Though the 19th century witnessed the creation of new nations throughout the Americas, late-19th-century Latina/o writing in many respects defies national borders and boundaries. From exiles and immigrants to conquered populations living within the ever-expanding reach of the United States, Latinas/os in the latter part of the century often invoked a transnational and hemispheric perspective in their writing that reflected the border-crossing scope of their experience.
From New Orleans to New York to New Mexico, late-19th-century Latina/o writing comprises a heterogeneous archive that is geographically, linguistically, politically, and culturally diverse. Though many texts continued to be written in Spanish, some texts in English began to emerge. The authors of these texts came from a wide variety of racial and class backgrounds, in some cases pursuing cross-racial and cross-class alliances via their writings while in other cases defending their claims to an upper-class white racial identity. Despite this diversity, by the end of the century Latina/o writers of all backgrounds were increasingly subject to marginalization as racialized others within mainstream US society.
Many Latina/o texts from this period have been recovered from archives, edited, and republished for contemporary audiences. Scholars of this literature are necessarily involved in the recovery of texts that have been overlooked in private, regional, university, and national archives throughout the Americas. The deep fragmentation of this body of work speaks to the border-crossing nature of late-19th-century Latina/o writing, as well as to the dynamism of a field whose objects of study are constantly expanding and consequently shifting the terrain of what such writing might mean.
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.