Puerto Rican Author Marisel Vera on the Meaning of Home After a Hurricane

‘The Taste of Sugar’ showcases love after the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898

Marisel Vera. Photo: Wes Carrasquillo

Anyone who lives in Puerto Rico can tell you that life is divided into two chapters: life before Hurricane María and after. Since Hurricane María made landfall in September 2017, there has been what the media calls an “exodus” of Boricuas searching for a better life. But author Marisel Vera, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, can tell you about entire generations of Puerto Ricans who have migrated stateside since Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island in 1899.

Vera’s latest novel, The Taste of Sugar, follows the story of Puerto Rican newlyweds after the United States invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898. They’re lured to Hawaii’s sugar plantations under the guise of a more prosperous life. There, they face indignities similar to those they encountered back home before and after Hurricane San Ciriaco. Besides the compelling plot, the book serves as a reminder that Puerto Rico is the oldest colony in the world, and its corrupt government and outdated colonial mechanisms have hindered its progress.

ZORA recently caught up with Vera to discuss diversity in publishing, her hopes for people who read her novel, and why she thinks Latinx Heritage Month is a positive thing.

ZORA: The Taste of Sugar focuses on home and displacement. What drew you to these themes?

Marisel Vera: I don’t really think about themes. I think about what I want to say and who I want to tell my story. My father, a factory worker in Chicago, always wanted to go back to Puerto Rico and build a house in the mountains where he grew up and could not realize his dream. I’ve always understood how sad you feel when you yearn for something. In the ’50s, there wasn’t any work, and people were so hungry during the time of my novel and now. History repeats itself.

Tell us about your research process for this novel.

When I was working on my first book [If I Bring You Roses], I found some research about these 5,000 Puerto Ricans who had gone to Hawaii to work on a sugar plantation. I’d never heard of that.

I put that information aside because it was fascinating. In a way, I feel like all my work is related. I reached out to the library, which was before you could access a lot of stuff on the internet. Because I’ve worked on it for about 10 years, I wrote to someone in the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association and the University of Hawaii.

One of the things that I learned was that this was the first exodus of Puerto Ricans who left the island. The second one was when my parents left. Such an essential reason that the Puerto Ricans had to leave because there was no work and no food — especially important today since it’s the third anniversary of Hurricane María.

“I think a lot of editors only want a fluffy love story about Puerto Rico. If I had been a White woman writing about Puerto Rico, I think it would’ve been a lot easier.”

What were some of the biggest obstacles and happiest moments you faced in the manuscript’s journey?

It was very challenging, and my agent was surprised. She told me that an editor’s reason for rejecting the book was that he didn’t want a history lesson. I think a lot of editors only want a fluffy love story about Puerto Rico. If I had been a White woman writing about Puerto Rico, I think it would’ve been a lot easier.

I’ve been thrilled with the reviews! My first novel wasn’t reviewed, and it makes a huge difference. Somebody on Twitter said that they finished The Taste of Sugar, and they would never be the same. I never saw myself in a book, so it meant a lot to me to read this from the stranger because that’s what I hope to continue doing.

I never thought I could write a novel. Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban came out when I was a grown woman with children, and I’m her contemporary in age. I thought that if Cristina could do it, I could too, so I’ve been trying ever since.

On that note, what kind of conversations are we not having that you think we should be having?

We need affirmative action in publishing. Affirmative action isn’t a handout; it’s a hand up. We need something other than the White gaze.

What’s something about Puerto Rico and its history with colonialism that you wish more people knew about?

The people in Puerto Rico have the right to self-determination. They’re the only ones that should decide, and we have to support it.

“There are so many misconceptions about Puerto Rico. Many people in the U.S. don’t understand that Puerto Ricans cannot vote in the general presidential elections [they can in the primaries].”

How has the framing of Puerto Rico’s story by mainland authors and journalists who have no ties to the island and limited knowledge affected the lives of Puerto Ricans everywhere?

There are so many misconceptions about Puerto Rico. Many people in the U.S. don’t understand that Puerto Ricans cannot vote in the general presidential elections [they can in the primaries].

As for us Latinx authors, let us write our stories for the next 50 years, and then you guys [White people] get to write about us! Many White people only understand the cliches and expect me to be like Carmen Miranda, no offense to her.

Latinx Heritage Month raises questions about identity and colonialism among many Latinxs. Does the celebration fairly represent Latinxs?

I feel as Puerto Rican as you even though I wasn’t raised in Puerto Rico. I believe the intention behind it, by the creators who were probably Latinxs, [is] to give us more exposure in the U.S. It’s a positive thing, like affirmative action. White people have it; it’s called legacy.

What does “home” mean to you?

Home is being a Puerto Rican woman and celebrating everything about being Puerto Rican. That’s what I wanted to do in The Taste of Sugar. I wanted to write about the tragedies that happened to this couple, like how Puerto Ricans find joy in times of adversity. We’ve been doing it since the beginning of time.

When you’re not working, how do you nurture your creative side?

I always read fiction, and I love film. When quarantine started, I started taking virtual bomba classes with my daughter. We take lessons twice a week, and our instructor has someone from Puerto Rico talk to us about the music. I’m learning so much, and I love to dance!

Alicia Ramírez is a New York-based writer covering theatre, identity, and culture.

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