Latinas and the African presence in the Caribbean – 3 fascinating reads


This review by Claudio I. Remeseira appeared in NBC Latino.

The rich and complex history of the Caribbean’s African heritage is the subject of three books written by and about women – including a Dominican woman’s coming of age in the mid 1980s, as well as the history of a Cuban woman from a slave-owning family who became a fervent abolitionist.   Add these to your summer reading list:

Dominicans have been a significant presence in New York City for at least the past fifty years. However, there are very few memoirs or non-academic works documenting that rich experience. One notable exception is Raquel Cepeda’s “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina,” the first major autobiographical work by a Dominican-American to be published in recent years.

You may want to read “Bird of Paradise” as the non-fiction, female-gender companion to Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both are tales of self-discovery through the many racial, ethnic, and linguistic conflicting forces that lie at the heart of U.S. Latino identity, as well as the story of a personal struggle against a supposed fukú or ancestral curse that has haunted the authors’ families for generations.

The first part of this Dominican-American memoir is a poignant account of growing up as a Latina in the mid-1980s. After the separation of her parents, Cepeda lived with her mother and an abusive stepfather in San Francisco and then spent her teen years in New York with her self-hating Dominican father and her white stepmother. She got involved in the nascent hip-hop scene which –unknowingly for her at that time— provided her with a link to her own Afro-Latino heritage. It also provided her with a profession: Cepeda became an award-winning music journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is the Editor of the anthology “And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years.”

In the second part of the book, Cepeda embarks in an even more personal journey in search of the DNA traces that could help her discover the true origins of her family. That journey will take her to Morocco, the Caribbean and back to New York, and will give her a much more complex vision of her racial identity.

Casanova de Villaverde (1832- 1897) is one of the most fascinating characters of 19th-century U.S. and Cuban history. “Feminist and Abolitionist: The Story of Emilia Casanova“ by Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, is the much needed account of that extraordinary life. Born to a rich Cuban slaveholder family, at a very young age Emilia became a fervent abolitionist and a supporter of the independence of her island, then part of the Spanish Empire. Married to writer and revolutionary leader Cirilo Villaverde (the author of what is considered the first great Cuban novel, Cecilia Valdés), her figure was for decades eclipsed by that of her husband’s.

Brooklyn College Professor Emerita Virginia Sánchez Korrol, one of the leading experts in the history of U.S. Latinas, was the ideal candidate to undertake her biography. Structured as a novel, the book is based on decades-long research conducted by Sánchez Korrol on Casanova de Villaverde and other prominent Latinas of that age. Emilia and her husband lived most of their lives as exiles in New York City, where they both died.

Oonya Kempadoo, born in England to Guyanese parents in 1966, is one of the preeminent voices of the new Afro-Diasporic literature. “All Decent Animals” is her third novel. The story is set in the artistic community of the city of Port of Spain, Trinidad, during Carnival, and explores the overlapping borders of tradition and modernity in the AIDS era.

Combining a highly lyrical prose, a superb command of the blending of languages, and an exacting power of observation, Kempadoo creates an unforgettable cast of characters. She also creates a hypnotic picture of Trinidad, one of the crossroads of the Caribbean.

For the original report go to

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