Guest Post: Boricua Freedom Writer Speaks

I am very happy to welcome fellow Borinqueña, Norma Burgos to The Writing Life Blog. I hope you will enjoy Norma’s heartfelt and informative piece on what is most dear to Puerto Ricans–our homeland–la Isla del Encanto. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted during the next two weeks, so please check in again.

Norma Burgos Vazquez

Norma Burgos Vázquez is a DiaspoRican returnee residing in Puerto Rico since 1999.  The forty-year veteran of the wars on poverty in NY, the SF/Bay Area and Comunidades Especiales (PR) has worked for federal, state and municipal island governments.  She’s a Writer’s Well Literary Competition Winner, former public affairs writer at KCBS News Radio (SF), and her personal vignettes and essays appear in The Rebeldes Anthology: Bolder (e-book), Border-Lines Journal, Latino Research Center, La Respuesta, Mujeres Talk, Latina Lista News, Somos Primos.  The Bronx Science alumna, holds a BA in Black and Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College (NYC) and education courses, Universidad Interamericana, Guayama. She currently lives in Vega Alta with her daughter where she is retired and editing her first back-to-roots memoir.

Give Us Our Mandela Moment: Free Oscar Now! So the World Can Witness ‘Invictus’ of Puerto Ricans by the Power of One

“If I am standing here today, it is not because I lack the courage to fight, but rather because I have the courage to fight. I am certain, and will reaffirm, that Puerto Rico will be a free and sovereign nation.” 

– Oscar López Rivera, at his trial for seditious conspiracy, 1981


Every year, for 35 years, on May 29th, the face of “The Last Prisoner” has symbolized “Unity” in the ongoing struggle to liberate the last colony standing of the Americas, before the world community of free sovereign nations, on the floor of the United Nations. That, sadly, has been a painful reminder, much as, an army of compatriotas and worldwide supporters, 5 Nobel Peace Prize winners among them, UN delegates, illustrious journalists, scholars, lawmakers, celebrities, athletes, civic leaders and human rights and legal advocates of the Free Oscar Campaign, have been relentless in demanding his presidential pardon and release, Puerto Rico’s National Hero Oscar López Rivera, the victim of a miscarriage of (Empire) justice, still remains behind bars. At 73 years of age, his yearning for his homeland in the letter “Where the Sea Breathes,” written from prison to Karina, his granddaughter (he’s only seen through iron bars) is a heart-wrenching sign of the urgenthumanitarian imperative to bring Oscar home, sooner than later:

“…It has been 35 years since the last time I saw it. But I have painted it many times, both the Atlantic and the Caribbean, the smiling foam in Cabo Rojo, which is made of light mixed with salt…Here in prison I have often felt nostalgic for the sea; filling my lungs with its smell; touching it and wetting my lips, but right away I realize that many years may have to pass before I can give myself that simple pleasure… I always miss the sea, but I think I never needed it as much as when they transferred me from Marion prison in Illinois, to Florence, in Colorado. In Marion, I went out into the yard once a week, and from there I could see the trees, the birds… I heard the sounds of the train and the song of the cicadas. I would run over the earth and smell it. I could grab the grass and let the butterflies surround me. But in Florence all that came to an end… Did you know that ADX, which is the maximum-security prison in Florence, is designed for the worst criminals in the United States and is considered the hardest and most impenetrable in the country? There the prisoners have no contact with each other, it’s a labyrinth of steel and concrete built to isolate and incapacitate. I was among the first men in this prison (…) (source:Global Voices) read more

In the days leading up to the final Congressional approval of the PROMESA Act (HR 5278) on June 29, 2016 that purports to “rescue” Puerto Rico from total economic collapse, and falls dismally short of island expectations, analyzed the locally-vested Center for a New Economy.  position paper As I was writing this blog, deeply disturbed by the catastrophic prognosis: that our beloved Borinquen is a dying colonial nation hooked to US life support, La Junta-Fiscal Control Board of the Republican Congress would administer lethal austerity transfusions, I marveled that Oscar Rivera, the political prisoner for far too long, was in the eye of the Perfect Storm of anti-colonial forces and island and Diaspora events that would vindicate him before the entire world.

