Afro-Latinxs on the New York Scene

Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper (New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2015); 304 pages; ISBN 978-0545591614 (paperback)

Sofia Quintero, Show and Prove (New York: Knopf, 2015); 352 pages; ISBN 978-0375847073 (hardcover)

• October 2016

Look a little deeper. Daniel José Older’s Afro-Latinx fantasy novel Shadowshaper and Sofia Quintero’s hip-hop coming-of-age novel Show and Prove are two young adult books that demand readers to take pause: things are not quite what they seem. Shadowshaper, Older’s second novel, offers us a glimpse into the Afro-Caribbean syncretic practice of shadowshaping, a delicate interchange between the living and the spirit world. In creating Shadowshaper, Older opens a critical space for (Afro-)Latinidad in Afro-futurist discourses, while bridging Latinx literature and Afro-Atlantic cosmologies, including Santería, Lucumí, and Candomblé, to the fantasy genre. In Show and Prove, Quintero’s second young adult novel, B-boying is an art form and a battlefield, and the protagonists, Smiles and Nike, are trying to thrive in a city that is contending with the crack epidemic, the rise of HIV/AIDS, and the onslaught of rapid urban decay and arson.1 Their story, told in a dialectic format, is imbued with the sights, slang, and swagger of the South Bronx, all while revisiting the sociopolitical realities of poverty and disenfranchisement from which hip-hop arose.

Set in contemporary Brooklyn, Shadowshaper conjures a world in which the spirits of the dead are clamoring to the living in a race against impending violence that threatens to destroy the delicate balance of power between the spirits and those who can harness their energies: the shadowshapers. The novel serves as a critique of heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and antiblack racism by indicting those who undermine the work of women in the spirit world, condemning colonizing researchers who coopt cosmologies, and challenging the insidiousness of antiblackness in Latinx families and communities. The young Afro–Puerto Rican protagonist, Sierra Santiago, is a creative and inquisitive muralist who is committed to community building but is running out of time trying to decipher a secret that is killing people and could hurt many more. Murals and paintings come alive and reanimated corpses are running through the streets in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, but Sierra, along with her love interest, Robbie (a Haitian shadowshaper); her brother Juan; her best friends Bennie, Tee, Izzy, and Jerome; and Columbia University librarian Nydia Ochoa, is determined to fight back.

What Older underscores through his writing are the ways developing strong ties with the ancestors and spirit world lead to collaborative and communal practices that serve the living and the dead. In crafting this novel, Older also takes seriously the battle between the forces of Afro-syncretic practices, the stronghold of heteromasculine patriarchy, and the ways that antiblackness and secular fear can lead to a rejection of the spirit world. Older’s text, more than a fantasy novel, offers an affective rendering of important topics for literary, Caribbean, Latinx, and Afro-diaspora studies. Older’s characters are beautifully sketched, and they allow us to glimpse the fullness of their hopes, insecurities, and belief systems. Sierra is not only an Afro-Latina protagonist in an Afro-futurist novel but also a fully fleshed and multidimensional character in ways that give us insight into formative moments of her identity construction. The “off-hand bigotry” that Sierra faces from within her own family becomes an important part of how we understand her resiliency and her identity formation in the face of racist remarks and internalized doubt (78). For instance, in one of the most intimate and beautiful moments of the book, Sierra reflects on her own utterances of being “not enough” and considers, in front of her mirror and with fierceness, that she is “more than enough” (80).  Older underscores that self-acceptance and self-love are not an instantaneous movida but rather come with time, and for Sierra, with realization of her identity as a descendant in a powerful lineage of shadowshapers.  

In Quintero’s Show and Prove, the South Bronx comes alive as we follow Nike, a young Puerto Rican B-boy, and Smiles, a Jamaican/African American graffiti artist, during the summer of 1983. Quintero weaves their stories by alternating chapters of their narratives. Over the course of the summer, Nike and Smiles, along with their friend Cookie and the newcomer Sara, work as summer camp counselors and show and prove the strength of their friendship, their capacity for change, and their ability to hold space for one another. The novel shows the grittiness of the South Bronx, as the neighborhood faces the aftermath of deindustrialization and blight, while the young people create vibrant new art forms: the elements of hip-hop. Quintero aptly demonstrates that urban decay and cultural renaissance can occupy the same place at the same time. While Smiles mourns the recent death of his mother from mysterious causes, he is also coming to a racial consciousness propelled by the teachings of Qusay, a member of Nation of Islam. The critical consciousness that Smiles develops through conversations with Qusay ruptures when he begins to suspect that race, even within the South Bronx’s black and Latinx community, is keeping him from achieving what he wants most: to make a difference and be a leader. Smiles attempts to navigate this newfound knowledge in ways that are productive to his relationships, aiming to prove that he not only belongs but has something to offer his community.

Nike, hoping to B-boy his way to the top, is resentful of his mother and the impoverished conditions under which they live. He relies on his good looks, stylish clothes, and B-boy skills to deflect the stereotypes that cast Puerto Ricans as negligent and welfare dependent. At the center of Nike’s story is a journey toward the confrontation of his ignorance of his mother’s struggles within the gendered/racial/sociopolitical order and his dismissal of how global issues affect the world around him. His summer fling with the mysterious Sara forces him to address his own inexperience and to show a newfound loving care and empathy for others. Quintero links Nike’s quest to find the truth behind his familial history to Sara’s secrecy, leading the reader from Brooklyn to Lebanon and from the South Bronx to Palestine. Nike, the know-it-all B-boy, is led to change his perspective on family and global affairs and to fundamentally question his own place in the world.

Shadowshaper and Show and Prove offer us a fresh take on what it means to be young, black, and brown in different decades. In doing so, these novels remap temporality—taking us back to the 1980s and into another spirit world—and ask readers to look a little deeper in order to recognize the new possibilities that are emerging. In crafting two distinctly Nuyorquino novels, the authors have made use of the New York Metro area as an extension of the Caribbean, showcasing the complexities of racialized urban life through the lens of Afro-Latinx and Afro-Caribbean protagonists. The novels reach beyond the often-formulaic bildungsroman structure and allow us a glimpse into worlds where young people of color are empowered by and despite their material conditions, to reimagine their place in the world. The protagonists in these novels contend with spiritual and structural power, antiblack racism, and modes of resistance. Older’s and Quintero’s narratives illustrate the creative capacity of teenagers as creators and practitioners of art forms and as capable beings developing a critical consciousness that sustains their communities and resists the racism and systematic oppression that surrounds them.

 

Yomaira C. Figueroa is an assistant professor of Afro-diaspora studies in the Department of English and in the African American and African Studies program at Michigan State University. She earned her MA and PhD in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Framed with critical attention to theories of decoloniality and women-of-color feminisms, her current project, “Decolonial Diasporas,” engages diasporic and exilic Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and Equatoguinean texts in contact.

 


1 Quintero is the author of several “chick lit,” erotica, and feminist hip-hop noir short stories and novels. Some of these are published under the pen name Black Artemis.