The Mess of Knots: Ponce, Patriarchy, and La Mujer Mala: An Interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia

The Mess of Knots: Ponce, Patriarchy, and La Mujer Mala: An Interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia

Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD

Editor’s note: This interview is the sixth in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the award-winning historical novel, A Decent Woman, published by Scarlet River Press. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015, and Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. A writer, artist, and photographer, Eleanor currently lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where she is working on her second novel, The Laments of Forgotten Souls, set in 1927 Puerto Rico, and a collection of poems.

Ivelisse Rodriguez: Ponce, La Perla del Sur or La Ciudad Señorial, is considered the second city in Puerto Rico. In your novel, A Decent Woman, you note how Ponce used to be the capital of Puerto Rico; you detail the high-society life in Ponce and its mores. These particulars help bring the city to life. How does the city itself function as a character in your novel?

Eleanor Parker Sapia: Puerto Rico, a new possession of the United States in 1900 when the story opens, is very much a character in my novel—a woman lured into a relationship with the United States with hope and promises of safety, protection, food on the table, and a brighter future. The reality was that the US government had a business plan. They quickly devalued and began to replace the Porto Rican peso with the American dollar, taxes were raised, farmers were evicted from their lands, English was imposed as the co-official language, and new regulations were forced on the Puerto Ricans.

I was an exhibiting painter of still life and portraiture for nearly 30 years before I decided to write a novel. I’m told my first passion shows in descriptions and attention to small detail in my first published book—portraiture of place with words. In A Decent Woman, there are stark contrasts between Ana’s world of poverty, struggle, and racism as an illiterate, black midwife, and the world of the upper class and privilege that newly-widowed Serafina learns to maneuver after her second marriage. I chose to depict three barrios of that era, Playa de Ponce, San Antón, and el pueblo de Ponce, each with its distinct voice, mood, flavor, music, architecture, and history. As such, the actions and futures of my characters were limited by external forces, at times unbeknownst to them, and determined by the confines of the socio-economic condition of where they lived and worked. It was important that the setting/place of this book evolve as the women and society evolved, or lack thereof.

IR: The title of your book, A Decent Woman, immediately begs the question of what constitutes a decent woman, and, normally, this idea of decency is tied to the sexuality of women. In your novel, you mention throughout how prostitutes are treated in Ponce, how there are these systematic programs to exile them from “decent” society, how color and class are conflated with sexuality/prostitution, and how prostitutes are marked by the passbooks they have to carry, etc. This is the way Ponce treats prostitutes, but you have a different approach. Emilia and Maria, two prostitutes in your text, are humanized; they are women who laugh, who cry, who are mistreated, yet they are rendered as whole characters. What do these two characters help say about prostitution in Ponce?

EPS: The characters Emilia and Maria came to me in the rewrite and editing phases of the manuscript, and there was no doubt they would be fully-fleshed characters since I’ve previously worked as a counselor, refugee caseworker, and a Spanish-language family support worker. I have great sympathy for women of that era, who were played against each other in a patriarchal society.

Through further research, I was reminded of how intrinsically linked ‘la otra y la mujer mala’, the prostitute, were to women’s stories—as much a part of their stories as marriage and motherhood. It was important to include a more complete portrayal of society and the situations in which women found themselves—from begging in the streets to feed their children; to widowhood; playing the hostess at charity events and society balls; and to inviting politicians, clergy, and the men of ‘high society’ into their beds to make the rent and pay bills. Each woman sought to secure male protection and security, and hopefully, to keep a man from straying—that was the tapestry I attempted to weave, while discovering the mess of knots, changes of colored threads, and disarray on the underside as meaningful and beautiful as the finished product. Looking beyond the obvious—that’s what fascinates me about a character and a story.

Later, I was saddened to learn of the treatment of prostitutes in Ponce and later, about the forced sterilization of thousands of Puerto Rican women. That spoke loudly of the great hypocrisy in Ponce at that time: the myth of la sagrada familia, born of arrogance and racism, deceit and male dominance. The men who were wagging their fingers and agreeing with their wives about the dangers of prostitution were busy playing house with other women and fathering children out of wedlock. Their wives, the women of the upper class and early feminists, many of whom truly believed they were helping out their wayward sisters, were accomplices in two campaigns to rid Ponce of prostitutes, and in doing so, added to the desperation, poverty, and abuse of women of little means. The characters Emilia and Maria helped to tell that part of history.

