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These poems by Latin American women reflect a multilingual region

The cover of <em>Daughters of Latin America</em>.
Harper Collins
The cover of Daughters of Latin America.

Award-winning writer, editor and filmmaker Sandra Guzmán once heard an alarming statistic: Every 14 days, an Indigenous language dies around the world.

That is, in part, what prompted her to seek out those voices for a new multilingual project centered on Latin American women. The result is the book, Daughters of Latin America: An International Anthology of Writing by Latine Women, which compiles the work of 140 writers, activists and thought leaders from the region.

"What clicked was this notion that whenever we think about writers, we don't automatically think of a Latin American woman writer," Guzmán told All Things Considered. "We don't think of an Esmeralda Santiago or a Sandra Cisneros ... or Guadeloupe's masterful writer Maryse Condé or Edwidge Danticat."

"And these are women who have historically have litten and guided me, and so why not bring together the voices in one volume?"

Guzmán also took inspiration from an existing collection, called New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent. It features more than 200 women from that region.

Her anthology weaves poems, short stories, essays, speeches and more. The contributors live across the Americas and the Caribbean, in Europe and in other parts of the world; some are immigrants, others are members of Indigenous communities. And there are more than 20 languages in the book.

"We are one of the most multilingual, multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious regions in the world," Guzmán said. "So for me, it was really important to convey that diversity."

There is, for example, Rosa Chávez, a Maya K'iche'-Kaqchikel poet and artist from Guatemala. A few of her poems appear in the Kʼicheʼ language in the anthology as well as in English. The poem, Speak to Me in the Language of Time, was translated from Spanish by Gabriela Ramirez- Chávez:

Speak to me in the language of time

shake me in the silence of the stars

wake me early before drifting back to sleep

so I can love you with my domesticated tongue

so your barefoot voice plays inside my body

speak to me with the sun's tongue

tell me green words that ripen on my skin

join your name to mine

and love me with your two hearts.

There is also Sonia Guiñansaca, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Harlem, NY. They are a Kichwa-Kañari poet, culture strategist and activist. This is an excerpt of their poem, Runa in Translation:

There is a longing to write this poem in Kichwa / I speak broken

Spanish / English with a heavy New York City accent / I wonder if my

tongue will ever heal from the breaking /

A breaking like when I am around other Kichwas

and I cannot understand them /

I wonder sometimes (most times) if I'm real / At age five I am plucked

from Ecuador and flown to the U.S. / For a brief moment I am given a new

name and my hair is cut / and my burgundy luggage goes missing / So I

arrive with nothing / I think that I am nothing through middle school / And

in high school I stop existing / I nest in my mouth / Quietly /Kikinka

maymantatak kanki

Guzmán said she also wanted to put Afro-Latinas front and center in this collection: "It's really important for me as an Afro-Indigenous woman to include women who have paved the way for us."

One example is Mary Grueso Romero, a poet, children's literature author and Spanish professor from Colombia. Here's an excerpt of her poem, Si Dios hubiese nacido aquí (If God had been born here), translated into English by Guzmán herself:

If God had been born here

he'd be a fisherman,

eat chontaduro

and drink borojó.

María would be Black

big boned like me

and on top of her head would carry a platter of fish

offering at the top of her lungs

through the town's streets

to all the town folk:

"I have silky fish whole and intact;

snapper to eat fried,

ñato fo' stewin,

tollo fo' sweatin'

and canchimala for tapao."

If God had been born here,

here on this coast,

he'd be a farmer

who'd harvest coconuts from the palm

grove with his muscled body

like a Black man from El Piñal,

with jet Black skin

and ivory teeth,

with tight coily hair

like he was a chacarrás.

On the Pacific plain

he'd harvest natos and mangroves

that he'd turn into rollers fo' the rails to rest,

and he'd fish crabs

from the neighborhood caves.

If God had been born here,

here on this coast,

he'd feel his blood rise

at the sound of the drum.

He'd dance currulao with marimba and guasá,

he'd drink biche

in the patronal festival,

he'd feel on his own flesh

the inequality's scorn for being Black,

for being poor,

and for being from this coast.

Guzmán also wanted to highlight the works of Puerto Rican writers, explaining that they are often left in the margins.

"When anthologies are curated in the United States, for instance, we are often forgotten," she said. "And when anthologies are curated in Latin America ... we're also forgotten."

One of those she included was Esmeralda Santiago, a Puerto Rican novelist and memoirist who contributed the poem Mi Sangre (My Blood). Here's an excerpt:

I've left my blood in 49 states, 27 countries on five continents.

These days, my blood fills test tubes and spreads across specimen slides.

I bleed to delay death a sanguine stream to insufferable regions while my defiant blood pulses in the strangest place of all my children's veins.

Guzmán said she hopes this anthology will prompt people to read more of these artists – and others from the region – who live in all corners of the world.

"To understand Latin America through the lens of its women is to fully understand the cultures and the people that inhabit this region in different parts of the world," she said.

The poems in this article were adapted from Daughters of Latin America edited by Sandra Guzmán and reprinted with permission from Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.