Latino American Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Context

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Latinos do not represent a homogeneous group. The term “Latino” includes a diversity of ethnic, racial, national, and cultural groups, with historic, economic, and social differences. The diaspora from Central and South America is also being included in what is becoming a transnational culture, with a greatly varied collective identity that has at root the use of the Spanish language. The most heterogeneous of the Latino American groups are those of Caribbean origins, residing mostly on the Eastern coast of the United States.

The beginnings of the presence of Spanish-speaking groups in North America can be found in the mid-sixteenth century, when Spaniards arrived in what became the United States. Since then, Latinos have been documenting their life experiences in writings that combine autobiographical and imaginative modes, expressing feelings of rupture and displacement, and a need to recapture the past in order to find the “true” self. A most active period of literary production emerged in the late 1960’s, generated by cultural and political awakening, with each writer often excelling in several genres.

Two literary groups have been recognized: the native Hispanic, and the migrated Hispanic. There are problems of definition for “migrated” and “native”—for example, with Puerto Ricans—but in terms of literary records, these problems are moot. Both groups—those who were born in the United States and those who left their countries as emigrants or exiles—come to feel that their home is “neither here nor there,” exemplifying 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.

Regardless of their status as native or migrated Latinos, 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’ Our House in the Last World (1983), Puerto Rican Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing (1990), Dominican Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), and Cuban Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992). In these works, the rendering of growing up Latino in America includes self-exploration through writing as an act of artistic survival.

Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States in search of a better life. Those settled in New York became known as Nuyoricans. A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches (1961), the landmark work 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) and in Seven Long Times (1994), as Miguel Piñero does in his play Short Eyes (1975).


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At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In the last decades of the twentieth century, a new generation of Latino writers in North America established a strong literary reputation, enriching mainstream literature. This development reflects demographic changes. Latino literature, characterized by impressive versatility, provides critical insights into the problematic issues of identity in terms of language, family, religion, education, acculturation, and artistic expression. Latino literature is in essence a literature of uprootedness, self-search, and recovery. The American experience constitutes a collective cultural heritage, and the readership of an ethnic literature is not confined to one minority.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Latino writers chronicling the Hispanic experience in America 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.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Abalos, David T. 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.

Fabre, Genevieve, ed. European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1988. American and European scholars compare visions of United States majority and minority cultures and identities, as reflected in literature.

Gutiérrez, Ramón, and Genaro Padilla, eds. Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1993. Addresses the potential for reconstituting what is significant for the cultural heritage of the United States.

Heyck, Denis Lynn Daly, ed. Barrios and Borderlands: Cultures of Latinos and Latinas in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1994. Readings from a variety of genres. Excellent overview of the historical development of Latino literature.

Horno-Delgado, Asunción, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, eds. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. A collection of literary criticism by Latinas.

Kanellos, Nicolás, ed. Hispanic Theater in the United States. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 1984. Studies on the popular theater of diverse Hispanic groups.

Rivero, Eliana. “Hispanic Literature in the United States: Self-Image and Conflict.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 13, nos. 3-4 (1985): 173-192. Focuses on linguistic expressiveness as the most poignant form of identity conflict.

Shorris, Earl. Latinos: A Biography of the People. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. The chapter “Neither Here Nor There” discusses the vitality of Latino culture as expressed in literature, art, and music.