Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Passion on the Page: Whether Set in Cuba or Haiti or Puerto Rico, Mayra Montero's Novels Depict Characters Consumed by Anxiety, Loss, and Desire

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Passion on the Page: Whether Set in Cuba or Haiti or Puerto Rico, Mayra Montero's Novels Depict Characters Consumed by Anxiety, Loss, and Desire

Article excerpt

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MAYRA MONTERO entered the hotel lobby with exuberance, her bright, youthful appearance giving no hint that she had barely gotten off a plane (squeezed into a middle seat, she sighed). Sporting slacks and a casual shirt, with a colorful scarf around her neck, the 56-year-old author immediately stood out from the crowd in the lobby, with her striking beauty and trademark hoop earrings.

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On a promotional junket early this year for her most recent novel released in English translation, Dancing to Almendra, Montero set aside two hours for a lunch interview during her stop in Houston. At the "Cuban Latino" restaurant, the fare was decidedly unauthentic; unperturbed, the Cuban-born Montero ordered a hamburger and a beer, and proceeded to converse as though she were with an old friend. The time stretched to three hours, and then--despite the unusual, below-freezing temperature--she suggested skipping a cab and waking the several blocks back to the hotel.

With her warm maturer and interest in those around her, it is no wonder Montero became a storyteller. She has now published eight novels, a first book of short stories, and two nonfiction books. As a journalist during the first decade of her writing career, Montero hopped between Caribbean islands and Central American nations covering the news. Despite her full-time entry to fiction writing in the 1990s, she continues to submit a weekly column and other articles to El Nuevo Dia in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her novels about life in the contemporary Hispanic Caribbean are critically acclaimed in Spain and--now being released in English translation--are receiving notable attention in the United States.

While the Spanish-speaking world has no problem with her origins, her background is a source of confusion for the English-language market. Is she Cuban or Puerto Rican? is a frequent question. During a presentation at the Alley Theater in Houston, Montero was introduced as a "Cuban-American." In her opening comments, she chose only to apologize for her accent: "l don't speak English well; I wish I could, but my training is all in Spanish." When a member of the audience asked a question about her background, Montero stated simply, "I have strong roots in Cuba, but I have lived in Puerto Rico for 36 years."

Her personal experience is quite different from that of the typical Cuban refugee living in the United States. She and her family didn't leave Cuba until 1970, when her father decided to seek greater avenues for his screenwriting. "Daddy would not have left, but my mother started to pressure him to go after my aunt left," said Montero, who along with her sister and parents relocated to Mexico City. She studied journalism at the National Autonomous University of Mexico until her parents moved to Puerto Rico in 1972. Montero majored in Latin American literature at the University of Puerto Rico and embarked on newspaper writing.

She and her husband of 25 years, Jorge Merino, make their home in Puerto Rico; thus her writing is focused from that perspective. Montero once said she felt it "important to pay attention to the place where we live, to the problems around us in our daily lives. I think it would be unforgivably selfish on my part to be totally consumed and obsessed with the Cuban dilemma, turning my back on the matter of political prisoners in Puerto Rico, or the terrible problem on the small island of Vieques." In fact, one of her more recent novels is centered on Vieques, where the US Navy used to conduct bombing exercises.

But Montero values her Cuban heritage as well. "I have a lot of friends there and besides, I like it. It's the place where I was born." She attended a Catholic school until it was closed by the new Castro government, when she was nine. After that, she noticed changes: "People were startling to leave, even my girlfriends with their parents, to the United States. …

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