Born in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942–2004) was a prolific writer, scholar, and activist. Her corpus of work includes essays, books, edited volumes, children’s literature, and fiction/autohistorias. Anzaldúa’s life and writing are at the forefront of critical theory as it interacts with feminism, Latinx literature, spirituality, spiritual activism, queer theory, and expansive ideas of queerness and articulations of alternative, non-Western epistemologies and ontologies. The geographical proximity to the US–Mexican border figures prominently throughout in her work, as does her theorization of metaphorical borderlands and liminal spaces. Her oft-cited text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is included in many university courses’ reading lists for its contributions to discourses of hybridity, linguistics, intersectionality, and women of color feminism, among others. Anzaldúa began work on her more well-known theories prior to the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera and continued to develop these theories in her post-Borderlands/La Frontera writing, both published and unpublished. After her sudden death due to complications of diabetes in 2004, Anzaldúa’s literary estate was housed in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin in 2005.
Theresa Delgadillo and Leila Vieira
Latinx literature in the Midwest encompasses work created by authors from a variety of backgrounds, with authors of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent predominating in literature that takes locations throughout the region as its settings. Although much work focuses on Chicago, the multiple Latinidades of the region appear in fiction and poetry from across the region. Regarding genre, most of this literature falls into the categories of novel, short story, and poetry; however, works such as prose poems, novels in verse, heavily footnoted fiction, or metaliterary texts challenge genre boundaries and reveal Latinx literary innovation. This literature emerges from the history and experience of Latinx migration to the region, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, and, not surprisingly, that history often figures in the literature. Spanish-language Latinx literature about the Midwest also exists, and like its English-language counterpart, often addresses transnational experiences. Major publishers have made the work of Latinx authors in the Midwest well-known, yet there are also vibrant cultures of small press, community, and collective publishing, and self-publishing, through which Latinx authors have shared their talents with wider audiences in and beyond the region.
Some of the themes addressed by Latinx literature in the Midwest are migration, with characters coming both from other regions of the United States and directly from Latin America; labor, mostly industrial and agricultural work, but also involving characters in the service sector and professionals; belonging and the question of what and where home is and how to create this space in the Midwest; environment and gentrification; transnationalism, often evoking different ethnic backgrounds from the present; family relationships; gender and sexuality, focusing on what it means to be Latinx and part of the LGBTQ community and situations of discrimination with families and workplaces; race, including Afro-Latinx characters; and religion and spirituality, looking not only to Catholicism, but also to Judaism and African diaspora–inspired systems of Orisha worship.
Ricardo L. Ortiz
Cuba’s historical relationship with the United States predates both countries’ emergence into full political sovereignty and consists of forms of political, economic, and cultural interaction and exchange that have intimately bound the two societies since well before the 19th century. The United States spent the 1800s emerging as an independent nation and increasingly as a regional power in the western hemisphere. Populations from smaller neighboring societies were emerging from colonial rule and often sought protection in the United States from colonial oppression, even as they saw the United States’ own imperial ambitions as a looming threat. Cuban-American literature therefore can trace its roots to a collection of key figures who sought refuge in the United States in the 19th century, but it did not flourish until well into the 20th when geopolitical conditions following World War II and extending into the Cold War era made the United States a natural destination for a significant population of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution. Most arrived first as refugees, then as exiles, and finally as immigrants settling into homes and making families and lives in their new country. This population has also produced a robust literary culture all its own with deep ties and important contributions to the greater US literary tradition. Cuban-American literary production has proliferated into the 21st century, exploring complex themes beyond national and cultural identity, including gender, sexuality, race, class, and ideology.
Kenya C. Dworkin y Méndez
Evelio Grillo, the son of black Cuban cigar makers in Tampa, Florida, was born in 1919, in Ybor City, an immigrant enclave whose population was predominantly Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian. When the Cuban population, which was the largest of the three primary ethnic cohorts, had started arriving, in 1885, from Key West and Cuba, its members were approximately 15 percent Afro-Cuban, or darker skinned, and 75 percent white, or lighter-skinned. The number of black Cubans later dwindled significantly, in the 1930s and 1940s, because of the Depression and drastically reduced employment opportunities. Many Cuban immigrants headed North to New York City and other urban centers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic searching for and finding better work, more educational opportunities, and more Afro-Latin people and communities to mingle and join forces with, which led to their major involvement in Northern civil rights efforts.
