Latina/o American Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Latina/o American Novel

Yolanda Padilla

The term “Latino” (or Latina when referring to women) refers to people of Latin American descent raised in the U.S. Also referred to as “Hispanics,” Latinas and Latinos have published novels at least since the nineteenth century. Certain historical circumstances and cultural themes bind these narratives together into a vibrant “tradition,” but one should note that they are not reducible to mere history, sociology, or culture, and that, as Ortiz argues of Latina/o novelists, “their approaches to the act of narrative are as various as their distinct senses about how exactly history and fiction can and should most productively inform one another” (524—25). Generally speaking, the Latino Novel is marked by a focus on Latinas/os as simultaneous insiders/outsiders in relation both to the U.S. and to their ancestral homelands. Language is often one marker of this state. Numerous novels have been written in Spanish, including Aristeo Brito's El diablo en Texas (1976, The Devil in Texas), Roberto G. Fernández's La vida es un special (1982, Life is a Special), and Erlinda Gonzáles-Berry's Paletitas de guayaba (1991, On a Train Called Absence). However, most Latina/o novelists work in English, largely because that is often the language in which they received their education, but also for pragmatic marketing reasons; it is more difficult to find a publisher and a readership in the U.S. for books written in Spanish. Yet, even when writing in English, Latina/o authors engage in “tropicalizations” of the language; they might use literal translations of idiomatic expressions from Spanish to English, e.g., dar a luz (“to give light”) for “to give birth,” or code-switch to produce a richly nuanced “Spanglish,” to name two examples (F. R. Aparicio, 1997, “On Sub-Versive Signifiers,” in Tropicalizations, ed. Aparicio and S. Chávez-Silverman, 203—6). In so doing, they mark the persistence of Latino culture in their writing.

Mexican American/Chicana/o Novel

Like other Latina/o novelists, Mexican American and Chicana/o novelists have responded to historical events in their narratives, particularly those that mark a significant change in their country of origin. Mexico's loss of valuable territory to the U.S. after the end of the Mexican—American War (1846—48) is a recurring topic in the early Mexican American novel. María Ámparo Ruiz de Burton's Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) and The Squatter and the Don (1885) and Jovita González and Eve Raleigh's Caballero (wr. 1930s and 1940s; pub. 1996) chronicle the struggles of affluent Mexican landowners annexed to the U.S. after the war. Historical romances, they use their love plots to indict the racist treatment of Mexican Americans, and portray their attempts to keep alive a distinct cultural identity within a newly alien political sphere. Other early novels, also historically informed, focus on the Mexican American as immigrant. Américo Paredes's George Washington Gómez (wr. 1930s; pub. 1990), Luis Pérez's El Coyote, The Rebel (1947), and José Antonio Villareal's Pocho (1959), whose title is a slang term meaning an Americanized Mexican, are all bildungsromans that explore the problem of embodying a bicultural identity that has no social or political viability in the early twentieth century.

The rise of small ethnic presses such as Quinto Sol in the 1960s and 1970s produced a larger number of published Mexican American novels. These novels reflected the political activism of the period, representing social injustice and thematizing conflicts arising from ethnic, gender, and sexual identities. Tomás Rivera's...y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971,...and the Earth Did Not Devour Him) eschews traditional narrative realisms, using vignettes to create an impressionistic picture of an immigrant farm-worker community. As Ramón Saldívar argues, the anonymous narrator “seeks to discover his identity and to inscribe his the text of history” through the forgotten stories of social injustice that have marked his community (1990, Chicano Narrative, 77). Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) has enjoyed tremendous popular success. Saldívar speculates that Ultima's blend of European myth structures with poetically crafted scenes of New Mexican local color makes it a “uniquely palatable amalgamation” to non-Mexican American audiences (104). It gives a lush account of the spiritual awakening of the young Antonio as he is guided to ethical consciousness by Ultima, the faith healer. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith's Klail City Death Trip (1973—96) is a remarkable series of volumes representing the everyday lives of Texas Mexicans living in the lower Rio Grande Valley area. The second novel in the series, Klail City y sus alrededores (1976, Klail City), won the prestigious Cuban-based Casa de las Américas Prize, the first time the award was given to a U.S. citizen. Other important novels of the period include Oscar Zeta Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), Miguel Méndez's Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974, Pilgrims in Aztlán), Margarita Cota-Cárdenas's Puppet (1985) and Estela Portillo Trambley's Trini (1986).

