The New Latino Boom in the United States and “Se habla español”: An Interview with Mayra Santos-Febres

Thomas Nulley-Valdés interviews Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres. Here are excerpts from Latin American Literature Today.

The poet, fiction writer, and academic Mayra Santos-Febres (PhD, Cornell, 1991) is known for her novels Sirena Selena (translated by Stephen A. Lytle)—a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 2001—Any Wednesday I’m Yours (translated by James Graham), and Our Lady of the Night (translated by Ernesto Mestre-Reed). Her narrative work explores African heritage, the marginalization of Afro-Puerto Ricans, the social status of women in Puerto Rico, the urban and technological underworld, and the new imperialism of North American culture. In 2010 she was named by the Spanish newspaper El País as one of the most important Ibero-Americans of the year, and in that same year, she won a medal from UNESCO for founding the Festival de la Palabra in Puerto Rico. She is currently a professor at the University of Puerto Rico where she is director of the creative writing workshop.

This interview is centered on her identity as a Puerto Rican writer of African descent, her relationship with the United States, her literary generation and its relationship with literary anthologies, as well as the collective generational project. It was conducted on the basis of her involvement in the anthology Se habla español: voces latinas en USA [We speak Spanish: Latin voices in the USA] (2000), which represented a starting point for what is gradually being recognized as a New Latino Boom in the United States.

Thomas Nulley-Valdés: Could you share a little about your life? Who is Mayra Santos-Febres? And how did you end up living and studying in the U.S.?

Mayra Santos-Febres: I am Puerto Rican and for Puerto Ricans our identity is a very strange case because our country is considered a free associated state, but, the truth is, we are neither a state, nor free, nor associated. We all have United States passports. This allowed me to go to the U.S. to study at Cornell University for a little over three years. Since then I have been coming and going to the United States and other Caribbean, European, and Latin American countries. I can say that I come from this bordering country which is part of the U.S. but at the same time is not; that is part of Latin America but at the same time is not; and that is clearly part of the Caribbean. What happens with Puerto Rico is very much like what happens with Martinique or Guadeloupe in relation to France, or what happens with Aruba or Curaçao with Holland. I can’t—and at the same time I do—call myself Latina by migration, but I am rather Latina by default, because it’s one of the many names which is “applied” to me according to the classifications of United States’ censuses. The situation is further complicated because, furthermore, I am of African descent. For that reason, in a project like Daughters of the Diaspora (2003), which is an anthology of Afro-American and Afro-descendent women, I appear.   

The topic of the struggles for civil rights which have occurred in the U.S. also position me in a very liminal social space. I am Latina and not Latina, and Afro-American because being Black is transnational. I live in a country which functions entirely in Spanish, but I come from two global communities, one from the North and another from the South. I am Caribbean in three languages, and Latin American in only one. As such, I don’t really know how to answer your question about my identity. Let’s say it’s complicated. I like to define myself as Mother-in-Chief and as a negra letrada.   

T.N-V.: In a sense your literary generation has defined itself by and through its use of short story anthologies. How did those generational links begin to establish themselves? And what role did these anthologies play? Not only do you participate in Se habla español (2000) but also in Líneas aéreas [Airlines] (1999), and both anthologies are in dialogue with McOndo (1996), how are these related?

M.S-F.: I don’t know exactly when everything started, but I think it was at the beginning of the 1990s, in 1993, more or less, when the Primer Foro Iberoamericano “Literatura y compromiso” was celebrated in Málaga, Spain. They invited sixty emerging Latin American writers. And some evil mastermindI don’t know whoput us up in a drug-addict rehabilitation center in a town called Molilla. There began relationships between narrators and poets from across all hemispheres: Fernando Iwasaki, Marcelo Birmajer, Malú Urriola, Nadia Prado. And among that group of the sixty writers who were chosen, I was there too. 

Later on, another summit was celebrated, put together by Casa de América in Madrid in 1998. There I met Carlos Cortés, Edmundo Paz Soldán, Jorge Volpi, and various other members of my generation. I remember we met with Eduardo Becerra in Madrid where he invited us to participate in an anthology which would come to be called Líneas aéreas (1999).

After that, Julio Ortega, who was the Peruvian critic who had published Antología del cuento latinoamericano del siglo XXI: Las horas y las hordas [Anthology of the Latin American short story of the 21st century: Hours and hordes] (1997), called together a group of us to participate in the Guadalajara Book Fair. And soon enough, writers from Paz Soldán to Volpi and many other writers, began to work in festivals and literary fairs and in universities. Little by little, a generational fabric was formed.

As I work as a university lecturer, I was interested in the new proposals of Latin American and Caribbean literatures. So, I would call my friends. And the same would happen if they called me to ask for recommendations about new Caribbean literature. It was Volpi who introduced me to Guadalupe Nettel before she had her explosive success, to give you an example. We were always looking for new voices, different texts, which weren’t repetitions of Magic Realism, but texts which were in dialogue with technology, with the city, with gender, with race. In other words, McOndo and Líneas aéreas are emerging projects of what would soon become Se habla español and other anthology projects. We have been working intensely in many anthologies, each one of us creating them in our own spaces, but at the same time with the same vision: to amplify the perspective of what Latin American literature is. I read them as part of the same project to present a more pluralistic face of what Latin American literature was—including the diasporas, women, Black writers, straight and gay—expanding and interconnecting the literary project of our regions.   

T.N-V.: How do you perceive this collective generational vision to amplify and pluralize the perspectives on what Latin American literature is?

M.S-F.: The project of our generation has been to open the world view about what was thought to be a Latin American writer and the themes which one ought to discuss. I absolutely believe that literary projects needn’t be ideological. That said, my intention when I write is to intervene and strengthen the culture of dialogue which belongs to open societies. I have my ideas and opinions like a civil citizen but, literarily, I’m not interested in the notion that literature ought to declare itself as Leftist to be respected. The Left has also put their foot in it and has been responsible for lots of censorship. I’m interested in a literature that explores its limits wherever a writer wants to explore them.

I also don’t want Latin American literature to be exclusively configured by the creole project, that is, by “representatives of the creole and patriarchal high class.” The writers of the Boom, in poetry as much as in novels, were all white men. There were women Latin American writers, but they operated in a separate sphere. And all these people I mention—Paz Soldán, Sergio Gómez, Alberto Fuguet, Iwasaki, Volpi, Rosa Beltrán, Nettel, Rita Indiana—and I, are very committed to including, at the same level, male and female writers, Blacks, creoles, Garifuna, Native Americans of all other ethnicities, people from the LGBT community, as you have seen in the anthologies. I think that, in this way, the generational project has been very successful because the face of what is known as Latin American literature has been multiplied. [. . .]

For full interview, see http://www.latinamericanliteraturetoday.org/en/2019/november/new-latino-boom-united-states-and-se-habla-espa%C3%B1ol-interview-mayra-santosfebres

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