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Constance Alexander: Author Marisel Vera’s newest offering is a tough novel with a sweet story at heart

Reading Marisel Vera’s stunning new novel, The Taste of Sugar, was the perfect way to spend Labor Day weekend. A multi-layered story of enduring love, it exposes issues around colonialism, racism, economics, and poverty confronting owners of a small family farm in the mountainous region of Utuado, Puerto Rico. In the beginning of the novel, coffee is the crop of choice. In the end it is sugar in Hawaii, harvested by the same people, held hostage by promises of a new beginning.

Throughout, The Taste of Sugar is a tale about people who know what real work is because they do it every day, without pause, and in the face of degradation and loss. There are no weekends, no minimum wage, no accommodations for safety in their unremitting labor days.

“Why do you think it happened to us?” Valentina Sanchez asks her husband, Vicente Vega at the end of the book.

“I don’t know,” he says, but after further reflection, he adds, “Seguir la lucha…That’s all we can do.”

“Pa’lante,” Valentina replies, suggesting that — in spite of obstacles and tragedies — they must move forward, never cease.

Set in Puerto Rico around the turn of the twentieth century, the book is based on rigorous research about the lead up to the Spanish American War and its aftermath, when the United States took possession of Puerto Rico. This era receives scant mention in most history textbooks, which perhaps explains why most Americans do not understand that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens who do not enjoy all the rights thereof.

Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries, for example, but not in the general election. They are taxed differently and do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress, nor are they entitled to electoral votes for president.

As the novel opens, Vicente Vega has courted and is newly-married to the passionate Valentina Sanchez. Growing up, she harbored dreams of a glamorous life in Paris, but she follows her husband to his struggling coffee farm in the mountains. Although the work is tough and she is ill-equipped, Valentina begins to learn essential skills for everyday life. Vicente, hampered by hurricanes and drought, works tirelessly with reverence for his calling.

Talking tenderly to his chocolate berries, he promises them they “will be washed and dried and roasted to make coffee so delicious that it is a drink for the gods. Mere mortals,” he insists, “will pay for it in gold and silver.”

When Spain lost the war with America, the Proclamation of July 28, 1898, announced the military occupation of Puerto Rico and promised “to give the people of this beautiful island the largest measure of liberty consistent with this occupation. We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed,” the proclamation went on, “but, on the contrary, to bring you protection…to promote your prosperity; and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessing of the liberal institutions of our government.”

What initially seemed hopeful, quickly turned negative. The devaluation of the peso and increased taxes were harbingers of exploitation, and the occupying troops knew nothing of the island, its culture, history, language, and values. Only weeks after the American invasion, it became clear to Vicente, “The Americans are trying to destroy us.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Chapter by chapter, the more the characters invest in sweat equity, the further behind they get. Working harder and smarter is fruitless when the people who do the work are treated like cattle, with no respect, no dignity, no acknowledgment that they are human beings.

The novel cleverly incorporates primary documents and there are also letters back and forth between Valentina and her beloved sister, Elena, filling in historic details along with family news. Vicente and Valentina have three children, a boy and two girls. Elena’s family grows too, and they relocate to San Juan, where her husband runs a stationery store. The contrast between the sisters’ lives is obvious in their letters, and Ms. Vera does a masterful job of incorporating many lessons in economics in the exchanges between them. With poignance, some of the letters never reach their destination, and the sisters long for reunions that never happen.

The opportunity to start anew in Hawaii promises steady work in the sugar plantations, houses for each family, schools for the children, and a better life overall. From 1900 to 1902, more than 5000 Puerto Ricans took the challenge and boarded crowded ships with few amenities. Illness and death stalked the passengers. Vicente and Valentina took the risk and lost their only son in the process.

When they finally landed in Hawaii, things were worse than they ever imagined, but there seemed to be no way to work off what they owed to the plantation owners. In the midst of profound hardship and cruel losses, the longing for home never changed. The work never got easier, but hope endured.

Without any bitterness, The Taste of Sugar fills in gaps between American history as presented in textbooks and how it was experienced by working people like Vicente and Valentina. The writing style is precise and lyrical, with Spanish words and phrases woven seamlessly into description and conversation. The novel has been received with impressive acclaim. The prestigious Kirkus Review called it “a sprawling family epic that stretches from the mountains of Puerto Rico to Hawaii, and across decades of love, famine, and war.”

The Taste of Sugar is available at your favorite bookseller and from www.norton.com. For more information visit www.mariselvera.com.

A excerpt from the opening of the novel is online at www.cbsnews.com.

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  1. Luis Parra says:

    These historical fictions, can be more of an eye opener than many of these so called historical documentaries, because at times these come doctored to suit whatever ruling party line is in Vogue.

  2. Anne Asams. says:

    I am so happy that I can continue to read your beautiful writing.

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