Mayra Santos-Febres Talks Black Beauty and the Power of Words
By Kim Haas
“I was born with a particular sensitivity to words. Some people are very good with math and sports… I wasn’t but I could feel words.” Perhaps this early relationship with words explains a certain sensuality that characterizes not just her literary works but also Mayra Santos-Febres, the woman.
Afro-Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres is one of Puerto Rico’s most celebrated authors. Her first big discovery in life — as she puts it –was the beauty of black women. According to Mayra, her late mother Mariana Febres did not epitomize the standard ideal of female beauty: a tall, blonde with blue eyes. Mayra describes her mother as,“…having a big nose. She was very dark, very dark and incredibly beautiful.”
This appreciation for her mother’s beauty taught Mayra that she didn’t need a straight nose or narrow hips to be beautiful. “I knew that if I had her body, I was set,” says Mayra, adding,“I think I’m really beautiful, I think black women are really beautiful.”
With admiration, Mayra credits her mother Mariana for her sensuality, confidence and healthy sense of self. Mariana Febres often took her daughter Mayra and the neighborhood children on exploring expeditions in Puerto Rico, getting to know its rivers and beaches, and inspiring Mayra’s love for the island. Mayra’s mother was a teacher by profession and an educator at heart.
Mayra learned the value of community and generosity from her mother. And Mariana’s strength, confidence and beauty provided her daughter with inspiration to write; a place of peace, a “homeland” as Mayra describes it.
Writing became her sanctuary and outlet as a youth straddled between two worlds: a strict Catholic academic and religious environment and a neighborhood where domestic violence was common. Growing up, she lived at home with both parents. Mayra says she learned “orgullo” (pride) from her father, Juan Santos Hernández, who was a proud black man. However, life with her father was sometimes difficult. As a former semi-pro baseball player for the Carolina Piratas, he was quite ambitious. Mayra believes her father’s unrealized dreams of fame and fortune created an angry man, saying, “He was always waiting for his turn to make it big.”
So she turned to pen and paper, escaping a world of uncertainty and anger.
“Writing is so engrained in me, it’s who I am,” says Mayra, who has proven herself apt at creating worlds in diverse literary genres: poetry, novels and scripts. In 1991, she received critical acclaim for collections of poetry: Anamu y manigua and El orden escapado. Three years later, she published Pez de Vidrio, a collection of short stories probing complex relationships involving race, sexual desire, social and political status and identity in the Caribbean. In 2000, her first novel was published, Sirena Selena vestida de pena which follows the life of a San Juan homosexual drag queen endowed with a golden singing voice.
Nuestra Señora de la Noche was published in 2006 and chronicled the life of Isabel “La Negra” Luberza Oppenheimer, an impoverished Puerto Rican girl from Ponce. Isabel became the owner of one of the island’s most infamous brothels and she was the mistress of one of the commonwealth’s most powerful white politicians.
With a rich and varied body of work, Mayra’s talents have been honored and recognized. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Juan Rulfo Award and Puerto Rico’s Premio Nacional de Literatura. And now she can add an Academy Award Nomination in the Foreign Language Category to her list of accomplishments for the 2009 film, Kabo y Platón.
The film is based on the life of her brother, Juan Carlos, graffiti artist and rapper struggling in the world of drugs and its vices. His life ended as a result of a drug overdose. When asked why she choose to share her brother’s story through film, Mayra said she needed people to see his world with all its details and the best way to do it was through the visuals of film. Mayra says:
“People believe that black people live the same way everywhere and that is not true. White people don’t live the same way everywhere, even if you have the same cultural references. Take music. Rap, of course, black rappers don’t live the same way everywhere. There are black rappers in Africa, black rappers in France, black rappers in the U.S. and there are black rappers in the Caribbean. I wanted people to see the way in which that music became a means of expression of a reality, which is at the same time both global and local.”
Mayra seems to have made peace with her family; accepting the passing of her brother and understanding the challenges and unfulfilled dreams of her father.
During the May 2012 “Festival de la Palabra” (Festival of the Word) a host of Latin American writers will meet in two locations — New York and Puerto Rico — to discuss the written word. As the Founder and Executive Director, Mayra says her goal in creating the Festival is the, “Internationalization of Puerto Rico and to promote reading and a better understanding of ourselves through literature.”
One thing to appreciate about Mayra, currently a professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico, is her continuing quest to discover, challenge herself and create community.
Mayra Santos-Febres is a lifelong educator, following in the footsteps of her mother. It’s safe to say Mariana Febres would be very proud of her daughter.
For more information about the Festival de la Palabra visit their Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/PalabraNYC
To follow Mayra’s writing, check out her blog, http://mayrasantosfebres.blogspot.com/