África en mi ser

June 2023

An Interview with Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

The Puerto Rican–born and South Bronx–raised Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa has always been influenced by the duality of being both Black and Latina. As a writer and educator, she is creating a world of fiction that reflects the historical survivals of her Afro–Puerto Rican ancestors with her novels Daughters of the Stone (2009) and A Woman of Endurance (2022). Revealing ancestral practices and spiritualities, she reclaims healing through extraordinary protagonists whose legacies transcend gifted generations. Her writing is expressive and reflects Puerto Rican traditions while adopting West African elements. Llanos-Figueroa’s voice captures Afro–Puerto Rican communities in the island and in the diaspora by revealing oral traditions, spiritual rituals, and testimonies.

Her work has been published in several anthologies, including Diálogos; Hispanófila; Pleiades: Literature in Context; Afro-Hispanic Review; Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul;and Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York, 1980–2012.1 She is motivated to leave a legacy of literature that celebrates stories of love and resistance found in nineteenth-century Puerto Rican ancestral memory and culture. Llanos-Figueroa has acquired various accolades, such as the NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship for Fiction,2 a City Artists Corps Grant, and the Letras Boricuas Fellowship. In honor of her mother, Carmen María Figueroa Llanos, and her aunts Betty, Modesta, and Rosa, Llanos-Figueroa established the Figueroa Sisters Scholarship to support graduating high school seniors and undergraduate or graduate students majoring in creative writing or literature.

I interviewed Llanos-Figueroa following a lunch in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, on 15 February 2023. After having collaborated on various virtual events, we sat down in person to discuss our experiences as diaspora writers who center mothering and spirituality in our work.

Essah Cozett Díaz: Let’s talk about motherhood. I want to know what your relationship with your mom was like because you often talk about growing up with your elders.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa: [In]A Woman of Endurance, I wanted to include as many facets of mothering as I could, because so many times during the period of enslavement, women and their children were separated or purposely sent away. I wanted to explore what happens to a woman when this happens to her serially so that she knows when she gives birth, the child will be taken immediately. In Pola’s case, it was almost miraculous that in one case she did have a chance to bond with that newborn for a very short period of time.3 And then she was taken away.

ECD: Was that Milagros?4

DL-F: Yes! I think I’m going to give you a lot to write about with the five books.5 But I can’t go into much detail about that.

ECD: Wow. I’m so glad that I made that connection.

DL-F: You did. The issue of motherless children and women who step in as surrogate mothers is reflected in the Afro–Puerto Rican community. We have mami, we have mamá, we have madrasta, we have madre de crianza. We have so many incarnations of mother. I know African Americans also have godmothers and women who step up into that role when the biological mother is not there. So that’s really something that can be found throughout the diaspora. 

ECD: I was trying to analyze the importance of sacred spaces, but the key theme really is about kinship and the other forms of kinship like other-mothering figures. In “Mothers and Daughters,” you showed that Pola becomes the curandera de claridad.6 What inspired her healing?

DL-F: Roberto and I were talking about the theme of maternity throughout the entire series.7 But definitely in terms of Indómita, there is Yoruba symbology there, but there is also Catholic symbology.8 Josefa, Rufina and Pastora are the female representation of the male trinity in the New Testament.9

They heal her body with food, her soul, and her emotional well-being. Each one has her kingdom or her space in Pola’s life. When Pola is healed, she is healed on many, many, many levels. Simon takes care of healing another part of her. But you can’t get to that part until she’s healed within herself. She can’t offer a healed Pola to Simon until she is healed for herself—not for him, for herself. Also, until they find each other, their African names are not spoken, which is another level of healing. They reclaim the people they were before.10

ECD: I even notice the importance of healing and not everybody having that opportunity. But because of these women, she was able to heal. She’s like me; she’s hot tempered, you know, and she needs people to remind her to cool down, like my madrinas. What are some of the mothering roles in your own life that influence your writing?

DL-F: I had a close relationship with my mom. I loved her dearly and she loved me. But I think she wanted to be all to me. She said, “I’m your mom, but I’m also your best friend.” And I said, “Mom, you can’t be my best friend. You’re my mom and I love you. But my best friends don’t define themselves through me. You, in part, define yourself through me, because everything that I do, you feel reflects on you. And that constrains me.” I had to have breathing room. Which is why I went away to school five hundred miles away from home, because I had to find out who Dahlma was. 

Years later, I had no desire to be a biological mom. But [as a teacher in New York] I saw that there were so many girls who needed guidance. I felt, okay, these are my daughters. I spent a lot of time with girls who were very much like I was when I was a teenager—smart, self-contained, and an outsider. I wasn’t in with the crowd. I didn’t wear the right clothes. I was a book geek. I just didn’t fit in anywhere. It was a very lonely time. I started looking at my students and identifying the girls who were in the same situation.

