Study Guide

Nicholosa Mohr

Nicholosa Mohr Essay - Critical Essays

Mohr, Nicholosa

Introduction

Nicholosa Mohr 1935–

American young adult novelist, short story writer, and illustrator. Mohr's work is noted for its realistic portrayal of life in New York City's Puerto Rican slums. An accomplished painter and printmaker, she received awards both as author and illustrator for her 1973 first novel, Nilda. Mohr says of her work: "It incorporates a strong social statement; the plight and constant struggle of the Puerto Ricans on the mainland to receive their basic human rights. Using art, the universal language of humanity, I bring forth the point-of-view of a subculture in America, the Puerto Rican people with all their variety and complexity." She is sometimes criticized for being more concerned with her characters as Puerto Ricans than as human beings, but her concern with the condition of that minority does not obscure her vision. She presents her characters sympathetically, but honestly, revealing their character flaws as well as strengths. Her work often deals with situations that are unconventional in young adult fiction, such as failed marriages, homosexuality, and illegitimacy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, and Something about the Author, Vol. 8.)

Nilda's growing up at first seems to be a chain of just so many unrelated demonstrations of the humiliation that ensues from being poor and Puerto Rican in New York [in 1941], the incidents lack neither sting nor sense of humor…. Quite unexpectedly, the unifying message [of Nilda] is delivered by Nilda's mother (previously seen as a hopeless muddle of piety and superstition) who confesses on her deathbed that "I cannot see who I am beyond the lives of the children I bore" and advises Nilda to "hold on to something all yours … never give it to nobody … not to your lover, not to your kids." The insight might be less of a blockbuster if we knew something of Nilda's own feelings in the matter, but the vigorous portrayal of Nilda's large family and acquaintanceship, the lively Spanglish accent, and the absence of any artificial solutions or epiphanies, gives this autobiographical first novel unusual strength. (p. 1097)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1973 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), October 1, 1973.

Marilyn Sachs

When Nilda Ramirez was nearly 10, a white policeman shouted, "God damn you people," at her and her neighbors. At other times in the course of this sad and beautiful book ["Nilda"], Nilda and her family are called "spics," "animals" and much worse. But they are always "you people" to the teachers, social workers, policemen, nurses and other white Americans who control their world.

What does it feel like being poor and belonging to a despised minority? Over the past 10 years many children's books have been written, exploring these very questions. Few come up to "Nilda" in describing the crushing humiliations of poverty and in peeling off the ethnic wrappings so that we can see the human child underneath.

Nilda is nearly 10 when the book begins in July, 1941, and 13 1/2 when it ends in May, 1945. The Second World War is there in the background, important only in its unimportance to a family whose daily struggles to survive are so overwhelming. This is a very personal book. We see life in the Puerto Rican ghetto of New York City through a child's vision—baffled, resigned, angry and frequently joyful. Nilda is no idealized slum child. She punctuates her speech with four-letter words, and like all children, places her own private griefs ahead of larger, adult sorrows. "Mama, I gotta tell you something, Ma!" Nilda cries, eager to tell her weeping, grieving mother whose husband is dying how Sophie played a mean trick on her.

The main story line concerns Mama's efforts to take care of her large family—five children, sick husband, crazy aunt, and pregnant girl friend of one son. But what makes the book remarkable is the richness of detail and the aching sense of a child's feelings….

[This] book goes far beyond being just another tale from the ghetto. Sad, funny, fascinating and honest, it will appeal to adults as well as children. (pp. 27-8)

Marilyn Sachs, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1973.

Mary M. Burns

[Nilda] succeeds as a sociological documentary but fails to develop the heroine as a unique personality. Nor do the minor characters fare much better—with the exception of the elderly, eccentric Aunt Delia and of the Spanish-born Socialist stepfather, who preserves his anticlerical convictions and profane vocabulary until his final breath. Although somewhat reminiscent of Piri Thomas's autobiographical Down These Mean Streets … in its frank cataloguing of the sights, sounds, conflicts, and language of Spanish Harlem, the narrative is stilted and, at times, anachronistic: Such expressions as "let's split" and "disc jockey" suggest the fifties and sixties rather than the early forties—an impression supported by the Dictionary of American Slang…. Effective re-creation of reality in fiction requires more than simple fidelity to fact; the reader must become emotionally involved with the characters and their problems. Thus, Nilda's world is more vividly evoked in the expressionistic black-and-white illustrations—which, as the jacket states, "combine representational art, symbols and words"—than in the text, which attempts to depict times past in terms of present-day emotions and attitudes. (p. 153)

Mary M. Burns, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1974.

Ray Anthony Shepard

[Nilda] is a sensitive, well written and powerful story of a 10-year-old girl's growth into adolescence. Nilda is on her own because no one else survives. She must not only grow into adolescence, but she must learn what it means to be Puerto Rican and poor in America…. [She] must come to grips with a poverty that kills her step-father and eventually her mother….

At times the odds against Nilda, or any child, seem overpowering. At the end of four years her survival is still in doubt; one hopes she survives because as a reader one is so involved in her life, but even as the novel closes one can not be sure.

This is an outstanding first novel…. (p. 230)

Ray Anthony Shepard, in Children's Literature: Annual of The Modern Language Association Seminar on Children's Literature and The Children's Literature Association, Vol. 3, edited by Francelia Butler (© 1974 by Francelia Butler; all rights reserved), Temple University Press, 1974.

