For historical and political reasons, half of all Puerto Ricans do not live on the island. Over the course of the 20th century, there were various migrations to the United States, first to New York (especially after World War II) and Chicago, and more recently to southern Florida.
One of the pioneers in the Nuyorican (that is, Puerto Ricans living in New York) cultural and social movement was Jesús Colón from Cayey. While living in the Big Apple he wrote A Puerto Rican in New York, about his experiences in exile. He was also very active in city politics and was a member of the local communist party. Several generations of Nuyorican writers have seen him as a model and an inspiration.
In the 1960s, various authors among the Puerto Rican exiles wrote important texts. One of them was Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas, which addressed issues of identity, racial prejudice, poverty and delinquency, Víctor Hernández Cruz and Pedro Pietri began publishing poetry in those years. Hernández Cruz was able to merge the poetic exploration of the identity of the Caribbean diaspora with a marked sense of humor. Pietri, who was associated with the Young Lords community group, followed an equally poetic line but within the framework of a more explicit political and social awareness, as seen in his poem Puerto Rican Obituary.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan, originally founded by poets Miguel Piñero, Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas, Miguel Algarín and Pietri himself, was also very important in the 1970s. The cafe-theater was an important meeting place for the artistic community in New York and gave hundreds of poets the opportunity to share their work with the public. It still exists today.
Another very significant effort was the founding of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in the 1980s by actress and director Miriam Colón. This theater group brought together various artists in New York City (playwrights and poets, but also actors and performers) to preserve the contributions of playwrights from Puerto Rico and the rest of the Spanish-speaking Americas.
In subsequent decades, new generations of writers in exile have emerged through their work. Three Puerto Rican women writers who have had popular success are Judith Ortiz Cofer, Nicholasa Mohr and Esmeralda Santiago. These authors, with The Latin Deli, Nilda and When I was Puerto Rican, respectively, have enriched the representations of the lives of the Puerto Rican diaspora community through a lens focused on the feminine experience. Similarly, Edward Rivera recreated the life of a Puerto Rican integrated into U.S. society in Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic.
Curiously, many Puerto Rican authors in exile have written about the rejection they have experienced from their fellow Puerto Ricans who live on the island. In the words of poet Tato Laviera: “now I return, with a Boricua heart, and you, / scorn me, give me dirty looks, attack the way I speak, / while you eat McDonalds in American discos.” The poem Boricua en la luna by Juan Antonio Corretjer deals with just this topic. The voice in the poem dares a Puerto Rican born on the island to deny that he, too, is Puerto Rican, saying that although he was born abroad, he would be Puerto Rican “even if I had been born on the moon.” While it is true that many Puerto Ricans of the diaspora have remained in their communities of exile, we must remember that not only is there a people divided by geography, but there also exists — as Luis Rafael Sánchez wrote — “a nation floating between two ports shaped by smuggled hopes.”
Although there have been several expatriate Cuban in writers in various parts of the world (such as José María Heredia, Cirilo Villaverde and José Martí) dating back to the 19th century, Cuban exile is most often viewed in the context of the Cuban Revolution. While other Caribbean people go into exile mainly for economic reasons, the Cuban case is framed by political reasons. In general, the Cuban authors in exile have remained opposed to Fidel Castro and his government on the island.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante is a good example of the intellectuals who initially supported the Revolution’s ideals but later became disenchanted with the government’s actions and became a severe critic. Cabrera Infante settled in London and published his most important work, Tres Tristes Tigres, outside the island. The story is set in pre-revolutionary Cuba and is marked by its jocular nature and the experimental use of language. Cabrera Infante won the Cervantes Prize in 1997.
Cuban novelists Reinaldo Arenas and Severo Sarduy had very similar experiences. Both suffered persecution by the Castro government because they were homosexuals and both died of AIDS in exile: Arenas in New York and Sarduy in Paris. These authors’ most representative texts were characterized by fantasy and experimentation and critics have described them as postmodern. El mundo alucinante, by Arenas, tells the story — in poetic fashion — of the life of Brother Servando Teresa de Mier. De donde son los cantantes, by Sarduy, displays the author’s knowledge of French literary theory.
Various writers of the Cuban diaspora have merged with the culture of their country of residence and have written their works in another language. Such is the case of Oscar Hijuelos (born in New York) who became the first Latin American novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize, the most important literary award in the United States, with The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The novel tells the story of two brothers who are musicians and who move to New York to try their luck. A decade later, Nilo Cruz (also of Cuban origin) won the Pulitzer with a theatrical work, Anna in the Tropics, which depicts a cigar factory in southern Florida in the late 19th century. Dreaming in Cuban, by Cristina García, also takes on the topic of life in the diaspora.
In the case of the Dominican Republic, we have to remember that, like many Puerto Ricans, a large number of Dominicans left their native island in search of a better financial future. At the same time, it is also true that many intellectuals and artists were exiled due to the political persecution they suffered.