I tried to supplement the things that were missing in their lives, and a lot of the mothers were very happy that I was there because they were new to the country and struggling with finding their place in this new world, so they needed help: “Ms. Llanos, yo no sé de esto, usted decida!” Y yo decía, “Yo no puedo decidir, yo les puedo explicar hasta le puedo dar consejo, pero yo no puedo decidir—es hija suya. Usted tiene que firmar.”

I was careful to not cross any boundaries. It wasn’t always easy because sometimes the girls and I got very close, and there were times when they didn’t want to tell their moms X, Y, Z because their moms were going to get upset, but they felt comfortable sharing with me, this other mother figure. I tried to steer them back to their moms, but sometimes that just didn’t work. So I had to really develop a relationship with the moms as well, and say, “Usted tiene todo mi respecto, usted es su mamá, usted decida.” I became the teacher/mother who had to navigate boundaries very carefully. I didn’t tell them, do this, do that, do the other. I just asked questions. Have you thought of this? Have you thought of that? Have you considered this? Why don’t you read about that?

With my own biological mom, I had to set boundaries so I could fully explore my definition of self. With my students, I had to learn to coparent. I could provide direction and leadership, but their mothers were still in the picture. So in this case I had to be very much aware of boundaries. While I considered them my “daughters,” I in no way wanted to usurp the mother’s role in their lives. I was supplementary, not primary. That role belonged to their moms. My mom died when I was in my twenties, and there would have been times that I would have liked for her to be there for me, but in my belief, I carry my ancestors, including Mom, with me at all times.

ECD: I can relate on many levels. How does this translate to your creative writing practices? 

DL-F: I have been meditating for over thirty years. It is a way of me getting out of the way of my conscious thought and opening myself up to the subconscious. Psychologists would call this tapping into collective cultural memory; Christians might relate it to speaking to the angels. I think of it as listening to the voices of my ancestors. I use this practice of meditation in my creative writing workshops.

The workshop I’m doing at el Corredor Afro is a memoir workshop.11 And [participants are] getting two prompts, each of them grown out of exercises in meditation that I give them prior to writing. These are meant to help them clear their minds of the daily concerns and focus on the images and thoughts hidden deep inside.

I try to give all my female protagonists a particular gift. In A Woman of Endurance, when Pola is being attacked by the men on the ship, she pleads with Yemayá, “Please take this gift away from me.” In that moment of crisis, and in an attempt to protect herself, she needed to shut out all the images that came with her gift.

ECD: I think that’s powerful to be able to decide, and this goes back to embracing corporeal consciousness. Oftentimes our ancestors weren’t able to control their powers. This was a heavy gift and there was no other outlet. Being able to reclaim when you want to use your gifts for your own safety and sanity is powerful in itself, right? How do we mature our gifts? Because it’s one thing to have a tool, but how do you use it?

DL-F: Her mother tried to teach her when she was a little girl, but she was so impressed with her uniqueness, “Oh, I can do this that other people can’t do.” Then as a teenager, she realized that this can be a curse as well. And how does she control that?

ECD: But do things need to be controlled?

DL-F: That’s a good question.

ECD: Like you said, sometimes our mother’s connections may restrict us in our way of decision-making and we need these madrinasto remind us, sharpen us, until we get back in alignment.

DL-F: It takes a while. Pola’s voyage of healing eventually leads her back to Yemayá and to her gift.

ECD: Eventually! I don’t know when y’all are leaving Puerto Rico, but hopefully you get a chance to go to Playa Esperanza in Manatí.12 Have you heard about this place?

DL-F: I’ve been to la hacienda [Hacienda La Esperanza].13

ECD: I haven’t been to la hacienda because it’s open during the week, and I’ve been to the beach only on the weekends. But this Sunday I went [to Playa Esperanza] for the third time, and I just felt overwhelmed and honored to be able to know what this place was and to still feel the spirits, even the ones that still remain there.

My mind was blown because two years ago we had to walk to the beach from where I imagined the chozas were placed, which is also a 5‑, 10‑minute drive away from the hacienda, which was an hour and a half hike.14 I began to imagine the enslaved people having to walk from the chozas to the hacienda to the house every day to work; that’s a two-hour walk. That’s before and after working in the fields. I got upset all over again about how ridiculous slavery is. 

It’s so wild even imagining Pola trying to get to the ocean, right? How much she had to endure. Man, we take so much for granted. Just being there was so spiritual.

DLF: You need to go back. This is what I got when I went there. This [Hacienda La Esperanza] pamphlet has mostly names of the people who owned the plantation and how they changed a timeline. This is what gave me the idea for A Woman of Endurance.

In the 1844 census, Hacienda La Esperanza had fifty-six slaves; forty-four were born in Africa, algunos eran de la Costa de Guinea y de la tribu de la mandinga. José Ramón Demetrio Fernández y Martínez heredará la hacienda de su padre. Now, this is what I was interested in, he buys thirty-nine enslaved women from 1834 to 1870, which breaks away from his father and other owners who buy only men.

