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Latina Reads: 14 Dominican And Dominican-American Escritoras Whose Books You Need To Add To Your Reading List

With its natural beauty, the Dominican Republic is the most visited place in the Caribbean. But lush palm trees and blue beaches aren’t the island’s only treasures. La República Dominicana has a rich literary history, with contributions from fierce women who boldly wrote during the Trujillo Era, a time in the island’s past when writing was a dangerous act, and those who carry on their legacy today on the island and in the diaspora.

Here are 14 Dominican and Dominican-American escritoras you need to know about.

1. Hilma Contreras Castillo

(Photo Credit: Poemas del Alma)

In 2002, Hilma Contreras Castillo became the first woman to receive the National Literature Prize in the Dominican Republic. She was born in San Francisco de Macorís in 1913 and educated in Paris, later returning to the Dominican Republic in 1933, where she began writing short stories. Her first and only novel, “La Tierra está Bramando,” was released in 1986, and the following year she released her collection of short stories “Entre Dos Silencios,” which was translated into English in 2013. She was one of the first women to write about the social status of women, and though she doesn’t have many published works, she’s recognized as one of the most important Dominican writers.

2. Julia Alvarez

New York Times bestselling author Julia Alvarez rose to fame with her critically acclaimed 1991 novel “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” The book is the first major novel written in English by a Dominican author to receive widespread acclaim and is taken from her own life, detailing themes of cultural identity and acclimation to life in the U.S., a subject she explores throughout her poetry and prose. Her subsequent books include “In the Time of Butterflies,” which is about the Mirabal sisters, who were assassinated during the Trujillo regime, and “In the Name of Salomé,” which centers on Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila. She has won numerous awards, including the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature and the  Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature, and is currently teaching at Middlebury College.

3. Aída Cartagena Portalatín

(Photo Credit: Ofrases)

Aída Cartagena Portalatín was a poet, essayist and activist who was a  part of the “poesía sorprendida” movement that began in the Dominican Republic as a form of resistance in 1943. The poetry itself was a bold act of defiance against the rule of President Rafael Trujillo, who banned self-expression during his reign. In her lifetime, she published nearly 20 works focusing on feminism, imperialism and colonialism, and she also taught art history, colonial art and history of civilization at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo.

4. Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo, a born and bred New Yorker, infuses her poetry with a Dominican flair, passion and blunt honesty. Some of the themes her poetry centers on include European beauty standards (“Hair”), violence against women (“Spear”) and her Latinidad (“Afro-Latina). Her spoken word poetry delivery is a passionate performance evoking the raw and authentic truth that inspires each piece. She is the author of the chapbook “Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths and the bestselling debut novel “The Poet X,” which released earlier this year. She is a National Slam Champion, Beltway Grand Slam Champion and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C, where she placed 8th in the world.

5. Salomé Ureña

Salomé Ureña was a poet and the founder of women’s higher education in the Dominican Republic. When she was 17, she began publishing, mostly focusing on her own life with poems like the popular “Mi Pedro,” which is about her son, though her other writing touched on patriotism and nature.  In 1881, at age 31, she, with the help of her husband, opened the “Instituto de Señoritas.” Within five years, the first six female teachers graduated from the institute, which was very uncommon at that time. She died an untimely death at 46 due to tuberculosis, but her poetry and her work in women’s education live on.

6. Naima Coster

Naima Coster is a Dominican author and professor based in Durham, North Carolina. Originally from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, her debut YA novel, “Halsey Street,” is about family, loss and renewal in gentrifying BK. Coster, who has taught writing to students in prison, youth programs and universities, is a visiting assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University. She often speaks about the need for writers of color, telling Catapult, “During all my training in creative writing, I searched for writers of color to mentor me and help shape the projects I had imagined. In my nine years of study at three universities, I had three workshops run by writers of color, all of them men.”

7. Virginia Elena Ortea

(Image Credit: Listín Diario)

Not only is Virginia Elena Ortea one of the first female novelists, but she was also the first woman to have her own newspaper byline in the Dominican Republic. She wrote under the pen name Elena Kennedy and is primarily known for her works of fiction highlighting the roles of women in society. Her first published works included “Los Diamantes,” “La Rosa de la Felicidad,” “Los Bautizos” and “Mi Hermana Carolina,” though her most developed work was “Risas y Lágrimas,” which published in 1901. Adding to her list of firsts, she became the first and only writer of a zarzuela (song/spoken word theatre with dance) from the Dominican Republic when she wrote “Las Feministas” in 1879.