From the 1970s, women writers began to reinvigorate the Mexican American novel's representational horizon. Isabella Ríos's Victuum (1976) is a female-centered bildungsroman, comprising solely dialogue with no narrative mediation, and which Harold Augenbraum aptly describes as a “massive exploration of one person's consciousness, prenatal to posthumous” (1998, “Latino American Novel,” in Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. P. Schellinger, 1:749). Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1983) tells the story of a girl living in a poor Chicago neighborhood who dreams of becoming a writer in order to record the stories of her community. Other Mexican American novels have also thematized the importance of storytelling for survival, including Bless Me, Ultima, Arturo Islas's The Rain God (1984), and Cisneros's Caramelo (2002, Candy). Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986) is an epistolary novel that gives three options for the order in which the letters can be read. Each version reveals the female protagonist's understanding that “her destiny as a woman is not determined through a confrontation with herself, but...with a society that holds the very real threat of...marginalizing women” (A. E. Quintana, 1991, “Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters,” in Criticism in the Borderlands, ed. H. Calderón and J. D. Saldívar, 77). Like Manuel Luis Martínez's Crossing (1998), Castillo's The Guardians (2007) offers a humanizing account of the peril faced by Mexicans who cross illegally into the U.S. in search of work. Helena María Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) centers on an impoverished farm-worker family. The juxtaposition of the lyricism of Viramontes's writing with the bleakness of the lives she depicts, especially the women's lives, heightens the narrative's sense of tragedy. In contrast, Their Dogs Came with Them (2007) provides a fierce stream-of-consciousness account of despair and survival in the inner city (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE).

Gay and lesbian writers have made an indelible mark on Mexican American literature, but most have worked in forms other than the novel (see QUEER NOVEL). John Rechy has been the most prolific and acclaimed gay novelist, especially for his first two efforts, City of Night (1963) and Numbers (1967). However, he has been marginalized from the Mexican American literary canon because most of his work does not address issues of ethnic identity. An exception to this is his 1991 novel The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. Important lesbian novelists include Terri de la Peña (1992, Margins; 2000, Faults) and Carla Trujillo (2003, What Night Brings).

Life on the U.S.—Mexico border has long been a central theme in the Mexican American novel. Novels published in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Islas's Migrant Souls (1990) and Dagoberto Gilb's The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña (1994), employ the border as a powerful symbol of the bicultural nature of Mexican American identity. As Claudia Sadowski-Smith argues, more recent border texts engage “the negative effects of contemporary forms of U.S. empire on Mexican border towns” (2008, Border Fictions, 22). These include Ito Romo's El Puente/The Bridge (2000) and Alicia Gaspar de Alba's detective novel Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (2005).

The Puerto Rican Novel in the U.S.

Much of the literature produced by the Puerto Rican diaspora imaginatively comments on the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S., in effect since the U.S. invaded the island during the Spanish American War (1898). Moreover, the literature often conveys the social vulnerability diasporic Puerto Ricans have felt as “second-class citizens” forced to endure racial and cultural prejudice, while also registering their alienation from the island proper. Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets (1967) garnered national attention for its portrayal of gang culture, poverty, and life on the streets. Augenbram speculates that its success was due in part to the value mainstream audiences attributed to it in explaining a little-known people (750). Supporting this point, a representative review characterized it as “a report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group” (D. Stern, 1967, “Books of the Century,” New York Times Book Review, 1). However, Mean Streets is more than a “report”; its deft use of language and theme makes it a literary work of sophistication. Moreover, through its exploration of the rage born of the social injustice that often marks inner-city life, it meditates on the inadequacy of the dominant black—white racial model for understanding the complexity of race in the U.S., thus anticipating notions of racial hybridity that had not yet been formulated in North America. The novel established a template for other “mean streets” narratives, the best of which is arguably Abraham Rodríguez, Jr.'s Spidertown (1993).

