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date: 16 June 2024

Latino/Latina Fiction in Americafree

Latino/Latina Fiction in Americafree

  • Alicia Borinsky


  • North American Literatures

Spanish and heavily Hispanicized English are part of the diction of the twenty-first century in the United States. Films, popular music, television, and advertising have been changed by a demographic reality that redefines ideas of integration, national identity, and homogeneous ethnicities.

Bland but realistic in its urgency to reflect the existence of new voices, the ideology of multiculturalism has helped shape the idea that the United States has become a land of cultural difference. The most popular Latino writers are part of the perspective that values difference over universalism, identification with a group over personal eccentricity, and social advocacy over the isolation of individuals. In this sense, the newness of writing in English or Spanish in the United States is frequently offset by works with an unproblematic relationship to literature's traditional capacity for social relevance and presentation of the author's personality. In the aftermath of multilayered high-risk writing by the likes of John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and Kathy Acker, mainstream Latino literature reinvigorates the tradition of realism. It tells us about things and places, is eloquent about society, and tries to capture street speech.

The writing most recognizable as Latino is to be found in the crisscrossing of Spanish and English in New York, Florida, California, and Texas. The trip to the United States and the frictions entailed by coming from a family with a loose grip on the country shape stories with a double gesture toward exoticism. On the one hand, the United States seems to be seen from a distance. On the other, Latin America appears remote, an “old country” already lost to the sentimentality of nostalgia. Thus, the everyday becomes gripping with the excitement of found words in an emerging culture of in-between-ness that tries to avoid self-doubt.

Where do They Come From?

The challenge of Latino writing has elicited a wish for purity and clarity of focus among academics in the United States eager to measure and classify, perhaps prematurely, what is a fluid and evolving cultural phenomenon. Who are we when seen as Latinos? Are we to be identified by language, national origin, ancestry? What are our primary literary sources? Which traditions do we have a right to claim for ourselves? Those represented by Faulkner, Whitman, Bellow, or by Neruda, Borges, Orozco? Is it possible for a writer to be at once Latino and Latin American?

Some writers cringe when confronted with the need for such self-definition. Francisco Goldman, who divides his life between the United States and Mexico, author of The Long Night of White Chickens (1992) and The Ordinary Seaman (1997), tells of an exchange he had with the Chicano writer Dagoberto Gilb on the occasion of a reading and discussion in a seminar taught by Gilb. When asked about himself, Goldman offered up a number of literary and other references. Gilb, because he did not receive what he considered a complete reply, insisted that the missing part of the answer was that Goldman is Latino.

Goldman is not alone in not having a reflexive self-definition of himself as a Latino. The question of national identity may very well be less important than it is made out to be by sources too focused on understanding literature from the point of view of a clear-cut ethnicity—an ethnicity frequently rejected by those the label attempts to encapsulate.

There are, of course, writers who group themselves willingly under the umbrella of Latino. They have varying experiences and come from different backgrounds and sometimes distant places. The Chicana poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street (1983), tells of her experiences in a sharp-edged language that is inseparable from the story of her roots and upbringing. The poetry of the Chicano Tino Villanueva revolves around his encounter with words and the world of Anglo culture as it stems from his childhood. Esmeralda Santiago, in When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), delves into the special kind of nostalgia that helps her create an idea of self. Ilan Stavans, from Mexico and the United States, makes a powerful case for a Jewish-Latino identity at the same time that he recognizes the relative value of these defining terms. Rosario Ferré, who lives in Puerto Rico, has recently started writing in English as part of her understanding of her evolving identity.

Exiles and expatriates from Latin America working in Spanish and/or English in the United States have produced a vast number of works. Whether we read these in the light of the individual national literatures of the countries they left behind or of the group realities they are helping create, their main challenge is that they suggest that Spanish is fast becoming part of the literary texture of the United States. Such is the case with, among others, Isaac Goldemberg, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Sylvia Molloy, Julio Ortega, and the writer of this essay. Others who have lived in the United States have their texts colored by the experience: Luisa Valenzuela's work has to be understood in the context of her life in New York; time spent in the United States also plays an important role for Carlos Fuentes.

