Latino Short Fiction Analysis

What is Latino Fiction?

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Latino fiction includes works by writers in the United States who have either migrated from Latin America or are descendants of Latin Americans. Further, it can be argued that Latino writers are distinct in their linguistic, cultural, historical, and political sensibilities, and that their concerns frequently echo those of the community to which they belong. Still, the terms at times overlap and a word on usage is in order. While the term “Latino” is inclusive, meaning those from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, the term “Chicano” is frequently employed when discussing those of Mexican or Mexican American heritage; Chicano/Latino is used when being both inclusive and mindful of distinctions therein. This article will avoid using the common term “Hispanic,” which designates those whose linguistic origin is Spanish. This term is controversial, since many Latino groups claim that it is an outgrowth of U.S. governmental policies of foreign and domestic containment, overlooking the cultural diversity of the different Latino nations, and that, further, it inaccurately lays its claim in Spain and the Iberian peninsula, thereby eliding the history of colonization and its subsequent cultural manifestations. Therefore, “Latino/a” is preferred by many, being a reference to geographic origin, Latin America. While it is always problematic to assign a single term to a group that is far from homogeneous, it is the work of the scholar to locate the similarities that justify its usage, all the while attending to the cultural differences inherent in the field. Below, the aim is to do just that by tracing common themes, investigating their origins, and looking at particular authors and works that are notable for illustrating those themes.

Latino Short Fiction Early Influences

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

While short fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon in Latino literature, it is useful to discuss the trajectory of the literature in general, before the appearance of the short story, in order to review the thematic concerns of Latino fiction and see how it is entwined with political history.

Latino literature in the United States—as with Latinos themselves—has a long history that is distinct from the Anglo-American tradition. In the early history of this country, Latino literature was written in Spanish and looked to Spanish- language traditions for literary inspiration. The literature of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and much of the eighteenth centuries, for example, mainly consisted of writings by the Spanish who settled in the New World and were chronicles of travels, memoirs, and letters, with some poetry and drama, as was typical of this time. Such works are now viewed as “American” works and are included in anthologies of U.S. literature, but set in context they stand out as antecedents to today’s Latino fiction. A New World tradition of recounting and recording oral legends and myths, for example, combined with Spanish balladry prefigured much of the storytelling in forms such as the Mexican corrido that was to come.

It is during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the territory now known as the United States began to take shape in what had been Hispanic territories. In 1821, Florida was ceded to the United States, and in 1848, with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost about a third of its territory including Alta California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Despite a great influx of Anglos to the region, Spanish remained the dominant language of the Southwest as the Mexican population struggled to remain in control of their property...

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The Advent of Latino Short Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

There are several authors from the first half of the twentieth century who have presaged the thematic concerns of Latino authors to follow and have received notice for their fiction. Josefina Niggli, who was born and lived in Mexico (though not to Mexican parents) is now generally considered one of the precursors of Chicano writers. Her best-selling story series of 1945, Mexican Village, charmingly and richly describes the Mexican town of Hidalgo and its people, yet at its center lies the issue of race: The reappearing protagonist of the stories is a half-Anglo, half-Mexican man who is rejected by his white father.

Mario Suárez is one of the first writers to use the term “Chicano” in print. His stories, many of which were published around mid-century, take Arizona as their scene; he describes the barrio in Tucson, replete with details about regional life, such as cultural customs that demonstrate the bridge between the ways of old Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. Though he did not publish abundantly, his realism and sympathetic portrayals of Chicanos have earned him respect as an early Chicano fiction writer.

A Franciscan priest born Manuel Chavez, Fray Angelico Chavez was a prolific writer who wrote historical narratives, as well as tracts on history and religion. The three stories that form New Mexico Triptych from 1940, combined with his other fictional works, have been compiled in The Short Stories of Fray Angelico Chavez, published in 1987. Chavez draws inspiration from traditional hispano—or Southwest Mexican and Mexican American Spanish-language stories. These stories are characterized by the use of provincial characters and situations, archetypal and religious narrative elements, and allegorical structures. The stories, considered by many to be quaint and charming renderings of the Hispanos, or Spanish-speakers of New Mexico, are currently the subject of much critical attention. While drawing upon the religious customs and folklore of the region, Chavez takes on the social reality of the long process of transition from Mexican cultural norms in the Southwest and the inevitable cultural clashes that...

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Latino Short Fiction Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican American Writers

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

For much of the Caribbean American community, concerns about space and place are every bit as important as they are for Chicano writers. With the movements to the mainland from Cuba and Puerto Rico, each wave of immigrants has created a new generation of writers.

Pedro Juan Soto and Luis Gonzalez, two Puerto Rican writers, were part of the “Generation of 1940” who wrote about life in New York at mid-century. Though he later returned to the island, Soto took as his subject the immigrant experience and barrio life. In Spiks (English translation, 1973), his collection of short stories published in 1956, Soto examined life on the streets. A heightened awareness of race, as indicated in the collection’s title—“spik” being a derogatory term for Puerto Ricans—affects his acute portrayal of the difficulty of life in New York for the Puerto Rican community. Spiks is also noteworthy for its realism, extensive use of street slang, and code-switching—all fairly new techniques at the time. Gonzalez, too, was one of the first writers to discuss the exile of Puerto Ricans in the United States and the racial tensions and economic difficulties of the community in numerous short stories. These writers and others of the 1940’s and 1950’s influenced subsequent Puerto Rican and other Latino writers of the Northeast.

Just as the civil- and cultural-rights movements of the 1960’s influenced Chicano literature, so too did the heightened awareness of cultural roots and political struggle affect Puerto Ricans on the mainland. This awareness manifested itself in the literary production of the “Nuyoricans,” a term coined to describe the hybridity formed when island culture was imported to urban life. Early Nuyorican fiction prominently represented mostly male protagonists coming of age on the streets of New York. Consistently, the tension between life on the (Anglo- American) mainland and the persistence of native language, ethics and social mores, gave rise to a new ethnic sensibility. No longer Puerto Rican only, the Nuyorican writer reconceptualized identity and social landscape, writing into existence not only a new ethnicity, but also a new social construction of New York City. While the difficulty of life in the United States and the racism of Anglo-American society were the focus of much fiction coming out of this period, it was accompanied by an idealized version of life on the island. A greater embrace of cultural difference began, a difference expressed in the writing through the extensive use of Spanish, frequent code-switching, and insertion of customs, practices, and terminologies particular to Puerto Ricans.

One such writer is Pin Thomas, whose autobiography Down These Mean Streets (1967) became widely popular; the tensions that arose for him, being a dark-skinned Puerto Rican in America, familiar with the ways of the streets, reveal themselves in his fiction and memoir alike. Yet his collection of short fiction, Stories from El Barrio (1978), does not dwell entirely upon the negative aspects of life in the barrio but affirms values such as male friendship and personal strength.

Ed Vega (Edgardo Vega Yunque), too, writes short stories that have their setting in the barrio. Mendoza’s Dreams (1987) is a collection of stories linked through a narrator named Alberto Mendoza. Rather than a chronicle of difficulty and urban strife, Vega infuses these stories with humor. In this earlier work his...

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Latino Short Fiction Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Augenbraum, Harold, and Margarite Fernandez Olmos, eds. The Latino Reader: An American Literary Tradition form 1542 to the Present. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. This collection provides historical background on writers and their sociopolitical context while featuring their works. A list of additional readings presents criticism and history for research on all periods.

Calderon, Hector, and Jose’ David Saldivar, eds. Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture and Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. This collection brings together some of the most compelling and important criticism on...

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