Monthly Archives: February 2013

Happy Independence Day, Dominican Republic!

The Dominican Republic declared its independence from Haiti on February 27, 1844. Part of the Carribbean, it’s the homeland of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, actress Zoe Saldana and much of Major League Baseball – and some great writers.

Julia-AlvarezJulia Alvarez, who was raised as a child in the Dominican Republic, wrote about one family’s immigration from that country to the United States in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. In the Time of Butterflies was a fictionalized depiction of the Mirabel sisters, a family who rebelled from the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. She’s also written the Tía Lola children’s series and other fiction and non-fiction books.

JunotDiazJunot Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to New Jersey as a child, drew on his heritage for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which the main character’s family is put under a fukú. His two collections of short stories, Drown and This is How You Lose Her, show Dominican immigrants coping with life and love in the United States.

SofiaQuinteroNew Yorker Sofia Quintero, who is of Puerto Rican-Dominican heritage, has written a variety of books, from the chick lit Divas Don’t Yield, the Black Armetis hip hop series and the young adult novel Efrain’s Secret. She talks about her background in this 2009 article with The, which also features other Afro-Latino writers.

cepeda_raquelRaquel Cepeda, who grew up in New York City and briefly lived in the Dominican Republic as a child, delves into the history of that country and her family in her book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina.



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Classic book review: Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”

AlephBorgesJorge Luis Borges is hard to trust.

You never know what you’re going to get in his 1949 collection of short stories, The Aleph.

The Aleph, along with his 1944 book Ficcones, is a collection of short stories regarded as one of the greatest books from the Argentine writer. Borges is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and one of the innovators of magic realism. His works have influenced such authors as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Marquez, according to this comprehensive page from the Garden of Forking Paths fan page. He even has an unlikely fan in conservative political strategist Karl Rove.

The stories take place from the ancient times to the 20th century. The locations range from Argentina to the Middle East. War and revenge are frequent subjects. Religious themes are often evoked, with the Bible and Koran frequently cited. It’s not surprising labyrinths appear several times (or that the work of artist M.C. Escher, known for his elaborate drawings that often feature endless mazes, was chosen for the cover of the Penguin Classics edition).

Two men get in a vicious intellectual argument about the role of the Bible in “The Theologians.” In “The Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874),” a soldier realizes who he is on the battlefield. A woman named “Emma” plots a clever way of revenge. A man is obsessed by a coin called the “Zahir,” a reflection of society’s obsession with money.

I was intimidated about reading Borges’ stories. His works were easier to read than I thought it would be, but I had to reread some passages several times.

If some situations came off as repetitive, others came off as original and I was waiting for what the twist was going to be. But the story that most intrigued me was one that grounded in realism. In “Deutsches Requim,” a Nazi recounts his time as a concentration prison guard. The story was chilling.

The Penguin Classics edition, translated by Andrew Hurley, also includes The Maker, a series of essays. The most powerful one being “In Memorium, J.F.K.,” a history of weapons used for killing.

Jorge Luis Borges is hard to trust, and hard to forget.

Jorge_Luis_BorgesMore about Jorge Luis Borges:

Borges, who was born in 1899 in Argentina and died in 1986, worked as a librarian and also wrote poetry. In 2011, he received a Google doodle in honor of his birthday.

Source: I purchased this book from

This review is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

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Classic book review: Helena María Viramontes’ “Under the Feet of Jesus”

under_the_feet_of_jesusUnder the Feet of Jesus by Helena María Viramontes has been hailed as one of the great books of Latino literature with its lyrical prose and depiction of the struggles of farmworkers. But to me, it was challenging to read.

The 1995 novel follows a family of migrants as they move from one farm to another, looking for work. Petra is the mother, who is accompanied by her much older companion, Perfecto, and her children, including a pair of twins and her daughter, Estrella.

Estrella soon becomes smitten with a young man named Alejo. It’s a hopeful sign in a life filled with struggle. Biplanes fly over the fields, spewing pesticide over the farmworkers. Alejo soon becomes sick.

At times, Viramontes’ descriptions are absolutely breathtaking. Take this scene with Estrella in the fields.

“Carrying the full basket to the paper was not like the picture on the red raisin boxes Estrella saw in the markets, not like the woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind her. The sun was white and it made Estrella’s eyes sting like an onion, and the baskets of grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic weight back to the earth. The woman with the red bonnet did not know this.”

But the book moves so slowly. Instead of a well-paced plot, Viramontes spends most of the times describing little things and creating metaphors. Take this scene at a clinic:

“There was a row of glass jars filled with flat tongue depressors that reminded them of fat ice cream sticks, gauze pads and cottons swabs on skinny wooden sticks that looked like the legs of ballet dances in tan nylons and white shoes; thermometers in a glass tube and a big jar of cotton balls.”

