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Léro, Yva

Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography
Hanétha Vété-CongoloHanétha Vété-Congolo

Léro, Yva (1912–2007), writer and artist, 

was born Yva de Montaigne in 1912 in Trinité, Martinique, the daughter of road engineer Paul de Montaigne, himself the son of a béké man and a woman of African descent, and Eponine Vachier, a mulatto born to a French father and a mulatta mother.

She enjoyed the relative privileges of the island’s mulatto class and was schooled at the Pensionnat Colonial of Fort-de-France. Her father worked for Martinique’s Department of Civil Engineering, first in Trinité and then in Fort-de-France. A Freemason, he was the Worshipful Master at the local lodge. One of ten children, with a father who was a well-respected official and member of the community, Léro had mostly happy memories of her childhood. On the other hand, she was shocked by the poverty and misery she observed of peasant life at the time, which she experienced firsthand when the family vacationed in areas close to the Carbet Mountains. This experience and empathy for her fellow islanders would mark Léro’s writing and painting for the rest of her life.

After receiving her elementary certificate, Léro had to leave school at Fort-de-France, having fallen ill to malaria and a severe parasitic disease. Her parents enrolled her in correspondence courses through the Universal School in Paris so she could obtain her high school diploma. But she would never attain this goal; after her parents’ death, she joined her older siblings in Paris, France, where they were students. After taking courses at the Pigier School, she sought gainful employment and continued her studies as an autodidact, with the help of her siblings. World War II then broke out. At this time, she was known to have aided the French Resistance, occasionally serving as an intelligence agent, taking messages by bicycle or horseback to and from Resistance fighters.

In France, she met and married Thélus Léro (1909–1996), a mathematics professor who later served as a Communist senator and Member of the Council of the Republic from 1946 to 1948. Thélus also contributed to the journal Légitime Défense and participated with Martinican deputies Léopold Bissol and Aimé Césaire in the 1946 departmentalization process. Yva and Thélus Léro became close friends of Césaire and his wife, Suzanne, with whom they often socialized. In later years, Suzanne Césaire and Yva Léro would remain close in Martinique, linked by their passion for literature and the defense of women’s rights. An active feminist, Léro contributed to the creation of an association that was to become the Union des Femmes de la Martinique (Women’s Union of Martinique). In 1947 she also represented Martinique at the congress of the Union des Femmes de France.

Steeped in Martinican oral culture, she loved to tell stories to her children, which later inspired her to write her short-story collections—Douchérie (1958), Douchérie: Loin du pays (1959), and Histoires passées (1974) —and a poetry anthology titled Peau d’ébène (1960). As the title of this poetry collection—Ebony Skin—attests, most of her literary production dealt with racial identity, national and ethnic pride, and Antillean culture. Her novel La plaie (The Wound)—which was written in 1957 but published over twenty years later in 1979—also centers on prejudices based on race, gender, and class, as well as the beauty and cultural richness of Martinique. It tells the story of Lisa, a village girl who moves to Fort-de-France to continue her education. Living with her aunt and exposed to middle-class urban culture, she slowly begins to reject her rural past and to internalize racial discrimination. In the end, saved by love, she manages to rediscover and again value her “authentic” self, her village ways, and her racial identity (Paravisini-Gebert and Torres-Seda, 1993, p. 203).

Also a painter, Léro illustrated some of her own writings—such as Douchérie, which includes many of her etchings—and produced paintings that would become the cover images for some of her literary works. Many of her known paintings depict rural Martinique; she portrays everyday life in the countryside, especially island people hard at work. Léro also contributed to local musical expression with her Martinican rendition of the classic German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum” (known in Martinique as “Mon beau sapin”) in “Mon Filao,” a version that is much enjoyed by children during the holiday season.

Yva Léro died in 2007 at age 95 in Fort-de-France. She was survived by two daughters. A third daughter, well-known actress and model Cathy Rosier (née Catherine Léro), passed away in 2004.

[See also Césaire, Aimé and Césaire, Suzanne.]


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