By Christopher Ryan
It came in a package so small it didn’t seem like a book had arrived. That added to the intrigue. Once opened, the 4.5” x 7” volume startled me. So petite, so slim. With a drawing of what turned out to be the Vejigante, a spirit creature, crying on the cover. Not what was expected at all.
Wait, “expected” is the wrong word. Assumed is more accurate, and serves this experience better. People make assumptions about books, authors, people, nationalities, cultures, and life, almost always to their mutual detriment.
We Came From an Island by Cynthia Pelayo smashes those assumptions, replacing them with an engaging mixture of Chicago grit and Boricuan mysticism. Her characters struggle under racism, conflicting national identities, rich cultural traditions, starkly hateful history, deep cultural sexism, misunderstood mental illness, and family secrets that define who they are, for better or worse.
All in 77 pages.
That’s powerful storytelling.
Better still, the three short stories included here work a magic together that is wondrously different from the spells they cast separately. “Boricua Obiturary” first appeared in PAQUE TU LO SEPAS! , a dynamic 2019 anthology, and “The Lament of the Vejigante” made its debut in the 2020 immigration -themed anthology Both Sides: Stories from the Border. But here, these works combine with the third tale, “The Puerto Rican Syndrome” to cast a cumulative magic and examine a deepening horror that goes from youthful innocence to adult awareness, and from ancient cultural mysticism to inherited trauma. The tales weave together the themes of stripped culture, fiercely protected spirituality, colonization, immigration, rage, sexism, racism, isolation, inclusion, identity confusion, mental illness, and the complexities of familial love to deliver a masterwork of modern horror that the stories cannot achieve apart.
To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two pieces when I read them separately. But experiencing them together in We Came From an Island allows for connections and reversals and evolution of stories not as easily apparent before.
The result is magical. And emotional. And wondrous.
Pelayo opens with a voice that is both as Chicagoan as the freezing cement sidewalks of that town and as rich as her island’s intriguing folklore. Clear observations of daily life and the supernatural elements enveloping it hook the reader. From the opening sentence, “If you went out at night you saw ghosts,” Pelayo sends us on a mesmerizing journey that weaves together the disparate threads of family tensions, spiritual belief, political reality, economic abuse, persistent racism, traditional sexism, emigration as escape, and immigration as isolation to create the Puerto Rican experience.
It is incredible.
This collection allows us to live the stories as a journey from long-standing family tensions to the horrors of casual racism to youthful encounters with supernatural beings, to cold, hard truths laid bare. We encounter ghosts as guiding memories, memories as haunting ghosts, and horrors that are progressively more real than supernatural.
Our experiences define us. Exterior forces, whether they batter or embrace, influence who we are. Navigating the many layers of life that create us necessitate facing horrors both ethereal and concrete, ranging from what is in our power to change to what threatens to overpower us if we cannot muster the personal strength to work through them.
Cynthia Pelayo demonstrates such strength, crafting an experience that continually evolves on all levels, beginning in frustrating reality, then becoming more spiritual so that both characters and readers are prepared when she plunges us back to riveting, heartbreaking everyday life.
We Come From an Island is one of those rare reading experiences that attaches itself to us, inspiring reflection, comparison, and, hopefully, a better understanding of how the myriad paths we travel intersect to make us who we are.
Bravo, Ms. Pelayo.