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.
Arnaldo M. Cruz-Malavé
While literature by Latin American origin groups within the United States (e.g., Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican) has been treated as a single literary corpus—“Latina/o Literature” or “Hispanic Literature”—since the last decades of the 20th century, in practice, the commonalities among such texts were more comparative than panethnic in nature until significantly more recently. That is, while literature by different national-origin groups revealed some strong similarities in theme and form, the writing itself reflected the specific concerns, background, and history of the specific national-origin group, rather than giving evidence of intra-Latino group interaction or a developing sense of a shared intra-Latino culture. This article traces the commonalities among these bodies of literary production, including in the “pre-Latino” period, the 19th to mid-20th centuries, before there was even a commonly understood concept of “US Latino literature,” as well as during the Chicano and Nuyorican Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It then turns to a discussion of developing representations of inter-group interactions and tensions, including in the more recent emergence of “Central American American” literary production. Particularly in the increasingly cosmopolitan urban centers of the United States, an evolving sense of intra-Latino solidarity and panethnic Latino “community” has come into view in the literature produced by Latinx writers of the later 20th and 21st centuries.
Heather S. Nathans
Scholars have long wrestled with definitions of what might constitute “American” performance or theater. Early 19th-century histories defined it in strictly white, largely anti-British terms, imagining an art form that could instruct citizens of the newly created nation in lessons of civic virtue. In his History of American Theatre (1832), playwright, theater manager, and theater historian William Dunlap described theater as a “powerful engine” for a democratic state. Subsequent theater historians would catalog records of “firsts”—such as the first American stars (including Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman), or the first long-running American dramatic hits (including The Drunkard or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The roles of women and racial or ethnic minorities were frequently relegated to the anecdotal or the exceptional. In the wake of the Civil War, and with the expansion of the frontier, definitions of American theater grew more capacious, encompassing more amateur, popular, and immigrant performances as new groups struggled to establish footholds in American culture. The turn into the 20th century and the unfolding series of civil rights movements on behalf of women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) citizens, people of color, and people with disabilities rapidly transformed the nation’s theatrical landscape. Groups that had found themselves represented by others onstage discovered new opportunities for creative expression in the playhouse. Over the past twenty-five years, theater scholars have shifted away from a narrative of “firsts” and national exceptionalism toward a more nuanced series of intertwined histories that illuminate the complex discourses of national and ethnic identity in American culture. Their work has revealed a performance community—whether in the playhouse or on the streets—constantly struggling to create workable definitions of citizenship and belonging. Theater artists have never stopped pushing themselves and their audiences to challenge definitions of national identity. Their work invites contemporary students to expand their understanding of what constitutes the canon of “American” theater.
Who are we when we read queer Latinx literature? It may be helpful in approaching this topic to think about what we mean by America along with what we mean by Latinx, or Latina/o, and Latin American. Some Latin Americans, for example, become irritated by US citizens referring to their own country as America when in fact that term refers to two enormous continents. Another issue to consider is what dynamic exists between Latino/a and Latin American as terms identifying groups of people. We should add Caribbean to this discussion, which also complicates matters since Puerto Ricans are US citizens with histories tied to the Caribbean. Mexican Americans (or Chican/aos) live in a country that borders the other “half” of their designation. Both these cases introduce vexed questions about immigration and belonging. Queer itself is not a word that escapes controversy. It can be used as a provocation, to challenge hate language by neutralizing it. But does that work? How do we know when it does? And when do we know when we have succeeded and can drop its usage entirely? And does queer automatically mean gay? In its usage as an umbrella terms what happens to the specificity of same-sex desire? And finally, literature is itself a contested term as there is no critical consensus on what exactly designates written expression as literature as opposed to simply writing. Therefore I would argue that any attempt to be comprehensive about Queer Latinx literature can only be provisional. But any such attempt that is based on critical rigor and empathy should be welcomed.
Rita Indiana Hernández (b. June 11, 1977, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) is a Dominican writer, musician, and performer. In addition to her popularity as a singer-songwriter, she is widely regarded as one of the most important Dominican authors of her generation. Her literary career began in the 1990s with short works included in zines such as Vetas. By 2001, she had self-published three books: two collections of short stories—Rumiantes (1998) and Ciencia succión (2001)—and one novella, La estrategia de Chochueca (2000). A second novel, Papi, followed in 2005. About that time, she began experimenting with musical and visual projects as part of different performance groups, such as Casifull and Miti Miti. In 2009, she was the youngest Dominican author to be honored in the Santo Domingo Book Fair, where she was also booked as a musical performer. Her popularity as a musician grew even more after the 2010 release of the album El juidero, recorded with her band Rita Indiana y los Misterios. She subsequently published two more novels, Nombres y animales (2013) and La mucama de Omicunlé (2015). Scholarly interest in her writing and her music has centered on the way they give voice to contemporary subjectivities and put forth imaginaries of citizenship, social relationships, and belonging that depart from institutionalized discourses of identity. Rita Indiana has stated on various occasions that she sees her literary projects and her musical projects as intertwined endeavors. This is evident not just in the thematic unity between them but also in the aesthetic strategies she uses. In her work, she references mass media, Dominican popular cultural production, and global youth cultures to highlight the interplay between the local and the global in the postmodern Caribbean. Rita Indiana also explores issues pertaining to the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, and migratory status. Since approximately the middle of the 2000s, Rita Indiana’s work has been embraced increasingly by critics. She was also named one of the one hundred most influential Latino/a personalities by the Spanish newspaper El País.