Writer Juan Bosch, for example, lived outside the Dominican Republic for many years, for political reasons. After he became the island’s first democratically elected president, his government was overthrown in a coup supported by the United States and Bosch had to return to the exile he had lived before. Bosch was also known as one of the most important writers in Latin America. His clear and flowing essays addressed historical topics. As a short story writer and novelist, he wrote works of social realism such as La Nochebuena de Encarnación Mendoza, La muchacha de la Güaira and Dos pesos de agua.
Two Dominican writers who have had considerable success in the United States are Julia álvarez and Junot Díaz. Both write in English. The setting of álvarez’s most important novels is the Trujillo dictatorship. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents tells the story of the struggle of cultural distancing experienced by Dominican girls who were born on the island but had to emigrate with their family. In the Time of the Butterflies reconstructs the lives of the Mirabal sisters, who died as victims of the dictatorship. Junot Díaz, meanwhile, became the second Latin American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The novel explores the cultural clashes in the diaspora and also uses the Trujillo dictatorship as a point of reference.
Other Dominican intellectuals have chosen to live in Puerto Rico. Such is the case with the poets Eugenio García Cuevas and Carlos Roberto Gómez Beras.
Several expatriate authors from the Lesser Antilles also deserve mention. The most important, without a doubt, is V.S. Naipaul, a novelist and essayist born in Trinidad. Although he is recognized as one of the most important authors of the 20th century (he won the Nobel Prize in 2001), the reasons for his exile have never been free of controversy. In the bittersweet view of Trinidad society in his novels such as Miguel Street, many see a disdain for Caribbean culture and life. Naipaul’s case represents the Caribbean who has exchanged the paradigms of his own culture for those of the new society into which he has integrated.
Jamaica Kincaid, born in Antigua and Barbuda, has lived in the United States since she was 16 years old. The experiences of her childhood in the Caribbean have been the inspiration for her semi-autobiographical novels Annie John and Lucy. Her fellow countrywoman, Paule Marshall, also an expatriate in the United States, wrote about youth in her novel Brown Girl, Brownstones and about old age in Praisesong for the Widow.
Angel, by Aruban writer Merle Collins, tells a story that unfolds during the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. Cyril Dabydeen and Pauline Melville are two writers from Guyana who write from exile in Canada and England, respectively.
Jamaican writers Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Valerie Bloom are part of the diaspora that lives in the United Kingdom. On Beauty, by Smith, is about the cultural differences between the United States and Britain and the clash between moral conservatism and tolerance. Small Island, by Levy, is about the Jamaican community in Britain. Bloom is better known as a poet, but has also written novels. Michelle Cliff and June Jordan, by comparison, are two writers of Jamaican origin who live in the United States. Cliff has written several semi-autobiographical novels and has explored the topic of homophobia and imperialism (No Telephone to Heaven). Jordan covered similar themes in her writing, which includes several books of poetry and a memoir titled Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood.
Because of the severe poverty in Haiti, a growing number of that country’s most important writers have lived in exile. The Haitian diaspora has gone to the two political entities that have historically controlled the island: France and the United States. Jacques Roumain, one of the fathers of Haitian letters in the 20th century, lived for years in New York City, even though he disagreed with the U.S. military occupation of his island. His master work, Gouverneurs de la Rosée is a parable about the drought that divides the Haitian people. More recently, Edwidge Danticat, who has also lived in New York, became known through her book of stories, Krik? Krak!, which includes nine stories of Haitian women living in absolute poverty. Dany Laferrière lived in exile in the United States and Canada and continued writing in French. He won fame with Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer, which dealt with interracial sex. In L’enigme du retour, he told the story of a man who returned to his country to collect the body of his father.
Jean Métellus, who went to France to flee the Duvalier dictatorship, had a long career as a novelist and poet. His most famous novel, La Famille Vortex, tells the story of a family affected by the country’s turbulent history. René Depestre lived in France for years, also fleeing the Duvalier regime, and later settled in Cuba. He published poetry and erotic stories, including the books Un arc-en-ciel pour l’Occident chrétien and éros dans un train chinois.
Notable writers in the genre of the essay are C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon, two Caribbean intellectuals who exercised great influence on post-colonial and pan-African thinking, the latter a movement that promoted the union of African peoples (including Afro-Caribbean). James was born in Trinidad, but worked for most of his life in Britain and the United States. His most important book, The Black Jacobins, is an historical reinterpretation of the Haitian Revolution. Fanon, meanwhile, was born in Martinique but lived in France and northern Africa for many years. Les Damnés de la Terre is a canonical text in the history of the liberation struggles of the 20th century. Although both authors lived much of their lives outside their native countries, they believed that their political efforts would bring “the wretched of the earth,” the poor, closer to a situation in which they would no longer need to seek a life in exile.
Finally, while it is important to note that during the 20th century the waves of migration from the Caribbean went toward the countries of the so-called “First World,” during earlier centuries there were writers who were exiled from their native countries to other points in the Caribbean. Examples were Ramón Emeterio Betances, Eugenio María de Hostos, José Martí, and others. They believed the Caribbean could become a federation, an organism that would politically encompass the various states, which would still retain their individuality. Therefore, in the Caribbean that Betances dreamed of, to live on a neighboring island was not exile.
Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: December 20, 2011.
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