Works written in Spanish in the United States lead a double life as they are integrated with varying degrees of success and visibility into individual countries and, if translated into English, become part of an area previously reserved for foreigners: literature in translation. Within the United States, the new bilingual configuration features translation into English from the Spanish as part of a bridge that is constantly being crossed in culture and everyday life.

Works produced in English with a heavily Hispanicized language pose a peculiar challenge to translators and the reading public in the Hispanic world. The foreignness of English-based Latino is experienced first in the difficulties of rendering the texture of the language mix into Spanish. Within some countries, street language shows signs of having incorporated English words from advertising, the drug trade, and popular music. Thus, the crisscross of Spanish and English occurs in Latin America and Puerto Rico as well as in the United States, but the specific creativity of Hispanicized English and Spanish does not travel the distance as well when the destination is Spanish.

Scattered and diverse, this literature benefits from a society's interest in understanding its own contemporary texture and speech even as the literature risks being misunderstood and too easily stereotyped.

Beyond Accents

American popular culture staged the drama of acculturation in television, film, and music long before Latino writing became as important as it is today. Argentine polo players, Cuban nightclubs, hot-blooded Latin lovers, the tease of a tango danced by Valentino, and the promise of passion in the mane of a Latin woman as personified by Dolores del Rio have beckoned the mainstream imagination since the 1920s.

Cuba has a special grip on the U.S. imagination. The regime of Fulgencio Batista from the 1930s to the 1950s, while infamously corrupt, also marked the high point of U.S. tourism to the island. A mythology of Caribbean music, good living, beach wisdom, and nightclub passions emerged. Glimpses of that mystique may still be caught in writers such as Oscar Hijuelos and Cristina García.

Oscar Hijuelos's novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love (1989) opens with an evocation of I Love Lucy and the energy that the character Ricky Ricardo, infuses in a group of New York Cubans. The dark-haired entertainer with a heavy Spanish accent who was married to Lucille Ball embodies, in ways that make some cringe, a certain ideal of success. Being on TV grants him visibility as a stereotype and makes him a joke at times but invariably tells his story through diction that conveys the allure of travel, distance. He is at home in the United States—smiling, aggressively foreign, and unfailingly intense.

The television screen has been redefined as a kind of passport and, grounded in everyday comical situations, generates the charge that in a very different way was produced by Hollywood movies for generations of Latin Americans who found their identities in movie characters. No doubt about it. Desi is a clown, whose lines are punctuated with canned laughter, but so is his wife, Lucille, and together the all-American dim-witted housewife and her Cuban musician husband stand for the inclusion of a certain kind of good-natured situational humor that owes much to Desi's recent arrival in the United States.

The emergence of Hispanic literature written in English within the United States produces in some the same kind of unease as the presence of Desi: What to do, how to react to an English so abundant in Spanish phrases and rhythms? And, no less important, what to say about the fading of the Spanish language into English prose? These are questions about authenticity, cohesion of literary traditions, and the nature of the communities of interpretation created by art and literature.

Characters in this literature understand one another, and when they do not find the right English word, Spanish comes to the rescue. Oscar Hijuelos, working in a highly texturized English, is a Hispanic from New York, the son of a Cuban family that emigrated in 1951. Hijuelos writes in his native English in an oblique relationship to the vibrant cultural and literary tradition of the island. The world of the Mambo Kings beckons us to find Cuba again in traces of American popular culture.

Gone is the threat of caricature present in the frighteningly wide-eyed and energetic Carmen Miranda, with her hats and hyperrealistic gestures, and in Desi's accented speech. For one of the characters in The Mambo Kings, it was an honor, a kind of passport, to have been on the I Love Lucy show. It was the kind of collective passport that granted the most heightened form of reality: the tube, being watched, being broadcast: “When I heard the opening strains of the I Love Lucy show I got excited because I knew she was referring to an item of eternity, that episode in which my dead father and my uncle Cesar had appeared playing Ricky Ricardo's singing cousins fresh off the farm in Oriente Province, Cuba, and north in New York for an engagement at Ricky's night club, the Tropicana.”

