» Book Review
Eating Moors and Christians, by Sandra M. Castillo
CavanKerry Press, 2016
90 pages, paperback, $16
Emerging Voices Series
Sandra M. Castillo’s bilingual poetry book, Eating Moors and Christians, begins with an acknowledgement of her intentions:
Here, memory stumbles, and we rewrite the past, float through the surface of history, what it must have surely been like, galleries of lies and obsessions, a piñata of subjectivity cón lenguaje de sentimentalismo.
Castillo promises an exploration of imperfect memory intersecting with the subjective and sentimental interpretation of history, and her book delivers. Told in three parts, this collection of poems reads as though the reader is flipping through a personal photo book from the Cuban speaker’s past. Ekphrastic descriptions and allusions to photographs from her childhood home in Cuba and her exiled adolescence in Miami are juxtaposed with stories of the roles her parents and grandparents and tías and tíos (aunts and uncles) played in the Revolution, as well as her own journey back to the homeland decades later as an adult. As a result, the whole collection reads as a series of vibrant snapshots, providing the reader with an intimate glimpse of Cuban life during this tumultuous time of transition.
Castillo confronts the conflict of Cubans’ dual identity throughout the collection. In a dream described in “Leavings,” the speaker remembers her aunt calls her to come to America:
signaling for us to come,
her tall body wrapped in a blue and red
airmail envelope, like a cloak.
but I hesitate…
The speaker is entranced by the idea of life in America, and though her family urges her toward safety in this new land, she hesitates: Part of her wishes to remain in Cuba, her home and an integral part of her identity. In “Unearthing the Remains,” the speaker has become accustomed to life in America, yet notes:
Separated by the Caribbean, secret underwater mines,
a revolution, ninety miles of nostalgia, a new language,
I no longer remembered myself.
I had become someone else, the Other,
a stranger, a skeleton of whom I might have been.
She acknowledges that the trip to Florida and her settlement abroad has alienated her from her homeland, and forced her to grow into someone different than she may have been if she had stayed in Cuba. In yet another poem, when she goes back to visit Cuba, the speaker revisits this idea of nonbelonging, and notes how she and her family are greeted with suspicion, “Other, “aquí, / en nuestra tierra natal” [here, in our native land]. Both in the United States and in Cuba, Castillo’s speaker is “Other.” No matter where she resides, she does not belong.
Eating Moors and Christians explores the many ways Cubans may not belong, and how these varied circumstances often bring an undercurrent of fear. This fear often manifests in Castillo’s poems with a recurrent aversion to water and concern about not knowing how to swim, or of the violence of men. She uses vibrant similes like “an engine that exploded / like a violent husband” and “he grabs me, squeezes me, / as if picking tropical fruit” to illustrate the severity and nuance of the conflicts faced by Cubans, even in their own culture.
Braided within these intensely personal vignettes are snapshots of how Cubans made do with life on the island, as well as how claimed Cubans, those with relatives who sponsored them in the US, like the speaker, made it to America yet continued to look back toward the homeland. In the title poem Eating Moors and Christians, which is nestled in the third and final section of the book, Castillo’s speaker describes a reenactment of La Reconquista over a meal of white rice and black beans, noting that they (the rice and the beans) are “cooked together until the rice is brown, mestizo”—deliberately using the Spanish term for people of mixed heritage to draw the connection between black Moros and white Cristianos. Here is the heart of Cuban people and of the book: a mixture that creates something new.
When considering Cuba, Castillo’s speaker identifies: “This is where I come from, a place that exists in photographs I never owned.” But in addition to reminiscing about the memories brought up by the photographs she’s found, Castillo’s speaker also addresses the role of being the photographer with a questionable lens. When considering life in Cuba post-revolution in “La Lisa, Marianao 15, La Habana, Cuba,” the speaker states:
I photograph it all with Catholic grief, our mosaic of sin and guilt, this slow blur into the past, mourn the loss, todo lo perdido, in this, the city of my dreams where everything and nothing has changed.
Toward the end of the collection, the speaker confirms: “I am a camera, dedicated flash.” Indeed, she is. In this collection, Castillo has captured the Cuban people, cuerpo y alma, as they were, as they are, and as they will be.