Veronica Chambers and the Tensions within US Afro-Central American Identity

If you were following my posts from last year, I moved from discussing the so-called Central American “child migrant crisis” and how it underscores the invisibility of Central American Latin@ presence in the United States, to looking at the problematic place of Central America(ns) in literature by Chicana writers. My first post of the new year marks my transition to US Central Americans writing about themselves.

My choice to focus on Veronica Chambers (Afro-Panamanian-Dominican) and her 1996 memoir, Mama’s Girlfor my first foray into US Central American writing may seem strange for a number of reasons. First, in the realm of Central American studies, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua receive the most attention, with Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize often marginalized due to historical and cultural differences. (For example, Belize is the only Central American nation whose official language is English, and in which there has been contestation by Guatemalan and British claims of ownership since 1940). Thus, a perspective on Panamanian immigration is less common, particularly because most conversation regarding Panama revolves around the Canal Zone and US military presence in the country. Coincidentally, Chambers was born on a US military base in Panama and is thus a US citizen (12).

Another reason that Chambers’s memoir may be an unusual way to start is that the work focuses on her African heritage and is the only major work written for adults (that I know of) that focuses on an Afro-Central American experience in the US (though I will add that Chambers wrote several Young Adult [YA] books with Afro-Latina characters in the years after her success with Mama’s Girl, such as Marisol and Magdalena [1998] and Quinceañera Means Sweet 15 [2001]). I’d like to focus on this exploration of Afro-Latina identity in the text.

Chambers’s memoir fits into a small but important group of works that struggle with Afro-Latin@ (and Afro-Caribbean) identity; I’m thinking of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967) and Evelio Grillo’s Black Cuban, Black American (2000) as two comparable examples (both of which are also memoirs). Like both of these memoirs, I argue that Chambers struggles with the seeming (and perhaps actual) incompatibility of Blackness and latinidad, ultimately embracing a US Black identity.

First a brief summary: Mama’s Girl recounts the life of Veronica Chambers, a US citizen of Panamanian-Dominican descent. Chambers covers her life from the age of seven to the mid-90’s, where she is one of only two Black editors at the New York Times. Chambers focuses particularly on her ambivalent relationship with her mother (this relationship eventually grows to be strong and affectionate) and the emotional, financial, and physical violence Veronica suffers at the hands of her mother, father, stepmother, and the poor, majority-minority neighborhoods she grows up in.

Chambers takes a lot of time in the first half of the novel highlighting her Afro-Latina heritage but this falls away by the end of the novel, where being a US Black woman becomes her dominant identity. This trajectory is made clear before her story begins. Chambers uses Audre Lorde’s poem, “Black Mother Woman” as the opening epigraph. The poem’s focus on “peel[ing] away your anger / down to its core of love” parallels the main concern of the memoir: Veronica finding a warm, healthy relationship with her mother after years of emotional distance.

However, her mother is also the site of her Panamanian-Caribbean roots. Veronica always recounts her childhood connections to her Afro-Latina heritage in reference to her mother, from the naming of her mother’s meals in Spanish, to the description of her mother’s santería practices (29-32), to the gatherings of Panamanian women who come to see her mother after she divorces her abusive husband (44-48). (One thing I appreciate about this memoir is how Chambers reminds the reader that even if a survivor leaves their abusive partner, that doesn’t mean they disappear; indeed, the father continues to be a disappointing, repressive, and violent presence for most of Veronica’s life). When Veronica and her mother move to Los Angeles and then soon move back to the New York area, it is because Veronica’s mother feels alienated without her Panamanian community.

In addition, despite Veronica’s statement that she does not speak Spanish, there are Spanish words and phrases sprinkled throughout the first half of the text. For example, Veronica highlights the use of ‘manita, a shortened form of hermanita, used as an affectionate term for a younger female friend in Panama (45), and “Estoy buscando algo para limpiar la casa” (29, italics hers) when Veronica’s mother goes to buy materials for a santería cleansing ceremony to clean her home and her family of the ex-husband’s violence.

However, the use of Spanish and these reminders of her Caribbean/Central American heritage fall away by the end of the novel. When Veronica has the long, honest conversation that she’s always wanted to have with her mother, she compares and contrasts their relationship to Toni Morrison’s classic 1987 novel Beloved. Chambers writes, “As she [her mother] held me, I thought of the book Beloved…. We must all make our peace, I thought. I felt lucky to have made mine in life…” (169). Chambers’s choice to compare her peacemaking to that of a novel concerned with Black experience of US slavery and historical and generational trauma situates Chambers’s story in a Black American narrative.

She ends the work with commentary on the relationship between Black men and women, using her brother Malcolm’s troubled life as an example. Chambers writes, “There is a saying that black women mother their sons and raise their daughters” and decides that, “unlike my mother and the black women of my childhood, I wasn’t going to support a black man at the expense of myself” (181). Her commentary on an important, and still very relevant, topic (just look at the problematic My Brother’s Keeper initiative under Obama and Black feminists’ response to it) enters into a US Black feminist conversation regarding the myth “that the world is a harder place for black men than it is for black women” (173).”

Ultimately, Chambers reaches the same conclusion that other Afro-Latin@s before her have: that the tension between Blackness and latinidad cannot be navigated; it is an either/or proposition.

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Review of:
Chambers, Veronica. Mama’s Girl. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996

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