The story of the two brothers, their love travails and involvement with music, is told in an easily flowing language that highlights the sensual aspects of their lives. Food, lovemaking, betrayals, and everyday chatter are set against an effective musical background. The golden era of the past, represented both by the wholeness of the immigrant family in New York and the excellence of the Cuban musical tradition left behind and brought back in the suitcases of the new arrivals, is encapsulated by this episode of I Love Lucy. Ricky Ricardo is a key to the naturalization of Hispanic vocabulary and diction within the English language. Having been part of that, having appeared in the show, is for these fictional characters an achievement that justifies their lives.

As in Francisco Goldman's The Long Night of the White Chickens, Spanish words appear in the English text of The Mambo Kings without any sense of foreignness: “Nene his uncle called out to him, and Eugenio charged down the hall. When Cesar lifted him up, Eugenio's feelings of emptiness went away.” And later: “ ‘Oyeme, hombre,’ he said, straightening Nestor's bow tie. ‘Be strong. It'll be great. Don't be nervous, just do as we did during the rehearsals with Mr. Arnaz.’ ” These are characters who live out their lives without being hampered by language differences; they say what they mean in whatever way seems to best serve their needs. The apparent absence of a preoccupation with style in language develops into a style of its own. Hijuelos and Goldman capture a rhythm of speech. It is not fractured, in spite of the inclusion of non-English words into English, because Spanish does not function as an importation. It is a crucial medium for rendering a peculiar kind of experience. What is this experience?

Books are absent as subjects of the narrative. Quotations are reserved for song lyrics, personal comments, and television shows. Life is identified with popular culture. The Mambo Kings locates itself in a terrain of sheer intuition and pleasure. All we need to do is forget whether we are reading Spanish or English and enjoy the unproblematic show.

Hijuelos is one of a representative group of Hispanic writers working in the United States who are creating a language that wants to undo the differences between English and Spanish. Cristina García's Dreaming in Cuban (1992), for example, works in similar ways: “I met Max at a downtown basement club a few months ago. He came over and started speaking to me in Spanish (his mother is Mexican) as if he'd known me for years. I liked him right away. When I brought him around to meet my parents, Mom took one look at his beaded headband and the braid down his back and said, Sácalo de aquí. When I told her that Max spoke Spanish, she simply repeated what she said in English: ‘Take him away.’ ”

This kind of writing at its best is removed from the merely picturesque and addresses itself to a community of readers that does not see being Hispanic as a pretext for situational humor or public introspection. Television and popular music played and continue to play an important role in the naturalization of Hispanic intellectuals as a cultural group both separate from and integrated into the mainstream of the United States, redefining the terms in which we think of writing in English and Spanish. Phrases in Spanish referring to food or parts of the body, nicknames, and insults become part of what is understood to be the new sound of English in writing that is openly colloquial and rooted in everyday reality. We are told: this writing, these television shows and musical sounds, are here because art and literature reflect the situation of the country. Desi, the newcomer of the past, has now defined a norm and may be despised as a demeaned incarnation of the terminally simpatico Hispanic. For Lourdes, a Cuban character in Dreaming in Cuban, her Brooklyn neighborhood grants an occasion for pondering the relationship with people from different places, converging in the spectacle of the city. She wonders: “What happens to their languages? The warm burials they leave behind? What to their passions lying stiff and untranslated in their breasts?” Far from an optimistic cosmopolitanism or a nostalgic Cuban patriotism, Lourdes feels herself to be wholly in the United States. But the United States evoked here is made up of the patchwork of languages and unfinished business brought by those she sees in the street. The very meaning of being there, in New York, is sustained by the uncertainty about the layers making up the city.

