Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Brief Overview: The Evolution of Hispanic-American Literature in the United States

In this posting, PART I, I'll briefly discuss the writings of early Latinas/os in the United States. PART II, soon to come, discusses contemporary Latina/o authors in our nation and lists their works by genres, with a bit of background about them and/or their writing. Today, let's go back in time to our beginnings as American writers.

[These articles were first posted this month, with different titles, in the blog, "Powerful Latinas," hosted by Aurelia Flores. Visit her dynamic blog at http://www.powerfullatinas.com/ .]


In 1872, a Hispanic author from Southern California, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, published one of the first English-language books written by a Latino, man or woman, in our nation, a novel titled Who Would Have Thought It? She followed this up in 1881 with another novel, The Squatter and the Don. She used a pseudonym, C. Loyal, and funded the publications herself.

Her books were inspired by the experiences of “Californios”—native Californians of Hispanic descent—at the hands of greedy, land-grabbing politicians, corrupt officials, and squatters intent on claiming lands from coast to coast under the “manifest destiny” policy. In fact, many of the early writings by our Hispanics, both before and soon after the lands became part of the United States of America, were imbued with political, social, and cultural concerns about the role and place of Latin peoples in the new America.


The Mexican Revolution of 1910 triggered tremendous waves of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., including upper-class, well-educated people who played critical roles in publishing and thus helped create a Latino literature. Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary themes prevailed in the journalism and passionate writings of these newcomers, but the groundwork was being laid—through their political consciousness and outspoken defense of the Mexican culture amidst a different “Yankee” worldview—for the literary “awakening” of American Latinos in the 1960’s and beyond.

And what an awakening it was! Many factors contributed to this “renaissance” among Latino writers: greater college attendance rates; a sense of belonging spurred by Latinos’ brave, heroic fighting in World War II, where Latinos earned more medals for bravery than any other American ethnic group or race; the young generation’s wide participation in the civil rights movements, including those for farm workers and women’s equality; and involvement in social protests, such as against the Vietnam War.

New generations of Latinos, in other words, were better-educated and more aware of social issues that caused them to examine and question the Establishment. This newfound awareness and courage affected Latinos’ ability to simultaneously be part of the system and, through their marginalization by certain forces, to be alienated by the system.


So early publications by American Latinos were often in English, Spanglish, and Spanish, or any combination thereof. Themes centered on cultural disconnects, prejudice against Latinos, inequalities, suffering and loss. Affinity with the Mexican culture were prominent in a number of early Chicano writings, such as by the poets Abelardo Delgado, Alurista, Luis Valdez, and Rodolfo “Corky” González, author of the hugely popular epic poem, “Yo Soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquín.” Poets, in fact, were the rock stars of the early Chicano literary movement.

Other literary pioneers of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were the novelist Tomás Rivera, the first national award-winner among Chicano authors; Rudolfo Anaya, author of the internationally-acclaimed Bless Me, Ultima (1972), which ranks as the most-read Chicano book of all time; Estella Portillo de Trambley, the first American Latina author to win a national award for her writing. Her book, Rain of Scorpions (1972) championed women’s rights and encouraged a new generation of American Latina writers. Estella was the first modern Latina author to gain prominence. Finally, Cherríe L. Moraga, poet and essayist, was one of the first avowed gay authors to gain prominence in Latino letters. She is best known for the now-classic, Loving in the War Years (1983).

Three early pioneers in poetry are still active and popular today: Patricia “Pat” Mora, also an essayist and children’s book author who has won numerous awards for her work. Author of Agua Santa: Holy Water and countless other books, she ranks as one of the most distinguished, best-loved Latina poets in America today. Also, Ana Castillo, author of 11 books, writes short stories, essays, and novels in addition to her poetry. Finally, another outstanding, highly lauded poet is Gary Soto, who is likewise known for his children’s and young adults’ books. In 2000, he wrote his first adult novel, Nickel and Dime.