And it all happened between the dates May 27 (my birthday) and June 29, 2016. These fast-moving chain of events compelled me to put my life on pause, to document, eat, sleep and pray the night away.  Inspired, as I was, to capture the living history unfolding at my laptop.  To share with my readers this cruel dichotomy, how it feels to be, at once, a “colonized subject” and an American born in the USA, on the receiving end of the Anglo Supremacist message:  Puerto Ricans are incapable of governing themselves, as if the US government had no culpability whatsoever in the debt crisis debacle, and could get away with blaming the victim, for being the victim of colonial abuse.
Not while journalist educator Ed Morales is on the case, breaking down the debt crisis en arroz y habichuelas. America’s colony was set up to fail by the very hand that feeds us:  YouTube.

Adding insult to injury, on the day the US Congressional House Speaker Paul Ryan reaches PROMESA bill bipartisan approval, the US Department of Natural Resources, that profits from total jurisdiction over Puerto Rico’s national treasures, posts a racist and offensive tweet that ridicules and humiliates Puerto Ricans online, reported Caribbean Business News.  read more
Now, I’m no political pundit. I’m a chronicler of events on a quest to make well-informed decisions about Puerto Rico’s future. Your everyday news junkie hooked on CNN, ABC, Univision, Telenoticias, El Nuevo Dia, Primera Hora, NotiUno Radio, the weekly local newspaper regionals (and even, the pro-statehood propagandist freebie, El Vocero daily). The various blogs worth reading of progressive-thinking and like-minded individuals of good conscience. I’m also an avid follower of NiLP National Institute for Latino Policy in New York. And, as of 2014, I am connected to the San Juan-based DiaspoRicans l DiaspoRiqueños network that’s a Who’s Who in the Puerto Rican progressive movement. In essence, the view (for the wizened me) is a split screen of happenings, both here and there.

The United States of America is trampling on the human rights and collective pride of our Puerto Rican people, “El Orgullo Boricua.”  The immense pride we all share in our  long trajectory of notable achievements. Harnessing the exceptional talent, capability, creativity, ingenuity, generosity, dignity and humanitarian passionthat originates from a tiny Caribbean island in the center of God’s green earth and is a force of nature in the world.  read here.

Yet…we have been brought to our knees.


“El Orgullo Boricua

Boricuas have climbed the steepest steps to the highest court in the land in the person of the Honorable Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, born and raised in the Bronx. We have flown on the NASA Discovery Space Shuttle and walked in Space with the daring astronaut Joseph M. Acabá, from Inglewood, California. We have had the first Latino to serve as Surgeon General of the USA in Dr. Antonia Coello Novello, born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Produced the most beautiful women in the world (second to Venezuela) boasting five (5) winners in the history of the “Miss Universe” Pageant, and the People Magazine “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” distinction bestowed upon Jennifer López, the diva from the Bronx.  We have fought America’s battles in the Borinqueneers65th Infantry, President Obama decorated with the Congressional Gold Medal for bravery.  We can win MVPs sports championships, Presidential Medals of Honor and Freedom, Oscars, Tonys and Grammys, rise to the top of the music charts and crossover; show theatrical, literary, philosophical, environmental, business, hi-tech and STEM scientific genius; lead armies, set laws in Congress, rise out of poverty and rise to the exalted status of Sainthood in the Vatican (which is no walk in the park). And have recently taken Broadway by storm in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Hamilton” sensation Lin Manuel Miranda.

And STILL…Puerto Ricans get no respect from the US Congress, the US Supreme Court or the US Executive Branch, for that matter.

Something is wrong with this picture.

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Award-winning Puerto Rican-born novelist and painter, Eleanor Parker Sapia was raised in the United States, Europe, and Puerto Rico. Eleanor is a Finalist for Best Historical Fiction, English in the 2016 International Latino Book Awards. Her bestselling historical novel, A Decent Woman, set in colonial Puerto Rico, was selected as July 2015 Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is a favorite with book clubs around the country. A Decent Woman was selected as ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’ by Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, and Eleanor is featured in the award-winning anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. Eleanor’s life experiences as a painter, counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her passion for writing. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups and tells herself she is walking El Camino de Santiago a second time. Eleanor is a proud member of PEN America, Historical Novel Society, and Las Comadres Para Las Americas. She is the mother of two adventurous, loving grown children and currently lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel, “The Laments of Sister Maria Inmaculada”, and a collection of short stories.


