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, Latinopia.com. He granted permission for cross-posting these reviews here.
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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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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 useless....like 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.