By Robert Waddell
Once when late drummer Joe Cuba was about to be honored for his achievements in music, he quoted the salsa song “Damelo En Vida,” meaning that tributes and lifetime achievement awards are more valuable in life to the receiver rather than after. In the last few years, Latino arts has seen its share of loss – Jack Agueros, Amiri Baraka, Juan Flores, Tato Laviera, Pedro Pietri, Luis Reyes Rivera, Fernando Salicrup, Piri Thomas and Ed Vega to name a few; all respected and revered in their own right.
But, now comes a time for celebration of life and achievement – as part of its Women’s History Month festivities, Hostos Community College honors artist and author Nicholasa Mohr for her achievements. Mohr is the author of “Nilda,” “En Nueva York,” “Felita,” “Going Home,” and 11 other titles. This year marks the 40th anniversary publication of “El Bronx Remembered,” a charming cluster of humorous short stories, which will also be feted on March 25th.
A reception takes place at the Longwood Arts Gallery at 5:30 pm before the 7pm event whereartists and writers will read from Mohr’s work, their own work and perform including dancer and choreographer Arthur Aviles, poet Sandra Maria Esteves, writer and educator Dahlma Llamos Figueroa, poet Mariposa, playwright Carmen Rivera, visual artist Nitza Tufino and the event’s organizer, author, playwright and Hostos professor Charles Rice-Gonzalez.
“She is a Puerto Rican woman who opened doors for others to walk through, and I feel that she and her work doesn’t get the accolades that other Latina writers get,” said Rice-Gonzalez via email. “Being that it was the 40th Anniversary of ‘El Bronx Remembered,’ it seemed a perfect moment for Hostos, with its own barrier – breaking history, be the place to honor her.”
(Full disclosure: this author has had a long association with Hostos Community College, Mohr and Rice-Gonzalez.)
Mohr began her career as a visual artist and has said that she transferred her skills as a painter to the skill of writing. She’s most famous for her novel “Nilda,” which is still read and taught in schools nationwide.
Praise for Mohr’s work comes from all corners. Artist Antonio Martorell, a long time friend, will send a video for the evening’s proceedings. Her work resonates with scholars and teachers of Nuyorican literature.
“Nicholasa Mohr was the first contemporary Latina author to break through the elite walls of New York commercial publishing,” said poet, assistant professor at New York University and the author of “In Visible Movement,” Dr. Urayoán Noel.
“The fact that she did so while writing uncompromisingly—evocatively yet sensitively and without a hint of sensationalism—from the perspective of young, diasporic, and working-class women in El Barrio and the South Bronx is nothing short of remarkable,” wrote Noel via email. “To my mind, Mohr is one of the great writers of urban space; through strategic descriptions and masterful dialogue she maps the complex spirit-geography of the city that most authors only gloss, allowing us to understand our Nueva York in all its painful beauty.”
Dr. Thelma T. Reyna called “Nilda,” Mohr’s breakthrough novel, a pioneering work that captured “…the unique cultural experiences of New York’s Puerto Ricans in the 1940’s and therefore secures a solid place in the history of our literature as such,” wrote Reyna in a review for Latinopia.com. “It still resonates decades later because its cultural depictions of family, love, individual pride, and resilience in the face of hardship still matter.”
Poet Mariposa, and founder of the Barrio PoetX weekly poetry reading series in East Harlem’s La Marqueta, said that she was excited to be reading excerpts from Mohr’s fiction at the March 25th Hostos event.
“I’m inspired by her work as a writer,” said Mariposa, via phone interview. “Her stories visually tell a story. When I read her, I feel like I’m looking through a family album.”
When Dahlma Llanos Figueroa began teaching English in the South Bronx in the 70s, she searched for literature that would reflect the lives of her junior high school students who were turned off to reading and hated English class, said Llanos Figueroa.
“It wasn’t that they couldn’t read rather that they didn’t want to read,” said Llanos Figueroa via email. “El Bronx Remembered was the only book I could find that reflected them and their lives. And, it did so with love and humor. For many years, it was the only book that touched my students where they lived. It touched me, too.”
By Robert Waddell