Entre Lenguas y Vidas:  Book Review of Chula by Amanda Alcántara 

The word Chula has several definitions depending on regional or social usage, but if you know Dominicans, we are masters of codification. We unapologetically develop multilayered models for language that seep into quotidian speech a lo’ que lo que. In her book titled Chula,  Amanda Alcántara embodies the multiplicity of meanings tied to this epithet, creating a body of work that not only code switches from Dominican dialect to standard English, but also conflates style and form cuando le da su gana, through her use of journaling, lyrical poetry, memoir, storytelling vignettes, prose and refránes reflective of who she asserts herself to be: La que se inventa frases porque vive entre 2 lenguas y 5 vidas- hija, hermana, puta, santa y amiga.  

Hija: As a daughter of Dominican immigrants in a constant state of flux, Alcántara narrates her complex relationship with a father she describes as being absent for her birth but toasting his newborn over beer with friends, and a fearless mother who “is on a perpetual diet” and glows even after a break- up. Although she sees fragments of herself in both of them, in the piece titled “This is where I tell you where my parents met”, Alcántara struggles with having light-skinned parents but proudly claims “Yo era la morenita de la casa. I was blessed by the ancestors. They were like, -¡Tituá! Esta va ser de piel India, pa’ recordarle a ustedes de donde son, coño.”  Her presence is a reminder of a dark-skinned Dominican history she is proud to represent both physically and creatively.

Hermana: Alcántara’s strained relationship with her green-eyed, straight-haired sister Liz, as detailed in the prose piece “When I had just arrived” is less about aesthetics and more about autonomy as she describes her sister’s attempts at parenting in the absence of their mother who had returned to the Dominican Republic. She recounts loneliness that is tied to the independent spirit fueled by her immigrant status. She finds solace in her ability to thrive between borders and in a map she deliberately positions upside down on her bedroom wall.  

Puta: Throughout both sections of her book Alcántara, never clearly defines what a puta is but asserts that “our culture tells women that we must be good, and that ‘body count’ matters.” The Madonna/Whore Complex the author cites as the Virgen/ Puta dichotomy that polarizes perceptions of women’s sexuality into the categories of a good girl or bad bitch, are expressed in pieces like “Before moving to the United States” and “Excerpts from Daydreaming about men. December 2015” but her sexuality and sensuality are expressed with more confidence in the second section. Here Alcántara includes black and white photos from social media posts to accompany poems and experimental vignettes that reference “sex sin dueño, mujere freca, and ratreríasin pecado. Although the photos are blurred, her intent is clear in that she is declaring her love for “posting thirst traps” and discovering herself as a sexual, sinless woman.  

Santa: Although Alcántara’s reference to the word santa may have been more directly connected to the opposite of being a puta, it is also tied to her attempts at finding a spiritual practice that speaks to her. In “I feel like I’m floating” Alcántara writes “I tried searching for a mom in Yemaya y Oshun; it didn’t work…I search for my soul beyond my body cuz other spiritual practices with bodies like mine aren’t for me…Everyone’s Mami seems to have an altar y la mía no tenía na de eso.” It is later in a narrative prose piece that the author seems to find her spiritual center in her Abuela’s voice. In “Buelita’s Songs” she writes of her spiritual void and discovers that God lives in the songs her Abuela sang to her and that is all the religion she needs. 

Amiga: Alcántara’s relationship to other women is one of compassion and protection. In “Cycle of Violence” she writes “I wanted to spare her. I wish it had been me” when she tells of confronting a pedophile. Although the theme of sexual abuse is recurrent in her book, the exact details are omitted, written in the third person, or quickly placed on the page either to protect herself or others in her family. These stories, despite being fragmented and purposefully incomplete, result from the normative Alcántara challenges where victims of sexual harassment or abuse are shammed, blamed and unfriended; Where young girls and grown women are told “You should’ve known, you don’t treat men like humans. You treat them like the threat that they are.”  Alcántara knows that “parte de ser mujer” is to call yourself and the women of your tribe -amiga.  

Chula: a phrase that expresses a term of endearment, un cariñito, or moral judgment. In most cases, the word signals a beautiful woman. For Domincanas like Amanda Alcántara, who turn life lessons into un libro, Chula is the first experimental, bilingual collection of intimate stories by this journalist who through the use of el palabreo caribeño invites us to explore who she was, who she is becoming, at her own pace, on her own terms, and en dos lenguas.     

Peggy Robles- Alvarado is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a CantoMundo, Academy for Teachers, Desert Nights Rising Stars and Home School Fellow. She is also a five-time International Latino Book Award winner. This tenured educator, with M.A.Ed. degrees in elementary and bilingual education and an MFA in Performance Studies authored Conversations with My Skin (2011) and Homage to the Warrior Women (2012). Through Robleswrites Productions, she curated The Abuela Stories Project (2016) and Mujeres, The Magic, The Movement and The Muse (2017). As a former teen mother, an initiated priestess in the Lukumi and Palo spiritual systems, and a proud grandmother, this BRIO award-winning performance poet uses rhythmic, raw- truth energy to celebrate womanhood and honor cultural rituals. She’s been featured on HBO Habla Women, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, The Black Spirit Solstice Summit, Poets & Writers, and The BADD!ASS Women Festival. In 2016 she was named one of the 25 Most Influential Women of the Bronx, a BCA Arts Fund, and Spaceworks Bronx Community Artist Grant recipient. Peggy has been published in 92Y’s #wordswelivein, NACLA, Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets, The Center for Puerto Rican Studies, The Bronx Memoir Project, The Other Side of Violet, Latina Voices: Struggles and Protest in 21 Century USA and What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. For more visit Robleswrites.com

Amanda Alcántara is a writer, journalist and author of Chula (2019). She is the Digital Media Editor at Futuro Media Group.Her work centers on various themes including Caribbean culture, womanhood, borders and blackness. She has been published on Latino USA, Remezcla, Latino Voices and Black Voices on The Huffington Post, The Washington Post’s The Lily, BESE, and The San Francisco Chronicle. In May of 2017, Amanda obtained a Master of Arts from NYU in Latin American and Caribbean Studies where her thesis focused on the experience of women residing on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.Amanda is also a co-founder and previous editor of La Galería Magazine. She has also been published in the anthology “Latinas: Struggles & Protests in 21st Century USA,” published by Red Sugarcane Press. She has a B.A. from Rutgers University. A map of the world turned upside down hangs on her wall.


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