One of the most important things in effective coalition building is for people to be really specific about their particular experiences, because that is the basis on which we build mutual understanding and respect. For instance, when I do coalition work with white students, it becomes important to break down the category "white," because you're talking about very different histories when you're talking about an Italian American, an English American, or somebody with Scandinavian or Eastern European Jewish heritage. These European-American ethnicities have very different relationships to the history of slavery or the oppression of Native Americans -- there are many histories hidden under that blanket term "white." The more we pull them apart and get explicit about the details of those histories, the better job we'll do in breaking down racism and anti-semitism.

When I sit down to write, I don't think consciously of a particular audience; I think about what the burning issues are for me. Part of what determines my burning issues is my loyalty to a particular community that I feel a responsibility to write for and about. One of those is the rural Puerto Rican community that I grew up in and, in particular, the women in that community. I also feel a very strong responsibility to young U.S. Puerto Ricans who have very little access to any literature that reflects their lives, period, let alone accurately.

The vast majority of the popular culture's portrayal of Puerto Ricans is extremely stereotyped and oppressive. And, within U.S. Puerto Rican literature, there's more poetry than prose. As a fiction writer, I feel a responsibility to write material that can be used by my communities in our struggle for survival and identity.

A lot of what is in print, given that this is a young literary movement in the U.S., is autobiographical writing, a kind of testimony writing that talks about the experience of being an immigrant community. There has been somewhat of a tendency in this literature to focus on the grim side of that experience. I feel a particular responsibility, yes, to portray that, but not to leave the audience hopeless. I think it is really important to give people the tools to move beyond the grim description of reality; to talk about the resources we have; to express pride in the community; to give people some glimpse of resolution. And I write about very heavy material: sexual abuse, alcoholism, a lot of difficult stuff; but I don't ever leave the audience with no place to go with it.

There's a relatively small body of U.S. Puerto Rican literature, and in terms of feminist literature, it's even narrower. As far as identifying a literature of survival, one of the classic examples is Piri Thomas' Down These Mean Streets. Bernardo Vega's Memoirs is turn-of-the-century, as-told-to. Judith Ortiz Cofer has written both a memoir and a novel, and a collection of short stories. My mother and I have our collection, Getting Home Alive, and another on the way. Carmen DeMonteflores has written a bilingual novel. And, of course, Nicholasa Mohr is one of the first women to write about growing up Puerto Rican in New York during the '40s and '50s.

But it's still a very slim body of work. That has to do with the lack of economic resources of our community. The U.S. Puerto Rican community is extremely poor, and has an extremely difficult time getting access to education. We have a very high drop-out rate. So there are a lot of pressures on the community that make it very difficult, both to write and to publish. The publishing industry is increasingly run by transnational corporations that really couldn't care less about the quality of the literature that's being put out. They care about how many copies they can sell, how quickly. Books are having shorter shelf lives, and small presses are really struggling against that kind of competition.

Within that environment, to publish a book with a relatively small market is very difficult for editors and publishers to pull off. Primarily, Puerto Rican literature is coming out of these small presses that are struggling economically, while still deeply committed to the writing. And then there's the racism of the industry that sees a very limited role for writers of color; certain types of manuscripts by writers of color will be more readily accepted. The literature our communities are producing is not about best-sellers or escapism. It's a literature of survival. People are literally writing for their lives.




 Forward to Morales, continued




 Essays/Interviews Contents Page | Journal Contents Page

About Standards