5 minute read

Latino/Latina Literature in English

La Relacion, La Historia de la Nueva Mexico, mestizaje, Puertorriquenos, Cubanos, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega

Traditional views of American literary history have often emphasized the westward expansion of the United States and have tended to overlook the Spanish settlement of the American southwest. Since a number of American Latino communities were established over three hundred years ago, well before the advent of the United States, it is difficult to place their literature within the dominant perspective of American literary history. Substantial sections of US Latinos/as cannot be considered immigrants to the United States in the traditional sense and their cultural history is therefore set apart from other ethnic groups. The earliest examples of US Latino/a literature might include such examples as Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's La Relacion (1542), a story of exploration and survival in Florida, or La Historia de la Nueva Mexico (1610), an epic poem of New Mexico by Gaspar Perez de Villagra.

As a result of the cultural mestizaje between indigenous and Spanish peoples, US Latino/a literature is often the product of a cultural hybridity that is derivative of European, American, and Afro-Caribbean cultures. If there is a cultural thread linking these hybridizations, it is the prevalence of spoken and written Spanish in US Latino communities, whether identified as Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Puertorriquenos, Nuyorican, or Cubanos. However, the impact of cultural hybridity on the production of their literature has been quite different, and the particularities of their experiences are often overlooked in an attempt to homogenize these literatures. The Puerto Ricans' story of assimilation is different from that of the Mexican-Americans: Puerto Ricans, along with Cuban-Americans, have come to the mainland and are considered immigrants, while Mexican-Americans argue that the US ‘came to them’.

When the ‘melting-pot’ theory of assimilation was still in vogue, the desire to diminish cultural differences was more prevalent; influenced by this sensibility US Latino/a writers attempted to articulate the process of assimilation. Works like The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega (1984; edited by A. Iglesias, translated by J. Flores), Pedro Juan Labarthe's The Son of Two Nations (1931), and Jesus Colon's A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches (1961) spoke to the Puerto Rican/Nuyorican split experience, while Celedonio Gonzalez's Los Primos (1971) chronicled the Cuban diaspora and the post-Fidel Castro Cuban society.

Current US Latino/a writing focuses on the renewed importance of Latino culture and history. For many US Latinos/as, the rejection of the old world is not as easy as it might have been for European immigrants. Mexican-Americans in California often visit Mexico during the weekend and Puerto Ricans can easily take a flight home. Only the Cuban-Americans have had strong political obstacles barring their return home, which strongly inform such works as Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban (1992), Roberto Fernandez's Raining Backwards (1988), and Gustavo Perez-Firmat's Next Year in Cuba (1995).

Spanish is often the language of choice for US Latino/a writers, even for those who read and write in English. As a result, there is a considerable element of linguistic diversity in the literature. Rolando Hinojosa's ‘Klail City Death Trip’ series (197282) about Chicanos in Texas was originally written chiefly in Spanish, with sections that later appeared in English, while the magnificent bildungsromans by Nicholasa Mohr (Nilda, 1986) and Judith Ortiz-Cofer (Line of the Sun, 1989), portray the Nuyorican experience in English. Although many Latino/a writers lost their fluency in Spanish and recognized that their sensibility was affected by assimilation, the widely-felt importance of preserving and celebrating the sounds of the Spanish language is exemplified by Josephina Niggli's Mexican Village (1945). Opposition to the retention of cultural memory, as the work of Richard Rodriguez shows (Hunger of Memory, 1981; Days of Obligation, 1992), often invokes the ‘melting-pot’ era to reinforce arguments for the rapid assimilation of immigrants. While Rodriguez argues that he is first an American, and only secondly a Mexican-American, the Mexican-American cultural memory clearly dominates his autobiographical narratives. Yet Rodriguez's writing style is affected by his intercultural understanding of US history as much as Sandra Cisneros's writing (House on Mango Street, 1984, and Woman Hollering Creek, 1991) reflects her learning at the Iowax Writers' Workshop. Likewise, Judith Ortiz-Cofer's Terms of Survival (1987) reflects her professorship at the University of Georgia, and the poet Martin Espada's Trumpets from the Islands of their Eviction (1988) and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (1993). evinces his legal training as an attorney. Similarly, in works like Gary Soto's novel Jesse (1994) and Lorna Dee Cervantes's poetry collections (Emplumada, 1984, and From the Cables of Genocide, 1992), Chicanos/as celebrate their ethnic differences while affirming their American identities. In this sense, their work resembles that of the Puerto Rican American poets Tato Laviera (La Carreta Made a U-Turn, 1984) and Victor Hernandez-Cruz (Red Beans, 1991), whose work also exhibits a desire to preserve cultural history.

Although many Latino/a writers share the concern expressed by Roberto Fernandez that the market for their work is small, and limited to the Latino community, mainstream publishers have begun to publish works such as Ana Castillo's So Far From God (1992), Rudolfo Anaya's Zia Summer (1995), Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek (1991), and Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989; Pulitzer Prize). One of the obstacles to be overcome in gaining a wider readership for US Latino/a literature in English is the misperception that it is mostly autobiographical. While the autobiographical form initially dominated nearly all emergent ethnic literatures in America, Latino/a writers outgrew this genre-specific model some time ago. Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) imaginatively parodies autobiography, while Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands (1987) and Terri de la Pena's Margins (1991) are the observations of skilled Chicana writers on Chicana lesbian culture and identity. In its increasing variety of forms, the canon of US Latino/a writing in English continues to grow each year, valuably augmenting the power and vitality of American literary culture.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Knole Kent to Mary Lavin Biography