Puerto Ricans have been immigrating to the U.S. for generations. Yet many mainlanders know little about this Caribbean island. For example, in 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, some Americans seemed surprised to learn that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Pittsburgh-based author Marisel Vera says she wrote her new novel, “The Taste of Sugar” (Liveright Publishing Corporation), to illuminate Puerto Rico’s history and people. The novel tracks a Puerto Rican farming family from the late 1800s into the early 20th century, when they join an exodus of their countrymen to work on sugar plantations in a pre-statehood Hawaii. The novel is getting national attention, and has drawn positive reviews in publications including The New Yorker and the Washington Post, whose reviewer called it “a masterful work of historical fiction.”
Vera was born to Puerto Rican immigrants and grew up in Chicago. Like many first-generation kids, she felt herself between two worlds: Too “American” for her parents, too “Puerto Rican” for some Americans. She began exploring her heritage through fiction in her first novel, “If I Bring You Roses,” which depicts characters who, like her parents, came to the U.S. in the 1950s. While researching that novel, she stumbled across the fact that in just a few years, starting in 1900, some 5,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated thousands of miles to Hawaii. “And I'm like, ‘Oh my God, did they ever get to go back home?’” she said.
In “Taste of Sugar,” the stories of fictional protagonists Vicente and Valentina Vega play out against a complex historical tableau that incorporates the volatile economics of the coffee-growing industry, the 1898 U.S. invasion, and a massive 1899 hurricane.
Coffee, in fact, is sort of its own character in the book: The look and feel of the bean, and the flavor of the brew, are among the novel's sensory touchstones, and the titular "sugar" references the nuanced taste of a good coffee as much as it does cane. But Puerto Rican coffee, once prized internationally, met its match in changing tastes, markets, and imperial politics. That’s a key reason Vicente, a small-scale coffee farmer, and city girl Valentina are among those who leave their homeland for Hawaii.
That things don’t work out as planned comes as no surprise in the novel. Vera emphasizes the era’s economic injustices: As “Taste of Sugar” begins, slavery is only a generation gone in Puerto Rico, and racism, hunger, and the repression of laborers are rampant. Even Puerto Ricans who sought a better life in Hawaii “were sort of like indentured servants,” says Vera. “They were promised that in Hawaii they would have great health care, they would have these nice places to live, a decent wage, and that their children would be the children will be able to get an education. And it just depended on where the Puerto Ricans landed on whatever plantation.”
Puerto Rico, of course, has changed greatly since it was a Spanish colony, and even since it became a U.S. “commonwealth” after World War II. But Vera said it’s still effectively a colony. “You can't set your own laws for your own people. And you have to wait for the federal government to approve everything that you do,” she said. “Puerto Rico is a nation, its own nation, with its own language and its own culture and its own people. It's not just a tourist attraction.”