Monday, August 26, 2013

What Would Dona Ana Say?

Years after writing my first novel-length manuscript, A Decent Woman, I'm still in love with my Afro-Cuban protagonist Ana. I've often joked that she is who I'd like to be when I grow up and I wish I'd met the midwife who helped birth my mother, two maternal aunts and my uncle. Dona Ana was my grandmother's comadre, her midwife.

There are no known photographs of Ana in my family photo albums, but from my grandmother's descriptions, I could see her clearly in my mind's eye--ebony skin, white turban, gold argollas (hoop earrings), and long, flowery skirts.  The stories I heard grandmother, my mother, Mercedes, and my Aunt Elena tell about this quiet heroine always stayed in my mind and heart. Ana was the perfect character for my novel, a composite of my grandmother, my mother and of course, little bits of myself.

If I were to describe my character Ana from the stories I heard, I'd describe her as a courageous, tough-as-nails woman with a heart of gold and a great sense of humor. A quiet champion for the rights of women and children, a pillar of her small community, the Playa de Ponce, a port town in the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. In my writerly mind, Ana was this woman, however, she had to harbor a secret or two and face a few challenges which are the reasons she fled from Cuba to Puerto Rico on a cargo ship in the early mornings hours. I added another secret in Ana's life that comes into play after she befriends and tries to protect two prostitutes from their pimp and a local Ponce policeman.

With the research I uncovered for my novel, it was easy to imagine Dona Ana as a spiritual woman who straddled two worlds--the world of an African slave who practiced the Yoruba religion brought by her parents from Nigeria to Cuba and Catholicism, the religion she was taught by the priests who took her in when she lands on the shores of Puerto Rico, la Isla del Encanto, the Isle of Enchantment.

If I had to describe Dona Ana in one word...I'd choose integrity. Throughout my novel, Dona Ana shows true courage and nerves of steel, with periods of self-doubt, fear and low self-esteem, mostly because of her slavery past and the treatment of workingwomen of color and mixed race in Puerto Rico in the early 1900's. After all, Ana was a woman of flesh and blood. Then and now, it isn't a stretch to relate to Ana.

If Dona Ana were alive today, I would sit at her feet as I did with my grandmother, Meme, when I was a child. I'd absorb and digest every story and her stories would never got old. My grandmother and mother were great storytellers. During every summer and holiday vacation to visit my family in Puerto Rico, we'd ask Meme to tell us about the old days and she never disappointed us. With a glint in her eye and a big smile, she'd begin and we were her rapt audience for hours, listening to vivid tales of Puerto Rico in the old days, and her cast of characters which often included Dona Ana.

I was especially interested in the birthing practices on the island in those days, more so when I was pregnant with my two children. I was fortunate and blessed to have Meme and my mother with me when I gave birth to my children. It now seems as if I was pregnant with Ana's story since I was a young woman and now, as a 56-year woman, it's time to birth this baby.

I've often said that I channeled Dona Ana as I wrote the first draft of A Decent Woman. I could see my characters and hear their voices in my mind's eye. I wonder what Dona Ana thinks of my novel? What would she say to me if she could?

I like to think that Meme, my mother Mercedes, and Ana, all passed on now, would be very pleased with me.

Peace and love,


  1. You bring this lady to life in your blogs, Ellie. I can hardly wait to read this book!

  2. I can hardly wait for you to read it, Linda :) Thanks so much!