Academic journal article Centro Journal

Writing the Puerto Rican Rural Experience in the Midwest: An Interview with Fred Arroyo

Academic journal article Centro Journal

Writing the Puerto Rican Rural Experience in the Midwest: An Interview with Fred Arroyo

Article excerpt

For decades, Puerto Rican literature in the United States has found an almost endless source of inspiration in the realities and dreams of the millions of Puerto Ricans who settled on the East Coast. It is a literature that has emerged mainly out of the inner-city experiences of poverty, crime, violence, and discrimination faced by generations of Puerto Ricans even prior to the massive migrations of the 1940s and 1950s as a result of Operation Bootstrap. While U.S. Puerto Rican history has developed within the urban setting, there exists another lesser-known chapter in the history of this group: the rural experience of Puerto Rican farm workers in the Midwest.

It is precisely this rural experience that serves as inspiration for the work of Fred Arroyo, a Puerto Rican author born in Michigan, whose writings are inspired by his own experiences growing and working in the fields of the Midwest (specifically, in Niles, Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana). Until the recent publication of his debut novel, The Region of Lost Names (2008), and his short story collection, Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012), this important chapter of Puerto Rican migratory history had remained mostly silenced from the greater narrative of the diaspora. His stories transport the reader to a realm that we seldom associate with the U.S. Puerto Rican experience, despite the fact that thousands were actively recruited by U.S. companies for farm work beginning in the 1940s.1 Interestingly, despite the large-scale impact of this migration, those experiences have rarely been reflected in U.S. Puerto Rican literary production. Amid this silence, Arroyo's voice emerges to offer the reader a glimpse of the rural experience in an exquisite prose that often reads like poetry. In Fred Arroyo we do not only find the impulse to record an often forgotten historical reality, but also a need to paint-with words-the beauty of the rural landscape.

The following interview was conducted during Arroyo's visit to the University of Notre Dame on October 4, 2012, when he came to present and read from his new short story collection, Western Avenue and Other Fictions. We met that morning at the Julián Samora Library at the Institute for Latino Studies, where he candidly spoke about his childhood in the Midwest, his journey as a writer, the inspiration for his published works, and his future projects. In August 2013, I followed up with Arroyo via e-mail to inquire about his current writing projects.

Marisel Moreno (MM): When did you discover that you wanted to be a writer?

Fred Arroyo (FA): I think that from where I'm at now, after going through certain forms of schooling, and thinking of myself as a writer, I start to find different ways to answer that question. But when I do that, I have to be careful because I think that no matter how I'm able to explain that, the answer to that question, what I find is that it's a mystery to me. Everything up to me becoming a writer-none of [my experience] prepared me to become a writer. We didn't have any books in our house, we had about three: a Bible, a picture book of the history of Borinquén, Puerto Rico, and a volume from an incomplete encyclopedia on the Civil War. So literature, reading, and education weren't very important. But I was reading a lot on my own. So although there weren't these steps that led me to become a writer, literacy was important to me. I think it was probably when I was here in South Bend that I started to read a little bit more. I read a book by Hemingway-The Sun Also Rises-and when I read that book, all of a sudden it made me see that the reality that I had come from, a kind of hard and poor life, was something that I could put into words. So that was probably the start of it, when I was 22.

MM: So at that point you wrote for yourself, not necessarily thinking that you would publish it, correct?

FA: Not yet, no. I just put my paragraphs in a notebook. At that point they had no purpose. …

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