There are always sociocultural and political forces behind the birth of any book. Given the scarcity of Latinx books that realization becomes more pronounced with every book which makes it to publication. These were my thoughts as I finished reading Boricua en la Luna, an anthology of Puerto Rican writing, that came out in 2019.
As a writer, editor, and literary scholar, I am always fascinated by how a book comes to be. That goes double for any Latinx book. For example, the urgency to voice the plight of Californios in Maria Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don. How art and politics propelled the Quinto Sol Prize during the Chicano Renaissance and made possible Tomas Rivera’s novel, And the Earth Did not Devour Him. Or, four years later on the east coast, the publication of the seminal Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings, under similar historical conditions.
When I saw the call for submissions posted by Elena Aponte, the editor of Boricua en la Luna, I was thrilled and intrigued. Up to then, there had been only one such anthology. In 1995, Random House published Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings, an anthology edited by Roberto Santiago. Clearly, after twenty-five years, another anthology was overdue. Santiago’s anthology developed out of his own experience and struggles with his identity as a colonized person of color.
Such an experience, lived by many Boricuas, includes becoming aware of one’s culture and history. More importantly, it requires reclaiming it, because the Anglo-American hegemony obscures, devalues and often derides it. Among the many lies told to Puerto Ricans was that there weren’t any Puerto Rican writers. That’s what an English teacher told novelist Abraham Rodriguez. In 1995, Boricuas set out to challenge that claim and open the world to the Puerto Rican literary tradition.
“I wanted to do something that would foster interest in the island and the people living there, and to share the love Puerto Ricans have for their home and each other.”
The circumstances behind this new compilation of Puerto Rican writers were different. Elena Aponte was a graduate student when on September 16, 2017, Hurricane Maria ransacked the island and claimed 4,645 lives. Along with millions of other Diasporicans, she watched in horror at the devastation and grueling aftermath. She worried and wondered what she could do to help. In her introduction, she writes that she wanted to do more than donate. “I wanted to do something that would foster interest in the island and the people living there, and to share the love Puerto Ricans have for their home and each other.” She decided to do this work out of national pride and solidarity to raise money in support of the recovery. She has done that and more.
This is an enjoyable collection of contemporary Puerto Rican writers and artists. The three sections—Historia; Familia; Maria—include poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and art that address themes intrinsic to the Puerto Rican experience (ethnic identity, colonization, diaspora, cultural customs, etc.). They also include other more universal themes (family, love, sexism, racism). The book’s flow and organization is carefully laid out so that readers can easily make connections between the three sections.
The section on Maria, central to the genesis and spirit of the anthology, is not isolated from the other two. This tragedy is one among many in Puerto Rico’s history. Like others, it demonstrates the inadequacy and failure of the colonial status, which has wrought pain, suffering and continual diaspora. Like others, it has impacted our families and by extension the core of our cultural sense of nationhood.
“As we read [Puerto Rican writers], we quickly begin to realize that it isn’t possible to separate Puerto Rican art from its politics.”
This book does not shy from political issues because as Aponte rightly states, “It is inherently political to be Puerto Rican.” A sentiment shared by Roberto Santiago in his introduction: “As we read [Puerto Rican writers], we quickly begin to realize that it isn’t possible to separate Puerto Rican art from its politics. Strip one aspect away and you’re left with an incomplete portrait.” Besides the desire to share Puerto Rican writing, and the political nature of it, these two anthologies differ in distinct ways.
There is something intimate about Boricuas en la Luna. Puerto Ricans, on the island and in the diaspora, will immediately recognize the inviting title. It alludes to Juan Antonio Corretjer’s famous poem, which ends with the words: I would be Boricua/Although born on the moon. Reading this book feels like a homecoming after a long absence. Listening to stories. Catching up with familia as you drink a fría or eat food you haven’t savored in a while. It feels like community. Not only because of the diverse voices—which range from first-time published writers to established ones—but because each contribution represents an act of communal sharing and grieving.
Santiago’s anthology is a good book but one that suffers from overreach. It set challenging editorial objectives. One, to introduce a mainstream audience to 500 years of Puerto Rican history and culture in a 400 page book. Secondly, to unite island and diasporic writers within one text. Despite its lofty goals, the book was primarily a mass market project. So, you sense that some of the selections—Freddie Prinze, Geraldo Rivera—are included for commercial purposes. Besides that, the repetition of some well-known writers limited the space for other worthy writers: Ed Vega Yunqué, Frank Lima, Jesus Papoleto Meléndez, Bernardo Vega, Arturo Schomburg, Tato Laviera, Luis Rafael Sánchez, Luz Maria Umpierre, to name a few.
The reason behind these problems may have had something to do with reprint rights and costs. Moreover, Roberto Santiago, an award-winning journalist and writer, is not a literary scholar. That may also have led to the omissions. Whatever the reasons, for an authoritative text of Puerto Rican literature for a quarter of a century, it is a bit disappointing.
Boricuas en la Luna has a grassroots literary vibe. It is inclusive in content, diversity of genres and writers. Its grasp does not overreach. The narrow scope of the book still allows the pieces to delve into issues and themes covered by its predecessor. The main difference is that now it presents them in an updated, contemporary fashion. It is not the perfect anthology. The limited budget obviously constrained the book’s graphic possibilities. Not every piece will blow you away. I am not suggesting that this current anthology supersedes the earlier one. We should see them as accompanying texts. And we could always use more similar anthologies. Nonetheless, Boricua en la Luna is a timely book. Not only because of Hurricane Maria, but because it comes at a crucial moment in Puerto Rican history.
The oldest colony in the world, Puerto Rico is at a crossroads and this anthology draws attention to its people. Human beings living, creating, loving, and surviving under the weight of a prolonged, indifferent, and stagnating colonization. It introduces Puerto Ricans and other Americans alike to Puerto Rican history and culture. This is a vital step for both to apprehend Puerto Rico’s present colonial condition. In other words, it necessarily nudges Boricuas into the American imaginary. A place where often we do not exist in a positive light, if at all. It does so with an array of provocative, engaging pieces that will make you cry, laugh, and think.
Three years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico still struggles to recover. Proceeds from the sale of Boricua en la Luna will go to the continuing recovery efforts. If you want to help and get your hands on some good reading, (or gift it), here’s the link: https://www.blurb.com/b/9871044-boricua-en-la-luna
Cover design by Abigail Cloud. Cover and graphic images by Katelyn Jade Hlavaty.