Last month, poet, writer, and educator Peggy Robles-Alvarado celebrated the launch of The Abuela Stories Project with an event held at the Bronx Museum. Three years in the making, the book brought together a group of women who write passionately to explore and expand on the notion of what it means to be an Abuela. As mentioned by Peggy during the launching of the book, “this was no easy work, many obstacles were in the way,” but her fighting spirit kept the motivation to publish her third book. Also, it is important to mention the work of Daisy Arroyo, who captured the writers through stunning photographs to accompany the words presented in the book. Centro Voices reached out via email to learn more about the project and inspiration behind Robles-Alvarado’s work of art.
Centro Voices (CV): Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the Abuela Stories Project?
Peggy Robles-Alvarado: The Abuela Stories Project was inspired by several moments in my own life that became a catalyst for the collection. The first was my experience becoming an Abuela five years ago, in my thirties. I reflected on what kind of Abuela I was and how that would be received by my grandbaby. By no means am I the standard prototype of an Abuela, and I am very comfortable with that. The second was searching for information about my own Abuelas and getting vague or inaccurate responses. No one in my immediate family wanted to tell the truth about the saintly matriarch who suffered at the hands of an abusive husband or the foul-mouthed wife of a coffee farmer whose anger stemmed from wanting more out of the life she was given. The third and most prominent reason for creating The Abuela Stories Project was being told that stories about our Abuelas didn’t matter and that they would not be published because they are cliché. How could stories about women ever be cliché? I wanted to explore poetry, prose and photography that dissected the lives of these women we call Mamá, Nana, Guelita; I didn’t simply want heartwarming tales set in the kitchen or pushing off a rocking chair. I wanted the stories of heartache, lust, abandon and rituals that depict Abuelas as they were and not what we perceive them to be. Not all Abuelas were nurturers. Some were detrimental and absent. The Abuelas photographed in the collection are representative of women who dance, fight, create and transform.
CV: What has been your role in putting together the project? And the larger community of writers and artists involved?
Peggy: I started with the idea to merge visual art with poetry and prose. I partnered with Daisy Arroyo, a Bronx-based visual artist, to help create the visual inspiration for fourteen women writers, at different stages of their careers, to write original poetry and prose about Abuelas. The seven Abuelas featured in the collection volunteered to be interviewed and photographed. Each series begins with a description of who they are in the form of a definition. Their photographs served as inspiration for the invited writers who wrote about their experiences with their own Abuelas, but also extended the idea of Abuela beyond the usual tropes. The collection touches on themes of loss, risk, stereotyping, infidelity, joy, regret, healing and how Abuela can embody all of these.
CV: In the book, you mentioned being curious about your grandmother Mama Lolita's "unexplored passions, guarded intimate moments, tearful regrets, and the life you were not privy to." How impactful was your grandmother's life on yours and how did this relationship create an impact on your role now as a grandmother?
Peggy: My Abuela Mamá Lolita was a staunch Catholic woman who endured abuse at the hands of my grandfather for the sake of keeping the family of eighteen living children intact. I recall her demure yet elegant dresses, coiffed hair, her soft voice and how her faith kept her smiling. The memory of Mamá Lolita was kept tangible because of my mother, who refused to sacrifice herself and demanded I too reject the title of martyr. Unknowingly, Mamá Lolita fostered an uncompromising strength and faith in my mother to be a strong woman who made herself a priority; this idea rooted in me and was constantly reinforced by tales of her suffering–a lesson to be learned and never repeated. The stories of Mamá Lolita’s life made me question the narrative I wanted to create for my grandbaby. What would she say of me? What tales would she remember and tell her children about her Abuela? I want her to know that her Abuela is and was an accomplished, complex woman who made mistakes but also made magic through poetry.
CV: Were there any obstacles in putting together this book?
Peggy: There were obstacles in that I had to learn how to translate a vision into a physical book that encompassed fifty photos, several very diverse pieces of writing and presenting it in a way where the collection itself could tell a story. The layout was one area of constant decision-making but I also had to work around scheduling issues, printing errors, and photo editing choices. Thankfully a grant from The Bronx Council on The Arts through The Department of Cultural Affairs’ Greater New York Arts Development Fund Program helped to cover the expenses accrued in finalizing The Abuela Stories Project.
CV: What did the concept of being an 'abuela' mean to you before the book? And what did you learn in the process of making the book? Did your perception change?
Peggy: When starting The Abuela Stories Project, Abuela meant nurturer, mujer misteriosa who gave me these eyes, the keeper of faith and all things related to Dama. After having completed this project I devised a less rigid definition of Abuela; one that includes her choice in giving of herself and her ability to heal or harm. My definition of Abuela as of this moment: Abuela is an eclectic creature with diverse passions, (some visible, others occult) who is able (but obligated to) sustain her family emotionally, physically and sometimes posthumously through food, song, advice and even through her self- imposed absence. In folklore, she is a symbol of subdued matriarchy; softened and restrained by narratives scripted with social or gender norms in place. But Abuelas are mujeronas with secrets, some to be shared, others to be kept just for her; like the deepest part of the ocean she only allows some her treasures to be seen. Mythical made mujer, Abuela is unpolished precious stone, and we are drawn to her jagged edges.
The Abuela Stories Project
Edited by Peggy Robles-Alvarado, Photographed by Daisy Arroyo
New York, NY: 2016
124 pages; $20.00 (paperback)
To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.