CHARACTER INTERVIEW with Ana Opaku Belén from Eleanor Parker Sapia’s historical novel, A DECENT WOMAN. Part of the Historical Novel Tour, hosted by the fabulous author, Tiffani Burnett-Velez. https://tiffaniburnettvelez.wordpress.com/ Thank you for having me,Tiffani!
When and where were you born?
My Nigerian-born parents were captured and sent to the new world on one the last African slave ships that landed in Cuba. I was born a slave on a sugar plantation in Camaguey Province, Cuba in 1860.
I say I was born twice—once when my mother gave birth to me, and the second time when I fled Cuba under mysterious circumstances in 1880 on a freight ship that landed at the Port of Ponce, in Playa de Ponce, Puerto Rico in the middle of the night. It was a second chance for me; a rebirth.
In 1860, Cuba produced nearly one-third of the world’s sugar, and my parents worked in the sugar cane fields of a Spanish-owned sugar plantation between Las Minas and the port of Nuevitas. Near the end of my mother’s pregnancy with me, she was sent to work in the land owner’s house kitchen.
Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States the year I was born, but of course I didn’t know who he was, or what he would do for those born into slavery until many years later.
What was Playa de Ponce like during the first ten years after you arrived?
The last half of the 19th century was marked by the Puerto Rican struggle for independence and the abolition of slavery, which was abolished in Puerto Rico by the Spanish National Assembly on March 22, 1873. The owners were given 35 million pesetas, and slaves were forced to continue working for three more years. I arrived in Puerto Rico in 1880 as a free woman and lucky for me, I met a midwife who trained me as a midwife. When Doña Milagro (her name means, miracle) passed away, I took over her business and became the only midwife in Playa de Ponce. I was very fortunate.
At that time, the main currency was the Puerto Rican peso, and the US dollar was appearing as well as foreign currency from merchants doing business on the island. Although Barrio Playa was a bustling port town with many grand homes and mansions owned by wealthy merchants, and many government buildings, I lived in relative poverty in a little, wooden house near the Caribbean Sea. I was illiterate until the early 1900’s when I met my friend, Serafina, another character in Eleanor’s book whose baby I caught, taught me to read.
In 1898, all Spanish-born governors were appointed by the Spanish crown, and the population was a mix of white, black, mulatto, and criollo, creole. There was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with Spanish rule, and the Puerto Rican educated elite were making their voices heard, but their efforts were always squashed and silenced by the Spaniards. There was talk of the Americans fighting the Spanish crown for possession of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and it came to pass—in 1898, the United States declared war under President William McKinley, and soon afterward, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States at the end of the Spanish American War. The Americans invaded Puerto Rico on the shores of the town of Guánica on July 25, 1898 under the command of General Nelson Miles.
When Hurricane San Ciriaco nearly decimated the island two months later with twenty eight days of rain and high winds, I wondered if the Americans regretted their decision to invade and control Puerto Rico. The hurricane claimed 3,433 lives, and caused widespread disease, poverty, famine, and left millions of dollars of crop damage. It was a miracle I survived, and there were many more hurricanes and tropical storms to come, and an earthquake in 1918.
What was the situation for women in Ponce, Puerto Rico in your time period?
For me and many poor, uneducated, black and mulatto women, the situation was dismal, but I managed to keep a roof over my head and food in my cooking pot because I caught babies. But many times, I didn’t charge for my services as I knew most of my clients couldn’t afford to pay me. We used a barter system, which was how I survived.
Women had few rights in those days, and even the high class women had a difficult time as is life in a male-dominated society. Women’s first obligation was to their husbands, who kept them and their children protected and safe. It became difficult for women to keep other women away from their men, as all women looked for the same protection and good futures for themselves and their children. Men pit woman against woman, which was a shame in my eyes, but I understood the battle of these women.
What advice in life might you give to young women today?
In my advanced age, my advice to young women is simple—live your life with integrity, compassion for others, strong faith, and strength of character. Our character and integrity should be impeccable, and never choose a bad man over a good girlfriend. Women need a strong village in life, and that is why in Puerto Rico, women refer to each other as ‘comadre’, which has many meanings. A comadre could be your midwife, the godmother of your child, and it is often used to refer to a very close person to the family, a best friend.
Serafina and I are comadres in every sense of the word.
Thanks so much for the creative interview questions and for inviting me on the Historical Novel Blog Tour, Tiffani! I enjoyed sitting in Ana Belen’s chair today! All the best to you!
A DECENT WOMAN is coming early March, 2015 with Booktrope Books.
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