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Down Dark Paths: Research and Writing the Puerto Rican Diaspora
Exploration and discovery are essential elements of writing. I do not mean only in the sense of finding new ways to write better—the craft involved in writing. I also mean exploring and discovering in the writing process itself. Often writers are seeking answers to questions, some subconscious or not fully articulated, as they embark on their creative journeys. When the project in question requires research, like the one for my current short story collection, Migrations, it adds another dimension to the quest for answers. Sometimes, the research leads you down dark paths and confronts you with painful, shocking truths.
Migrations is a collection of 11 thematically linked stories rooted in the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora. This particular creative project began when a fellow scholar and friend emailed me an article on Puerto Rican adolescents shipped to the Carlisle Industrial Indian School at the beginning of the twentieth century, after the United States had invaded and seized territory. I never knew anything about this historical fact, a disturbing acknowledgment given that I’m a scholar and professor of Latinx literature and culture. After reading the article, I felt compelled to tell the story of those young Puerto Ricans sent to a school predicated on the principle of “kill the Indian, save the man.” As I wrote it, I wondered if there were other events in our history of continual migration that I could transform into fictional stories. So, I began my research and emotional descent into darker moments of our history.
The research led me to understand at a deeper level the conflicts and trauma that the diaspora has wrought. Whether that manifests itself in a “sucio” questioning his machismo with unfortunate results; or parents, former gang members, still dealing with the causes of urban gangsterism; or the baseball great Roberto Clemente’s internal struggles with racism; or the cultural detritus left by Puerto Rican sugar cane workers in Hawaii—the collection attempts to reconfigure that history into engaging stories while still remaining true to the emotional impact of the events. What I found was a historical narrative of generational psychological and physical suffering, one that can be projected into the future, as I do in three of the last stories.
The research that most affected me dealt with the sterilization program conducted in Puerto Rico from the 1930s and 1970s. During that time period, approximately one-third of the female population in Puerto Rico was sterilized, the highest level of sterilization in the world. I read about the history of this program—based partly on eugenics—and the lack of clear information given to the women, and I knew this story had to be told. As I struggled with creating my main character, Elena, and recreating the historical context of the fifties in Puerto Rico, or just telling the story, I also struggled with the pain behind the truth.
I recalled my mother once telling me about an operation she had after having me at the recommendation of an Army physician stationed at the Henry Barracks, the base in our hometown of Cayey. I never gave it much thought. I wondered if as a child or teen, I had broached the subject because I wanted a younger brother or sister. At any rate, having delved into the history of sterilization in Puerto Rico, I was now left with the haunting possibility that my own mother, who died five years ago, had been a victim of this nefarious program. I wish there had been time to discuss this part of her history, to understand what she went through and if she had any regrets.
You never know what you will find at the end of a quest you initiate with each writing project you undertake. Migrations was a difficult collection to write, mainly because the material was so emotionally raw. But I am a firm believer that truth through fiction does not come easily. Sometimes it comes at a price. All you can hope is that readers will leave feeling something for the characters and a better understanding of the world they inhabit.