The impact of all these early authors cannot be overstated. They broke the glass ceiling, paved the road, opened the door. Clichés cannot do justice to the contributions of these and many other Latino/a writers of these decades that laid a strong foundation for a wave of authors to come as the 20th century drew to a close. A number of these literary trail-blazers were honored in the recent past by having their early works re-issued by mainstream publishers. Examples are Oscar Zeta Acosta, of “Brown Buffalo” fame; Richard Vasquez, author of the seminal novel, Chicano; Piri Thomas, Nicholasa Mohr, and Victor Villaseñor, author of the highly lauded Rain of Gold.
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Soon I will post PART II:  SOME TOP CURRENT LATINA/O AMERICAN WRITERS. You'll meet talented, dynamic, engaging authors in all genres who are definitely enriching our American literary landscape. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


“Welcome Back, Thelma, to Your Blog!”

Funny. This is what a friend told me recently when I mentioned that, after months of focusing on other writings, marketing my two books, and taking care of other commitments and NOT writing this blog, I would be returning to it. “Welcome back!”

And I’m glad to be back. In the time I’ve been away, I’ve read a number of outstanding, inspiring, highly engaging books by Latinas and Latinos that I’ve got to tell you about. This literary treasure I’ve discovered, or rediscovered, includes writings in all genres: poetry, short stories, memoirs, and novels. The authors span the United States and write with humor, pathos, and insight. What a mother lode of excellence!


In today’s blog, I’m focusing on poetry and have chosen two Latinos whom I have seen at readings and with whom I’ve shared the stage. These poets read with total passion and bring their audiences energetically into their work.

Meet Ricardo Acuña: Cosmopolitan Poet from L.A.

You can’t see Ricardo at a reading, or listen to Ricardo, or read Ricardo’s poetry without being deeply moved. He’s all body language, fire and thunder, and razor-sharp insight. He tells it like it is, like his hero, poet Charles Bukowski, did: unvarnished truth, dark secrets, deep despair, brilliant humanity, and an unflagging appreciation for each precious or precarious moment of life. Ricardo speaks of everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly; but his optimism wins out every time, or at least by the end of his books.

Highly educated, with two college degrees (Stanford University in California and Columbia University in New York), Ricardo is truly bi-coastal in formal training and cultural experience. He was, as he says in his bio, “born and raised dirt-poor in Nogales, Arizona.” But he rose above such hardscrabble beginnings, winning a scholarship to a prestigious prep school as a teenager, and later living and studying in Paris, France. His artistry extends to photography, and his books are enriched with his photos from all over the world. Ricardo is the most cosmopolitan poet I know.

Yet his life has been filled with challenges that are amply reflected in his poems. In his book, Greetings from Heaven & Hell (Pichin Publishing, 2009), he speaks of “day jobs to pay for that high-faluting education.” He recounts mundane jobs he’s held, including working for farm workers and teaching high school English. But he’s never lost sight of his mission in life: “[I] know for certain that the only thing I need to do in life is write (or if not, I will drop dead.)”

Ricardo’s poetry is passionate and fast-moving, as this stanza from “let’s not argue, love” shows:

let’s not argue
let’s not dig the trenches
that turn into oceans
that turn people into their own islands
that turn lovers into enemy nations
for God’s sake
let’s not argue
let us go to sleep now....
that we may dream a good dream
when we awake together

Ricardo’s poetry speaks to today’s times, such as in “temp work”:

i fill out their applications take
their tests answer their
questions i watch them stuff
their faces at their desks joke
about birthday cake complain
about leaving early and
it reminds me of
denver-dog-days when
desperation gnawed at my
skinny belly because
of another bitch and i
don’t even want their jobs anyhow sad
and meaningless their impersonal
pool their clammy hands and bloodsucking
smiles when all i want is a

He paints literary portraits of people who appear to be loved ones, and of family events, oftentimes poignant and heart-breaking, as when he describes his father’s death, or broken love, or misguided youth. His poems are haunting in their starkness and reality, their sensitivity and pathos, whether they capture a moment in time, or describe a cycle of loss. Ricardo’s heart and soul are on vivid display in both of his books: Greetings from Heaven & Hell; as well as under the influence (Pichin Publishing, 2007).

