Bitter Harvest

Marisel Vera’s new novel chronicles the joys and sorrows of a Puerto Rican family displaced from one U.S. colony to another.

Eleanor J. Bader Dec 10, 2020

When Valentina Sanchez was 17, she attended the wedding of a rich friend. It was there, at the lavish fiesta, that she met Vicente Vega, the gorgeous 21-year-old cousin of the bride. Vicente came from Utuado, a mountain village in rural Puerto Rico, where he, his brother, and philandering father farmed. The crop? Coffee, which brought in decent money when the rains, sun, and winds were in sync. In bad years, however, the harvest was lean and the family suffered. Food shortages were common.

But Valentina is headstrong and, in an effort to avoid marriage to a well-heeled man 30 years her senior—her parent’s preference—she impulsively accepts Vicente’s marriage proposal and leaves Ponce to become a country wife. The year: 1889.

As expected, travails follow, but The Taste of Sugar is more than a compelling account of one couple’s trials and tribulations. Rather, the novel is also a social history, unveiling life under Spanish, and later US, colonial rule. Furthermore, it looks at how a massive storm, in this case 1899’s San Ciriaco Hurricane, ravaged the island, killing more than 3,000 people and leaving tens of thousands, including Vicente and Valentina, homeless. What’s more, it chronicles the lure of Hawaiian sugar magnates, including Dole, who were eager to recruit cane cutters to Oahu and other islands—an early example of disaster capitalism.

The Taste of Sugar is an exemplary work, a revelatory exposition of colonialism and domination that never feels heavy-handed.

Vera’s account of the grower’s appeals makes it easy to understand why 5,000 people signed on the dotted line: Promises of shelter, schools for children, and accessible healthcare worked like magic to woo Puerto Ricans who’d lost everything, pushing them to take a chance and leap into the unknown, boarding boats as steerage-class passengers.

Vera’s portrayal of the journey from Puerto Rico to the Aloha State is harrowing and her rendering of what the workers encountered upon arriving in Hawaii is devastating, a far-too-common story of undelivered promises. For example, instead of private homes, families were given leaky, adjoining, shacks. Worse, there were neither schools nor clinics and the men had to work from dawn to dusk under the whip of “lunas,” overseers whose brutality was legion. Wages were less than promised, raises and bonuses were non-existent, and groceries had to be purchased from a company store where inflated prices kept everyone in perpetual debt.

It’s a grim, if historically accurate, set-up but Vera is an adept writer who brilliantly weaves years of research into a story that also illuminates the gender inequities, homophobia, and family separation policies that were stoked by U.S. policy. In addition, the racism endemic to both U.S. and Puerto Rican societies is exposed, giving the novel added gravitas.

That said, it is important to stress that while The Taste of Sugar reveals a multitude of personal and political horrors, Vicente and Valentina are always fully human. In fact, despite considerable burdens, losses, and hardships, their ability to make friends, help others, and form community is inspiring and when they eventually join forces with the equally-exploited Japanese cane cutters to strike for justice, you’ll cheer. In her acknowledgements, Vera calls herself “the revision queen.” Her diligence paid off. The Taste of Sugar is an exemplary work, a revelatory exposition of colonialism and domination that never feels heavy-handed. History, however sordid and upsetting, has rarely been so beautifully and poignantly revealed.

The Taste of Sugar
Marisel Vera
Liveright Publishing,
June 2020

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