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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Nicholasa Mohr
(b. 1938)

Nicholasa Mohr is one of the most widely published Puerto Rican writers in the United States. Born to parents who came to New York City with the massive migration during World War II, Mohr grew up in the Bronx and studied art at the Students’ Art League. She became a well-known graphic artist. Her art agent once asked her to write about growing up Puerto Rican and female in the Bronx, perhaps expecting sensationalist tales of crime, drugs, and gang activity. The stories Mohr wrote were quite different, and she had difficulties getting editors interested in publishing her work. Nilda, her first novel, appeared in 1974.

Somewhat autobiographical, Nilda relates life in the Bronx through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl who is a second-generation Puerto Rican. Mohr’s protagonist uses her imagination and her fantasies to sustain herself through the hardships of her cultural and economic circumstances. As in this book, Mohr chooses to use a child’s perspective for much of her writing. Felita and Going Home are, in fact, aimed at an adolescent audience. They relate Felita’s experiences growing up in El Barrio and on a return trip to Puerto Rico, where she discovers differences between the values of her family and community in New York and the values of her relatives and of Puerto Rican society at large.

Rituals of Survival: A Woman’s Portfolio is one of Mohr’s most interesting publications. It consists of six vignettes about adult Puerto Rican women, each one representing various lifestyles, ages, and circumstances. Their common bond is their need to survive as individuals and as women free from restricting social and cultural expectations. In “A Thanksgiving Celebration,” reproduced here, Amy, the young widowed mother of four children, resorts to her ingenuity and storytelling traditions inherited from her grandmother, in order to give meaning to Thanksgiving Day. All of Mohr’s characters have to struggle with the sexual roles imposed on them by the Hispanic culture, with the machista attitudes of the men in their lives, and with the expectations set on them by their families.

Although Nicholasa Mohr has been called a “meat-and-potatoes” writer, because of her simple style and the emphasis she places on the humanity of her characters, who are likely to be everyday people with everyday conflicts to surmount, her storytelling is clear, direct, and powerful. That it found publication in the adolescent reader market does not detract from its importance as a voice of a people sometimes marginalized by economic and social stratifications. Mohr’s work has been important because it has, often for the first time in English, presented and preserved family and household rituals from the Puerto Rican culture. It has also recorded the conflicts and ambivalences of a young Puerto Rican girl growing up in El Barrio of New York. As Mohr once said, “In American literature, I, as a Puerto Rican child, did not exist...and I as a Puerto Rican woman do not exist now.” Her prose has established a precedent for young Puerto Rican women writers to continue to explore, question, and critique their lives in a bicultural world. Most importantly, Mohr has rescued readers’ images of Barrio life from stereotypes of puertorriqueños as gang members or criminals. Her work has received several prizes, among them the 1974 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and The New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year. She was also a National Book Award finalist.

Frances R. Aparicio
University of Illinois at Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
from Rituals of Survival (1985)

Other Works
Nilda (1974)
El Bronx Remembered (1976)
In Nueva York (1977)
Felita (1979)
Going Home (1986)

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Authors Online
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Voices from the Gaps
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Secondary Sources

Edna Acosta Belen, "The Literature of the Puerto Rican National Minority in the United States," 5:12 The Bilingual Review (Jan.-August 1978)

Arnaldo Cruz, "Teaching Puerto Rican Authors: Modernization and Identity in Nuyorican Literature," ADE Journal published by The Modern Language Association, December, 1988

Growing Up Hispanic (video), 1988

Bridget Kevane and Heredia, eds., "Pa'lante: An Interview with Nicholasa Mohr," Latina Self-portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, 2000 (83-96)

William Luis, Dance Between Two Cultures: Latino Carribean Literature Written in the United States, 1997

Nicholasa Mohr, "On Being Authentic," 14:3-4, The American Review, (Fall-Winter 1986):106-109

Eliana Rivero, The House on Mango Street: Tales of Growing Up Female and Hispanic, 1986

Marc Zimmerman, U.S. Latino Literature: An Essay and Annotated Bibliography, 1992