8. Sofia Quintero

Sofia Quintero is a Dominican-Puerto Rican writer and hip-hop activist. A self-proclaimed “Ivy League Homegirl,” she has authored several chica lit, a term she describes as “a name that we Latinas authors use to acknowledge and celebrate that we’re featuring women like ourselves yet still universal stories.” Her breadth of work also includes urban fiction, which she writes under the pen name Black Artemis, and erotica. Among her work: “Divas Don’t Yield,” about four young Latinas on a road trip from New York to San Francisco who end up on a journey toward self-discovery, including sexual awakenings; “Show and Prove,” a story of music, urban plight and racial tension set in 1983, and “Efrain’s Secret,” a story about a boy from the South Bronx with Ivy League dreams, among many more.

9. Angie Cruz

(Image Credit: Twitter/ Angie Cruz)

Born in 1972 in Washington Heights in New York City, Angie Cruz published her first novel, “Soledad,” in 2001 and is now working on a screenplay for the book. Her works include themes of gender, race, working class life, family dynamics and displacement. She also published “Let it Rain Coffee” in 2005 and is currently working on her third novel, “In Search of Caridad.” She has taught at the  University of Pittsburgh and Texas A&M University and she is the founder and editor in chief of Aster(ix), a literary arts journal for women of color.

10. Rhina Espaillat

(Photo Credit: Twitter / @betterthanstar2)

Rhina Espaillat was born and raised in Santo Domingo until her family moved to the U.S., where she grew up to become both a poet and a translator. She has published 11 collections of poetry, including “Where Horizons Go,” which was published in 1998 and picked up a T.S. Eliot Prize that same year. Themes in her writing include culture and identity, and she tackles these topics in both English and Spanish. Her poetry has appeared in more than 70 anthologies. “Poetry is very popular where I come from; everybody loves it. So I heard it before I understood it. I didn’t know what the grown-ups were doing, but I knew I wanted to do it, because it looked like so much fun,” she told Rattle.

11. Jasminne Méndez

Jasminne Méndez made a splash in the literary scene with her 2013 debut memoir “Island of Dreams,” which won the Best Young Adult Latino-Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards. It features poetry and short stories centering on her Dominican family’s life in the U.S., including assimilation, culture, self-discovery and the American Dream. Her second book, “Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poems,” was released this April. In addition to writing, she is the co-founder and program director of the Houston-based Latino literary arts organization Tintero Projects and the co-host of a poetry and writing podcast series called InkWell. “Not only do I identify as Afro-Latina, American, [and] Female, but I also identify as chronically and invisibly ill and partially disabled. The body and what ails it has become such an integral part of the themes in my writing and my writing process that even when I’m not specifically writing about illness, the body always finds a way to make it into the poem or essay,” she told Ploughshares.

12. Jael Uribe

As the creator of the nonprofit Women Poets International, Jael Uribe has amplified the voices of female poets in the Dominican Republic. A poet and storyteller herself, she also promotes Festival Internacional de Poesía y Arte Grito de Mujer honoring women and their roles in society and contributing to the fight against violence. She is the author of the poetry book “De la Muerte al Fénix,” a collection of her poetry up to the year 2014, and she also published “Grito de Mujer,” a selection of works by female poets.

13. Ana-Maurine Lara

(Image Credit: Twitter / Ana-Maurine Lara)

Dr. Ana-Maurine Lara is a poet, novelist, playwright and feminist scholar who happens to also be the daughter of Dominican ambassador to the United Nations, Erasmo Lara Peña and U.S. poet Elizabeth Lara. She’s a long-time LGBTQ rights activist, and her works reflect her passions, particularly the freedom, love and heritage of Black and indigenous women. Her 2006 debut book, “Erzulie’s Skirt,” was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Debut Fiction. Set in the age of urbanization in the Dominican Republic and spanning several generations, the story focuses on how how women and their families struggle with love and tragedy. She is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, where she teaches about Afro-Latino/a identities, Black queer aesthetics, Vudú in the Dominican Republic and Afro-Dominicanidad and the struggle against xenophobia in the Dominican Republic.

14. Raquel Cepeda

Raquel Cepeda is a Harlem-born Dominican-American author, documentary filmmaker, award-winning journalist and podcaster. Her memoir, “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina,” explores her roots after realizing that the near-loss of her father could’ve meant the possibility of never knowing her ancestral background. “I’ve been mistaken for being everything except what I am: Dominican. … While Latino-Americans share enough cultural traditions to relate with one another and whatnot, we are also crazy different. One size doesn’t fit all,” she wrote. She tackles similar themes in “Some Girls,” a documentary that follows a group of Latinas from the Bronx who use DNA testing to discover their roots and then travel to the Dominican Republic.  