What happens to their languages? Works such as García's and Hijuelos's suggest a solution. No longer concerned about the picturesque representations of Latin Americans, Spanish becomes part of the normal, everyday diction of English.

With an Accent

The drama of the expatriate and exile is part of the founding experience of Latino writing. Narratives that tell about fleeing from persecution and arriving in the United States coexist with tales of exploitation and prejudice. An arrival to the United States from Cuba, Reinaldo Arenas, wrote his autobiographical memoir Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls, published in English in 1993), in the United States.

The book, made into a film, brings to light matters of integration into society and ties to the place left behind in a way that makes it a good example of a contemporary arrival narrative. The issues it confronts about the extent to which one can remain attached and visible to one's compatriots while being away, combined with Arenas's will to become one of the visible writers in the United States, reproduce the anxiety caused by in-between-ness.

Reinaldo Arenas fled Cuba as a political and sexual refugee after suffering jail and facing derision because of his homosexuality. Before Night Falls is framed by two documents that shape the understanding of what he tells us about his life. It begins with an introduction he calls “the end,” in which he discloses that he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. The news, coming after he had endured frequent fevers, brought him to the decision of leaving New York for Miami so that he could die close to the sea. As it turned out, his death would not occur that way, but it was nevertheless dictated by himself. The document that closes the book is a farewell note to friends marked “for publication” as an explanation of his suicide in New York. As such it provides interpretation of his life, his disease, and the possible consequences of his departure. The culprit is Fidel Castro, whose responsibility makes Arenas's fate an emblem for the political and historical situation of Cuba: “The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness and the diseases contracted in exile would probably have never happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country.” Castro is not only in the past. He gives shape to the future as well since, despite the ultimate pessimism implied in killing himself, Arenas encourages others to continue the struggle against dictatorship. Implicitly the suicide note shows the way to keep his spirit alive by politicizing his story, putting it in a univocal and graspable collective context.

Since Before Night Falls begins and ends with “the end,” the book is a comment on its frame, and as such it sketches a clear-cut rendering of a life. Illness, exile, and Castro are the decisive organizing points. No everyday banalities, it appears to say, will impede the interpretation of this autobiography because it wants to make its author into an exemplary character. Arenas's book fights against the ambiguities he so cherished for his own characters. He does not, for example, want to share the nature of Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, the basis for what is arguably his best novel, El mundo alucinante (Hallucinations, translated 1971). Instead, the structure of that novel prepares us to see a multifaceted Fray Servando, part legend, part truth, from the perspective of an incessantly dispersing fictional account. Nor does Arenas allow us to see his own childhood with the detachment from factual evidence that makes his novel Celestino antes del alba (Singing from the Well, trans. 1987), based on his early years, a metaphor for the elusive possibilities of writing.

The will to shape life in Before Night Falls implies a flight from the kind of reading he so deftly suggested in his best fiction. If he was able to play a winning game against all-too-clear historical accounts in El mundo alucinante and sentimental childhood recollection in Celestino antes del alba, the autobiography demands a different perspective. It tells us that if we are intent on being faithful to the lessons drawn from the other books, we may be betraying the sense of this one. But let us remember that he is writing this memoir as he faces death and that his sense of himself and the final image he wants to leave for his readers is no longer in the distant future.

In the United States, Arenas can reinvent himself as an “easier writer,” the kind obliged to introduce himself to others without the ambiguities allowed by the place where he was born. Whereas lack of freedom in Cuba made his literature allusive and oblique, Arenas's writing once away from Cuba yields a frank and straightforward prose that is very much in line with life accounts produced by Latino writers with longer ties to the United States. In claiming his life for himself from outside Cuba, Arenas forges a persona that speaks to his being part of the new environment.

