When cultural anthropologist Oscar Lewis wanted to expand on his ‘culture of poverty’ thesis, he boarded the northbound trains that linked his Columbia University office with the Bronx. With its growing Puerto Rican population in the 1960s, the borough presented the researcher with a prime opportunity to come face-to-face with a people ‘foreign’ to his perceived American values of hard work, thrift, and discipline.
The Ríos family welcomed Lewis into their home with customary Boricua hospitality (and almost certainly a plate of food). He proceeded to salaciously and methodically document their shortcomings over nearly 700 pages. Of course, his ‘objective’ observations neatly fit into his understanding of how the “disorder” of unrestrained sexuality, blaring music, and rowdy children was leading to intergenerational poverty. The resulting work, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty-San Juan and New York, won a National Book Award in 1967. Generations of influential policymakers and academics have since read the book and thought, “what’s wrong with these people?”
Writer and self-described “barrio feminist” Quiara Alegría Hudes — best known for writing the book for the musical In the Heights — dismantles this narrative in her electrifying 2021 memoir My Broken Language. Stories told over simmering pots of rice by the strong-minded “Perez women” in her family create a base from which Hudes makes sense of her life. This work is at once a writer’s coming-of-age story, a love letter to the women in her life of all shapes and colors and circumstances, a rousing manifesto of Boricua pride, and a celebration of a diverse, lively Philadelphia. Throughout the memoir, Hudes reckons with the dissonance of telling a multilingual narrative that has survived dislocation and colonialism and discrimination and disease and silence.
A teenager during the height of the AIDS pandemic’s devastation, Hudes fundamentally understands that “Silence = Death.” Several of her family members were lost to the disease, yet no one was willing to say outright what was going down out of shame and distrust. But the confusing politics of silence were nothing new for her family. “The medical establishment correctly wagered on Puerto Rican women’s silence because what Boricua would publicly declare her barrenness?” Hudes writes. “Keep quiet and move on with your life. Don’t make a scene.”
Hudes writes of the scar on her abuela’s belly, the product of sterilization performed without consent in the 1950s. When the truth has been obscured for decades, it takes tremendous will to speak the unspeakable. Doing so, however, creates testimony of how institutional prejudice against Brown women’s bodies had permanently stripped essential rights.
Though injustice is never far from the narrative in My Broken Language, Hudes doesn’t get lost in a catalog of oppression. To do so would lose sight of her family’s indomitable will to survive and thrive. She delves into the Lukumí spiritual practices — demonized and misunderstood for centuries — in which her mother, Virginia, engages to both escape and complement her community organizing work. In its syncretic blend of the African, Taíno (indigenous peoples the Caribbean and the Greater Antilles), and Spanish faiths is a language that Hudes has had to learn to describe her identity and religiosity. These practices fall far outside the ‘Western Canon’, an idea that she returns to when mulling over the challenges of finding the right words to tell her story.
Music was a refuge in her earlier years. Trips through Hudes’ process of composing and interpreting songs provides a fascinating insight into her creative mechanisms. Bach’s ‘Minuet in G Major’ is “dainty in a way life rarely mimicked” and the “atonality” of music assigned for the composers’ seminar at Yale has her doubting whether she belongs in the space at all.
The “cultural pillars” of her childhood are the foundation for her first original work, a “salsa musical”. An intriguing interaction with legendary spoken-word poet Gil Scott-Heron, among other things, pushes Hudes to life as a professional writer rather than a musician. In the memoir, all the ingredients for this path are nicely chopped and ready to be tossed into oil by the time the author comes to this conclusion.
My Broken Language’s evocative specificity carves out paradigms that could serve as the base — a perfectly fluffed white rice — for further exploration by generations of writers from the Latin American diaspora to come. Every sentence is filled with joy and resistance, every anecdote with the women’s resilience that pulls the family forward across any boundary if it means something better is on the other side. “Bodies were the mother tongue at Abuela’s, with Spanish second and English third,” Hudes writes with melody and rhythm. “Dancing and ass-slapping, palmfuls of rice, ponytail-pulling and wound-dressing, banging a pot to the clave beat. Hands didn’t get lost in translation. Hips bridged gaps where words failed.”
Often when a person from a marginalized community ‘makes it’, they ask themselves why others that they grew up with can’t follow. This burning question can become tinged with resentment if the culture of poverty explanation, repeated time and time again about people like them, takes hold. The troubling number of Latinx people willing to vote for Trump’s reelection is recent evidence. Hudes has all the hallmarks of meritocratic success — Ivy League education, Pulitzer-Prize winner, and screenwriter for the likely blockbuster of the coming summer. Yet, My Broken Language makes it clear that she has no interest in being viewed as the respectable exception that proves the rule. She synthesizes the words to tell it how it actually is.
In sharing her story and that of the Perez women with sazón and defiant honesty, Hudes lays the groundwork for multitudes of narratives about ourselves and our families rooted in radically transformative love.
Bach, Johann Sebastian. The Great Repertoire. “Bach, Minuet in G major, BWV Anh 114, Piano”. YouTube. 11 Apr. 2015.
Chu, Jon M. In the Heights. Trailer. YouTube 14 March 2021.
Russonello, Giovanni and Mazzei, Patricia. “Trump’s Latino Support Was More Widespread Than Thought, Report Finds”. New York Times. 2 April 2021.
Scott-Heron, Gil. website.
SILENCE = DEATH Project. (Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Li).
SILENCE=DEATH, Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection. Brooklyn Museum. 23 August 2018 – 31 March 2019.