Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Revisiting Marisel Vera

Headshot of a woman.

Photo courtesy of Wes Carrasquillo

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed…today we’re continuing our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month by revisiting my 2021 interview with novelist Marisel Vera.

Marisel Vera:  I have always been a storyteller because my mother was a storyteller.  My mother was always telling me stories about growing up on a mountain in Puerto Rico.  She would talk about the spirits that roamed in the mountains and how she didn't believe in them because the church said not to, but yet she would tell these stories, and other people would tell these stories, and I was always a child that listened to stories. So I think that just from the very beginning my life has been shaped by stories and storytellers.

Jo Reed: You just heard author Marisel Vera. I wanted to revisit my interview with not just for Hispanic Heritage month but also as Puerto Rico is assessing the wide-spread damage recently inflicted by Hurricane Fiona, her historical novel “The Taste of Sugar” is sadly current.  Marisel’s novel pivots on another devastating hurricane that ravaged the island at the end of the 19th century within a year of American colonization. “The Taste of Sugar” centers on the lives of a couple, Valentina Sanchez and Vicente Vega small coffee farmers in the hills of Puerto Rico.  The confluence of these external events causes the couple to lose their farm and join 5,000 other Puerto Ricans on an arduous journey to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations. Lured there by the promise of a prosperity in return for hard work, they soon find themselves captive laborers in a strange land.  “The Taste of Sugar” is a compelling and eye-opening epic story, and yet, a deeply intimate one that traces the transformation of Valentina and Vicente as they mature and grow and their relationship evolves and strengthens. Here’s Marisel Vera to tell us more about her protagonists.

Marisel Vera:  Well Valentina and Vicente meet when they're both very young, Valentina is 17, not even 18, and she comes from the town of Ponce in the south of Puerto Rico, and it's a very cosmopolitan town, and she has certain advantages, she's middle class, she's always dreamed of having some of the advantages that her friend Dalia had, going to Spain and Paris, and beautiful clothes, and Vicente comes from the mountain in Utuado, his father is a coffee farmer.  So when they meet they come from very different lives but they have a connection, even though he's pretty honest when he meets her and tells her, "No, you know, I'm a coffee farmer, but we don't have that kind of money."

Jo Reed:  Yeah.  It's very interesting in how she grows tremendously from a silly little girl to someone who can just face anything and do it with dignity.

Marisel Vera:  Yeah.  I thought of her as many of the women in my family who have high dreams and had to endure very hard times because that was their lives.  So I hope that she would grow up to be strong, and she did, and I knew that she would because she had to, she had to.

Jo Reed:  What inspired the book, Marisel?  I'm curious how you began.  Was it with the history or was it with characters?

Marisel Vera:  I always begin writing with something I want to say, and then I think about who will tell my story.  So when I learned about these 5,000 Puerto Ricans going to Hawaii in 1900 to 1903 to work in the sugar plantations I thought, "Oh my god, what was happening in Puerto Rico that Puerto Ricans would leave their home during that time before plane travel and go so far, and did they ever come back?"  So that's what I wanted to talk about, and then I thought, "Okay, who's going to tell my story?"  And I always want to have a woman telling the story, and because of the period that the novel's set in I knew that I had to have a man because their lives would be so different, and I was lucky that I was able to place Vicente in Utuado growing coffee because that's where my own ancestors came from, and for me if I could somehow place my characters where my ancestors were it's a gift that I give to myself because while I learn about their lives I can imagine my own ancestor's lives, and while I was working on "The Taste of Sugar" about the Puerto Ricans who went to Hawaii I learned so much history, I learned that it was the first exodus sponsored really by the governments of Puerto Ricans to get them off the island because there's no work, they lost their land, and better to get rid of these people, they're a nuisance, and have them go somewhere else where their labor is needed.  So through this story and through this history that I learned, I understood that the novel wasn't just about this first exodus of Puerto Ricans having to go to Hawaii and losing their land, but I learned that this novel was really about colonialism, Spanish colonialism, 400 years of it, and the beginning of U.S. colonialism.

Jo Reed:  Well, as you mentioned you tell the story from multiple perspectives. We see the world through Valentina’s eyes sometimes, through Vicente’s eyes, sometimes we have letters between Valentina and her sister Elena, and then there are moments of omniscient narrator who’s describing events. How did the structure come together for you?

