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!

1 comment:

Mayra Calvani said...

What a great post, Thelma! Very informative and educational. I'm glad you decided to re-post it here, as I've had a lot of trouble accessing the Powerful Latinas website.