“She knew with undeniable certainty that she would withstand all that they could devise to destroy her. They would not take her true self…she would survive.”
—Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, A Woman of Endurance (Amistad, 2022)
A Woman of Endurance is Puerto Rican author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s latest novel. It follows the turbulent life of Pola, an African woman who is sold into slavery, as she heals in spite of the inhumanity of her situation thanks to the support of her community.
When Pola arrives at her new plantation, Las Mercedes, she is assigned to work in Las Agujas, where a group of mixed-race women make fine garments instead of harvesting sugarcane. This privilege is not lost on Pola, although she is disgusted by the differences in the treatment of the women based on their shade: “The color of their skin…banishes [women like Pola] to an unseen working world.” Thus, a colorist hierarchy is revealed among the enslaved women of the hacienda. Field worker Leticia “la Loca'' judges the mixed women, as Pola initially did, and claims that Pola feels superior to other dark-skinned Black women. Although Pola would like to refute her, she cannot: “It is not easy to admit, even to herself, that [Pola] has benefits that field workers will never enjoy…she understands much of Leticia’s resentment.” While the other women of Las Agujas accept Pola as one of their own, and Pola questions whether, even so close to the big house, “any slave is ever truly…safe,” the colorist systems of the plantation sow hatred. No character exemplifies this more than Celestina, the albino head housekeeper who relishes in her physical whiteness (claiming to be “Más blanca que las blancas”) and weaponizes her privilege against the other women. Although she is on the opposite side of the spectrum, Leticia also betrays her people, acting as an informant against two runaways to receive makeup and be in the good graces of the overseers. Their acts of sabotage against other Black women reflect a desire to be like the oppressor, perhaps as a means of survival within a racist, colorist system. These ideas have been confronted by Kyle Carrero-Lopez, Ariana Brown, and other Black and Afro-Latinx writers.
The racism and colorism of slavery creates a violent, dehumanizing environment for both men and women, and Pola’s experiences before her arrival at Las Mercedes reflect this. After being taken from her home, Pola and the other captives were starved, beaten, kept in subhuman conditions, and assaulted in every way. This escalated at her first plantation, Hacienda Paraíso, where she was repeatedly brutalized for the entertainment of the patrón. As a result, Pola justifiably spends most of the book in fear of men: “No man would ever take that much away from me again.” She distances herself even from Simón, a kind man who cares deeply for her, turning instead toward other women for care. I interviewed Llanos-Figueroa about A Woman of Endurance, who said that “women found solace within their own community. While the men were present and willing to provide that support, their hands were often tied by the brutality of their own treatment.” And, indeed, Simón helps Pola later in the book, only to be severely and permanently injured by Romero, the overseer of Las Mercedes. Romero is a perpetrator of gender violence like the men of Hacienda Paraíso, who treated Pola as a “breeding mare,” impregnating her over and over only to take her children in yet another act of brutality. The cruelty of the men running the plantation took on new depth, as they stripped Pola of one of the few things that ever brought her joy: motherhood.
The relationships between mothers and daughters is one of the most important ideas explored in A Woman of Endurance, a novel replete with maternal figures who guide Pola on her journey of healing. At Hacienda Paraíso, Pola gets to bond with her only “girl child” for several days, leaving Pola a husk of herself when the baby is taken away. When Pola arrives at Las Mercedes, Rufina “la Curandera” and head cook Patrona nourish her body, but it is Tía Josefa, the woman in charge of Las Agujas, who helps Pola heal her heart. When one of Tía Josefa’s women dies, dropping her into an abyss of grief, Pola pulls her out before she sinks beyond return. But when Pola loses Chachita, a young girl with no patrón who awakens “something long buried and almost forgotten,” it is Tía Josefa’s turn to help Pola endure this echo of all the children Pola couldn’t keep. At every juncture, these women rely on one another as a means of physical, emotional, and spiritual survival. As Llanos-Figueroa told me, “[i]n this narrative, as in the culture, daughters who have lost their mothers often find older women who fulfill that role.” Growing up in a family of mostly women, I’ve seen relationships with maternal figures be the most consequential and influential in the lives of daughters, an idea upon which Yasmín Ramírez elaborates in ¡Ándale, Prieta!. In cultures as patriarchal as Latinx ones, there’s no question that young women must rely on mothers to learn how to behave, how to survive, as they do in A Woman of Endurance.
Although reading this book was difficult at times due to the violence the characters experience, I am ultimately glad I did. “Slavery was driven by greed, justified by religion and enforced by the military,” said Llanos-Figueroa. All three of these components are discussed in A Woman of Endurance, and I think it’s important to recognize the far-reaching impacts of slavery, one of which may be a cultural reliance on maternal figures and their love to endure.
If you enjoyed this story’s exploration of motherhood in the context of slavery, check out Toni Morisson’s classic, Beloved.
Thanks to Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa for the email interview and to Amistad for the review Copy!