Marisel Vera:  I think of it as really just I was creating a world, I was creating a Puerto Rican world of the period, and also a world with diverse characters because unless you're Puerto Rican I don't feel like the reader would know the Puerto Rican culture or Puerto Rican characters or the Puerto Rican world.  So I looked at it like that, and I knew that it had to be peopled with all these various characters to give the reader a really full feeling for the world.  Basically I love being a novelist because I get to be the creator, like God, and that is just a fantastic, thrilling feeling that I could just create from nothing these characters, and some things were very intentional like the letters, the letters are really important between Valentina and Elena because I needed to send Elena to San Juan because I wanted her to inform the reader when she informed Valentina about what was happening in San Juan.  I didn't want to write actual scenes or chapters about certain things, but I wanted it to come through in the letters.  Like for example when Elena wrote Valentina about the bombing of San Juan I wanted to write it her saying it in this letter so that the reader could know what she felt when this was happening.

Jo Reed:  This novel is about a lot.  Do you outline?  Do you know the story you want to tell?  I mean you have the idea, but do you know where the story's going to go before you sit down and actually write it?

Marisel Vera:  No, no.  I always try to outline but it so boring-- I think it's boring. <laughs> Yes, plus I feel like if I outline then I already predestine my characters, and I don't want to do that, I want them to take me where they need to go on their journey, I want to be along with them on their journey, so that's my process, and it's a problem when it comes to structuring the novel because in the middle of the novel they're on a boat going to Hawaii, and that's the first thing that came to me when I was writing, and that's the middle.  So it's always a problem when I go back trying to figure out, okay, how should I tell this story?  But I like letting my characters lead me where they need to go, and also people always show up in my books, unexpected people.  I could be writing about Valentina today, and then next thing I know she has a cousin that came to tell her story or something, and it's just so fun to have all these people just show up, and then when I'm writing them, they're telling me their story, I'm listening, and I'm writing it, it's a joy, it's a joy.

Jo Reed:  Oh, it sounds like it is.  Can you tell me a little bit about the research process because that had to have been formidable.

Marisel Vera:  Oh yes, especially when I really started working on the novel I would say it was around 2012, I worked on it a little bit 2011, and with the research, but when I really started deep into writing it and thinking about it, it was 2012, and by that time-- and I had already amassed like a copy of all the newspaper articles from Hawaii from 1900 to 1903 that mentioned the words Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans.  So that was really helpful because I learned about how Americans in Hawaii thought about Puerto Ricans even before they came.  Another thing was a friend of mine, a professor, one of her students, she wrote to the University of Puerto Rico and got a copy of this book that was printed in 1899, and I wasn't able to request it from any other library because I think they're the only ones that had it.  So somehow she got it. It had a report from every mayor in every town in Puerto Rico, like 72 towns or something, about what happened after hurricane San Ciriaco.  So they all were required by the U.S. government to give a report of how many houses were destroyed, how many people died, and so these mayors-- they wrote details about what happened after Hurricane San Ciriaco, and that was really helpful to me when I was trying to create the scenes of the hurricane to make it real. I read nonfiction memoirs in Spanish and English, newspaper articles in Spanish, of that period in Puerto Rico there were a lot of newspapers, and it was really helpful for me to get a feel for the way people lived, the way people thought during that period.  So it was just a treasure trove because I don't just write about the facts, but I try to also have the language, the rhythm of the language of the period and how people talked, and that is helpful to me also when I write, to get their voices and also the music of the period.  I also come from a strong Puerto Rican family where a lot of Spanish was spoken and is spoken, and even as a small child I was always listening to the rhythm of the way people talk, because you can tell so much by the way people talk and the rhythm of their voices, and I want to distinguish my characters by using rhythm in their voices so that I don't have to say their names before the readers start reading about them, they might know who they are, and that's a big challenge let me tell you, but one that I take on. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Well the language also pivots into Spanish, and you don't provide translations, and I have no Spanish, but I found I could figure it out and when I couldn't I just looked up the words which is easy <laughs>.  So that had to have been a decision though to do that.

Marisel Vera:  Yes.  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Walk me through that.  Is that about having that rhythm of language that you were just referring to?

Marisel Vera:  Yes, and I think that I felt more confident in this second novel, "The Taste of Sugar" than I did in my first novel. I live in two languages so I felt more comfortable embracing that in my writing, but writing is such a way hopefully that my reader, like you said, you got the gist of it, and if you didn't you looked it up, and so I really embraced my Puerto Rican-ness, and my Puerto Rican gaze in "The Taste of Sugar," and going forward I'm going to do that, and I know I've had a lot of complaints from some people about the Spanish, but you know what?  This is my voice, and this is the way I'm going to write from now on and, you know, so be it.

