Sonia Rivera-Valdés, lesbian Latina author, inspires artists’
Sonia Rivera-Valdés, accomplished Cuban-born lesbian author, professor, and president of The Latino Artists Roundtable, introduced LART’s Second International Congress of Latino Artists, “Multiple Realities, Multiple Fictions,” to an enthusiastic group at New York University’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center on October 21.
The five-day gathering, running through Saturday, October 25, boasts more than 100 participants from 15 different countries and will feature 25 roundtable discussions, 13 workshops, one plenary, theatrical presentations, a poetry night, and a mini film-festival
Rivera-Valdés, 66, founded LART in 1999 and has since worked in conjunction with a core group of individuals “to promote Latino/a artists and writers of excellence, who are working on marginal issues, and to mentor promising young talent,” as affirmed in the organization’s mission statement.
Rivera-Valdés was born in Cuba and came to New York City in 1966, at the age of 28, in what she describes as an effort “to solve all of my problems” and to flee the confusion and tumult of post-revolution Cuba. Married at the age of 18, she, her husband, and her three children––one of whom, Mario Picayo, currently serves as executive director for LART––moved to New York but remained here for only a year before relocating to Puerto Rico. Her experience with the U.S. in the 1960s was a disappointment. She arrived here in the midst of the civil rights movement and what seemed to be almost as much angst and turmoil as she had left behind.
Once in Puerto Rico, however, life for Rivera-Valdés began to change considerably. She divorced her “pathologically jealous” husband of 15 years when he became enraged by her decision to return to school, and not long afterwards, fell in love with a woman.
“And,” said Rivera-Valdes, “I have been with women ever since.”
Rivera-Valdés’ resettled in New York City in 1977.
Rivera-Valdés’ book, “The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda,” won the 1997 Casa de las Americas Award for Hispanic literature in the United States, one of the most prestigious honors for a Latin American writer. Inspired partly by real life accounts and conversations, and partly in response to a Cuban politician’s conflicted statement about homosexuality, the book is a collection of nine short stories, each addressing controversial and irreverent topics told from the perspective of extraordinarily diverse characters.
Rivera-Valdés was surprised by the positive reception the book gained, considering its decidedly off-color subject matter, but attributes its success to the fact that it is about breaking taboos and articulating deeply-hidden secrets.
Rivera-Valdés has been published extensively in anthologies in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, and “The Forbidden Stories” is a best-seller in her homeland. She is a professor of Spanish at York College, part of the City University of New York, where she also coordinates an ethnic studies program.
A queer identity facilitates her writing, said Rivera-Valdés, who asserts that being a lesbian has “never been an issue” for her with family or friends. She lives in Manhattan with her 35-year-old partner, Cuban-born author Jaqueline Herranz Brooks, and openly jokes about the age gap between them. Rivera-Valdés’ mother currently lives in Miami and is very much aware of her daughter’s sexuality.
Her three children and nine grandchildren, including one openly lesbian 19-year-old granddaughter, are all constants in her life. Although she says she never spoke to her ex-husband about her newfound sexual identity after their divorce, she remained friendly with him until his death several years ago, and his daughter from a subsequent marriage now lives with her son, Mario. She says that her life “is an open book for all to read.”
The desire to create a cross-cultural exchange of ideas occurred to Rivera-Valdés after her first visit back to Cuba in 1980. Her country had changed significantly, she recalled, and she became intrigued by the atmosphere of progress and hope enjoyed by Cubans. When she returned to the United States, she became involved with the Foundation of Cuban Culture, facilitating cross-cultural conversations with writers and artists, a cause to which she remains dedicated.
Four years ago, frustrated by the lack of diversity in organizations spotlighting Hispanic artists and writers, she founded The Latino Artists Roundtable. In addition to integrating Spanish-speaking communities, a main goal of LART is to focus specifically on Latino/a artists dealing with ideas that have been traditionally excluded or marginalized by classicism or other prejudices.
In her opening statement this past Tuesday evening, Rivera-Valdés reflected on the need for an event to unite Spanish-speaking artists of all backgrounds who seek to emerge from anonymity.
“We all wish to be celebrated,” she said to a packed crowd in the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center’s small auditorium. She claimed that many of the foreign artists invited to the forum were denied visas by the United States government, including virtually all of the Cubans whose visa applications were either rejected or ignored. A fairly prominent filmmaker from Costa Rica was also denied.
Catharine Stimpson, dean of NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, told the attendees in her welcoming statement that by next year’s meeting, “the idiocy of U.S. visa policies will have changed.”
Rivera-Valdés emphasized that in keeping with the Congress’ theme of unity, the discussion panels are by topic rather than nationality.
Jim Fernandez, director of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, has arranged the space and financial sponsorship for the Congress for the past two years.
“In New York City, things can be said that cannot be thought or said anywhere else. I firmly believe that,” said Fernandez.
Angel Lozado, a LART Congress executive committee member, suggested that the King Juan Carlos I Center “is positioning itself as the most important place to promote Latino/a arts in the United States today.”
Barnes & Noble will be present throughout the forum selling both Spanish and English editions of books mainstream American publishers have eschewed.
When discussing what the Congress means to her, Rivera-Valdés passionately asserted, “This is what I love. I love the unity.”
More information on LART is available at www.lartny.com