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


Edited by Myrna Nieves
Editorial Campana, 2012
432 pp.; ISBN 13: 978-1-934370-16-2
Language: English and Spanish
Gabrielle David, phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4

SINCE THE 1960s the number of Latina writers has grown considerably, adding a new spice to the U.S. literary panorama and to feminine/feminist literature. Their work has been an important contribution to other previous works by third world women and other ethnic writers in the United States. Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012, uniquely explores the development of Puerto Rican women writers by presenting a wide spectrum of poetry, poetic prose and fiction produced in the past few decades. These 46 Puertorriqueñas in this groundbreaking collection represent the literary works of writers of various ages who lived in New York or were born and raised in the city. While many of these writers write in English, Myrna Nieves, a professor at Boricua College in New York City, compiled a full bilingual edition that includes an acknowledgement, introduction and biographies in both languages.

Breaking Ground is organized in alphabetical order by the author’s names. Each chapter opens with a photograph and biography in both Spanish and English. Besides providing a section of photo credits, and permissions at the end of the book, Nieves also includes a section that provides contact information (email addresses and websites), making the writers accessible to readers. As Nieves states in her introduction, the premise of the book comes from her years of producing The Boricua College Winter Poetry Series, which she co-founded in 1988. During her years as curator, Nieves found that the “literary production of Puerto Rican women writers was distinct and impressive” and “became aware of the need to expand these efforts in order to present a larger group of writers and to document in some way their artistic, cultural and social contributions to the City of New York.”(19).

Nieves’ desire to create a space for Puerto Rican women in this context is both admirable and complex, especially when it comes to issues of homeland and nationality. Puertorriqueñas from the island possess a cultural identity that derives more directly from their status as citizens of a U.S. commonwealth and from their bicultural linkages with New York City, even though their socioeconomic subordination mirrors that of other U.S. minorities. Puerto Ricans on the mainland also experience firsthand the negative and positive duality of split national and cultural identities. In general, islanders and mainlanders alike bear the weight of the statehood issue (whether or not to promote the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s absorption into the Union as a state) which has divided the Island’s inhabitants for decades. Ultimately, the essence and complexities of Puerto Rican culture and identity, the mainland and the island, have prompted an intense sense of place among the writers in Breaking Ground, where Puertorriqueñas document their role in the artistic, social, political and intellectual history of New York City.

Since Nieves’ prerequisite for inclusion in this anthology was that the writers had to have lived in New York for at least ten years and be “active in the cultural scene,” it would be easy to peg this as a “Nuyorican” collection but it’s clearly much more. While there is a distinct New York beat found throughout the book, it cannot nor should not be pigeonholed as “Nuyorican,” a term often used as a literary genre or an ethnonym that, for all intent purposes, has pretty much ignored women. Breaking Ground offers a different kind of beat, packed with fierce passion or quiet meditative tones, urban rhythms, poignant humor, and unique, sometimes visionary styles.

Upon further examination, the writers in this anthology take things one step further: they emphasize the metaphorical possibilities of the cultural and historical through the eyes of a Puertorriqueña with varying viewpoints, themes and symbols. For example, the spirituality of Alba Ambert, the playfulness of Maria Arrillaga and Lydia Cortés, and the frank revelations of Magdalena Gómez, come to mind. In a narrow sense, they often refer to the racial and cultural fusion of being Spanish, Taíno and African, a natural syncretism that has, for better or worse, makes them “different.” Besides definitive intersections with ethnicity and class, such syncretism stands in multicultural opposition to the monocultural language and society of the dominant U.S. intellectual canons and discourses.

What Nieves endeavors to do is to “break ground” by challenging the prevailing monomyths both of U.S. culture and of phallocentric Latino arts and letters by emphasizing the gendered aspects of being a Puerto Rican woman and her relevance not only in Puerto Rican society, but in mainstream America as well. This foregrounding of gender in all aspects of cultural experience and the repositioning of these women’s subjectivities into this anthology adds to the richness of American literary production too long identified primarily in masculine terms.

While familiar names such as Sandra Barreras del Río, Giannina Braschi, Sandra Maria Esteves, Nicholasa Mohr, Esmeralda Santiago, Luz María Umpierre-Herrera and Lourdes Vasquez make an appearance in this anthology, Nieves also throws into the mix spoken word poets such as Stephanie Agosto, María T. Fernández (a.k.a. Mariposa) and Caridad de la Luz “La Bruja,” providing a cutting edge and youthful perspective that helps round out what is clearly an inter-generational collection. Only one minor disappointment in this collection is that a small amount of works written in Spanish were not translated into English.

It’s no secret that U.S. publishers have lagged considerably in publishing bilingual editions, however in recent years, a number of small independent presses have taken up this cause with the belief that translation expands and deepens our world in countless indescribable ways. In that regard, Breaking Ground accomplishes two things: (1) it provides a sprawling, multitudinous canvas that continues the important positioning of Puertorriqueñas’ voices in the American literary discourse; and (2) as a bilingual edition it enters the world stage as definitive, credible scholarship. Overall, Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012 is a collection worthy of anyone’s personal library, and a fantastic teaching tool for high school and college students alike.

MYRNA NIEVES is a writer, cultural activist and educator. A founding member and professor at Boricua College, she was director for twenty years of its Winter Poetry Series. Recent published works include Viaje a la lluvia, poemas (2002) and co-editor of the collection of poetry and prose Tripartita: Earth, Dreams, Powers and the anthology Mujeres como islas (2002).

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Source: Gabrielle David

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