Most people are not indifferent to their place of final rest and inflect their choice with symbolic value because the treasuring of continuity in our cultures holds the belief that final resting sites are an indication of some profound belonging. It is for some a choice that involves a summary of experience, an expression of allegiance, and a recognition of roots. Frequently, for exiles and expatriates scattered in societies that hold a loose grip on their imaginations, the awareness of impending death on foreign soil is a particularly wrenching aspect of their condition. “In exile, one is nothing but a ghost, the shadow of someone who never achieves full reality. I ceased to exist when I went into exile; I started to run away from myself,” Arenas writes, evoking the way he felt in Miami. And yet he was there by the beach in a climate not so different from Cuba, living in a city resonant with Spanish, home to a group of wealthy and middle-class Cuban emigrés. But paradoxically it is in New York that he finds what he calls a “glorified Havana.”

It is not, then, life in Miami (described as paranoid and gossipy) but the streets of New York that invite Arenas to be part of a life in which he is not foreign. He does not seem to mind the cold, the language switch, or the sheer size of the city. It is much better than Miami, which he describes as Purgatory to Havana's Hell. “The city took me into its fold. I felt as though I had arrived in a glorified Havana, with great sidewalks, fabulous theatres, a transportation system that worked marvelously, streets that were lively, and all kinds of people who spoke many different languages, I did not feel like a stranger in New York.” It is there that he chooses to die: in a glorified Havana. The mirage of the city works for Arenas as for others before him. He has found a way to feel at home.

Perhaps the mimicking of an increasingly distant Cuban society in Miami discouraged him, perhaps the cocktail parties and the chitchat around him were enough to make him want to leave; at least that is what he says. But in going away he was also abandoning a certain sense of himself as a man associated with the sea. It was as though he had given himself a first reading as a beach-loving native of his island and suddenly realized that he was not the islander he thought. The imagery of the sea, the heat, smells, and sensuality of unending summers gave way to the wonder of New York, and in the process Havana was redefined. It became a city pulsating with different languages in which one did not need to drive. Because so many are foreign-born in New York, Arenas did not feel different there. His well-being in New York, though, implies a transformation of the meaning of Havana.

Havana no longer names a specific place but a state of mind, a possibility of endless walks and an invitation to decode mysteries. Without being aware of it, Arenas made a transition from the Cuban exile lamenting his uprootedness to the cosmopolitan flâneur exploring ever-replenished urban challenges. At ease in one city because it betters the other, he takes Havana into the realm of utopia. His place is now no place—neither a New York nor a Havana identical to themselves but the ever-moving subjective, mythologized criss-crossing of streets that Julio Cortázar called la zona, the zone, in 62, A Model Kit (1972).

The autobiography does not render an account of the transition. We are not told how it came to be, how the seduction of the city actually took hold of Arenas. The contrast between Miami and New York leaves us with the sense that the compactness of the expatriate community in Miami is claustrophobic.

Arenas is doubly uprooted and perhaps on the verge of shifting out of the nostalgia implied in his evocation of homeland when he decides to take his own life. His autobiography offers the way out of its own constraints through the perception he has of New York. But it is too late to open up the frame and forge a sense of national identity that would overcome geographical distinctions.

How Far can Body and Mind Travel?

Arenas portrays himself as a seeker of sexual encounters. Being successful in the hunt, arousing men, is so much part of his self-definition that he feels that death is preferable to going unnoticed.

He describes in the introduction to the autobiography how he was overcome by the desire to die when he went into a public restroom and saw that the erotic activities proceeded undisturbed without anybody acknowledging him. He felt old and ready to end his life. By the time of his suicide he was fully identified by his homosexuality, and the retrospective account of his life is written with an implied readership that shares in his desires or at the very least his expectations. As he talks about an encampment in Cuba in which he was locked up as a teenager, together with over 2,000 other men, he says, “One would think, as I do now, that this was an opportunity for me to develop my homosexual tendencies, and to have many erotic relationships. I had none.” He adds, as though to shock: “In those days I endured all the prejudices typical of a macho society fired up by the Revolution. In that school, overflowing with virile militancy, there seemed to be no place for homosexuality.” Homosexuality and antirevolutionary talk go together in his account, and it is often with sarcasm and condescension that gays accepted by the establishment are mentioned. Arenas's account of his sexual activity (he claims at one point to have had about 5,000 different sexual partners) is not so much an encomium to freedom as a nostalgic recollection that becomes a kind of counterpoint to the physical deterioration of his illness.

