Vera's break-out novel, “The Taste of Sugar,” is set in 19th century Puerto Rico. It follows the shifting fortunes of the Vicente Vega family as it perseveres amid colonial Spanish tax hikes, drought, devaluation of the peso, succeeded by the cruel and callous U.S. occupation after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
In 1889, Valentina Sanchez, age 17, has visions of a glamorous trip to Paris, a beautiful wardrobe, and a sumptuous home. Instead, she meets and falls in love with a handsome peasant coffee farmer, Vincente Vega.
Contrary to her middle-class parents’ advice, she marries him and leaves behind her loyal family in sophisticated San Juan. They travel for days on horseback over treacherous trails to reach Vincente’s modest home in tiny Utuado where she receives a cool reception from the Vega family. The young marrieds live with his parents for three years, due to the unpredictability of the coffee crop.
Valentina withstands the snide remarks of her mother-in-law and the lecherous behavior of her father-in-law, until she becomes clinically depressed and insists Vicente build their own home. It does not happen right away, but Vincente finally erects a crude mountain structure. Valentina is gravely disappointed when she first sees the humble dwelling, but she does appreciate the privacy. Then, shortly after the move, the couple suffers the accidental death of their daughter and the farm is devastated by the great San Ciriaco Hurricane.
Vincente cannot recover from the ravages of the storm. He loses the farm due to economic hardships aggravated by U.S. territorial rules and regulations. By the turn of the century the poverty-stricken family is induced to move to Hawaii, along with many other los hambrientos, by sugar plantation owners who promise them paradise. Several tragedies befall them on the perilous voyage to Honolulu, including the death of their son.
When they finally reach their assigned plantation on the big island of Hawaii, they discover their residence is just a crude shack with no running water and their working conditions are highly exploitative. Valentina and Vicente are shocked when confronted with the realities of violence in their new location. They realize the promises of prosperity they had been given by the sugar plantation headhunters were hollow, but there is no turning back. They persevere, but their life in Hawaii becomes extremely hard and tedious.
The author leaves readers of this historical fiction with just a glimmer of hope. The Vegas eventually become acquainted with Japanese coworkers who work on the same plantation. Gradually they all learn to work together to overcome the lingual and cultural barriers dividing them. They then organize and in one voice coerce the plantation owners into improving working and living conditions.
This is a troubling and unforgettable story about the hardships, loss, and perseverance of the Puerto Ricans, both on their native island and in Hawaii. Vera's writing is transfixing; her character development rich, expressive and believable. She uses both Spanish and English text to write a heartwarming and heart-wrenching novel.