The best books by writers of the Puerto Rican diaspora

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a child of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Born in the island, raised in the South Bronx—with an interval period in the homeland “to find roots”—I now reside in upstate New York. My life is representative of the vaivén—the “coming and going”—that is a constant in Puerto Rican modern history. Like many Diasporicans, I grew up disconnected from my history, culture, and heritage. These books did not recover what I lost. It is difficult to reclaim culture and national identity secondhand. But these writers shared an experience I readily recognized. Reading them, I embrace my tribe and don’t feel alone. They inspire me to write and tell my own stories.


I wrote...

Migrations

By J.L. Torres,

Book cover of Migrations

What is my book about?

A ‘sucio’ goes to an underground clinic for therapy to end his machista ways and is accidentally transitioned. Ex-gangbangers gone straight deal with a troubled, gifted son drawn to the gangsta lifestyle promoted by an emerging music called hip hop. Dead and stuck “between somewhere and nowhere,” Roberto Clemente, the great Puerto Rican baseball icon, soon confronts the reason for his predicament. These are a few of the characters in J.L. Torres’s second story collection, Migrations, the inaugural winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Prize.

These stories take us inside the lives of Diasporicans, Puerto Ricans in the diaspora: self-exiles, unhomed, and unhinged people, estranged from loved ones, family, culture, and collective history. Despite the effects of colonization of the body and mind, Puerto Ricans have survived beyond geography and form an integral part of the American mosaic.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Down These Mean Streets

J.L. Torres Why did I love this book?

Thomas’s memoir is a seminal text of Nuyorican Literature (a sub-genre of Diasporican Literature) and the Latinx canon. It also belongs to the urban literature genre that emerged in the 1960s. His, however, was the first Latinx version of a narrative that depicts, some would say sensationalizes and exploits, the gritty, raw life of the inner city. As such, it had a tremendous impact on developing Latinx writers who had few role models at the time. His work, along with others of that genre, still holds influence stylistically and thematically with some Latinx authors. Written in the traditional Augustinian autobiographical model, Mean Streets tracks Piri’s fall into crime and drugs and final transformation and redemption. More significantly, this memoir introduces the issue of Latinx black identity and the complication of it within the American black-white paradigm. 

By Piri Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Down These Mean Streets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A modern classic of manhood, marginalization, survival, and transcendence—and a lyrical memoir of coming of age on the streets of Spanish Harlem. 

"A report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group ... It claims our attention and emotional response." —The New York Times Book Review

Thirty years ago Piri Thomas made literary history with this lacerating memoir. Here was the testament of a born outsider: a Puerto Rican in English-speaking America; a dark-skinned morenito in a family that refused to acknowledge its African blood. Here was an unsparing document of Thomas's plunge into the deadly consolations of…


Book cover of Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic

J.L. Torres Why did I love this book?

Rivera’s only major work, Family Installments has influenced many Latinx writers, including Junot Diaz. Published in 1982, it was one of the earliest novels capturing the diasporican experience of the Great Migration in the 1950s. Rivera’s protagonist, Santos Malánguez, narrates his family’s journey from  Puerto Rico to New York in great detail, often with sharp insight and humor. As a young aspiring writer, I identified with Santos, especially as he found, in reading and books, solace from a dreary life of struggle. No other book depicts diasporican life so richly and comprehensively—from harsh rural life on the island to tenement living, abusive parochial school education, rip-off credit scams, exploitive working conditions, and the lingering desire to return to the homeland.

By Edward Rivera,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Family Installments as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A chronicle of the Melanguez family's life in Puerto Rico, their move to New York City, and their efforts to make a life in America includes the narrator's determination to succeed on his own


Book cover of The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women

J.L. Torres Why did I love this book?

Nominated for a Pulitzer, Ortiz-Cofer’s book is an eclectic collection of poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction. She weaves these genres masterfully into a mosaic of diasporican life, especially from a woman’s perspective. Published in 1993, The Latin Deli breaks from the traditional, bleak picture of Puerto Rican urban life in the States. Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, and then Georgia, Ortiz Cofer focuses on the more typical stories of growing up in a middle-class home and what she casts as the daily struggle “to consolidate my opposing cultural identities.” A subtextual element of the book is Ortiz Cofer’s developing identity as a Latina writer in a country that sees you as an “other.”  

