A Caribbean cultural connection
Authors' heritage plays a major role in new novels

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: April 3, 2005

Pablo Medina first experienced snow in the 1960s after coming to the United States from Cuba. Since then, snow has factored in just about all his books.

In his new novel, "The Cigar Roller" (Grove Press; 176 pages; $21), characters experience a Tampa, Fla., snowstorm -- a fleeting recollection by the book's main character, Amadeo Terra, who is paralyzed and dying in a nursing home after a stroke.

"That was a way of putting my own experience into the book, which was not biographical by any means, but it was a way I could move into my own experiences," Medina said.

That first sight, he said, "is absolutely magical. It's everything you read about it and more. The first time I saw snow was in New York City, seeing the city turn white and everything becomes pure again and clean. For me, it was ... a totally transformative experience. I don't think I ever have gotten over it. I still love the snow when it comes."

Family history

Medina's Cuban heritage informs his work the same way Angie Cruz's family history in the Dominican Republic shows up in "Let It Rain Coffee" (Simon & Schuster; 256 pages; $22). Both writers will discuss their latest books at 4 p.m. Friday at the University at Albany as part of the New York State Writers Institute. Their appearance coincides with the 16th Annual National Latino Collegiate Conference at the University at Albany.

"Let It Rain Coffee" chronicles the struggles of a multigenerational Dominican family living in Washington Heights -- the Manhattan neighborhood where Cruz's debut novel, "Soledad," was set.

"I was born and raised in Washington Heights," said Cruz, 33. "I grew up on a block where all my family lived -- I had my grandmother, I had my cousins, I had my mom. To me, it always felt like a community. No matter where I went, I would bump into people I knew."

Similar characters sprouted up in her fiction.

"When 'Soledad' came out, my mom read the back of the book and said, 'Oh no, you're telling everybody our business.' Then she reads the actual book and said, 'Who are these people? And why are you making up all this stuff?' "

Cruz falls back on the words of short story master Grace Paley: "Write about what you know that you don't know."

Neither Cruz nor Medina set out to become a writer. Cruz attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and was working in a Manhattan boutique. "I worked in this upscale store where a pair of socks was, like, the salary of my grandmother working for a week at a factory."

One day, someone at the boutique told Cruz she looked miserable. The person then asked what she would do if she could do anything. Cruz thought about it, and responded that she would write. She realized she had a lot of anger built up about injustices, and the disparity between rich and poor. She had something to say.

Cruz then switched course, left New York City for the State University of New York at Binghamton (the bus trip, she said, gave her time to write) to receive her undergraduate degree. She returned to Manhattan to attend New York University for her master of fine arts degree in creative writing.

"Growing up, very few people have a sense of themselves as a writer as a future (vocation)," Medina said. He said he dreamed of being "everything from astronomer to oceanographer to doctor." But he was always a good reader. In college, Medina realized he could write and "it meant more to me than everything else."

Time difference

The histories of Cuba and the Dominican Republic are prevalent in both books, but at different times. Cruz dedicates the book to the people "who died in the struggle against imperialism during the U.S. occupation in the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s and in 1965."

Amadeo, the protagonist of Medina's "The Cigar Roller," is part of the group that fled Cuba in the late 19th century and settled Tampa's Ibor City, where they worked in cigar factories.

Medina's challenge was to rely on his incapacitated character's very active memory to tell the story. Aides at a nursing home are minor characters compared to the family and friends Amadeo recalls in his often disjointed memory. After tasting mango, Amadeo is launched on a powerful, introspective examination of his life.

"What does it mean to be Cuban, Amadeo thinks. It is not a question he has spent much time pondering. Sometimes it comes from inside, a place that no one can change or alter. Sometimes it comes from the way he responds to a woman walking past or an urge for coffee, a cigar, a joke. Sometimes he will hear Spanish spoken a certain way or listen to music -- Once they played an old bolero and he thought his heart would burst out of his chest with longing -- anoranza -- for his native land and his people."

"The Cigar Roller" is Medina's third novel. He has written several books of poetry, and has recently released a new book of poems, "Points of Balance: Puntos De Apoyo" (University Press of New England; 134 pages; $14.95).

Cruz's "Let It Rain Coffee" flips between the 1960s and the 1990s, and from the Dominican Republic to New York. The book opens with the death of patriarch Don Chan's wife. He soon leaves to join his son's family in New York. Along the way, he explains to an immigration official how he came to live in the Dominican Republic, his adopted home:

"My wife found me on the beach when she was four years old. And as if I was some kind of alien, she poked at my hair and ... -- Who are you? And I said, Chan Lee, yo soy Chan Lee. I couldn't remember anything but my name. It was 1916. I was six years old, washed up on the shores of Juan Dolio."

Perfecting the protagonist

Medina, 56, originally intended to write a historical novel about Tampa and the turn of the 19th century. He threw out the first 100 pages and secluded himself in the mountains of New Hampshire for 18 months or so to delve into the character of Amadeo.

"He took over the novel. And at one point I had to make the decision -- is this a novel about the history of the area or is this a novel about this one character? And the novel itself told me the answer. It was about this character."

Cruz used the TV show "Dallas" as a cultural reference throughout "Let it Rain Coffee." The character Esperanza, which means "hope," leaves the Dominican Republic on a raft bound for Puerto Rico due mainly to her obsession with the Texas-set 1980s hit.

When a minor character comments to Esperanza that Dallas is a long way from New York, Esperanza responds, " 'So was Neuva York and look at me now. Jock Ewing said that any man can win when things go his way, it's the man who overcomes adversity who is the true champion.'

" 'I don't know Jock, but no truer words have been said,' Mrs. Hernandez said, nodding in agreement."

Donna Liquori is a freelance writer from Delmar.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Pablo Medina & Angie Cruz