When I was telling the guide that I was writing this story, but I had no historical reference about breeding actually happening in Puerto Rico, he said, “Read between the lines.” A lot of the research that I found does not openly admit to what was happening because that wasn’t to the owners’ advantage.15 But if you read between the lines, you will see it.

ECD: I have been reading between the lines while transcribing the 1872 Registro Central de Esclavos. I don’t know if I’ve shown you the slave register that we’re working on in Taller Entre Aguas [TEA]?

DL-F: Now, this is not for your thesis? You’re just doing this?

ECD: No, this is my fellowship work. TEA is a micro-lab in the Diaspora Solidarities Lab.16 TEA started with two main projects, El Registro and the Criadas Project developed from the Fernando Pico papers.17

Anyone can access the Registro on the US National Archives and Records Administration Catalog.18 But many of the documents are illegible to the untrained eye. What helped me during the transcription process was downloading each document on my phone and enhancing the documents in my photo edits. I changed the contrast, highlight, exposure, and brightness until it was dark enough to read. Then I converted the images into PDF for each district.

We’re not changing anything from this database, only making it more accessible to support Black Puerto Rican data. For example, each document includes the enslaved person’s name, manumission price, owner name, occupation, marital status, offspring, and descriptions of their height, skin color, hair texture, eye color, nose, and mouth. 

The most fascinating part is in finding out who is from Africa. For example, in the Arecibo district, I found a lady named Catalina who is from Africa and her daughter is Leonor, who is documented to have a daughter named Faustina. They made me think of Fela and her descendants.19

DL-F: Wow. I need all the information.

ECD: I got you!

Essah Cozett Diaz is a Liberian American poet and PhD candidate. Her research is rooted in migration, memory, storytelling, and African spiritualities. Díaz is currently a fellow of the Diaspora Solidarities Lab, a multi-institutional Black feminist digital humanities partnership. Her writing has appeared in several international print and online publications.

[1] See https://www.dahlmallanosfigueroa.com/published-works.

[2] New York State Council on the Arts / New York Foundation for the Arts.

[3] Pola is the protagonist in Llanos-Figueroa’s novel A Woman of Endurance.

[4] Milagros is discovered in Llanos-Figueroa’s 2020 short story “Mothers and Daughters.” 

[5] Llanos-Figueroa is planning to write a five-volume series centering the lives of enslaved Puerto Rican women. I am currently writing my doctoral dissertation, which analyzes literature by African and Caribbean diaspora women who transcend silence by strategically using sacred spaces, ancestral memories, and oral traditions as maps beyond imposed oppressions in order to survive maternal dispossession.

[6] See Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, “Mothers and Daughters,” Hispanófila, no. 189 (June 2020): 10–15.

[7] H. Roberto Llanos is an author who was in conversation with Llanos-Figueroa at her book launch on 11 February 2023 at La Esquina bookstore in San Juan. By “series,” Llanos-Figueroa is referring to her novels.

[8] Indómita is the title of the Spanish edition of A Woman of Endurance, also published in 2022.

[9] Josefa, Rufina, and Pastora are the three women who help heal the protagonist Pola in A Woman of Endurance.

[10] A Woman of Endurance follows the healing journey of Pola, who has been abducted from Africa and forced to be a breeder on a plantation in Puerto Rico. Pola’s children are brutally taken away from her as soon as she gives birth. It is through support from her community that she recognizes the subsistence in various relations of love.

[11] The Corredor Afro describes itself as “an international creative, sociocultural, educational, and artistic innovation project focused on highlighting, conserving, and making visible the cultural heritage and ancestral intelligence of Afro-descendants living in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the world.” See https://corredorafro.org/.

[12] Playa Esperanza is a beach located in Manatí, in the north of Puerto Rico.

[13] Hacienda La Esperanza is a former sugar plantation that is now a Nature Reserve historic site and Para la Naturaleza’s regional headquarters; see https://savingplaces.org/distinctive-destinations/hacienda-la-esperanza.

[14] Choza is the Spanish word for “hut,” which is similar to “slave quarters.”

[15] See Daniel Morales-Armstrong, “Overseen and Overlooked: Spanish and British Silencing of Labor Resistance in Post-emancipation Puerto Rico,” Slavery and Abolition 44, no. 2 (2023): 1–17.

[16] The Diaspora Solidarities Lab is a multi-institutional Black feminist partnership that supports solidarity work in Black and Ethnic Studies conducted by undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and community partners who are committed to transformative justice and accountable to communities beyond the Western academy; see https://www.dslprojects.org.

[17] See Sarah Bruno and Jessica Marie Johnson, “‘Que Recogan Este Memoria’: Black Puerto Rican Data,” New Literary History 54, no. 1 (2022): 583–611.

[18] See Registro Central de Esclavos, 1872–1872, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/1476161.

[19] In Llanos-Figueroa’s Daughters of the Stone, Fela is an enslaved seamstress who starts the family line that the novel traces.