[The] thirteen glimpses of life in El Bronx [in El Bronx Remembered] have the ethnic flavor and nostalgia but little of the resilience of Nilda (1973). In fact it's the smallest stories that ring true here: Hector faces the embarrassment of wearing his uncle's tacky, pointed-toe shoes (real "matacucarachas") to his high school graduation; a pet hen named Joncrofo (Joan Crawford) defeats Mrs. Fernandez' determination to turn her into a chicken dinner; Hannibal plots to win well-chaperoned Serafina by joining her "aleluya" church. The several longer stories tend to get mired in sentimentality—particularly the memoir of a friendship between feeble, lonely Mr. Mendelsohn and the Suarez family next door, and the drawn-out failure of a marriage between pregnant, teenage Alice and covertly homosexual Hector. Mohr is almost too good at zeroing in on touching incidents; the danger is that her El Bronx can be too easily dismissed as quaint. But given their limited emotional range and narrow focus these will stand as grace notes, augmenting Nilda's more vital theme and spirit. (pp. 1004-05)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1975 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), September 1, 1975.

Marilyn Sachs

Little Ray, in "A New Window Display" [one of the stories in "El Bronx Remembered"], is a newcomer from Puerto Rico who marvels at all the wonders in El Bronx: to every new experience, he says, "Qué fenomenal!" His friends have told him about the snow, and he is particularly eager to see it. But he never does. He dies before it comes, and his friends mourn for him in the best possible way—by playing in it themselves, shouting, sliding, turning and crying out for him at its beauty, "Qué fenomenal!"

If there is any message at all in these stories, any underlying theme, it is that life goes on. But Nicholasa Mohr is more interested in people than in messages. Essentially, she is an old-fashioned writer, a meat-and-potatoes writer, whose stories stick to your ribs. No complicated symbolism here, no trendy obscurity of meaning, no hopeless despair or militant ethnicity. Her people endure because they are people. Some of them suffer, some of them die, a few of them fail, but most of the time they endure, or others like them endure.

Most brilliant and tender, perhaps, of all these brilliant and tender stories, is "Mr. Mendelsohn," the story of a lonely old Jewish man who is befriended by a Puerto Rican family. Even though Mr. Mendelsohn dies finally, it is no tragedy because his last years have been enriched by kindness and love. Very different for Doña Nereida in the chilling story, "Princess." She is...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Paul Heins

[El Bronx Remembered: A Novella and Stories is a] group of short narratives about Puerto Rican immigrants living in the South Bronx between 1946 and 1956. Despite their poverty and their crowded quarters, the people are generally represented as dwelling in an alien rather than in a hostile environment; and each story is a carefully focused vignette of pathetic and/or comic incidents…. Only in the novella, "Herman and Alice," does the author introduce topics of hard-core realism: the homosexual Herman befriends and marries Alice, a teenage pregnant girl. The style is plain and direct, often making use of colloquial Americanisms, and the occasional Spanish expressions are effectively dramatic. At their best,...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

Irma Garcia

[The stories of El Bronx Remembered describe] the anxieties, fears, loves, hates, pride, despair, nostalgia and hopes of several Puerto Ricans in the barrio, El Bronx, from 1946 to 1956. The subjects of these well-written and descriptive tales want to escape to suburbia, or into the arms of men, or to be accepted and assimilated into a materialistic society which rejects and exploits them. We have seen their faces. But despite some truths and sharp insights, these are not stories of change, struggle or love. Rather, they are negative stories which reinforce stereotypes.

One incredibly racist story is about Jasmine, a gypsy who wins the acceptance of her classmates by reading palms and telling...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

GEORGESS McHARGUE

Realism is the order of the day in ["In Nueva York"]—realism with an ethnic garnish…. [The book] would provide a profitable unit to a high-school social studies class….

[It] seems, however, too obviously intended as slice-of-life fiction with the result that the characters are busier being Puerto Rican-Americans than being people. Several of the stories present intriguing situations but end inconclusively. An old woman's long lost son turns out to be a dwarf. A gay male marries a gay female. "The English Lesson" embarrassingly recalls H∗Y∗M∗A∗N K∗A∗P∗L∗A∗N without laughs. Happily, [something] better shows itself in the last few stories. In "The Robbery" and "Coming to Terms" a...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Zena Sutherland

[In In Nueva York] Mohr creates a remarkably vivid tapestry of community life as well as of individual characters…. Tough, candid, and perceptive, the book has memorable characters, resilient and responsive, in a sharply-etched milieu. (p. 178)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1977 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), July-August, 1977.

(The entire section is 55 words.)

Alleen Pace Nilsen

Like El Bronx Remembered, In Nueva York is not a novel but instead is a collection of stories tied together by their setting. A number of the characters appear in more than one story and the effect is an intimate look into the most interesting parts of several people's lives without the artificial strain of having them all squeezed into a single plot. For people who like to approach books from the social issues viewpoint, this is an excellent book to help people see beyond the stereotypes. The reader meets several individuals who share a common neighborhood and many common problems, yet each is unique and intriguing. The fact that readers come away with a knowledge of each character's individuality and an...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Miguel A. Ortiz

Nilda is the story of a Puerto Rican family living in New York. It is narrated from the point of view of a young girl; Nilda is ten years old at the outset of the story which covers a four year period, from 1941 to 1945. I presume the author chose this time period because it coincided with her own childhood and early adolescence. There is no evidence in the novel that there was any other reason. The author was not striving to capture the flavor of the forties. The biggest event of the time, World War II, is incidental to the story. (p. 6)

The accumulation of details without dramatic purpose results in overwhelming boredom. This, I suppose, is more a failure of technique than of intention. The...

(The entire section is 597 words.)