If you’re experiencing Puerto Rican culture in only one language, you’re seeing it with only one eye (try it). No depth of perception.
Eleanor Parker Sapia’s A Decent Woman is an English-language historical novel set in Ponce in the early 1900s, which follows the friendship between Serafina Martínez (a pretty teenager of higher station in life who marries into an affluent family), and Ana Belén, a black Cuban midwife who begins delivering Serafina’s babies when Serafina is just sixteen.
These two central point-of-view characters contrast stunningly to bring the institutionalized oppression of women on all levels of Puerto Rican society to focus. Something we are still contending with today.
For Ana, it’s the relentless street survival skills she must hone as a confidant to prostitutes, in an era where male doctors are pushing to replace midwives with often horrific results, and for Serafina it’s the humiliation and public shaming by her powerful philandering husband, Antonio San Patricio, who threatens to take everything away from her for confronting his infidelities. The friends provide support for one another and come in and out of one another’s lives as they transform as individuals.
Serafina and Ana’s friendship takes some dangerous twists and turns and I was seduced by Parker Sapia’s dense historical drama and edge-of-your-seat suspense. This feminist hallmark in Puerto Rican letters brought to mind Esmeralda Santiago’s sprawling Conquistadora at first (not a bad thing), but A Decent Woman is a world all its own, one which will shock and dazzle readers with fictional elements interwoven with history.
The complex web of interconnecting characters is well executed and springs many surprises and cultivates much intrigue, and although women are oppressed and relegated to “baby machines” in this world, the secret spiritual underworld of espiritismo (spiritualism) is where they’re able to compensate for the thievery of their civil rights and humanity. It’s when they’re among themselves that they convene with the spirit world, to foretell the future and seek guidance from ancestors.
On an editorial note, there are glitches in Spanish grammar, but they don’t minimize the telling of this well-constructed tale, and function to illustrate characters who are illiterate or with minimal education. This threw me off at first as an editor, but the frequency of it soon made this apparent.
This book will be particularly valuable to readers of #BoricuaLit who do not read in Spanish, since it exposes stunning historical details we’re rarely taught in the diaspora: the devastation brought on by Hurricane San Ciriaco, the introduction of telephones to the industrializing island colony’s infrastructure and the colorful formation of the mosaic of belief systems that combined to create Puerto Rican espiritismo.
Like Conquistadora, this is well-crafted and well-researched literature, and there are an increasing number of authors in Parker Sapia’s company that are publishing richly-textured novels of historical importance to the Puerto Rican people. These include Jonathan Marcantoni, author and CEO of Aignos Publishing, Manuel Meléndez the horror and suspense writer based in Queens, New York, and Theresa Varela, a playwright and novelist based in Brooklyn, New York.
The president of the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter himself, author Richie Narváez, is a Brooklyn Boricua, and teaches crime and noir fiction writing (alternating with me) at the Poe Park Visitors Center through the Bronx Council on the Arts. Bronx-based author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa published a tale about Afro-Puerto Rican women, which begins in 19th-century Puerto Rico, Daughters of the Stone, in 2009.
Charles Rice-González, Sofia Quintero, Torrey Maldonado…there are too many to list here…
This new crop of talented and diverse authors is enriching the canon of Puerto Rican fiction with books that need to be bought, read and taught. While the New York literary scene has orbited around the Nuyorican movement and the island around universities in the San Juan metropolitan area and elsewhere, Parker Sapia (West Virginia) and Marcantoni (Colorado) live nowhere near these population centers and are writing in places where we are fewer in number, as I did for years when I first started in Portland, Oregon in the mid-1990s.
New York City is just one of many centers of the stateside Puerto Rican presence these days, the one that’s enjoyed the most notoriety and prestige for decades, but this is already changing. Eleanor Parker Sapia’s crucial debut is proof of this and I’m certain this isn’t the end of it. Others I know of are writing at this very moment, in and out of New York City, and their books will come.
So how would I classify A Decent Woman and the works of the other authors I’ve mentioned in regard to genre? Post-Nuyorican English-language Puerto Rican literature.
This is #BoricuaLit
Let the world know!