That’s some nice imagery, but it doesn’t tell me anything. Fortunately, that passage in the clinic turns into the most riveting scene in the book. The family only has $9.07 to its name and a car with no gas, and they must seek medical help for Alejo – forcing Estrella makes a drastic move to get help. I finally was swept up in the novel.

For readers who love descriptions and metaphors, this is a great book for them. But readers like me who prefer a strong plot will find this book frustrating.

HelenaMariaViramontesMore about Helena María Viramontes:

A California native, Viramontes also wrote The Moths and Other Stories and Their Dogs Came With Them, and co-edited Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film and Chicana Creativity and Criticism with Maria Herrera Sobek.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

And this marks the end of my 2012 reading challenge of classic books by Latinas. My reading challenge for 2013 is classic Latino novels. Check out this list of books about the farmworkers movement.

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At the theater: Lorca’s timeless works

LorcaFederico García Lorca’s plays were written in the 1920s and 1930s, but they are still relevant today.

Teatro Dallas will present a “Homage to Federico García Lorca,” which includes a Cientos de Pájaros te Impiden Andar/A Hundred Birds Prevent you from Walking, an adaption of the Spaniard’s Blood Wedding, Feb. 8-9 and a series of stage readings of Lorca’s poems Feb. 22, 23, 24 and March 1, 2 and 3.

Cientos de Pájaros, a one-woman show by Maria Vidal of Santander, Spain, will also be presented Feb. 15-16 by La Casa de España de Houston.

Cora Cardona, artistic/managing director for Teatro Dallas, says the tribute to Lorca (above) seemed natural after she discovered Vidal was visiting Texas.

“He’s timeless in that he still has have issues that are relevant today,” she says. “Lorca is definitely one of these writers that speaks to us.”

In the production, a woman has an affair with a man but her family disapproves of him. She separates from him, and her family arranges for her to marry another man. Then she sees her old lover again – and the story ends in tragedy.

The play, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s, brings up several elements Lorca is known for – addressing societal issues that remain relevant today, such as women’s independence and domestic violence, and his use of nature interacting with characters, like the moon and animals talking to the couple.

The company’s homage to Lorca will continue with a stage reading of his “Romancero Gitano” – which reflects Lorca’s Gypsy background – with local artists.

Cardona noted that Lorca lived in a repressive, violent time period in his native country – and his plays seem to be about family when they’re symbolic of his homeland.

“He foresaw the future in many ways, especially when it came to capitalism and social issues,” she says. “It’s amazing he was already thinking about what was happening in the future.”

Note: This article also appeared in a slightly different form on the Theater Jones website.

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Book review: Sonia Sotomayor’s “My Beloved World”

MyBelovedWorldSupreme Court justices are so private that they almost don’t seem human. But readers can get to know Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who in 2009 became the first Hispanic to sit on the United States’ highest judicial branch, in her memoir, My Beloved World (Knopf).

The book begins with a gripping scene in which seven-year-old Sonia is determined to learn how to inject a needle of insulin. Sotomayor was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, which can lower one’s life expectancy if not treated properly. That and other life events – her alcoholic father’s death when she was nine, growing up poor in the Bronx – made her determined to succeed in life.

“Along with discipline, that habit of internal awareness was perhaps another accidental gift from my disease. It is linked, I believe to the ease with which I can recall the emotions attached to memories and to a fine-tuned sensitivity to others’ emotional states, which has served me well in the courtroom.”

The first 100 pages are the best of the book, with descriptive anecdotes about her childhood – playing with her younger brother and friends in their neighborhood, winning a forensic tournament, trips to her family’s native Puerto Rico. In one touching scene, she recalls her abuelita singing the poem “To Puerto Rico (I Return),” written by José Gautier Benítez and translated for the book by novelist Lyn DiIorio.

As she goes to Princeton University and pursues a legal career, she does more telling than showing. But readers will be charmed by her naïveté – such as the time she threw away an invitation from Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious sorority, because she thought it was a scam – and will emphasize with her honesty – such as this passage about the end of marriage:

“The truth is that since childhood I have cultivated an existential independence. It came from perceiving the adults around me as unreliable and without it I felt I wouldn’t have survived. I cared deeply for my family, but in the end I depended on myself. That way of being was part of the person I would become, but where once it had represented salvation, now it was alienating me from the person I had vowed to spend my life with.”

My Beloved World is a great, inspirational book about the making of a Latino hero.

Sonia_SotomayorMore about Sonia Sotomayor:

In her free time, Sotomayor enjoys salsa dancing. Check out this narrated album of family photos and interview with Sotomayor from the NPR website, and this New York Times article about her book tour that has drawn thousands of fans.

Source: I purchased this book from La Casa Azul Bookstore.

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Filed under 2013 Books, Non-Fiction