Grillo grew up on the “unofficial” border between Ybor City proper and a small, marginalized, African American area between Ybor City and downtown Tampa known as the Scrub. Early on, he came to feel somewhat alienated from his white Cuban counterparts, despite the fact he and they shared a great deal in common—language, history, culture, and religion. The idea of racial unity that had been promoted by José Martí and other Cuban leaders and intellectuals in the years leading up to and during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence, and which had never really totally existed, was quickly abandoned.
Eventually, thanks to an extraordinary school experience that took him out of Tampa and to Washington, DC, he became more comfortable and functional in the African American world of Tampa and elsewhere. Grillo ended up receiving a first-rate education at Dunbar High School in the Capitol; earned a bachelor of arts degree at Xavier University, in New Orleans, Louisiana; took three years of courses in Latin American history at Columbia University, in New York City, after the war; and then moved to Oakland, California, to work and earn a master’s degree in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley.
After completing his undergraduate degree at Xavier, Grillo had been drafted into the US Army—the segregated army—and was shipped to India with the 853rd Engineering Battalion to build roads. While there, the developed many talents that he would later synthesize and that served him well later on in life, for example, community organizing, administration, research and writing, communications, and dealing with institutionalized racism and discrimination.
Upon moving to Oakland, he took a position in a community center, and after earning his master’s degree from Berkeley, he continued to be involved in community, social, and political organizing. He was active in in local politics and black, Mexican, and Latina/o affairs and initiatives at the national, governmental, and nonprofit levels, working, for example, for the City of Oakland, in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the War on Poverty, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Community Service Organization, and had the opportunity to work with the likes of Herman Gallegos, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and Saul Alinsky.
The study of Native American and Indigenous literatures reveals how native knowledges resisted the Westernizing onslaught implemented forcefully since the beginning of the colonial era by colonial authorities, and after the 19th century by ruling national elites that shared with colonial authorities their belief that local Indigenous cultures needed to be Westernized to be saved. Despite its brutal enforcement, ancestral knowledges managed to resist and survived through the many social crises and transformations that took place from the 16th to the late 20th century. Their lingering effects are visible in this new literary corpus that began to appear in print since the 1960s. In the Latin American case, it is a literary production that is bilingual in nature, as all the authors publish in their own language and in Spanish. The authors in question have rescued their maternal languages in written form and standardized their systems of writing. As Central American-American Indigenous subjects migrate to the United States, they carry with them ancestral knowledges and written literatures as well.
The overwhelming critical attention received by Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) has eclipsed the complexity and diversity of his work as well as the discussion on his impact on Latina/o studies and autobiography studies. A great deal of bibliography dedicated to Rodriguez is the result of the ideological battles the book was engaged in during the 1980s. The political context in which the book was used (mostly to oppose affirmative action and bilingual education) defined the rest of Rodriguez’s work, as some critics considered his positions on education almost treasonous. Lee Bebout summarizes those reactions in “Postracial Mestizaje: Richard Rodriguez’s Racial Imagination in an America Where Everyone Is Beginning to Melt,” as he mentions how most critics saw Rodriguez’s work as the result of a colonized mind, a mannequin for white America. “Tomas Rivera, Ramon Saldívar, William Nericcio, and others critiqued Rodriguez’s thinking, and sometimes Rodriguez himself, as the result of a colonized mind, blind to history and structural inequalities, and playing the role of a “Mexican” mannequin in the mind of white America.”
In an interview with scholar José Antonio Gurpegui in Camino Real, Rodriguez admitted “I do see myself—in some more complicated way—as truly being a traitor to memory, if not exactly a traitor to Mexico or to Latin America. I do think I betrayed my family, betrayed my mother and father by becoming someone new—a ‘gringo.’” If we place his work in this context, Rodriguez’s work brings urgency and new significance to Latina/o studies in the 21st century by highlighting the unresolved contradictions that memory, culture, and identity posit as vehicles of agency. His approach to autobiography redefines traditional notions of identity, race, and language, and offers critical notions of subject formation beyond cultural nationalism, proposing queer paradigms that complicate and challenge writing as a clear vehicle for self-empowerment. His writing, queer to cultural nationalism, is deeply committed to the exploration of autobiography as discontinuous space—a space of disruptive transgression where words are barely a ghostly shell; a floating dream in search of an identity.