Nicholasa Mohr's Nilda (1973) provides a searing critique of the oppressive power of institutions such as religion, education, and the family, all artfully told from the vantage point of a young girl who incompletely understands but profoundly feels the historical circumstances that intrude on the life of her community. Nilda differs from Mean Streets in its exploration of female oppression as a key example of social injustice, and in its thematization of art and the imagination as possible avenues of collective resistance. Edward Rivera's Family Installments (1982) is a raucous account of the culture shock a young Puerto Rican endures when his family leaves the island for New York. The novel chronicles the racism that affronts the protagonist in his new home with a biting playfulness that infuses the narrative with great energy. Like Rivera, Ed Vega is a master of satire and humor, which he uses to undercut the ethnic stereotyping that circumscribes understandings of the possibilities of a diasporic Puerto Rican identity. He announced this project in The Comeback (1985), which features a Puerto Rican-Eskimo protagonist who is a hockey player turned revolutionary. Judith Ortiz Cofer's The Line of the Sun (1989) and Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican (1993) are coming-of-age stories that follow young female protagonists in a society that views them as outsiders. While these texts have achieved prominence, they have also been criticized for “attempt[ing] to come to terms with a feminine Puerto Rican diasporan legacy by rejecting obsolete” (González, 142). Santiago's title indicates this rejection with its use of the past tense. Nevertheless, they are engaging narratives that bring to life the painful process of acculturation through a female lens.

The Cuban and Dominican American Novel

The exodus of Cubans after the 1959 Cuban Revolution has defined the Cuban American place in the American imaginary. Despite a persistent nostalgia for the island and the possibility of return, Cubans have established lives in the U.S. that have moved them away from their initial identities as exiles to a more recognizable “immigrant mentality.” Yet, as Ricardo L. Ortiz argues, while that historical narrative often shapes the Cuban American novel, this literary tradition refuses to “simply ’represent,' what are conventionally taken to be the ’histories' of...the Cuban American community”(521). Oscar Hijuelos's fiction illustrates this point. Hijuelos sets his novels in New York rather than Miami, the epicenter of Cuban America, and often focuses on the period prior to the Revolution. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989, the first Pulitzer awarded to a Latino), he re-creates the brief period when Cubans were known more in the U.S. as musicians than as political exiles, and thematizes the Cuban American nostalgia for the island. The novel uses music as a conduit to the characters' memory of a Cuba that never really existed, one which is “an imagined but not at all an imaginary place, part of [their] consciousness and [their] li[ves], and now part of the country in which [they] be” (R. F. Patteson, 2002, “Oscar Hijuelos,” Critique 44:46). Roberto G. Fernández's Raining Backwards (1988) affectionately satirizes the 1970s Miami exile community. The novel chronicles the break between Cuba and Cuban America that begins with the generations that have been raised in the U.S., and is finalized by the prohibition of the use of Spanish by the fictional Anglo-Saxon terrorist group, the Tongue Brigade. As Henry Pérez notes, “the linguistic humor, the extravagant characters, and a reality that is paradoxically and simultaneously realistic and absurd, come together to describe the tragicomic history of the Cuban exile in Miami” in what the author himself has called a “tribute to a dying era” (1998—99, “Culture and Sexuality,” Academic Forum Online 16). Cristina García's Dreaming in Cuban (1992, National Book Award Finalist) was the first major novel by a Cuban American woman. Among the themes it explores in its simultaneously epic and intimate account of the lives of three generations of women in the del Pino family is the divisiveness produced by profoundly felt political disagreements, thus further complicating the traditional narrative of a Cuban American community united in its opposition to the Cuban Revolution. Achy Obejas's Memory Mambo (1996) and Days of Awe (2001) trouble notions of Cuban American identity through their incisive portraits of a lesbian and a Jewish Cuban protagonist, respectively. More recent novels include José Raúl Bernardo's Wise Women of Havana (2002), the detective fiction of Carolina García-Aguilera, and Ana Menéndez's Loving Che (2003).