IR: In your novel, male doctors advocate a shift toward modernity by having women give birth in hospitals, eclipsing the midwife and painting that practice as backwards. This limits Ana’s, the main character, work as a midwife. This is one way that “modern” medicine is used against women. For Emilia and Maria, their bodies are not their own in the medical world. When they are jailed, they are subjected to pelvic exams in front of others with instruments the women feel are not sanitized. And there are other moments where the medical treatment is even more invasive. How is medicine and so-called progress used against women’s bodies in Puerto Rico?

EPS: There were many issues and themes in the early days of so-called progress in Puerto Rico—colonialism, misogyny, population control, poverty, religion, male doctors invading the birthing room and pushing midwives out of business, and experiments performed on Puerto Rican women in the advancement of modern medicine, namely forced sterilization. Women were needed in the workforce to make money for American corporations, specifically the sugarcane industry. A good example is from the 1930s when clinics performing sterilization procedures were installed inside the factories, so the women wouldn’t lose time on the factory floor.

Men were in positions of authority and in control of the lives and bodies of women and of their children. Sadly, this is still the case in many parts of the world today.

Click on the picture for additional images

IR: In Adrienne Rich’s seminal article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” she posits her idea about the lesbian continuum which focuses on any strong bond between women. One of them being friendship. Friendship is central to your novel, and it is the relationship that is sustained throughout the life of the two main characters, Ana and Serafina. Discuss the significance of friendship in your text.

EPS: In 1900 Puerto Rico, while emotional relationships and friendship between women were considered important, especially between women and their comadrona, only men were thought to provide real security with financial benefits as they controlled every aspect of women’s lives. Even childbirth with a midwife, which for centuries had been strictly a female-dominated experience, was in danger of extinction in the cities as hospitals and clinics were built and male doctors entered the birthing room. The strong bonds of friendship between women were constantly tested in a patriarchal society.

Ana would agree with Rich’s assertion that women can benefit more from relationships with other women than with men, as she’d suffered at the hands of one man at an early age, and though she is still struggling, she is a self-made woman. Ana, who is forty when the story opens, has little use for men for the first half of the book. The teenager Serafina has lost her mother, so they inevitably develop a strong mother-daughter bond, which is an easy, yet complicated relationship. All is well until Serafina gets caught up in her second husband’s world of privilege, where Ana has no place as a poor, black woman. Much later in the story, Serafina is a mother of four children and a woman of society. She will come to believe that she has outgrown Ana until tragedy strikes in Serafina’s life. Ana is the first person she contacts and their friendship resumes with lessons learned about loyalty and friendship.

IR: Can you tell us what you are working on next, and what your objectives are with your writing?

EPS: I’m currently working on my second book, The Laments of Forgotten Souls, set in 1927 Old San Juan and on the islet of Isla de Cabras, where once stood a maritime quarantine station that was later used as a lazaretto for containing patients of many diseases, primarily leprosy. It is the story of a highly imaginative and naïve Puerto Rican novice nun, who impulsively volunteers to serve the lepers at Isla de Cabras under the protection and tutelage of a rotund, secretive Spanish friar, who moonlights as a rum runner. Into the mix will arrive a young American Protestant minister on a clandestine mission for the American government at a time when the Spanish were being forced to leave the island, and Catholicism and Protestantism were in hyper-competition for souls on Puerto Rico.

My goal in writing novels is to transport readers to exciting, new worlds and to introduce them to the complicated history, rich culture, and beautiful people of Puerto Rico. I hope my books and poetry will stimulate, provoke, expose, and challenge myself and others. Here are two of my writing mottos: ‘Write through the scary bits; that’s usually where the meat and the essence of the story are found’ and ‘This is what we want for ourselves as writers and as readers—we want to reach others and we want to be moved.’ I hope that comes across in my books.

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit:

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 13 December 2017.

The Running Themes in A Decent Woman

As a novelist, I often enjoy allowing the themes in my stories to develop organically. The themes of religion and spiritism, among others, run through A Decent Woman. My main protagonist, Ana Belén, an Afro-Cuban midwife born into slavery, was raised in the Yoruba tradition, which is not the same as voodoo or practicing black magic. Ana speaks to the spirits of her ancestors and to the orishas, the gods and goddesses of her Nigerian ancestors, as she prays the Catholic rosary and honors the Blessed Mother of God.