Arnaldo M. Cruz-Malavé
Initially censored, shunned, or ignored by the literary establishment, both in the United States and Puerto Rico, New York Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas’s 1967 autobiographical coming-of-age story, Down These Mean Streets, gained great visibility as a sociological document when it was first published, garnering much media attention and recognition for Thomas as a spokesman for the New York Puerto Rican community, a role that he embraced as part of his social activism. But Thomas’s work, which includes the sequel to Down These Mean Streets—Savior, Savior, Hold My Hand; a prison memoir, Seven Long Times; a book of short stories, Stories from El Barrio; and performance and poetry, would not acquire canonical literary status as founding a new U.S. Puerto Rican or Nuyorican literature until the 1980s when critics in American universities began to introduce Nuyorican literature as part of a curricular revision of the U.S. literary canon that sought to include minority literatures in American college courses. In the 1990s, Thomas’s status as a founding figure of Nuyorican literature and identity would give way to a more complex view of him as an author, as queer and feminist scholars of color began to examine the relationship of race and national and ethnic identity and belonging to questions of gender and sexuality in his writing. Thomas would then emerge as a more ambiguous, intercultural, and intersectional author, indeed as emblematic of the in-between or abject zone that the hierarchical binaries of dominant discourses of race, national, and ethnic belonging often situated Latino/as in, invisibilizing them. If in the late 1960s and early 1970s Thomas’s work became representative of the communities and subcultures whose voices were elided in American society, in the 1990s young U.S. Latino/a writers would adopt his work as emblematic of a resistant Afro-Latino otherness that could be deployed against an increasingly homogenizing version of Latinidad or Latino/a identity as a racially and ethnically unified commodity in the plural neoliberal American literary and cultural market. Since the 2000s, readings of Thomas’s work have continued to address the topic of otherness in his work, interrogating its normalization and focusing on the psychoanalytic and political issues of racial melancholia, introjection, and the status of lack in subject formation in his writing. Another trend has set about situating Thomas’s writing at the intersection between colonial and diasporic metropolitan racial formations, connecting it with Puerto Rico’s racialized literary canon, Caribbean “intra-colonial” diasporic relations, and Filipino American literature and culture. Yet another line of research has focused on the author’s narrative and performative choices rather than on his abject condition. And his performance in poetry has begun to get some well-deserved critical attention. All in all, the challenge of Thomas criticism remains the ability of scholars to establish a dialogue between the aporias and impasses that his writing is situated in (that is, questions of racial abjection and coloniality) and his skill and imagination as a writer and performer, between what he characterizes, on the one hand, as the “bullets” and, on the other, as the “butterflies” that constitute and propel his writing.
The literature of Central American-Americans is a diverse and emerging corpus of writing that testifies to the different phases and evolutions of warfare, locally and globally. This literature includes narratives about exiles and immigrants who left war zones, interdisciplinary poetry against U.S. militarized violence in different geographies, narratives about global wars and their aftermath, detective writings, and soldiers’ memoirs. War and violence have taken new shapes, and the inhumanity of war is expanded beyond the battlefield. A survey of the most representative Central American-American writers depicting these catastrophic events provides insights into the trauma of war individually and collectively and denounces its violence and causes. There are writers that propose a process of healing this history of violence and engagement with new struggles. Some of the authors in this survey make rational arguments, refuting Western-centric perspectives that justify war as a necessary and logical event. Other writers present a strong pacifist agenda as the result of having participated directly in this traumatic experience. Writers often reflect on ameliorative justice and the exile experience. Through history, they change their representation of war in Central America; later authors connect these catastrophes with violence in the United States and elsewhere. War becomes imbricated with gender violence, policing, urban policing, racism, and class discrimination. Immigrants become the main characters in many contemporary writings, and the search for identity, connected with the past of war, is common in the poetic discourse of the younger generation.
Carolina Alzate and Betty Osorio
As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic, a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.