Arte Público Press: 2011
Originally published by Harper & Row: 1974
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Book Review #1
in the PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHOR SERIES.
Nicholasa Mohr (b. 1938) has been described as the most prolific and renowned Puerto Rican-American novelist. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Mohr represents the “Nuyorican” writers (“New York Puerto Ricans”), a group that first rose to national prominence for their considerable talents in the 20th century and who continue to attract readers today.
Since Puerto Ricans officially became American citizens in 1917, Mohr’s antecedents, though strongly tied to their island culture, were not immigrants, but migrants rather, in the often-alien, unwelcoming American city. Mohr grew up in the 1940’s, with World War II a gauzy backdrop, and suffered the proverbial slings and arrows of prejudice and discrimination.
That Nicholasa Mohr became a published writer when she did is a stroke of luck for Hispanic-American literature. As a young woman, she was first and foremost a visual artist. By chance, her art agent once asked her to write 50 pages of childhood reminiscences for a possible book project. Although he subsequently rejected this writing in a humiliating critique, she shared this small manuscript with a chief editor who had solicited her artwork for someone else’s book. Mohr’s illustrations for that book were turned down, but the editor liked the 50 pages of reminiscences and contracted Mohr to write a novel based on those. Mohr completed the novel, NILDA, that same year. The rest, as they say, is history.
With the well-received publication of NILDA in 1974, Mohr cemented her place in American literature. She was one of the earliest Hispanic-Americans to publish her writings in English in the United States and one of the first to write a young adult book in English. Mainstream America at that time had little interest in publications about Latino people. But Nicholasa Mohr’s book successfully crossed the divide. Since 1974, she has been the most productive and most renowned Nuyorican novelist, earning numerous major awards and publishing in a variety of genres: novels, short stories, novellas, and nonfiction. Her influence in other authors’ development has been significant, not just through her 10 published books, but also through her workshops and university teaching.
NILDA recounts the life of a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx from 1941 through 1945, as seen through the central consciousness viewpoint of the only daughter in the family and the youngest child, Nilda. Her family is poor, large, and as diverse in personality and outlook as her neighborhood. But these nine people, with their varying degrees of dysfunction and tension, are the source of stability and love that enable Nilda to navigate her childhood intact. She, as well as other Puerto Ricans, regularly encounters naked racism and marginalization, often at the hands of authority figures who should, paradoxically, be protecting and nurturing her: neighborhood policemen, nuns and priests at a Catholic summer camp, her teachers at school, and social service workers allegedly providing economic assistance for struggling families like hers. Worse, these perpetrators of racism are seemingly oblivious to their cutting words and actions. After policemen abuse her kind-hearted neighbor, Nilda notes that these cops “loomed larger and more powerful than all the other people in her life.”
The novel begins when Nilda is 10 years old and ends when she is 14. In this span of time, World War II begins and ends. Also, Nilda finds and loses religion; loses her stepfather; learns that her beloved brother Jimmy has impregnated and abandoned a young woman who is then sheltered by Nilda’s mother; helps care for her mentally unbalanced aunt; witnesses a policeman falsely accuse her friend of a crime and almost beat him to death; and endures other calamities that would have destroyed a lesser child. Through it all, Nilda is alternately petulant and carefree, defiant and obedient, aloof and moved to tears, frightened and resolute. Her best friend becomes pregnant and drops out of school. But Nilda exhibits the resilience of her mother and moves forward despite the biggest loss of all.
The Ramirez family is the broad backdrop of this narrative. Nilda’s mother, Lydia, is the matriarchal rock, an interminable font of patience, practicality, and initiative. She shepherds her family through quarrels, sickness, and despair and somehow manages to keep food on the table and consejos always flowing. Her strength comes from a deep religiosity that she tries to impart to her children, especially to Nilda, and from an almost martyr-like acceptance of her hard life. Her dreams are pinned on her children, especially her daughter, whom she constantly exhorts to study hard and make something of herself.
Nilda is tugged between her mother’s spirituality and her stepfather Emilio’s communistic, nihilistic rejection of faith. The parents’ polarity symbolizes the contradictions in the family members themselves: There is Jimmy—handsome, dashing, and utterly charming—yet embroiled with drugs and thugs and breaking his mother’s heart. There is Victor, the scholar and gentleman most suited for success, who is first to enlist in war and dash his mother’s dreams. There is Aunt Delia—old, deaf, and caustic—whose obsession with ghoulish newspaper reports is trumped by her vulnerability, which engenders the family’s loyalty to her. In a poignant scene toward the end of the book, we learn that Nilda’s mother, whose devotion to her family was the engine that drove her life, had deep regrets that embodied the most heart-wrenching contradiction of all.
People are the main ingredient of storytelling. People drive the plots and themes and embody the heart and soul of the structure we call literature. When people as literary characters are authentic and speak to us in voices we recognize, in voices that resonate with our own experiences, the written piece is successful. And if these characters engage in self-examination and reflection and share their insights with us, thus expanding our own self-knowledge as they reveal their own…well, the literature soars and takes us up with it.
Perhaps because NILDA is a young adult novel, or perhaps because it is a debut novel, it falls short in the latter criterion of excellence. Although the child Nilda is sympathetic and authentic, she rarely engages in reflection, even as a teenager, and this renders her less multi-dimensional than she could have been. The central consciousness viewpoint of the book does not allow us to enter the minds of the other characters, but Nilda’s thoughts could have been explored further.
Literary critics of ethnic-minority works have pointed out that early writers often focus on their personal minority experiences, which often include prejudice and various levels of cultural and racial oppression. It is the evolution of these authors’ art that eventually expands their creativity outward, to broader, more universal themes.
NILDA, as a pioneering novel, captures the unique cultural experiences of New York’s Puerto Ricans in the 1940’s and therefore secures a solid place in the history of our literature as such. It still resonates decades later because its cultural depictions of family, love, individual pride, and resilience in the face of hardship still matter.
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.