BOOK COVER SEPT 2014 (2) (1)Serafina, a devout Catholic and one of Ana’s midwifery clients, becomes her best friend later in life. Both women are baptized Catholics and although they share a great devotion to the Virgin Mary, Ana continues to practice the Yoruba tradition, so as to cover all bases in protecting herself and her clients, which was common.

I spent many years of my childhood in Puerto Rico–my religious and spiritual life was a mix of religion, spirituality, with a good dose of superstition thrown in for good measure. All through my childhood, I attended Catholic schools and went to Mass every week. As a teen, I visited a psychic after my first boyfriend died in a motorcycle accident, and I still pray the rosary in the car when I travel. I check my monthly horoscope, as well…perhaps like Ana, I’m still trying to cover all my bases.

An excerpt from A Decent Woman –

“One day I found the cowrie shells on my bed. I didn’t know who’d returned them or why. I hid the shells in my room and went to the kitchen to prepare the priest’s lunch. As I was serving the almuerzo, I heard yelling. I was given a few minutes to gather my belongings and was escorted off the property by the same young priest who’d found my things. I was accused of practicing witchcraft. He crossed himself, barely blessed me, and shut the rectory gate in my face.”

Serafina furrowed her brow and shook her head. “That’s so cruel. You were so young. What did you do?”

“I was young. Thankfully, it was early enough in the day for me to find a safe place to sleep before the sun went down. At first, I was confused; I had no idea the Church considered our Yoruba traditions black magic,” she said. “It is the religion of my ancestors.

“But, you do believe in God y la Virgen?” asked Serafina, watching her closely.

“Yes, of course. I believe in God, the Virgin Mary, and all the Saints. We slaves had different names for them. My Yoruba traditions are now mixed with Catholicism from so many years in Porto Rico, and I pray to them all,” said Ana. “You know, I still remember the church bells ringing the day I was thrown out. I crossed the church grounds and looked up at the sky, watching the clouds around the church steeple. The white steeple looked gray that day, and suddenly, hundreds of palomas flew around the tower. So many doves, I could barely see the sky. I followed them across the street to the park to figure out my next step, and one dove landed on the marble bench where I sat. I thought it was the Holy Spirit!”

“Maybe it was, Doña Ana! You never know!”

“I doubt it, child,” Ana grinned. “It was a sign of something, but I didn’t know what. I sat on that bench all day long, paralyzed with fear. And that’s where I slept, right in front of the church where surely God would protect me. The next day, I met Doña Milagro, who taught me everything I know about being a midwife.”

Another excerpt from A Decent Woman –

“You’re giving me your turn?” Emilia nodded. Ana made the sign of the cross before pushing aside the heavy, black velvet curtain. She sat in the chair closest to the entrance and looked around the medium’s reading room. The only source of light emanated from a single candle on the small table in front of her that also held an ashtray, a small stack of mismatched sheets of paper, a stump of a pencil, and a bowl of water. To the right, Ana saw a small bookcase stuffed full of old, dusty books with titles she couldn’t read without sufficient light. The room was probably crawling with spiders, she thought. She looked down, expecting to see a huge insect crawling up her leg, and then she stomped on the floor to deter any bugs.

“Hurry, Fela,” Ana said, smoothing her dress, and smelled the musty smell of cigar smoke. Behind Fela’s chair stood a two-tiered altar that held a multitude of religious statues, icons, candles, and vases. Most statues had white faces, some had black faces and hands, and most of them had either rosary beads or scapulars hanging from the necks. Ana couldn’t help but giggle at the statue with the over-sized pair of spectacles. Numerous vases of all sizes held freshly-cut lilies, wilted bunches of flowers, and stiff, dried flowers standing in stagnant water. The heavy scent of patchouli and frankincense reminded Ana of a church. But this church was of a different world—the world of spirits.”

Sometimes a visit to crazy town is necessary.

Earlier this week, nearly twenty days after my debut historical novel, A Decent Woman was published, I set about creating a to-do list that included, answering emails, writing articles for ezines, replying to author interview questions, and trying to keep up on social media sites I’m part of. The list of what I needed to accomplish post-publication seemed overwhelming, and I didn’t expect to feel new, strange emotions–I was a bit disoriented, and felt flustered and overwhelmed. The book I’d worked on for five years was no longer in my hands–it was in readers’ hands. All I could do was stand on the sidelines and watch my protagonists, Ana and Serafina, take over–it’s their story. At this point, my book, the story, must stand alone. I just happened to write it. But, of course, I got in my own way.