Read: Latina Reads: 12 Colombian And Colombian-American Authors You Should Have On Your Bookshelf

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The Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Education Fired An Educator For Speaking Positively About Black Hair

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The Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Education Fired An Educator For Speaking Positively About Black Hair

On Tuesday, the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Education released a campaign video directed at youth that shattered harmful attitudes surrounding “pelo bueno, pelo malo” — the idea that thin, straight hair is beautiful and afro-textured coils aren’t.

“In the Ministry of Education, no little girl, little boy or grown adult should be discriminated because of their physical appearance. We are committed to guaranteeing the equality in identity,” Marianela Pinales, then director of Gender Equality and Development at the Ministry of Education on the island, said in the video, as young Black and brown boys and girls send similar messages about loving their hair as it is.

The 52-second PSA is long-overdue in the Dominican Republic, one of many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that has held tightly to the white supremacist belief that skin and hair texture that aligns closer to European standards of beauty are both more attractive and deserving of better treatment than those with hues and locks that are darker and thicker.

For that, many on the island and diaspora celebrated the video, including Edith Febles, a respected journalist and natural hair advocate, who aired it on her show, La cosa como es. However, just after the video debut, Febles said Pinales was discharged.

While the Ministry of Education said that Pinales was fired because she missed several recent events — a claim the educator denies — and not because of the video, which some have considered controversial, many find the timing around her termination questionable.

“The timing is very *very* suspicious to say the least,” Amanda Alcántara, the digital media editor at Futuro Media Group, wrote in an article for Latino Rebels.  “Much like the roots of anti-blackness in the country itself, the people in power seem to stop at no cost to maintain white supremacy. This confirms that even as consciousness grows, the problem is systemic.”

On social media, many others have shared similar sentiments.

The campaign, however, is reaching audiences in and outside of the Dominican Republic, where it has the power to challenge beauty ideals and young people’s relationships with their hair.

Read: 6 Afro-Latinas Open Up About What Headwraps Mean To Them

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Study: Police In The Dominican Republic Are Abusing Women Sex Workers With Impunity

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Study: Police In The Dominican Republic Are Abusing Women Sex Workers With Impunity

Sex workers in the Dominican Republic, where the profession is illegal, are vulnerable to violence, but many don’t feel safe reporting these crimes to law enforcement because, in many cases, it’s police officers who are responsible for their abuse.

This month, Amnesty International released a report detailing how law enforcement in the Caribbean country rape and torture women sex workers. The study, harrowingly titled “If They Can Have Her, Why Can’t We,” includes interviews with 46 cis and trans sex workers who discuss the abuse they experienced at the hands of local police.

According to the report, of the 24 cis women interviewed, at least 10 had been raped by law enforcement, several at gunpoint. Similarly, many trans women disclosed being violently mistreated, some even tortured, by officers.

“The interviews reveal how a deeply engrained culture of machismo within the National Police, coupled with intense societal stigma and discrimination and conservative religious values, embolden law enforcement officials to unlawfully abuse their powers and punish women who engage in sex work as a form of social control,” reads the report.

One woman shared her account of being gang-raped by three policemen. In October 2017,  the woman was pulled over by an officer who spotted her waiting for clients when he forced her to enter his police van. There, he and two other patrols started groping the woman and ripping off her clothes.

“I was afraid. I was alone. I couldn’t defend myself. I had to let them do what they wanted with me,” she told Amnesty International. “They threatened me, that if I wasn’t with them they would kill me. They (said) that I was a whore, and so why not with them?”

The woman, whose shocking account influenced the title of the report, said that the officers called her a “bitch,” among other expletives, adding: “They saw me, I guess, and they thought ‘Well, if they (clients) can have her, why can’t we?’”

This mentality isn’t uncommon. The report notes that the government, and society at large, often views sex workers as less than human and are thus “deserving” of the violence they experience.

“The harrowing testimonies that Amnesty International has gathered from the Dominican Republic reveal that police routinely target and inflict sexual abuse and humiliation on women who sell sex with the purpose of punishing and discriminating against them,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said. “Under international law, such treatment can amount to gender-based torture and other ill-treatment.”

While this particular study looked at the problem in the Dominican Republic, Guevara-Rosas says police violence against sex workers isn’t unique to the region but rather follows a pattern of gender-based violence across Latin America and the Caribbean. She calls it an “epidemic” and notes that marginalized women, like sex workers, are at increased risk because of fear arrest.

Read: Mothers, Students And Teachers Protested — And Were Attacked By Police — At Puerto Rico’s May Day March

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