Melania Luisa Marte’s New Poetry Collection Explores Afro-Latinidad, Ancestry, & Self-Love

Melania Luisa Marte is a Dominican-American writer and musician who is honoring her ancestors, Afro-Latina heritage, and herself through her poetry

Melania Luisa Marte Plantains and Our Becoming

Photos courtesy of Alejandro Pe; Tiny Reparations Books

Melania Luisa Marte is a Dominican-American writer and musician who is honoring her ancestors, Afro-Latina heritage, and herself through her poetry. This past August, she published her highly-anticipated poetry collection Plantains and Our Becomingwhich takes readers on her journey establishing her roots, carving out space for herself as a Black Latina, and looking toward a more hopeful future for her family and communities. In doing so, she’s not afraid to call out colonialism, nationalism, displacement, and generational trauma, but she also makes it a point to celebrate the good: joy, self-love, ancestral knowledge, and liberation. And all along the way, she uses the metaphor of plantains as a symbol of strength and resistance, and demonstrates how a seemingly simple fruit is actually full of sweetness, wisdom, and history.

“I found that this body of work was themed around the story of plantains, in questions like, ‘If you’re uprooted, how do you find your root again? How do you go back into the soil and come back more grounded than ever?'” Marte tells HipLatina. “I wanted to write something if folks felt they needed to go back into the soil and ground themselves in something, it can be poetry, their ancestry, the people they love, what brings them joy, to help them come back stronger and better than ever. I wanted to honor the stories of my ancestors and family, and tell it through this whimsical little palm tree.”

The collection sweeps across time and place to tell the story of her ancestors, the plantains, and growing into the person you’re meant to become. These are stories that have been erased from the diaspora’s history because of anti-Blackness and erasure of the consequences of the slave trade and displacement.The words seemingly flow effortlessly but for Marte, this was “decades in the making,” in a sense going as far back as her childhood. From a young age, she was an enthusiastic reader and writer, following in the footsteps of the other women in her family by journaling every day. But at the time, she’d yet to read Black writers in the classroom and thus says she had no one to look up to. Instead, her biggest inspiration was her cousin, not only because her make-up and clothing looks were worth copying, but also because she wrote poetry. At first, it was just another way to channel her thoughts and emotions. But it quickly turned into a newfound passion and later, a  career pathway she likely wouldn’t have found otherwise.

She then began to venture into the spoken word poetry scene, learning how to rehearse, which open mics to attend, and how to self-publish her work. These teachings eventually led to her publishing her debut poetry collection, which she describes as “not that good” and is no longer in print. But in 2018, everything changed when she uploaded a video of her performing her original poem “Afro-Latina” live in Harlem, which went viral on YouTube and currently has almost 8,000 views. That poem, which calls out the erasure of Afro-Latinas from history to literature to pop culture, is now the opening of Plantains and Our Becoming.

“From the beginning of my poetry career, I’ve always been super intentional about writing poems that invoke emotion and give power to folks who often feel powerless,” she explains. “I wanted to have a poem that spoke to many folks who I felt were constantly being erased from the conversation. I wanted to honor Black women who have come before me and have been vocal about their identities and their truths, who have inspired other women to speak up and not be silenced or erased or stripped of their voice and their personhood. I wanted to give folks space to say what they need to say and to get things off their chest. And I wanted the poem to stand on its own as a testament to our truth, our beauty, our diversity, and all of the intersections of who we are.”

But it wouldn’t be until two years later when the pandemic began in 2020 that Marte really dedicated herself to writing the book, penning the majority of the collection during lockdown. At the time, she was actually living in the Dominican Republic with her family farming all sorts of vegetables like plantains, yucca, and cucumbers. One night, she says there was a storm that uprooted dozens of trees in the neighborhood, including one that had been growing for hundreds of years. The only plant left standing was the plantain tree. This image of resistance and resilience made an impression and would influence the direction of her writing for the next few years to the point that it became the main theme of the book.

“I was like, ‘How powerful it is to just follow the rhythm of nature. How palm trees bend and flow and go with the wind.’ It looks scary because it can feel like they’re breaking, but nine times out of ten, they don’t. They can take a storm and survive it. So as I was writing, the palm trees and plantains kept coming up. I would wake up in the mornings, go and stare at them, ask them questions, listen to what they had to tell me and what messages I could learn from them. It was this exchange of information. I was just writing things down and all of a sudden I had this book.”

Perhaps one of the most unique things about the collection is Marte’s use of Spanish, specifically Black Spanish. As we know, there is a set standard Spanish that is taught in schools but within each Latin American country, there are different dialects, pronunciations, and slang. There is a hierarchy of what Spanish is “acceptable” and Black Spanish is often disrespected or disregarded altogether. By using it unapologetically throughout her work, she reverses that harmful narrative, instead celebrating it. She also takes care to include African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), not only to showcase the wide range of the diaspora’s use of language but also to honor the multifaceted realities of where she comes from.

“I wanted folks to read this collection and feel the essence of Dominican Spanish, Black Spanish, Caribbean Spanish, and Black English, that they feel all of those inflections and how we pronounce things, that the poems are rooted in Southern culture and New York culture,” she says. “I wanted to stay honest to my voice, my culture, all of the different facets of my identities, all of the places and people that I love and how they talk, how they show up. I wanted to give folks something that makes them feel proud to be exactly who they are.”

On top of that, she utilizes her background as a musician, childhood love of rappers, and spoken word background to give a lyrical quality and musical cadence to her work. Many of the poems started out as freestyles that she later edited and refined into poetry. She’s furthering that skill and passion as she develops her next creative ventures, including a poetic musical project and a novel as she embarks on her book tour throughout New York.

Throughout the book writing journey, she found it’s her community and love for storytelling that keeps her motivated. Because it’s true that Latinx stories are underrepresented and Latinx talent isn’t supported by the industry across the board. But within that small percentage, Marte points out that Afro-Latinx stories are even less represented, even calling herself “a decimal point in the publishing industry” that doesn’t seek out Black and Afro-Latinx stories enough. She notes:

“There just aren’t enough stories from Black Caribbean folks, from Black Latinos. There aren’t enough of us being given the opportunity to get publishing deals or these kinds of resources and access. That gives me the strength and confidence to continue writing, telling my stories, and being super unapologetic to the point of getting more book deals. It’s also a reminder of wanting to help other folks get in through the door because I know how important it is for our stories to be told and for them to be out there.”

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Afro-Latina Afro-Latina authors Featured latina poets Melania Luisa Marte Plantains and Our Becoming Poet spoken word poetry
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