As common and somewhat acceptable as the term “Latin American literature” is as a functional label for literature produced in the “Latin” countries of the Americas, most anthologists and scholars tend to take time to apologize for its usage or, at least, to justify its usage in the face of some opposition. The basic contention is valid: Latin America is not a distinctive geographical or geopolitical space. Nor is it a culturally homogenous space. The term is a convenience, but it is a convenience that is rooted in some basic facts of history. For the purposes of this survey, the term encompasses those countries in the “New World” formerly colonized by Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Included, therefore, are the countries that are located on the South American continent and those countries in the area that is now called Central America. Those islands in the Caribbean that share a history of colonization with the South American continent are also included. The functional languages of Latin American literature are Spanish and Portuguese. Spanish dominates. Without Brazil and its formidable tradition of literature, Latin America would be exclusively a Spanish domain. Very little exists in Latin America that pertains to Italy, even though Italians have had a significant presence in countries like Argentina and Bolivia, but then so have the English. English remains a distinct foil to the march of Latin American literature and culture.
The history of Latin America is a history which could have paralleled the history of North America and its increasingly homogenized single-nation identity. Like the American North, the South has had a strong imaginative sense of its unity. This imaginative identity dominated much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries largely because of the liberation efforts of individuals like Simón Bolívar. Bolívar imagined and wrote about a Latin American state that would share much of the sense of nationalism that would come to define the North. There is a reason for this development. As with the British empire, the Spanish empire was quite clearly understood to be an extension of the Spanish nation-state. Brazil remained a peculiar and massive interruption of the dominance of Spanish culture in the Americas. That dominance extended well into the North American continent until a century ago and has slowly begun to crawl its way back into that continent now through immigration and a redefining of cultural and racial demographics.
The Spanish colonial government understood its empire as a single force and a single protectorate and thus sought to conceive of a culture that was distinctive and somewhat homogeneous. The variations emerged through the peculiar dialogues and clashes that took place between these Spanish societies and the native communities that existed in the regions before the arrival of the Spanish. The Inca in eastern South America, the Aztec in Central America, and the Mayans in the rain forests of northeastern South America were large and dominant cultures before the arrival of the Spanish. Spanish colonialism forced these cultures to struggle for survival, but in their struggle they had lasting effect on the culture of the region—the understanding of landscape and the shaping of the imagination.
Latin American literature and, in many ways, Latin American short fiction emerge out of the strange contradictions between nationalism and empire that characterize the experience of the region. The movement toward independence in Latin America, as in all other formerly colonized states, entailed a cultural quest for a distinctive cultural and national identity. This identity would be found in the history and native presence of these nations and in the agendas for self-actualization that would emerge during the period leading toward independence and the demise of the Spanish empire’s rule. Latin American identity is peculiarly defined by the tension between the colonial force of Spanish dominance, the spirit of discovery and the quest to found a new society with new values and a new understanding of landscape and individuality, and the presence of non-European cultures in the region. In Brazil, this pattern is very much a part of what has given a distinction to its cultural identity and to its literature. Brazil’s distinction lies in the dialogue that the society has had with its racial complexity, particularly the presence of African slaves and freed people, especially from Nigeria, in the region. The religious and narrative experiences have given rise to a distinctive literary sensibility, which remains one of the more remarkable and fresh in the modern world.
Most scholars recognize in Latin American culture and literary practice the importance of history and the way that...
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