HISPANIC AMERICAN LITERATURE: DIVERGENCE AND COMMONALITY
By Virgil Suarez
In an autobiographical sketch written in 1986, the respected Chicano American novelist Rudolfo Anaya observed that "if I am to be a writer, it is the ancestral voices of...[my]... people who will form a part of my quest, my search."
Ancestral voices are very much a part of Hispanic American literature today, a tradition harking back more than three centuries that has witnessed a dramatic renascence in the past generation. As the Hispanic experience in the United States continues to confront issues of identity, assimilation, cultural heritage and artistic expression, the works of Hispanic American writers are read with a great deal of interest and passion.
In a sense, the literature functions as a mirror, a reflection of the way Hispanic Americans are viewed by the mainstream culture -- but not always the majority. Readers and critics alike tend to celebrate this literature. It is rich, diverse, constantly growing, blending the history that infuses it with a impassioned feeling of contemporaneity.
In essence, the boom in the literature today is being forged in English, by people who live and work in the United States -- not in Spanish, as was the case with writers of generations and centuries past. This is a key difference, and a point of departure.
True, there are still some very real issues and problems facing Hispanic American writers in terms of finding outlets and venues for their work, as there are for other multicultural artists and, to be sure, writers in general. Although more work is being issued each year by major publishing houses, most of the interesting and engaging literature comes from small, independent presses that rely upon U.S. Government, private and university grants for stability. Literary journals and reviews always have been an outlet for Hispanic American voices, and some of the best work is coming from such sources. Increasingly, though, with the recognition associated with the nation's most prestigious literary awards -- the Before Columbus Foundation Award, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize -- Hispanic American authors are being courted by the publishing establishment.
Much of the attention of recent times, justifiably, is owed to the groundbreaking work of the Chicano Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the emergence of Hispanic American poets such as Rodolfo Gonzales and Luis Alberto Urista ("Alurista,") and other writers who chronicled the social and political history of the movement. The campaign was propelled by grassroots activists such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who played key roles in the unionization of migrant workers achieved through huelgas (strikes and boycotts). As invariably has happened throughout history, paralleling political issues in one country or another, the plight of the migrant workers and their struggle for recognition were directly reflected in the arts. A prime example was the work of Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino, his theater troupe, which played a pivotal role in creating solidarity and new social consciousness. During the strikes, Teatro Campesino performed from the back of flatbed trucks using striking migrant workers as performers -- theater for the people and by the people. One of his plays, Zoot Suit, went from rudimentary stagings to workshops to successful productions in Los Angeles and New York, eventually becoming a film.
In referring to Hispanic American literature, definitions are important. In this context, we are speaking about the literature written in English, and which mainly concerns itself with life in the United States. An early classic of this type is exemplified by the publication in 1959 of Jose Antonio Villareal's Pocho, a novel about a youth whose parents migrate to the United States from Mexico, in Depression-era America, to better their lives.
Hispanic American literature contains, within its tent, writings from different countries and cultures. Villareal represents one of the major Hispanic groups to contribute -- Mexican Americans. (A word of definition is in order. Mexican Americans are distinguished from Chicanos in that the former feel more of a national identity with Mexico; Chicanos, on the other hand, are more culturally allied with the United States and particularly with Native Americans.) To a great extent, their literary tradition owes a debt to the corridos, the popular ballads of the mid-19th century that recounted heroic exploits. These corridos were also precursors to Chicano poetry of the 20th century, laying the foundation for a poetics that fuses the oral and the written, music and word. In the corrido we begin to see the mixing of the Spanish with the English, thus creating a new language with which to express a new reality.
Today, Chicano American writers have made an impression with such classic works as Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street (1985), Denise Chavez's The Last of the Menu Girls (1986), Tomas Rivera's And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1987), and the poetry of Jimmy Santiago Baca, Loma Dee Cervantes and Leroy V. Quintana. They represent the heartbeat of the Chicano American community -- the living, breathing record of these people in the United States.
Puerto Ricans are the next largest contributors to the canon of Hispanic American literature with works such as Judith Ortiz Cofer's The Line of the Sun (1989), Piri Thomas' Down These Mean Streets (1967), Ed Vega's Casualty Report (1991), and the poetry of Victor Hernandez Cruz, Miguel Algarin and Sandra Maria Estevez. They reflect the rhythms of their island that have been transported to New York City, San Francisco and other U.S. urban centers.
The next largest group to be represented are the Cuban Americans, making recent additions to bookshelves and college syllabi with works such as Roberto G. Fernandez' Raining Backwards (1988), Elias Miguel Munoz's The Greatest Performance (1991), Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban (1992), Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), along with the poetry of Gustavo Perez Firmat, Ricardo Pau-Llosa and Carolina Hospital. Their literary motivation, for the most part, is rooted in the reality of exile.
