Contemporary Works and Authors
Contemporary Latino literature gains its unique voice from the civil-rights struggles in the 1960’s in general and the academic protests by Chicanos and Latinos in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in particular. The Chicano Movement, or “El Movemiento” as it is called in local circles, was a grassroots protest movement based in Texas and parts of the Southwest which called for equality and integration in schools, a fair language program that respected the primacy of Spanish in the homes of Chicano and Latino students, and a more balanced view of the history of the region. The Movement made strong political gains for Chicanos and Latinos, and it also sparked a social and cultural awakening, providing the inspiration and the symbolism for much of the literature that would follow. The Movement highlighted the rights of Chicanos and Latinos to their language, their cultural past, and their (symbolic) sovereignty over their land. These themes show up in the efflorescence of literature and the deep commitment to artistic production and expression that followed. Chicano/Latino writers were less concerned during this time with the literary experimentation that was taking place among mainstream writers of the period and more concerned with thematic problems of identity, racial discrimination, immigration, and socioeconomic repression.
Tomás Rivera’s works, y no se lo tragó la tierra and the earth did not part (1971) and The Harvest: Short Stories (1988), find a home in these thematic concerns. Considered a classic of Chicano fiction, y no se lo tragó la tierra was published initially in Spanish and then as a bilingual work, with side-by-side English and Spanish versions of the text. This book consists of fourteen stories, twelve of which correspond to the months of the year, divided by thirteen vignettes. The stories piece together the life of a nameless boy over that year, a working-class character who embodies the collective voice of migrant workers—a group whose stories had rarely graced the pages of literature. A prayer for a son in Vietnam, a boy suffering from thirst in the fields, and the ostracization of migrant Mexican schoolchildren in the classroom are the focuses of some of the pieces. The short, fragmentary pieces that make up the whole, combined with the bilingual presentation of the text, echo the fragmentation of identity of people caught between two cultures. The work is considered to be a tremendous influence on Chicano/Latino writers who followed him, such as Sandra Cisneros.
The characters in Rivera’s collection The Harvest, too, lead lives that mirror the experimental, minimalist prose. Rivera’s stories, like his subjects’ lives, are nonlinear, as characters migrate according to the season and live at the mercy of the growers who employ them. The characters are divested of conventional forms of agency, and so it is not their actions that determine the plot of the stories but the sudden and fatalistic whims of nature and economics. Rivera expresses the humanity of his subjects through their enduring commitment to one another and through their attempts to make meaning of their landscape and their lives. Again, and as will be seen with Cisneros, it is crucial to add that meaning itself is not achieved by any given story—Rivera’s tales are not fables or allegories, and there are not always realizations for the reader—but the representation of a community attempting to understand their own lives is itself a meaningful act and the effect of much Chicano/Latino short fiction.
Another deeply influential author is Rudolfo Anaya, whose fiction has won numerous awards and much acclaim. In The Silence of the Llano (1982), Anaya takes as his subject the people of New Mexico and their lives in the rural areas of the state. Called a “Magical Realist,” Anaya skillfully interweaves local belief and custom into his narratives, creating works that are steeped in the spiritual experiences that comprise the everyday lives of Chicanos and Mexicanos of that area. Sabine Reyes Ulibarrí also a New Mexican, has published short-story collections in both Spanish and English. Tierra Amarilla: Cuentos de Nuevo Mexico (1964; Tierra Amarilla: Stories of New Mexico, 1971) and Mi abuela fumaba puros y otros cuentos de Tierra Amarilla/ My Grandma Smoked Cigars and Other Stories of Tierra Amarilla (1977) were published with parallel texts in English and Spanish. Like the works of Anaya, Ulibarrí’s stories are inspired by the landscape and people of New Mexico and draw upon local lore and oral tradition to portray the hispano communities there. Depicting a people who are deeply Catholic, Ulibarrí demonstrates the effect of lore on their lives, with stories such as “Mi caballo mago” about a magical stallion which recounts a version of La llorona, the Mexican tale of the legendary weeping woman who still travels the earth crying for her drowned children.
Though the authors mentioned above have received significant notice in journals and anthologies, there are still more Chicano writers whose work is less well-known but also deeply tied to regional concerns, describing life on the border and in the barrios, respectively. Genaro Gonzalez has published stories in a number of literary magazines. His collection Only Sons (1991) deals with living on the border in Texas and is concerned with the effect this political geography has on the people who inhabit this area. Nash Candelaria, Dagoberto Gilb, and Alberto Alvaro Rios have all published stories both in journals and in collections and have received critical attention for their work. Max Martinez’s stories in The Adventures of the Chicano Kid, and Other Stories (1982) and A Red Bikini Dream (1990) depict the varied lives of Chicanos, from the poor of the barrio to upper-middle-class educated Chicanos in a frequently humorous vein.
Estela Portillo Trambley, from Texas, was the first Chicana to publish a book of short stories with Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings in 1975. Embodying feminist ideals of equality, women are the center of the narratives here, as Trambley decries the inequality and unjust treatment of women and celebrates their unique biology. In her fiction, Trambley proffers the belief that, because of the biological imperative of giving birth, women are by nature nurturing and sensitive to other beings. Common as they were in early 1970’s mainstream feminist writing, these ideas also proliferated in early Chicana writing....
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