  1. What inspired you to write A Decent Woman?

Thank you for inviting me to visit with your readers. I am honored to be here.

I am a Puerto Rican-born, Spanish speaking writer currently living in wild and wonderful West Virginia. I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico to an American soldier and a Puerto Rican mother and went on to marry an army officer, which led to a rich life of travel and wonderful opportunities to meet interesting people from all walks of life, which of course means I have tons of stories swirling in my head. My heart belongs to Puerto Rico, so my initial inspiration was to write a love letter to the island of my birth and pay tribute to my kids and to the women of my family. The setting of A Decent Woman, Ponce, Puerto Rico, is my hometown.

Another strong inspiration was that I had never read a story in English about a diverse heroine living and working in colonial Puerto Rico. A diverse heroine was important to me, so I wrote what I wanted to read. I was inspired by the literary traditions of the early Puerto Rican classics I read as a child, like El jibaro and La charca, which dealt with societal issues of the day and portrayed the lives of people in the lower and higher echelons of colonial Puerto Rican society. My story is about an Afro-Cuban midwife; a young widow with small children who marries into a prominent family; and about women of all walks of life, all thrown into the mix in turn of the century Puerto Rico.

Lastly, I was inspired by the women of my family, who were amazing storytellers. I loved my grandmother’s stories of her midwife, a black Caribbean woman of unknown origin, who caught my mother, two aunts, and an uncle. It was thought Dona Aña came from the island of Martinique, but no one was sure. I was quite fascinated with her. It came as no surprise that the colorful Ana became my protagonist, though initially Serafina was the leading lady. But who can resist a rum-drinking, cigar-smoking midwife with a big attitude and a heart of gold? I couldn’t!

  1. If you could describe this book in a few sentences, what would you say?

Set against the combustive, colonial backdrop of a misogynistic society where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of two lifelong friends: a poor, illiterate Afro-Cuban midwife and a young widow with small children who marries into a prominent family, as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.


  1. How would you describe the correlation between Ana and Serafina?

When the story begins, Ana the midwife delivers newly-married, sixteen-year old Serafina’s first child. Unmarried and alone, Ana is distrustful of men and authority, a loner, but she is loyal to her midwifery clients and their children. Ana’s journey is about keeping a dark secret from her past hidden while searching for love, respectability, and a family to call her own. She tries her best to live a “decent” life in a turbulent time in Puerto Rico’s history, when many single women find themselves in “indecent” lifestyles and situations to feed and protect their families because they have no male protection.

Motherless sixteen-year old Serafina pursues a friendship with Ana, which will reopen their hearts, and later, break them for a few years. Although Serafina later remarries and has the protection of men, her life is paved with heartache and much loss. Serafina’s journey is growing up and maturing into a confident wife, mother, and loyal friend. Later in life, Serafina will come face to face with her humble beginnings.

What forever bonds these two women is a fierce friendship, loyalty, and an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor after a crime is committed against her. They are mother and daughter in many ways.

  1. What are some of the main socio-economic issues that you explore in this book and why did you explore them?

Before my divorce, I worked as a counselor and a Spanish language refugee case worker, and later, as a Spanish language social worker with immigrant families in Northern Virginia. My heart and stories will always be entwined with the marginalized and overlooked members of society. I am proud to give them a voice in literature.

The initial themes of motherhood, friendship, and the sisterhood of women sprang naturally and organically, thanks to my Puerto Rican grandmother, mother, and aunt’s stories of growing up, marrying, and raising families in Puerto Rico. Misogyny, poverty, and racism against black, white, and mulatto women were issues I gleaned from their stories and from research. The atrocities committed against Puerto Ricans, with forced sterilization by the U.S. Department of Health, came to light through research, as did the mass cleansing of black and mulatto women in Ponce. Though not initially planned, I had to include these historical facts in the story. We should never turn our backs on what we discover as writers. If it is a truth, write it. You discovered the truth for a reason.

  1. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?

