________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 17 . . . . April 28, 2006


Letters to My Mother.

Teresa Cárdenas. Translated by David Unger.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2006.
103 pp., pbk. & cl., $7.95 (pbk.), $17.95.
ISBN 0-88899-721-3 (pbk.), ISBN 0-88899-720-5 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Racism-Cuba-Juvenile fiction.
Cuba-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Marilynne V. Black.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.


            I'd be better off up there with you.

                        Each and every night I wait for you to fly 

down on your paper kite and invite me to die 

once and for all.

It's March now. Flowers almost burst open ar your

Feet when you look at them.

But you're not here.

I don't know how it happened, but my

Sketchbook is now full of words, shapes, phrases,

Memories and drawings - the drawings of a lit-

tle girl putting her hand in her mother's, of a

mother and father kissing each other, of the stars

in Mama's eyes, of Mama playing among the


            Dream pictures in my sketchbook.

            They're all about you. You are in all of them.

Mama, I don't know why you left me all alone,

without your kisses, your embraces, without the
daisy scent that always trailed behind you.

            I haven't told anyone how much I miss you. I

Can't bear much more of this silence. I'm going to

Begin writing to you.


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.

Highly Recommended.

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.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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