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San Antonio Express-News

Book Offers Lasting Tribute To Latina Mothers

By Elda Silva

April 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003
San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved. 

Juana Grajales was a 19-year-old mother of four when she left her home in Puerto Rico to look for work in New York.

Abandoned by her husband, Grajales was determined to provide a better life for her children. Maria Perez-Brown, one of Grajales' three daughters, now pays tribute to her mother in Mama: Latina Daughters Celebrate Their Mothers (Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins, $27.50), a collection of stories and photographs about successful Latinas and their mothers.

Published this month, the book with photographs by Julie Bidwell features talk show host Cristina Saralegui; salsa singer Celia Cruz; Florida first lady Columba Bush; U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin; and actress Rosario Dawson. Warner Records will release a compilation CD also titled Mama with music inspired by the stories in the book, which is being published simultaneously in Spanish.

Perez-Brown, creator and executive producer of the Nickelodeon TV shows Gullah Gullah Island and Taina, was inspired to write the book by husband Keith Michael Brown's experience with his book Sacred Bond: Black Men and Their Mothers.

"Seeing him talking around the country and just really experiencing the dialogue and the healing that was going on with groups of men he was addressing throughout the country, was an amazing, eye-opening experience," says Perez-Brown, 41. "I've always cherished my mom and thought about all the different things she did for my sisters and I and my brother and I thought, `I wonder if it's different when women start talking about their moms?'"

Perez-Brown found that women were willing to reveal the hardships in their family lives.

"Some of them were very open about the fact that there was conflict between the mother and the dad, for example, and how painful that was for them and how they still struggle, to this day, to understand violence in the home or abandonment," she says.

Perez-Brown and her siblings were raised by their mother, a single parent who supported her children with a factory job.

"When you grow up with a single parent who is very strong like my mom was, who provided for our every need, you don't even know that you're not getting what other people are getting because your needs are met," she says. "We always had something to eat. We always had a good place to live. Sometimes it was the biggest ghetto in the world, like when we lived in Brooklyn, but we were protected by my mother."

When Perez-Brown's older sister skipped a day of school, her mother moved the family out of Brooklyn -- and the negative influences she saw there -- to Connecticut.

Perez-Brown's mother had been forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade and was confined to the house after her father found a love letter from an admirer.

Eventually, she eloped and married Perez-Brown's father.

"She said, `My daughters are not going to have the same experience that I had growing up,'" Perez-Brown recalls. "An education was that important to her that she moved us out of New York and into Connecticut."

Perez-Brown and her mother remain close.

"Sometimes I say that we take turns being mothers and daughters," she says. "I think a lot of women in the book also express that feeling. When you're young, your mother is this incredibly strong, wonderful woman that provides everything for you.

And then when you're an adult, she still is that. But then sometimes they call you for the most basic things, like `Can you make a phone call for me because you're a lawyer?' I'm like, `But, Ma, that's not a legal matter.' But we have a very good friendship."

Recently, Perez-Brown spoke at a function at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Afterward, women lined up for a book signing, many of them eager to tell Perez-Brown about their own mothers.

"I'm looking at the line going, `This is gong to be long,'" she laughs. "But it's wonderful. It's such an incredible opportunity because everybody feels so connected to the subject matter of the book. And I think for me to be able to have this book inspire dialogue among daughters and mothers is going to be incredible."

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