I just returned from several weeks of travel which took me to three major Latino Caribbean cities: New York, San Juan and Santo Domingo (in order of travel, not importance). Part of the trip was to visit family and introduce my husband to the tradition of the Tres Reyes Fiesta (kind of a big deal for my family in Puerto Rico). Part of the trip was funded by a generous grant from the University of Iowa Study Abroad Office to support my work translating an important contemporary Dominican poet, José Mármol. And part of it was for me to try to re-connect with my latina heritage.
I’m a third-generation Puerto Rican (quarter-rican, to be exact, since my father’s father was Puerto Rican, my father’s mother Russian, and my mother’s side a hodge-podge of German, French and Scottish). I grew up speaking English at home, only learning Spanish after my parents put my brother and I into lessons at 6 and 5 respectively. And I look white. I mean, the women on my dad’s side of the family, even the ones that are 100% Puerto Rican, mostly have light skin, light hair, light eyes. The men are usually olive with brown hair, my brother no exception, but the women are a different story. To make matters even more complex, my brother (who looks Puerto Rican without a doubt) is named Rafael. Me? Erica. So I’ve always felt a bit dodgy claiming to be Puerto Rican. It’s something I’ve struggled with for most of my adult life.
It’s also the reason I began translating poetry. The first serious translation project I worked on was a book of poems by a contemporary Puerto Rican poet Etnairis Rivera. I met her in Chile in 2004, she was invited to participate in the centennial celebration of Pablo Neruda’s birth. She read from a book called Intervenidos which was a sequence of poems protesting U.S. military operations on Vieques, a small island that is part of Puerto Rico. After the reading she gave me a copy of the book and I brought it home, began work, and published a selection of her poems including Intervenidos in translation in 2006.
But after that, I’m not sure. I got insecure. There are plenty of Nuyoricans out there, great poets, who write in English and speak better Spanish than I do and know a ton more about the literary scene. What right did I have to insert myself into something that I was so clearly on the outside of? Plus, there isn’t any funding for translating works from Puerto Rican authors into English. University and research grants won’t take you there. Publishers, at least main-stream ones, aren’t really that enthusiastic about Puerto Rican writers. Ok, so I began other projects, got busy with work and school and marriage and kind of pushed it away. Out of guilt, out of fear, out of insecurity.
But this last trip to Puerto Rico has re-energized me. Etnairis, despite my years of silence, was generous and kind with her time; she met me and showed me around her neighborhood in San Juan, and gave me recommendations for a local bookstore. She’s been busily writing and publishing, two new books since 2006. The bookstore, Libreria Tertulia in Rio Piedras, was the kind of experience I dream about.
When I got there, they were hosting a lecture (in English) on “the riches of Puerto Rico.” I listened a bit, and then approached the clerk for directions to the poetry section. I told him, a little embarrassed, that I was looking for Puerto Rican poets in Spanish. He led me to the section and handed me the complete works of Julia de Burgos, the most important Puerto Rican poet pretty much ever, who I’ve read in her entirety in Spanish and in Jack Agüeros’s amazing translation. So I was a little more specific – I told him I was especially interested in very contemporary authors who probably hadn’t made it into English. Turns out Eddie, the clerk, was a poet, and as soon as I demonstrated I knew a little about poetry, he opened right up.
Over the next hour as we talked, he pulled at least forty books off the shelf, each with his own commentary about who the poet was, why they were interesting, how they fit in to the contemporary literary landscape. It was phenomenal. In the midst of this a tall young woman passed us and he flagged her down, introducing her to me while simultaneously handing me her book, a collection of what look to be very interesting short stories. She was shy, and so was I, but her book is one of the 13 that I bought. Just before he had to leave to get some lunch, he pulled over a distinguished looking man from the café, coffee and all, and introduced him as a poet and professor at the nearby University of Puerto Rico. The store was out of his books, but the poet thought he had some in his car nearby and went to bring me some.
Rafael, the poet, returned as I was trying to decide which books I was going to buy and which ones I was going to write down to look for later. A poetry professor, he immediately began weighing in, reaffirming most of the judgements I had already made about which ones I absolutely had to have and which ones could wait. We talked for another hour over this magnificent stack of books, and exchanged information when my husband and brother came to collect me.
What I thought was going to be a 1/2 hour survey trip turned, Puerto Rican style, into a two-hour conversation where I made two wonderful friends and got a crash-course in contemporary Puerto Rican poetry in San Juan. And it was hard for me to decide which books to buy, limited as was by my suitcase and as I am by my income. I didn’t even make it into the other bookstore, just across the street, that had been recommended to me by a very young poet I’d met earlier. I suppose I’ll have to save that for the next trip.
Over the next few days I’m going to be skimming and writing a little bit about each one of these books. But for now, here are the ones I bought, in their beauty.