At Issue (Racial and Ethnic Relations in America)
The term “Latino” includes a diversity of ethnic, racial, national, and cultural groups, with historic, economic, and social differences. However, these groups all share the use of the Spanish language. One of the most productive literary periods for Latinos began as a result of the cultural and political awakening that took place in the 1960’s.
Two literary groups have been recognized: the native Hispanic and the migrated Hispanic. The definition for “migrated” and “native” are problematic, especially when dealing with Puerto Ricans, but both groups exhibit a polarized identity and a common sense of marginality. Through nostalgic remembrances and memories of their ancestors or their own countries, writers create an idealized homeland as a key source of reference. They write in Spanish, English, or in both, according to personal experiences and objectives. For example, Rosario Ferré, a leading Puerto Rican writer, wrote The House on the Lagoon (1995) in English; the migrated Puerto Rican Esmeralda Santiago translated her novel When I Was Puerto Rican (1993) into Spanish to reach more Latino readers.
Latino writers often indicate sociocultural hybridism and a need to preserve roots by including Spanish words and expressions in English text. Such switching from one language to another reflects the recognition of a double identity, Hispanic and Anglo, in New York-born Puerto Rican Nicholasa Mohr’s Nilda (1973), New York-born Cuban Oscar Hijuelos’s Our House in the Last World (1983), and Dominican Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991). In these works, the rendering of growing up Latino in the United States includes self-exploration through writing as an act of artistic survival.
Puerto Rican Literature (Racial and Ethnic Relations in America)
Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in search of a better life. Those who settled in New York became known as Nuyoricans. A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches (1961), the landmark collection of essays and reminiscences by the Puerto Rican activist Jesús Colón, marks the birth of Nuyorican literature. Written in English with the inclusion of colloquial Puerto Rican Spanish, Colón’s book depicts the brutal existence of young immigrants in the barrio. Piri Thomas, born in New York, documents dehumanizing life in urban streets and prison in the autobiographical classic Down These Mean Streets (1967).
Ed Vega’s novel The Comeback (1985) offers a Puerto Rican interpretation of the American Dream. His Casualty Report (1991) chronicles the death of dreams in the face of racism, poverty, and crime. Victor Rodriguez’s novel Eldorado in East Harlem (1992) depicts nostalgia for the island and dreams of making it on the mainland.
Nuyorican poetry, inspired by Caribbean rhythms of African origin, exhibits ethnic pride. One notable poet is Victor Hernández Cruz, who wrote Mainland (1973) and By Lingual Wholes (1982).
Cuban Americans (Racial and Ethnic Relations in America)
The major Cuban wave of immigration to the United States occurred after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The older Cuban refugees, most of whom hoped to return home, wrote in Spanish of the exile experience. Younger writers who arrived in their teens or early twenties, such as Eliana Rivero, Achy Obejas, Rafael Catalá, and Dolores Prida, identified with the social struggles of minority groups. Spanish remained the primary language, and bilingual discourse captured their sense of a divided self, questioning the values of both cultures—the ancestral and the adopted one. Many of those who came on the 1980 Mariel boatlift focused on political and sexual persecution in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and exile experiences, as exemplified in Reinaldo Arenas’s works.
Virgil Suárez explores generational change in Havana Thursdays: A Documentary Novel (1995), noting that sorrow and joys transcend ethnicity. Roberto Fernández portrays the Cuban American experience in the satirical Raining Backwards (1988).
Hijuelos, born in New York, recalls the rich AfroCuban musical tradition in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989). This novel, a 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner, was made into a film. Hijuelos depicts goodwill in ethnically divided urban America in Mr. Ives’ Christmas (1995).
Latinas (Racial and Ethnic Relations in America)
Doubly marginalized as women and as Latinas, Latina writers approach myths of religion and marriage with a critical look at Catholicism. Prida, a Cuban American journalist, poet, playwright, actress, and director, addresses ethnic identity, assimilation, and women’s sexuality with feminist satire—American style—in her musical Beautiful Señoritas (1977). Sandra María Esteves, a Nuyorican poet, painter, and actress, blends the realities of the urban poor with spiritual, blues, and women’s poetics in Bluestown Mockingbird Mambo (1990). Alvarez explores life in exile and return to the homeland in the poems of The Other Side-El Otro Lado (1995).
Latino writers chronicling the Hispanic experience in the United States have taken center stage, receiving recognition through prizes and awards. The nature of the bilingual texts, giving voice to lives attempting to come to terms with intertwined cultures, has led to the consideration of a redefinition of the literary canon. Latino American writings, with differences of voice, style, and expression, have become part of American literary life, making it more representative and contributing to the cultural identity of North America.
Core Resources (Racial and Ethnic Relations in America)
Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States (New York: Routledge, 1994), edited by Denis Lynn Daly Heyck, presents readings from a variety of genres that form an excellent overview of the historical development of Latino literature. David T. Abalos’s Latinos in the United States (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986) discusses literature as a means of politicizing and empowering Latino people. In European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States (Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1988), edited by Genevieve Fabre, American and European scholars compare visions of United States majority and minority cultures and identities, as reflected in literature.