Ricardo Lira Acuña’s books are available through his website, www.writeracuña.com

Meet Yago S. Cura: Soccer Fan & Poet Extraordinaire

Yago Cura describes himself as an “American-Argentine poet, librarian, and futbol cretin.” Indeed, his poetry chapbook, Bestias Inberbes (Hinchas de Poesía Press, 2009), in which Yago is co-author with Abel Folgar, is a series of “odes” to soccer stars, such as Pelé, Thierry Henry, and Daniel Passarella. These poems are bursting with colorful language as Yago addresses each athlete directly, citing his flaws and glories, in words that are alternately intellectual and slangy, burbling with machismo and good humor. To Thierry, for example, Yago says: “My, how this ode about a goofy French kid with/sniper-dreams makes for a troublesome entretemps?/....You flopped around like a/ gangly Wahoo slurping oxygen through a coffee stirrer.”

Yago’s poetry book, Rubberroom (Hinchas de Poesía, 2006) is quite distinct in tone and theme. In this autobiographical work, Yago recounts the trials and tribulations of teaching hard-headed, troublemaking teens in a New York City public school. The book is illustrated by Carlos Folgar with amazing hilarity and appropriateness, though the cartoon art is a foil for the seriousness of the protagonist teacher’s plight.

The title Rubberroom refers to a stigmatized holding room for teachers who are being investigated for disciplinary purposes, who are still on the school’s payroll, but who are not allowed back into the classroom until the individual investigations are completed and the teacher is cleared of charges. As Yago explains in “Act III: Prologue,” “...they call it the Rubberroom/ because you get to bounce/ off the walls/ like a regular retard.”

The book describes in gritty language the events leading up to the teacher’s banishment into the Rubberroom. The students, it turns out, were, from the get-go, the proverbial wild bunch: “malcontents, parolees/ ...medicated for bipolarity, pícaros, spazzes, rufianos,/ those with O.C.D./ wards of the state, stoners, the anti-social/ godfathers, and the clique-indigent.” In another poem, “Animalitos [Little Animals],” Yago further describes the students thus:

Los animalitos are antsy
and restless; that is their charge.

They sit there brawling....
like feral geezers....

And if they so desire
to melee in the lunchroom
they turn the lunchroom out....

because their puny teeth
are always beginning
to show.

Things quickly decline for the beleaguered teacher, whom the kids deride as, “Teacher Lost His Shit!” He throws a desk at the board one day, and the desk nicks a nearby kid. Hence the teacher is relegated to the Rubberroom, where a motley crew of malcontent teachers, incompetents, and burnt out folks pass the time till their disciplinary cases are settled. In the poem “Taking Attendance,” Yago describes his compatriots in a litany of adjectives, powerful words that hammer home the dysfunction of disciplined teachers: “Martyrs nailed by their principals/...marijuaneros/ rageoids, deadbeats..../ loose-cannons; the grimy/ & remorselessly insubordinate/....dilettantes, debutantes,/ shovelers-of-shit....” It’s a sad scene indeed.

Without a spoiler alert, let me say that Rubberroom marches trenchantly to its conclusion, like a small play. Yago creates a very human, very frustrated, insightful Everyman in his teacher character. He sheds light on the plight of urban education in the big city, in areas of disadvantage and—most likely—inadequate parenting, inadequate resources. Yago also shows us how the grind of daily challenges eventually burns the spirit of young, eager teachers. We see the beginning, the middle, and the end of teaching careers through the various “detainees” in the infamous Rubberroom.

Yago’s books can be purchased through www.amazon.com . His website is www.ycura.magcloud.com .