Dominican Americans also began as an exile community, with a select group fleeing the island to escape the Trujillo dictatorship in the 1950s and 1960s. Over time, Dominicans immigrated to the U.S. more for economic than political reasons, although the two are intertwined. Julia Alvarez first put the Dominican American experience on the national literary map with How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), which melds themes of political exile with the problems of cultural displacement arising from migration. In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), written in the tradition of the Latin American dictator novel, fictionalizes the lives of the Mirabal sisters, who were murdered for opposing the Trujillo regime. Like other dictator novels, Butterflies meditates on the horror of absolute power. The terrors of the Trujillo regime also inform Loida Maritsa Pérez's Geographies of Home (1999) and Marisela Rizik's Of Forgotten Times (2003). The multigenerational saga is a significant subcategory of the Dominican American novel, and includes Alvarez's magisterial In the Name of Salome (2000) and Nelly Rosario's Song of the Water Saints (2002). Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is composed of a dizzying array of footnotes, high and low cultural references, and a vibrant street “Spanglish,” all of which combine to tell the coming-of-age story of Oscar, “the ghetto nerd.” The novel meditates on Dominican American identity, masculinity, and the horrors of authoritarian power.

The Central American Novel in the U.S.

Since the 1980s, Central Americans have comprised a significant segment of the Latina/o population, with many having fled their homelands to escape right-wing military dictatorships funded by the U.S. throughout the isthmus. While more recent immigrants have left their countries for economic reasons (although these are difficult to disentangle from political circumstances), the literature that Latinas/os of Central American descent have produced often focuses on themes of war, displacement, and cultural trauma. Mario Bencastro's first novel, Disparo en la catedral (1989, A Shot in the Cathedral), focuses on the trauma of the civil war in El Salvador (1980—92). The two novels that followed, Odisea del norte (1999, Odyssey to the North) and Viaje a la tierra del abuelo (2004, A Promise to Keep), depict more traditionally “Latino” themes as they concentrate on the Central American diaspora in the U.S. and its members' struggles to forge identities in their new homelands without losing touch with the homeland. Guatemalan American Francisco Goldman's novels have received wide acclaim, especially The Long Night of White Chickens (1992) and The Ordinary Seaman (1997). The latter narrative follows a group of inexperienced Central American sailors who are contracted by an intermediary agent in Nicaragua to work on a ship that will set sail from New York. The men dream of making enough money as sailors to return to their war-torn homelands and make better lives for themselves, but instead they find that they are caught in a nightmare, working on a dilapidated wreck of a ship that will never move. Goldman explores a number of compelling themes in his rich and unique novel, including the exploitation of Third-World labor and the possibility of a transnational solidarity among Latinas/os of all backgrounds. Héctor Tobar's The Tattooed Soldier (1998) tells the story of a Guatemalan refugee who flees to Los Angeles only to encounter the death-squad soldier who murdered his wife during the civil war. By setting the confrontation between these two men amid the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Tobar suggests connections between the city's powerless underclass and the Guatemalans who became the victims and pawns of war. Other writers of note include Gioconda Belli, Sandra Benítez, and Marcos McPeek Villatoro.

SEE ALSO: Modernism, National Literature.


1. Borland, I.A. (1998), Cuban-American Literature of Exile.

2. Calderón, H. and J.D. Saldívar, eds. (1991), Criticism in the Borderlands.

3. Castillo, D.A. and M.S.T. Córdoba (2002), Border Women.

4. González, L.S. (2001), Boricua Literature.

5. Luis, W. (1997), Dance Between Two Cultures.

6. McGill, L.D. (2005), Constructing Black Selves.

7. Ortíz, R.L. (2007), Cultural Erotics in Cuban America.

8. Rebolledo, T.D. (1995), Women Singing in the Snow.

9. Rodríguez, A.P. (2009), Dividing the Isthmus.

10. Saldívar, R. (1990), Chicano Narrative.