Caribbean Writers Tell Their Stories ‘To Live'

Women writers from the Spanish Caribbean are from diverse nations and races and cultures. Yet many of their writings articulate the common song of those yearning for freedom but longing to belong to a family, a nation, a culture.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-Standing at the podium in a small college auditorium in Queens, a distinguished, gray-haired woman with a beautiful voice evoked the lush Havana of her childhood when she told the story of her return to Cuba after leaving as a child some 20 years before. The hushed audience, mostly college students, seemed transported by the power of her memories.

Professor Mirtha Quintanales of New Jersey City University, read her "testimonio" recently at a crowded gathering for Latina authors and scholars from New York, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Las Antillas, including emigres who came to the United States as part of a vast, yet rarely discussed, Spanish Caribbean diaspora.

In a strong combination of voices, the Latina writers read poetry and stories, shared their life histories and addressed the complicated realities and meaning of the Latina identity, during the Fourth International Conference on Women Authors of the Spanish Caribbean, presented at York College of the City University of New York. These cultural heavy hitters, ranging in age from the late 20s to mid-60s, conveyed the diversity and uniqueness of that identity and made clear that their histories and accomplishments are a powerful component of the American experience.

Professor Quintanales read from her story included in "Telling to Live: Testimonios by Latina Researchers," to be published by Duke University this fall. She is one of 18 Latina scholars and authors from South America, Mexico, the American Southwest and Cuba, who originally met to explore the possibility of doing research on Latinas. In the process, another compelling goal subsumed their interests: the need to explore and share their own personal histories.

Their Dashed-Off, Stashed-Away Writings Bring Them Together

This turnaround began when they realized that they all had writings stashed in drawers and boxes-poetry, long essays and stories that they had dashed off and forgotten. The importance of these fragments and forgotten remembrances were often the keys to their own histories and personal trajectories toward success, they realized.

They were amazed to discover real diversity among their own ranks. For example, they spanned more than two generations. They were straight and gay; married and single; white, Afro-Puerto Rican, black and brown; from middle-class, upper-middle-class, working-class and poor backgrounds.

Despite their different backgrounds, each, one way or another, felt deeply the love for their home culture, the power of the freedom the U.S. culture provides, and the feeling of being part of both yet belonging in neither.

For example, Quintanales' story talked about how the presence of her female lover in the next room comforted her on her return trip to Cuba, helping her reconcile her feelings about being home, yet not feeling at home.

Another author, Jacqueline Herranz-Brooks, born in Havana, still lives in Cuba, but traveled to New York for the conference. Her telling of her trip to visit Cubans now living in Hialeah, Fla., convulsed the audience in laughter. An award-winning author, she has written several books of poetry including "Liquid Days," published in Argentina, an essay included in "Dream With No Name," a 1999 anthology of Cuban writers published by Seven Stories Press, as well as short stories.

New Latina Voice Tackles Sexual Awakening, Repression

Annecy Baez, a poet, fiction writer and assistant professor of social work at New York University, read from her forthcoming book, "Structure of Silence," a story of sexual awakening at 13. Baez painted a vivid picture of a Latina trying to make sense of her family's strictness: She was not permitted to attend the parties of her friends or even go on her school's field trips. She was not allowed to wear a bra, because it would make her too aware of her breasts. At the same time, she was involved with a teenage member of a gang in her New York neighborhood, managing to find places to be alone with him to enjoy hours of sex play.

Daisy Cocco De Filippis described her first days in New York after leaving La Romana in the Dominican Republic. She wrote of the terror of arriving in New York and the pain of separating from the family she left behind in the Dominican Republic. One of the conference's organizers, she also is an editor, translator, cultural activist and professor of Spanish and chair of the department of foreign languages and humanities at York College.

Poet Sandra Garcia Betancourt was born in San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic of Puerto Rican parents, was reared in Puerto Rico and currently lives in New York. Garcia is the author of "Ombligo de la Luna" (The Navel of the Moon) and "Memorias y Olvidos" (Memories and Forgetfulness).

Her poem, "Did I Kill the Butterfly?" is a metaphor for the power of sexual and intellectual freedom and the desire to abide by cultural constraints.

"Maybe I killed the butterfly when she unbroken flew deep in to my intentions as I turned my home into a cage and locked her up with my ancestral illusions, attempting to own her wanderings," Garcia said.

Sharon Cucinotta is a New York-based free-lance writer with an emphasis on arts writing and criticism and the nonprofit field. She has adegree in English and comparative literature, and a master's degree in nonprofitmanagement. Ms. Cucinotta is also a trained lyric soprano.