How author Marisel Vera uses historical fiction to educate readers about Puerto Rican colonial history



There is power in bringing the past to life – and Chicago-based Puerto Rican novelist Marisel Vera is a master at guiding readers through time travel. With historical fiction, the author brings little-known facts and dates to life through the stories, struggles, joys and love of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. As someone who rarely sees herself in textbooks or novels, Vera made it a point to center Puerto Rican stories in her writing. “I see it as a gift to Puerto Ricans who don’t know their history. It helps so much to know where you are from and to be grounded in your presence, ”she says. FIERCE.

While writing his first novel—If I bring you roses, about a Puerto Rican couple who moved to Chicago during Operation Bootstrap — Vera read a shocking statistic: Between 1900 and 1903, 5,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to Hawaii to work on the sugar cane plantations.

She knew then that this would be the subject of her next book. The taste of sugar tells the fictional story of a couple of coffee growers, Valentina Sanchez and Vicente Vega, to explore the real social, economic and political conditions that prompted thousands of Puerto Ricans to travel to Hawaii. “As a novelist, if I want to write about this period, then I have to understand what was going on in Puerto Rico so that thousands of people wanted to leave the island, especially during a period before the plane trip. Research informs all of my work, ”she says. Through the novel, readers watch these factual events – Spanish colonialism, the invasion and occupation of the United States, and the devastating Hurricane San Ciriaco – unfold and see a family who lost everything leave home to rebuild. his life on a foreign plantation where oppression simply has a different flavor.

We spoke with Vera about the role historical fiction plays for marginalized communities who do not know their history, what she has learned during her years of researching and writing about Puerto Rico’s past, and how these past days inform the struggles that the archipelago is currently facing.

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What was the most striking thing you learned while researching this novel?

There were so many! One of the things I learned, and took it from a non-fiction book in Spanish written by a Puerto Rican historian, is that people were really poor in Puerto Rico even before we arrived. Americans. People were starving. I thought it was necessary to talk about Spanish colonialism. I also learned that when the island gained autonomy from Spain, just before the Spanish American War, the Spaniards stopped giving Puerto Rico money for anything, so it there was no money for garbage or charity or anything. On the United States side, I learned that just before the Spanish American War, like a year or two earlier, the United States sent a scout to Puerto Rico to check the ground. He pretended to be a tourist, but he was making a map and planning an invasion strategy. Around the same time, there was another map of Puerto Rico that was divided into Protestant religions, large ones in the United States like Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the like; each denomination had a section on the map. It was shocking to see, but it’s part of colonialism everywhere. Colonialism consists of entering a country and imposing one’s religion. It was interesting to learn this stuff.

Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?

When I was writing this book, I was terrified because I realized I had a huge goal with this world that I wanted to create, and I wasn’t sure if I was able to do it. It seemed so ambitious. Then I thought, well i felt the same with my first novel, but i did. It reminded me that I just needed to write step by step, but it also made me realize that it’s something I feel all the time. I always wonder: am I worthy of writing about it? Do I have the talent or the skill? Can I do it? I do not know. But now I have done it twice. If this seems too difficult or if I feel like I don’t know how to do it, I try to remember it and it helps. I guess that’s part of being an artist. You doubt yourself, but you must continue. I think I especially felt it while working on my second novel because the first novel didn’t perform well, so I lost a lot of confidence in my talent and my writing ability because I had few returns. I honestly think it has a lot to do with being a Latina. I didn’t get a lot of marketing support from my first publisher.

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They all relate to colonialism because that’s why we are here in the United States: because of colonialism. All the same problems during times of The taste of sugar are still the same problems today: infrastructure, education, poverty, colonialism and mass migration. And they will still be the same if we keep selling the land to white Americans. It’s the same story: there is no work, so the impoverished Puerto Rican gets kicked out and someone from the United States buys.

In both of these novels there are also complex female protagonists who struggle a lot but always have moments of joy, laughter and love. Why is it important for you as a writer to create these complicated female protagonists?

My daughter and I believe that women are underrepresented in everything, so I made a commitment to always write a female character. If I can, I will include men as well. It was important in both novels to include the male perspective because of patriarchy and because of the way men and women, in the early and 1950s, were brought up in Puerto Rico; I wanted to show that. I felt I could do it better by doing it with both male and female voices.

My new novel is called The Girls of Humboldt Park, and it’s also very complex. These are four Puerto Rican girls who grew up in the 1970s in Chicago. I consider them to be mermaids, and I had to write myself a note that said: don’t cut mermaids tails. Their lives are so difficult and they have to put up with so much, so this note reminds me to make sure I find ways to bring them joy.

Wes carrasquillo

I learned so much through The taste of sugar. I have Puerto Rican family in Hawaii and was aware of the mass migration to the islands. However, I wasn’t sure why the Puerto Ricans had migrated or what their experiences were like there. How can historical fiction also be an educational tool for people who do not often learn their history at school?

This is what I was hoping for. If we don’t learn it in school or from our ancestors, where will we learn it? The government will not tell us. But art can enlighten you. I learned a lot about slavery in the United States mainly through novels. Things that I did not know and that I did not learn in school, I learn them through novels. That’s what I try to do through my work: educate and enlighten people through people’s stories. And that’s why I write novels instead of non-fiction. What attracts me to novels is that we can learn through one or two people how other people lived. People don’t care so much about the 5,000 Puerto Ricans who went to Hawaii, but when you talk about Valentina, Vicente, and Raulito and what they had to go through, then they do. People can put themselves in a person’s shoes, but not in a group.

I know you are working on a novel and a play. What can you tell us about these projects?

I mentioned my next novel, The girls of Humboldt Park. I can’t say too much about it, but I can say that it happened in the 1970s, around the time of the Humboldt Park riot, when police officers shot dead two Puerto Rican men in front of their friends and family. I’m also working on a play with my daughter who is going to stage it. It’s about population control in Puerto Rico, so we’re getting into sterilization and the pill in the 60s. It’s about both the Spanish and US governments in Puerto Rico. The United States tested population control policies in Puerto Rico and then traveled to other parts of the world to implement them. This is what the play is about. It’s a really big subject, and it’s super difficult to do in a play. I’m learning to be a playwright. I wrote a few drafts, but it’s progressing.

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