Jo Reed:  Well the other thing you certainly explore in the book, you make it clear that this is a man's world.

Marisel Vera:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  The women are not passive, but they have to move very carefully. You just thread these needles so well, showing and demonstrating an exploitation of people, but at the same time they're not just victims, wherever they can have agency they grab it.

Marisel Vera:  Yes.  Well I don't see my characters as characters, I see them as people, and I think when you see your characters as people you understand that they're complicated, maybe not completely evil, or completely good the way people really are, and so that is the way I write them.  I write them as real people, what would their passions be, how could they work in this world?  I know with Valentina I understood the male Puerto Rican world very, very well because I grew up in that world in Chicago.  I was born in Chicago, raised in Chicago, but my parents were Puerto Ricans, and I always joked around like they raised their four daughters like we were back on the mountain in the 1950's in Puerto Rico, and it was tough, but I know that it was hard for my mother who grew up a mountain-- she didn't like living on a mountain, just like Valentina. So I think about my characters as real people, and that is what makes them real to the reader.

Jo Reed:  And you also are very clear about the very casual racism.

Marisel Vera:  Yes.  That is something that is still going on in Puerto Rico today, and I wanted to address that because some Puerto Ricans like to say that Puerto Rico isn't racist, and no, that's not true, and also my colorism is a deal, you are complimented on the color of your skin often, if your hair is straight, and I wanted to put that in there because it's part of our culture, it's part of our history, and I feel that we have to recognize it in order to change it.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, that's exactly right.  And you do it in the same way you talk about colonialism and about colorism or sexism, it's not didactic, it's through the lives of these characters in the book and how it resonates and what they go through on a daily basis, just what their lives are on a daily basis, and nobody's stopping to say, "Hey, men are always in charge."  Men are just always in charge.

Marisel Vera:  Yes, yes, like with Valentina, when she is wondering, "Should I tell my husband this thing?" 

Jo Reed:  And this thing is an unwanted sexual overture from someone.

Marisel Vera:  Yes.  And she's wondering, okay, what are the consequences if she tells him, somehow she'll have to pay for it, most likely-- she thinks most likely she will. Women are put in a position where anything that is bad that happens to them could be their fault because they did this, they didn't do that, and I think that when you tell stories like this people get it, people get things when you tell it in a story that compared to when you read it as a nonfiction fact, because people really care about other people, especially one-on-one.  Just like when I thought about, okay, the story about 5,000 Puerto Ricans I thought, "Nobody's going to care really about 5,000 Puerto Ricans."  They're going to think, "Wow, 5,000 Puerto Ricans, that's a lot of Puerto Ricans."  But if you can tell the story through the viewpoint of this couple who have to give up everything, for Vicente who has to give up his dream of being a coffee farmer, the thing he wants more than anything in his life, and he has to give it up because of what's happening in his country, then people care that Vicente had to give up his dream, and they care that Valentina doesn't feel comfortable about telling something that she would like to tell her husband.

Jo Reed:  The hurricane, San Ciriaco in 1899, bears uncanny echoes to Hurricane Maria, but I know you wrote this way before Hurricane Maria, but it still must have been shocking to you-- I mean as it was shocking to all of us-- but you having written this about something that happened over 100 years ago, and you're seeing mirrored today.

Marisel Vera:  Yes, I went around saying, "Oh my god,"   it's just like Hurricane San Ciriaco.  It was unbelievable, and Hurricane Maria ripped up the coffee trees, and in the same area as Hurricane San Ciriaco.  It was just something.  One of my uncles lives in Utuado right now in the area that Hurricane Maria devastated, and Hurricane San Ciriaco over a hundred years ago, and it was just something, you know, another aunt they didn't have water, they didn't have electricity, one of my aunts didn't have water for seven or eight months, and the way that the United States government was so slow to help Puerto Rico, just kind of mirrored some of the telegrams and the letters that I read from the charity board that was in charge of sending food or giving food to Puerto Rico in 1899.  One of the last telegrams that this major got, he was in Puerto Rico, and he was in charge of the food that was coming and where it was going was that, you know, "It's been a year already, by the end of October no more food because it's not our job to feed Puerto Ricans."

Jo Reed:  In many books the hurricane would have been the culmination of the story, or it would have been the force to get the story moving.  In "The Taste of Sugar" it comes in the middle to set the second part of the book into motion. 