He longs for a youthful and attractive body; its loss, simultaneous with his exile, becomes an integral part of his identity. As he leaves Cuba, he abandons the place in which he experienced the most intense sexual rewards. In a manner reminiscent of magical realism he portrays himself being aroused by the sight of groups of men in idyllic surroundings. It is a place called Río Lirio where, during a walk as a six-year-old child with his grandmother, he sees an image that he considers an unending gift: thirty men bathing in the waters: “All the young men of the neighborhood were there, jumping from a rock into the water. To see all those naked bodies, all those exposed genitals, was a revelation to me: I realized without a doubt, that I liked men.”

The rural context in which this experience takes place, the evocation of the household with its eleven aunts, the walks in the woods during which he casually encountered a fetus or a dead child, and the pervasive mentions of special powers and hyperbolic situations set him apart as a character. Through this scene, his own body is youthful, removed from the present.

Writing about himself as a child, Arenas points out the exotic and stresses otherness in terms current in the literature at the time of his autobiography. Ironically the much-derided perspective of García Mírquez, regarded as an enemy by anti-Castro forces, colors his sexual and childhood self-portrayal insofar as it stresses the “magical realism” aspects of his past. Arenas resented being regarded as a curiosity in Miami, but in examining his childhood he sees himself as emerging from a world of wondrous sexual opportunity and peculiar beliefs that appear designed to appeal to curiosity seekers. A contagion has taken place, and those who bothered him before because they looked at him as a foreigner have been internalized as the eye that invents himself in the autobiography.

The evocation of the Cuba of his early years contains scenes of masturbation, and images of a connection to the soil are presented as instances of self-discovery and pleasure. When babies are born, the umbilical cords are rubbed with dirt; his first crib is a hole dug in the soil. Tierra in Spanish may be translated into English, depending on the context, as dirt, soil, or Earth. Although the translator has chosen Earth, dirt or soil is preferable because these words render best the raw feeling of the original text, with its sense that from the abject and the unclean sprout some of the most crucial of Arenas's physical experiences.

Arenas talks about the way he viewed his body in Cuba: “The earth was there when we were born, in our games, in our work, and, of course, at the moment of our death. The corpse, in a wooden box would be returned directly to the earth. The coffin would soon rot and the body had the privilege of dissolving in that earth and becoming a vital, enriching part of it. The body would be reborn as a tree, as a flower, or as a plant that one day, perhaps someone like my grandmother would smell and be able to divine its medicinal properties.” Earth and dirt anchor the body in the soil, while the pastoral evocation of a first conscious homosexual attraction watching men bathing in the river suggests that desire is equally basic to his experience.

A Cuba more essential than political realities is presented here; its power is nature and the energy of youth. Exile is for Arenas a farewell to his healthy body and his most intense moments of sexual awareness. The highly mythologized wish for freedom that took him to Miami—the beach, the familiar sounds of Spanish—proves to have been too literal a reading of his past. Instead, New York offered itself as a more accurate place for rebirth and self-memorialization. The sense that the “old country” was better is furthered here, as it is in other accounts of youthful recollections. One's body has been frozen in time, and its pleasures become identical with the land that has been lost.

The difference in languages, places, and historical realities makes for an illusion of plenitude in a fabled past. People had more energy, food tasted better, and only Spanish, the original language, can convey all this. The choice of historical subjects by writers such as Oscar Hijuelos in his novel A Simple Habana Melody (2002) and Julia Alvarez in In the Name of Salomé (2000) is part of this view of the past as a privileged space of intensified physical and mental experiences. Spanish is for them an evocation. For Arenas, it is the language that transforms him through words into a body away from his youth and a mind willing to be in two places at once.


