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RTC Second Act

Filling a void with novels about her heritage

New York Teacher
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

As a student, Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa found few, if any, books about Afro-Puerto Ricans. As a retired educator, she is writing historical novels that reflect the complexity of her heritage.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa has sought refuge in libraries and books her whole life — as a Spanish speaker entering elementary school before bilingual education existed, as a middle and high school student who felt she didn’t “fit in,” and later when she left classroom teaching to become a school librarian.

As a student in the Bronx, she encountered few, if any, books that reflected her reality as an Afro-Puerto Rican. She changed the paradigm as a school librarian and purchased culturally diverse works to attract reluctant readers. Now, the retired Bronx educator is contributing her own works to libraries — historical novels that reflect the richness, complexity, beauty and brutality of her heritage.

Her first novel, “Daughters of the Stone,” follows an Afro-Puerto Rican family from its capture in Africa to the Vietnam War. The book was published in 2009, five years after she retired, but she had been jotting down scenes and characters in her journals for years while she was still working in schools.

“I really didn’t know what to do with the notes, so I just kept writing,” she said.

Then she started to see unified thoughts and themes. “So I started reworking and repositioning the notes into scenes and chapters,” she said. “It all came together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Llanos-Figueroa — who is married to UFT retiree Jonathan Lessuck — started as a bilingual teacher at Elizabeth Barrett Browning JHS in the Bronx in 1973. She also was an English language arts teacher for many years. Her first assignment as a school librarian was at Stitt JHS 164 before moving on to her alma mater, James Monroe HS. She retired in 2004 from University Heights HS in the Bronx.

She caught the bug for storytelling as a child when she lived for a few years in rural Carolina, Puerto Rico, and listened to the stories of her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends. When her research on 19th-century Puerto Rican plantation society turned up only slave owners’ writings, Llanos-Figueroa sought out oral histories by “talking to the oldest people I could find, asking them about their parents and grandparents and stories they had been told.” She also read slave accounts from elsewhere in the world.

Her novels, which are sprinkled with Spanish words, lay bare the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery, but they are also about hope and healing. In her second book, “A Woman of Endurance,” a slave escapes from a breeding plantation where her babies were taken away, but leads a gentler existence and ultimately finds love and support while enslaved at another plantation. It was published by the Amistad Press imprint of HarperCollins, which showcases Black authors.

“I know people who say the scenes are so brutal, but you can’t write about slavery without writing about violence and the dark side of human nature,” Llanos-Figueroa said. “But what I say to everyone is, ‘Trust me, I won’t leave you in the darkness.’ This is a story, a novel, about a journey to healing and the fact that as women, we can stay down or we can find a way of regenerating, and I think that goes across all cultures.”

Her third novel in the series, which she is currently writing, takes place from roughly 1873, when Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico, to the U.S. invasion in 1898.

Llanos-Figueroa has received multiple accolades and fellowships since writing became her new vocation. She originally wanted to write a memoir, but that proved too challenging, so she abandoned the form and switched to fiction. “For everything I wrote,” she said, “there were five people with different opinions about what happened and how it happened.”