CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 17 . . . . April 28, 2006
Cárdenas's powerful little novel begins with a heartfelt plea by a young African-Cuban girl. Dates are not mentioned, and there are few clues as to the setting; thus, the book has a timeless and universal quality. It could be set in any modern community or time. This coming of age story is a series of the author’s letters, written between the ages 10 and 15, to her dead mother as a means of coming to terms with her hard life. Without being overly graphic, issues such as racism and discrimination, physical and sexual abuses, and prostitution, are dealt with deftly.
The memories of her previously happy life, as illuminated in the opening excerpt, are in sharp contrast to her present circumstances. When her mother dies, her aunt and cousins take her in, grudgingly. She suffers racial slurs and abuse from her relatives because of her mixed race and the perceived wrongs done by her mother. She is blamed for cousin Lilita's illness: "You're a bad-luck bird." Her younger cousin spat upon her. She is slapped and confined to her room for days. Such succinct statements as "Grandma whipped me like a slave,""Lilita and Baby make fun of me all day long," and "everyone calls me bembona - thick lips!" clearly document the attitudes of her relatives. Because of their treatment, she is afraid she won't be believed when the new live-in boyfriend of the aunt molests one of the cousins.
The social mores of poverty-stricken fatherless families and women working for whites at menial, low paying jobs is finely articulated. Straightening one's hair and having light skin are seen as a means of stepping beyond one's social situation. The heroine sees such statements as "Grandma says it's good to improve our race and the way to do that is to marry a white person" as nonsense. She is ostracized because she refuses to accept these dictums. Her development of a sense of self and maturity is finely illustrated when she says, "Some people don't know how to be black. How sad!"
Her sparse knowledge of Christianity contrasts sharply with the community's beliefs in African gods, witch doctors, ghosts, and curses. Her only friends are a young white boy whose mother is a prostitute and an old 'half crazy' woman who grows flowers and healing herbs. It is they who give her the only sense of security she has. Her isolation is accented by the fact that she alone is unnamed in the book.
A glossary of African words lends clarity to the book.
In 1997, Cárdenas won the Premio David for young writers. Her short novel, Cartas al cielo (Letters to My Mother), received the 2000 National Prize in Literary Criticism, given to the 10 most important books published in Cuba between 1998 and 2000.
Marilynne V. Black is a former B.C. elementary teacher-librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children's Literature from the University of British Columbia in the spring of 2005.
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