Questions about Latino writing are inextricably linked to issues of readership. What do Latino writers read? Surprisingly, Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada, who writes in English, has said that he was very influenced by Neruda who wrote in Spanish. There was no question for him about tribal ownership of language, and indeed it is possible to write in English and be marked by the sounds and rhythms of Spanish. The kind of foreignness that the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda felt in the first half of the twentieth century or the Cuban José Martí experienced when living in New York in the late nineteenth century is no longer possible. Distances have been shortened, and the sounds of Spanish in the United States are part of daily life. Furthermore, a crop of excellent translators from Spanish into English have so naturalized Latin-American literature that one can now speak of a cross-fertilization of traditions. But this optimism is to be tempered by the current reality facing literature more generally.

The decrease of the reading public together with the facts of exile struck Arenas as a particularly brutal part of his experience in the United States. He criticizes writers from inside and outside Cuba for their mediocrity and jealousy of their better counterparts. Lydia Cabrera, a grande dame from Cuba living in obscurity in Miami, signing books, almost blind, is presented as an emblem of the fate of the Old Havana intelligentsia, while Carlos Montenegro, whom Arenas regarded as a great writer, had to go on welfare and died in total obscurity.

The contempt with which Arenas views the high number of Cuban poets in Miami and the regard in which he holds the less successful writers portray him, along with other major literary figures, as a permanent victim of every kind of political, sexual, and literary slight, not only as an individual but as part of a group.

This autobiography is a travel document and a historical chart. We follow his life as it is torn apart by Cuban repression and the pervasiveness of betrayal both inside and outside the island. The implication is that, by contrast, Arenas is shrouded in purity. Disease, poverty, and forced uprootedness have delivered to him the visibility of greatness.

In the utopia conceived of as home, New York, Arenas has rewritten his past and gained a readership that forgets the language differences because his experience as a victim speaks of what is currently recognized as universal. Arenas's stock is made up of Cuban literature and American movies; his readers in Latin America and the United States recognize him now more as the character invented in his autobiography than as the author of his major works of fiction.

The interest in knowing who is talking to us in a book, the transparency we sometimes cherish that allows us a glimpse of what appears clearly as “real” life, is intensified when dealing with any writing understood as coming from a specific group. Readers want to know who the author is as a person and also further their own knowledge of themselves through empathy with the author's voice and characters. For example, in reading Junot Díaz's Drown (1996), an excellent collection of stories about growing up Dominican in the United States, it is hard not to feel that the book is giving us a literature that delivers news about characters who had been invisible to us before and that will hopefully be interested in reading about themselves.

Latino writing in the United States at its best fulfills the tasks of realistic and naturalistic writing, reinvigorating English by making it more connected to what is already occurring in society as a whole. The incorporation of writers from Latin America working in Spanish, with a mature sense of the heritage of modernism and the avant-garde traditions, may be still another key in the renewal of both Spanish and English as readerships and references widen. Whether Spanglish is the future that will unite and disperse this vast number of voices remains to be seen.

See also Alvarez, Julia.

Further Reading

  • Espada, Martín, ed. El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry. Amherst, Mass., 1997. An anthology of the most visible Latino and Latina poetry that brings together diverse writers united by their quality rather than identity politics.
  • Santiago, Roberto. Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writers—An Anthology. New York, 1995. Informative and well conceived, one of several works on the subject.
  • Shell, Marc, ed. American Babel. Cambridge, Mass., 2002. An excellent collection of essays that broadens the perspective on multilingualism in North America and the diverse literatures that coexist in the United States.
  • Sommer, Doris. Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Cambridge, Mass., 1999. A speculative and intelligent book that puts into perspective identity politics in the United States.
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. New World: Young Latino Writers. New York, 1997. A polemical look at identity politics and contemporary Latino writing by an original and provocative critic.