I ended up writing a book about the suffering, joys, and hard lives of women of different social echelons and economic status in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. I didn’t set out to write that story, but I couldn’t turn my back or ignore what I’d discovered through research.

Readers will take away what they need from a story. As with viewing a piece of art, stories are subjective, and each person will gain something different from their unique background and life perspective.One discovery I made while writing the book was that my life, with its challenges, joys, and struggles, wasn’t that different from women of the past. Life was certainly harder for women at the turn of the century, without modern conveniences, opportunities, rights, but many women around the world today are living exactly like our foremothers—or worse—with few or no rights, limited modern conveniences, and unreachable opportunities for themselves and their children. That wasn’t a discovery—it was a painful reminder.

Maybe readers will gain a bit of knowledge about Puerto Rico’s complex history as a Spanish colony and a U.S. colony after the Spanish-American War in 1899. Puerto Rico has a rich history, culture, and fascinating traditions, thanks to our Taino Indian, African, and Spanish roots. I hope I portrayed those in the book.

I do hope that readers who normally don’t pick up historical fiction will realize the people of long ago faced much the same issues we face today. As I said in another interview, we are single and married, working mothers, and stay-at-home moms, and some of us are faced with indecent situations in order to feed our families. We are society women, educated women, and women living on the fringes of society. In my mind, we are a sisterhood. The word we use in Puerto Rico to refer to dear women friends is comadre, which literally means, “the woman who helped birth my children.” It also means “my friend for life.”

  1. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?

I love reading, writing, and I love research, which is a perfect recipe for an historical novelist. This motto, which came to me while writing A Decent Woman, sums up what I love best about writing: “This is what we want for ourselves as writers and as readers—we want to reach others and we want to be moved.” Other than working from home, which I am blessed to do, I love creating and sharing diverse heroines with my readers. They are ordinary women who do extraordinary things while living in turbulent times, extraordinary times is how I’d describe them.

What I like least about being a writer is that I don’t have enough hours in a day to get all I want to say down on paper. I have so many stories I want to tell! I’ve also found it difficult to read books for pleasure. These days, I find myself reading books for content and style, which often takes away from the story, as I sit with a highlighter in hand! With little time, I’m now picky about what I read; if I don’t like the story by the third chapter, I close the book.

  1. Who are some of your favorite authors?

Jack Remick, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, and Milos Kundera are among my favorite contemporary authors.  I buy their new books sight unseen, every time. Of course, I love Jane Austen.

  1. If your book would be turned into a movie, who would you imagine playing the part of the main characters? (Actor can be ANYONE, living or dead.)

I was an exhibiting painter for twenty-five years before discovering my love of writing stories. It was important for me to visualize my characters as I discovered more about them through writing. The adult Ana would be played by one of my favorite actresses, the fabulous Viola Davis. Ana Belén is strong, gentle, intelligent, and has the quiet strength and gritty courage I’ve seen in many of Viola’s roles in films and on television. I adore Viola’s grin, which reminds me of Ana, who in my mind’s eye has a great grin.

For the flashbacks of young Ana as a child born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Cuba, I’d pick the young actress and Oscar winner, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Lupita Nyong’o would be perfect to play Ana in her twenties when she first arrives in Puerto Rico.

I visualize the young actress Selena Gomez as Serafina at sixteen and the incredibly-talented Mexican actress and director Salma Hayek as the adult Serafina. Of course, I think A Decent Woman would make a great film!

  1. Are you working on anything right now?

Yes, I’m currently working on a novel called The Laments of Sister Maria Inmaculada, set in 1920 Puerto Rico. It’s the story of a young nun working at a leprosarium on a small Puerto Rican islet called Isla de Cabras, The Island of Goats, off the coast of San Juan. I didn’t think I could love another story and new characters as much as I did with my first book, but I do. I hope readers will enjoy my second book, which will come out in 2017.

  1. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?

I believe the future in Latino literature is bright with more Latinos penning books in all genres. There are still only a handful of Latino literary agents and publishing companies that cater to Latino writers, and I hope that changes in the future. What I’m most happy about is that more Latinos are active on social media, which helps everyone get their products and books out into the world.

Thank you very much for the wonderful opportunity to stop by and chat with your readers!

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