Marisel Vera:  Well I knew that I had to write about the U.S. invading Puerto Rico in 1898 because these two events were what caused the exodus to Hawaii, it wasn't just Hurricane San Ciriaco.  The first part of it was the U.S. invasion, 1898, they come in, the U.S. government devalues the Puerto Rican peso by 40 percent, and they changed the taxes so now there are property taxes, and before there weren't property taxes, before people were taxed on their labor.  So these two big things and other changes that the Puerto Rican government made including buying up the land, once the Puerto Rican farmers lost it, very cheap and selling it to like corporations.  So they buy up the land, and then there's this hurricane, and so more people lose their property, and these two events are what caused the first exodus of people going to Hawaii.  So I needed to write about that, and I wanted to write before the U.S. invasion because I also wanted to write about Spanish colonialism because Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for 400 years. 

Jo Reed:  It is an epic as I said when we started this conversation, and the book also just evokes the sheer physical beauty of Puerto Rico, its lushness.  There were moments where I felt like could smell the air as I was reading it.

Marisel Vera:  You know, I said before, I was born in Chicago, and my father worked in a factory, and there were six kids.  So unlike some other Puerto Ricans we didn't get to go back to Puerto Rico every year to visit the family, but when I was 18, and my sister was 17, we saved from our afterschool summer jobs so that we could go to Puerto Rico for the first time because my parents always talked about it, and our relatives, and I had this image in my head about how Puerto Rico looked, and I was always very, very connected to the Puerto Rican culture, you know, with the music, everything, I loved it from my very, very beginning of knowing myself as a person, and so we fly to Puerto Rico right after I graduated from high school, and the moment I stepped off the tarmac, I felt this connection with Puerto Rico.  I looked and there were the palm trees, and then later on I went to where my parents grew up in the mountains in the country, and I just feel like these are my roots, it's calling me, and I could just close my eyes right now and describe the feeling that Vicente felt because that's how I felt just looking at the palm trees.

Jo Reed: Tell me about growing up in Chicago….was there a strong Puerto Rican community there?

Marisel Vera:  Oh yeah, I grew up in the Humboldt Park, and that was Puerto Rican community.  In fact right now the governor of Illinois signed a bill, so this two-mile area of Humboldt called Paseo Boricua from Western and Costner is going to be called Puerto Rico town.  So yes.

Jo Reed:  How cool.

Marisel Vera:  A very, very strong connection to Puerto Rico.  Chicago is the town that during the 1950's there was a big exodus of Puerto Ricans, Operation Bootstrap was the name of the program, monosolaobra [ph?], and they came to Chicago to work in the factories, and my father came during that period, my mother came a few years later.  So yes, Chicago has a very strong Puerto Rican community, very vibrant.

Jo Reed:  So Chicago really felt like home. You didn’t feel like an outsider.

Marisel Vera:  Oh no.  I mean yes, now I can, but when I was growing up it was very difficult growing up Puerto Rican in Chicago because you really didn't belong, people didn't want you here who weren't Puerto Rican.  You lived in two cultures.  You were not Puerto Rican enough at home, not American enough out.  So it was very difficult, very difficult for a teenager.  You're already, you know, please, mixed up or insecure as a teenager, and then you grow up in two cultures, and very hard for my sisters and me as Puerto Rican girls because my parents were so strict, and they raised us like we were growing up in Puerto Rico.  So that was a challenge growing up in the late 70's.    And one of the reasons that I wrote "The Taste of Sugar," and it was so important to me as I was writing, I realized that it wasn't just a story about the history of Puerto Rico and these Puerto Ricans who went to Hawaii, but it was sort of like a discovery of my roots, my Puerto Rican roots.  It was a chance for me to claim being Puerto Rican, and a gift that I thought would be not just to myself but to my peers, my sisters, Puerto Ricans like me who didn't know our history, because this is what happens when you grow up belonging to a colony, your own history of your own ancestors is not taught.  The history that's taught is the one of the colonizer.   So my parents didn't know their own history. And I know that I'm achieving my goal of having this novel "The Taste of Sugar" be a celebration of us Puerto Ricans and the Puerto Rican culture because Puerto Ricans are telling me so.  And people thank me for writing this novel, and I knew it was necessary because I needed it for me, and as a reader I was always a great reader from a very small child, I looked for myself in books.  I mean you don't need to find yourself in books, but it would be nice if you found at least one book where you saw yourself, and when you don't see yourself you feel that erasure of not being seen, you're not seen, and people are telling me that for the first time in their lives they feel seen.

