Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Latin America: Explorations, Martyrdoms, and Good Books

On this day in 1513, Ponce de Leon got his first glimpse of Florida--or was it Great Abaco Island of the Bahamas chain?  My sources differ.

He set sail from Hispaniola, the island now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Julia Alvarez may be the U.S.-Dominican author most familiar to readers.  Her birthday is today.  What an interesting coincidence!  Alvarez is the woman who has done the most to help me discover the island of Hispaniola.

I first heard about Julia Alvarez at a conference on World Literature held at Appalachian State University in 1996. I was a last minute replacement on a panel presentation when the originally scheduled presenter had to undergo surgery. I went up with two other people from the community college where I was teaching in South Carolina--I still meet up with these two women periodically at Mepkin Abbey.

During that conference, we heard someone mention Julia Alvarez--it was the first time I'd heard her name. Of course, her first book, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, had only been out for a few years. The presenter spoke about a more recently published book, In the Time of the Butterflies, but frankly, the other books sounded more interesting to me. The first Alvarez book I ever read was Yo!, but my friend read In the Time of the Butterflies, and she raved about it.

I loved Yo!, but then again, I've always loved books that had a writer/artist/creator as the protagonist. If my friend hadn't been so enthusiastic about In the Time of the Butterflies, I might have never read it. I worried about the fact that it was a historical novel about a time and a country that I wasn't sure I understood. But then we moved to South Florida, and I wasn't working as much, and I didn't have any friends outside of my spouse, and I had a library card, and we were trying to conserve our money. And so, I read it, and I, too, was blown away.

I've read it several times since, and it still moves me. I'm rather staggered to think about how long this book has been part of my life. It's been 15 years since that conference, but I still remember so many aspects of that week-end. I remember being surrounded by all sorts of people, and I'd study all of them, looking for clues about my future and how to live it. I had a teaching-intensive community college job, and I wasn't sure it was a good fit. But I didn't want a research university job that would require me to write a lot of literary criticism. I met some administrators, and their lives also didn't inspire me to aspire to those positions. I wish I could say that 15 years later I've figured all this out, but I haven't. In a skinny minute, I would move to Boone, NC, home of Appalachian State U. At the time we were there, it was very white--even the cleaning staff at the university conference center was white, which was so unusual that we remarked upon it as we drove away. I wonder if the town and university is still that non-diverse.

I'm also staggered by how long we've lived down here, since 1998. I've met a lot of Dominicans and Haitians since moving here, and before we moved here, I'd never met one. Granted, I've met them primarily in a student-teacher relationship, so it's different.

In this week where we commemorate the life and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, I have repression and dictatorship on the brain and it's good to revisit In the Time of the Butterflies. If you went back in time and suggested that 4 sisters could bring down the entrenched Trujillo regime, people would scoff. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

We might say, “Yes, but we don’t want to have to sacrifice our lives.” I would point out that martyrdom is not the only route of resistance. There’s a long tradition of artists working for, and achieving, social change. Likewise mothers and workers and all sorts of others—choose your favorite oppressed group.

So, on this day where we could celebrate explorers and discoverers of all sorts, let us think about our own lives.  What adventures might beckon?  What new vistas wait for us to see them?

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