Students of Hispanic American literature and casual readers alike can gain fresh insights into the diversity of this literature through a number of anthologies. These collections gather both the established and emerging voices from among the main Hispanic American groups in the United States, as well as new voices emerging from the Dominican, Colombian and Guatemalan communities, currently represented by the work of Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and other novels, and books such as Jaime Manrique's Twilight at the Equator (1997), Francisco Goldman's The Long Night of the White Chickens (1992), and Junot Diaz's Drown (1996). Each of these writers is bringing along a piece of a homeland that most likely is unfamiliar to the general readership.
With this impressive diversity of voices goes a caveat. Teachers, editors and readers more than ever have to be sensitive to issues of factionalism along national lines, which is only natural, since the grouping of these distinct and separate cultures under one term, Hispanic American, can seem forced. Yet one can argue that bringing all these cultures together under the one term may be comparable to the tension of sharing a meal with distant relatives -- there is a separate history and experience, yet there exists a bond of recognition, a family camaraderie.
The central point of unity among Hispanic American writers is language. While they may speak with different accents and use different expressions, they all share the experience of bilingualism. The ability to communicate in two languages, and more important, to think and feel in two languages, at times brings with it the phenomenon of being unable to express oneself fully in only one. Linguists term this "interference," and generally view it as a negative trait, or shortcoming. Still, Hispanic American writers and readers of Hispanic American literature assert that the intermingling of the two languages is an effective means of communicating what otherwise could not be expressed. Thus, many Hispanic American writers use Spanish in their work because it is an integral part of their experience.
Indeed, many Hispanic American authors believe that in the lives of their characters Spanish is not a "foreign" language, but rather a vital part of everyday speech and as such should not be emphasized with the use of italics. They emphasize the importance of Spanish by doing this. So many of the writers express themselves in English -- the language of the mainstream (whatever that may mean) -- but are resisting the destruction of their culture and thus preserve their identity by using Hispanic American expressions, points of reference and experiences. Hopefully this will become accepted not as "exotic," but rather part of the redefined mainstream in the arts. Again, this is a clear distinction between Hispanic American literature and Latin American literature, which exists solely in Spanish and in translation in the United States, written by writers who do not live and work in this country.
A second facet that all Hispanic American cultures share is the need for cultural survival. This is a controversial issue among Hispanic Americans, especially writers of literature, since it deals with the question of assimilation. How much of their culture should Hispanic Americans be willing to lose or suppress in order to participate in mainstream society? The answers to this important question vary, yet it is an issue that all Hispanic American writers tackle either directly or in more subtle ways. There are worlds of difference, for instance, between a novel like Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street. Bless Me, Ultima has at its core a timeless bond with the earth and nature, and an aura reflecting a traditional spiritual heritage. Cisneros' story cycle is more urban and pragmatic, and contemporary and assimilated in its stance on gender. But that's the beauty of so many voices adding to the canon.
The differences, which can be significant, at times may not be obvious to a general readership in the United States and elsewhere. We have touched upon the rural peasant or campesino tradition, the strong ties to the land, with which the writings of Mexican Americans are interwoven. Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban Americans, being islanders, have strong ties to water, reflected in the writings of the poets from those heritages, such as Firmat and Cofer. Urban life in the United States has given rise to a new tradition in Hispanic American literature, that of the barrio, the inner city. While for Mexican Americans the barrio is likely to be in California, the southwestern U.S. or Chicago, for the Puerto Rican the barrio is in New York City, evident chiefly in the work of Thomas and Vega. Cuban Americans are preoccupied with the dilemmas and frustrations of political exile. Their characters often feel a yearning and sense of loss for a homeland to which they cannot return. This is most obvious in nostalgic literature set in the idyllic Cuba of the past, as well as those speculating on the Cuba of the future, as in the novels of Roberto G. Fernandez and Cristina Garcia.
To a degree, the differences in religion enter the literature, from the Catholicism unique to various Latin American countries to the African santeria influence in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Chicana American novelist Ana Castillo, in So Far From God (1993), presents a Catholic perspective that does not lose sight of the indigenous Indian belief system. By the same token, Cuban American poets Adrian Castro and Sandra Castillo work santeria into their poetry.
As we have seen, the Hispanic American experience has many points of divergence from that of the mainstream, so it follows that the literature does too. However, there are common experiences that we all share as human beings, experiences that transcend cultures and find expression in art, making it universal and timeless. Coming of age, traditional family relationships, assimilation and the pursuit of the American dream are among the themes explored again and again. With the particular perspective Hispanic American writers bring to their work, it has a unique quality that, today, more and more, is finding an appreciative readership in the United States.
Virgil Suarez is a Cuban American novelist and professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He is the author of four novels, including Latin Jazz and Going Under, and edited Little Havana Blues, an anthology of Hispanic American literature. This article is an adaptation and expansion of an entry by Professor Suarez that appears in Encyclopedia of American Literature (Continuum Publishing Company, 1999).