Jo Reed:  And that's so important because god knows we read for many reasons and one is to learn about other people and people who are different from us, but boy it's so important to see yourself reflected in books too, especially when you're young.  I wonder if you think a writer of an historical novel has a particular set of obligations to the reader?

Marisel Vera:  Well I know that I felt it when I wrote "The Taste of Sugar" and that is why I was meticulous in my research.  I felt it because I knew this was going to be the first time that a lot of people learned about Puerto Rico, the first time that a lot of Puerto Ricans would learn their own history especially Puerto Ricans reading in the English language or raised in the United States like I was, and I was meticulous, and I have to say that since the publication I have had Puerto Rican historians reach out to me and tell me, "Oh my god, how did you do it?  How did you get all this history in, and it's accurate?  How were you able to do it in a story?"  So yes, for me, I had this need to be correct.

Jo Reed:  And you produced a novel with a bibliography.

Marisel Vera:  Yes, and that's just a small one of all the things, and you know why I did it?  I know it wasn't necessary in fiction, but I wanted to give credit and also a little bit of shine to some of the books and some of the articles that really helped me, but you don't know how many books or articles I read, and I couldn't write it down because if I kept track then I wouldn't be able to write a novel because <laughs> that takes time.

Jo Reed:  You'd be doing footnotes all the time.

Marisel Vera:  Yes, and you know that's not my thing.  I'm a novelist, but if your book really helped me I want to honor it.

Jo Reed:  "The Taste of Sugar" came out during the pandemic, which had to have an impact on the way it was presented, the way it was rolled out. 

Marisel Vera:  Oh my god, it was bought in 2019 I think it was in April or something, and in July my editor gave me feedback, and it needed to be in by a certain time, because they wanted it to be published before the presidential election.  They thought that I wasn't going to get a lot of exposure because everything was going to be about the presidential election, and I was going on vacation with my sisters to Italy.  I'm like, "I'm going on vacation with my sisters for two weeks.”    But so I took it with me, I printed it, and I took it with me, I worked on it on the plane. And then there's a pandemic, and it's like, "Oh my god," but they decided to go forward, and no physical events, and what I decided to do was to use my advance to hire a personal publicist because I knew if people don't read your book, forget it.  That happened with my first novel, nobody read it, I don't think anybody reviewed it, but I was really lucky that some really important people read my novel and gave me really great reviews, so I'm blessed, no complaints.

Jo Reed:  Finally, tell me how story-telling has shaped your life.

Marisel Vera:  I have always been a storyteller because my mother was a storyteller.  My mother was always telling me stories about growing up on a mountain in Puerto Rico, She would talk about the spirits that roamed in the mountains and how she didn't believe in them because the church said not to, but yet she would tell these stories, and I was always a child that listened to stories.  So I am totally shaped by storytelling.

Jo Reed:  And I think that is a good place to leave it.  Marisel, thank you so much, and again I just can't express my admiration for this book and tell you how much I liked it, how much I learned, and how much I cared.

Marisel Vera:  Thank you so much.  I really, really appreciate you.

Jo Reed: Right back at you!  We were revisiting my 2021 interview with Marisel Vera—she’s the author of the novel “The Taste of Sugar.”  And you can keep up with Marisel at Marisel Vera.com.  You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow Art Works wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple it helps people to find us. And as always, we’d love to know your thoughts about the podcast—send us an email at artworkspod@arts.gov. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

With her second novel The Taste of SugarMarisel Vera has created an epic tale with an intimate heart.  It tells the story of small coffee farmers in late 19th century Puerto Rico whose lives had been shaped by Spanish colonialism and upended by the 1898 US Invasion and the devastating 1899 hurricane San Ciriaco which left thousands dead and a quarter of a million people without food and shelter. Vera’s protagonists, Valentina and Vicente, join 5,000 other Puerto Ricans on an arduous journey to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations where they find themselves instead captive laborers in a strange land. In this podcast, Vera talks about her life as a storyteller, her need to write a book that explored the history of Puerto Rico—a history most people don’t know—her meticulous research and her determination to get that history right, and the deep impact of colonization on the island. She also discusses her own struggle to find herself in books when she was growing up in Chicago, her sense that she was always living in two worlds, in two languages, and embracing that in her writing which moves fluently between Spanish and English.