By Judith Ortiz Cofer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Latin Deli as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A community transplanted from what they now view as an island paradise, these Puerto Rican families yearn for the colors and tastes of their former home. As they carve out lives as Americans, their days are filled with drama, success, and sometimes tragedy. A widow becomes crazy after her son is killed in Vietnam, her remaining word "nada." Another woman carries on after the death of her husband, keeping their store, filled with plantain, Bustello coffee, jamon y queso, open as a refuge for her neighbors. And there are Cofer's stories of growing up with a dictatorial and straying father,…


Book cover of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle

J.L. Torres Why did I love this book?

In Vega’s third novel, the eponymous Omaha Bigelow falls for a young and gifted Puerto Rican Taina priestess, Maruquita Salsipuedes. Smitten by the “gringo whiteboy,” and driven by her desire to have a “gringorican baby,” Maruquita asks her mother to perform the bohango ceremony on Omaha to enlarge his small penis. Breaking his vow never to use this new bohango on another woman, Omaha pays the consequences for his betrayal. Full of metafictional intrusions, a subplot concerning a secret, subversive plot to liberate Puerto Rico, and rambling discursive rants, this maximalist novel is more than a parodic romantic story. Vega’s fictional world is often complex, imaginative, iconoclastic, and attuned to American culture and society as seen through the eyes of arguably the most accomplished, talented diasporican fiction writer to date. 

By Edgardo Vega Yunqué,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the most powerful voices in contemporary fiction comes a fantastic adventure through the concrete jungle of New York City

Failed in all his career aspirations, recently laid off from Kinko's, and burdened with a frustrating anatomical shortcoming, Omaha Bigelow finds salvation on the streets of New York City's Lower East Side in the form of a Nuyorican homegirl equipped with an array of powers to cure his problems. Their misbegotten romance transforms him from a perpetual loser to an overnight success, but fame comes with a hefty price. Omaha must soon struggle to remain faithful as he…


Book cover of The Taste of Sugar

J.L. Torres Why did I love this book?

Vera’s novel transports the reader beyond the traditional scenarios of diasporican narrative. Beginning in early 19th century Puerto Rico, it ends in Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. The story focuses on Vicente and Valentina Vega, a couple who lose their coffee farm to Hurricane St. Ciriaco and are seduced with unkept promises of a better life in Hawaii. Vera’s unrelenting realism and faithful rendering of historical facts, melded with Valentina’s letters to her sister, give the reader an unflinching and poignant view of the hardships these hundreds of migrants to Hawaii endured. Published in 2020, The Taste of Sugar signals a continuing direction for this literature: a desire to expand the boundaries of the narratives—in content, theme, and geography—to accurately capture the complexity of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

By Marisel Vera,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Taste of Sugar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marisel Vera emerges as a major new voice in contemporary fiction with this "capacious" (The New Yorker) novel set in Puerto Rico on the eve of the Spanish-American War. Up in the mountainous region of Utuado, Vicente Vega and Valentina Sanchez labor to keep their coffee farm from the creditors. When the great San Ciriaco hurricane of 1899 brings devastating upheaval, the young couple is lured along with thousands of other puertorriquenos to the sugar plantations of Hawaii, where they are confronted by the hollowness of America's promises of prosperity. Depicting the roots of Puerto Rican alienation and exodus, which…


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Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

Book cover of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

Wendy Lee Hermance Author Of Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

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Why am I passionate about this?

Wendy Lee Hermance was heard on National Public Radio (NPR) stations with her Missouri Folklore series in the 1980s. She earned a journalism degree from Stephens College, served as Editor and Features Writer for Midwestern and Southern university and regional publications, then settled into writing real estate contracts. In 2012 she attended University of Sydney, earning a master’s degree by research thesis. Her books include Where I’m Going with this Poem, a memoir in poetry and prose. Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat marks her return to feature writing as collections of narrative non-fiction stories.

Wendy's book list on why Portugal is weird

What is my book about?

Weird Foods of Portugal describes the author's first years trying to make sense of a strange new place and a home there for herself.

Witty, dreamlike, and at times jarring, the book sizzles with social commentary looking back at America and beautiful, finely drawn descriptions of Portugal and its people. Part dark-humor cautionary tale, part travel adventure, ultimately, Hermance's book of narrative non-fiction serves as affirmation for any who wish to make a similar move themselves.

Weird Foods of Portugal: Adventures of an Expat

By Wendy Lee Hermance,

What is this book about?

"Wendy Lee Hermance describes Portugal´s colorful people and places - including taxi drivers and animals - with a poet´s empathy and dark humor. Part travel adventure, part cautionary tale, Weird Foods of Portugal is at it´s heart, affirmation for all who consider making such a move themselves."


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