When A Decent Woman first came out, I was overwhelmed with feelings of pride and joy, much like a parent when their firstborn goes off to school. I was grateful to Booktrope Publishing for taking a chance on an historical novel about an Afro-Cuban midwife, who lives and works in Puerto Rico, and thankful to my publishing team, who were a dream to work with on this project. I was thrilled and grateful when readers left wonderful comments and reviews. I was humbled and felt dizzy. Much like my experiences when my adult kids left the nest, who are doing wonderful things in the world, by the way, I knew post-publication that it was time to get a life.

I realized I had to write another book, but how? I couldn’t concentrate, and in the first ten days, I obsessively checked Amazon, looking for new reviews so I could thank the kind reader (if I knew them). Checking my rankings on Amazon was a daily ritual, which I didn’t know how to do until my marketing guru, Anne told me where to look. Then, I realized being a best selling author is an hourly thing, and I soon gave that up. I now look weekly and hope that stops. During the first ten days, I found it difficult to have ‘normal’ conversations, and discovered it was extremely difficult not to mention my debut novel to the mailman, the guy at the post office as I mailed out copies of my book, and to the guy behind the deli counter, who loves historical fiction. I went a bit nutty reminding my very kind and tolerant family members and friends not to forget to post an honest review for A Decent Woman on Amazon. Sheesh.

I was sick of me, and this isn’t me. Although I know how important social media is, and how very important reviews are to an author, I lived alone for five years, writing and rewriting a story that  loved. In the pre-publication days when I was writing, I wouldn’t speak to a soul for days on end, save for a quick phone call, emails and texts to family and friends to catch up and let them know I was alive. I did talk with my cat and my Chihuahua, Sophie, who as it turns out, is an extremely good listener if you don’t mind her licking your face. I knew how to do all that. I just didn’t know how to be humble and a social animal, when all I wanted to do was write more books. Life is all about balance, and I wasn’t feeling particularly balanced right after publication.

So, I wrote an email to my friend and writing mentor to many writers, including myself, the master storyteller, Jack Remick. Sensing that I was experiencing, as he calls it, “Firstitis”, he kindly wrote back with a diagnosis that was spot on. He gave me the definition of this curable illness and the cure–get back to writing. Immediately. He was absolutely right. It was sage and timely advice from an incredibly talented writer and a composed, generous man to a discombobulated, but well meaning, new author.

Thank you, Jack. The craziness has diminished. I’m getting down to the business at hand–writing my second book–and I’m at peace. I should have written sooner, but I learned valuable lessons, and I’ve always learned the hard way.

Ana Belén, you are on your own, my love. I’m onto The Island of Goats, my second historical novel set in 1920 Puerto Rico and Spain. I’m getting to know my characters, Alta Gracia and India Meath, and accessing my experiences on the medieval route of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, The Way of St. James, in Spain, which I walked with my then-teenage children.

But, I’ll see Ana and Serafina again when I get to writing the sequel to A Decent Woman called Mistress of Coffee.

Sometimes, you must visit crazy town to find peace and sanity again.

About Eleanor

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is her debut historical novel. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children, and she currently lives in West Virginia.

A DECENT WOMAN available now on Amazon 

Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in La Playa.

Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor.

Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.


New Release – A Decent Woman

I was going about my day as usual, when my book manager emailed to tell me A DECENT WOMAN was live on Amazon! I am thrilled beyond words, very emotional, and I’ve popped open a bottle of champagne I’ve been saving!

CHEERS! To five long, amazing years of writing and researching A Decent Woman! Ana finally has her day! I love you, Ana and Serafina!

BOOK COVER SEPT 2014 (3) (1)

Do you know what my first thought was? I wish my Mom and grandmother were here with me today to celebrate this happy day. My second thought was to call my children, but my daughter was at work and my son lives in Holland. So, I texted my beautiful daughter and emailed my handsome son!

I was actually dizzy, honest to God. I said a prayer of thanks, logged onto my social media sites, and starting posting 🙂

THANK YOU to my family and friends who’ve supported me for five long years. I love you all!

Here’s how you can purchase A DECENT WOMAN-

Thank you for visiting today. I hope you will enjoy A DECENT WOMAN well enough to write an honest review of the book. Thank you!


Character Interview with Ana Belen from A Decent Woman

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. Thank you for having me,Tiffani!

BOOK COVER SEPT 2014 (3) (1)

Welcome, Ana.

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.

Please sign up for our newsletter for important book news and events! Newsletter :