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date: 29 June 2022

Literary Representations of Migrationfree

Literary Representations of Migrationfree

  • Marisel MorenoMarisel MorenoDepartment of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame


Migration has always been at the core of Latina/o literature. In fact, it would be difficult to find any work in this corpus that does not address migration to some extent. This is because, save some exceptions, the experience of migration is the unifying condition from which Latina/o identities have emerged. All Latinas/os trace their family origins to Latin America and/or the Hispanic Caribbean. That said, not all of them experience migration first-hand or in the same manner; there are many factors that determine why, how, when, and where migration takes place. Yet, despite all of these factors, it is safe to say that a crucial reason behind the mass movements of people from Latin America and the Hispanic Caribbean to the United States has been direct or indirect US involvement in the countries of origin. This is evident, for instance, in the cases of Puerto Rico (invasion of 1898) and Central America (civil wars in the 1980s), where US intervention led to migration to the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Other factors that tend to affect the experience of migration include nationality, class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, language, citizenship status, age, ability, and the historical juncture at which migration takes place.

The heterogeneous ways in which migration is represented in Latina/o literature reflect the wide range of factors that influence and shape the experience of migration. Latina/o narrative, poetry, theatre, essay, and other forms of literary expressions capture the diversity of the migration experience. Some of the constant themes that emerge in these works include nostalgia, transculturation, discrimination, racism, uprootedness, hybridity, and survival. In addressing these issues, Latina/o literature brings visibility to the complexities surrounding migration and Latina/o identity, while undermining the one-dimensional and negative stereotypes that tend to dehumanize Latinas/os in US dominant society. Most importantly, it allows the public to see that while migration is complex and in constant flux, those who experience it are human beings in search for survival.


  • North American Literatures
  • Latin American and Caribbean Literatures
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)

Migration has always been a central theme in Latina/o literature because movement and displacement are at the core of the US Latina/o experience. The label “Latina/o” itself hints at the idea of movement because it is used to refer to people of Latin American or Hispanic Caribbean descent in the United States.1 For some Latinas/os, the experience of migration is personal; it is something that they have lived through and recall. For others, it is more of a distant or inherited memory, sometimes passed down from generation to generation. Yet even in cases where there is significant temporal and physical distance from the country of origin, the Latina/o experience in the United States tends to be informed and shaped by the legacy of movement, albeit to different degrees. Migration in Latina/o literature refers not only to the actual process of moving but also to the emotional, psychological, and socioeconomic impact that that process has on individuals, families, and communities. Because of the different contexts in which migration tends to occur, as well as the multiplicity of variables that inform it—race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, education, political affiliation, citizenship status, culture, mode of transportation, nationality, generation, and ability—it is important to recognize its fluidity. There is not only one typical Latina/o migration experience, but rather there are multiple ones, and Latina/o literature offers a window into that diversity.

Broadly speaking, the representation of migration in Latina/o narrative, poetry, drama, essay, and other literary forms usually encompasses themes such as displacement (for political and economic reasons), nostalgia, uprootedness, transculturation, cultural hybridity, biculturalism, bilingualism, survival, the American Dream, adaptation, exclusion, discrimination, prejudice, and marginality. Yet the development of these themes varies significantly among writers and works. The extent to which migration is depicted as a positive or negative experience reflects how deeply personal it is. Migration does not occur in a vacuum; it is informed, influenced, and determined by economic, political, and social forces, structures, and circumstances that usually are beyond an individual’s control. As a result, literary texts often reveal the tensions that emerge between the personal and the systemic forces at play. A cursory review of Latina/o literature suffices to illustrate the plurality of experiences surrounding the theme of migration. Precisely because of the immeasurable breadth of the topic, this article does not seek to offer an exhaustive examination, but rather aims to provide a general overview of the representation of migration in Latina/o literary production. Likewise, it is not possible to mention or cover every Latina/o author, poet, or literary work that deals with this theme. The works discussed here have been selected because they illustrate some of the predominant tendencies regarding the representation of migration in this area. The reader should be aware, however, that they constitute a limited sample of the vast and rich literary production that addresses this theme.

Migration from Latin America and the Hispanic Caribbean to the United States has been taking place for centuries. Shifting geopolitical borders, in addition to and informed by US economic, neocolonial, and neo-imperialist interests, are some of the reasons behind the mass displacements from these regions. Continuous US interventions, occupations, and invasions throughout the region for economic, political, or military reasons—informed by the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine—have resulted in significant migration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States.2

Although there has been a Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean presence in the United States since the 19th century, the first significant wave of Mexican migration took place as a result of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). Additional waves from other countries followed, and they significantly accelerated at about the middle of the 20th century, in part as a result of technological advances. Some of the reasons for this displacement include political exile, civil wars, dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, cartel and gang violence, ethno-racial prejudice and violence, the search for economic opportunities, family reunification, and persecution due to gender and sexual orientation. Some of these reasons are more urgent than others, but in the end they all have one thing in common: survival. When reflecting on the topic of migration, place of origin is of crucial importance given the specific political and socioeconomic circumstances that characterize each country’s migration history, as well as US policy toward them. This is evident, for instance, in the distinctions that emerge between the representations of migration in the works of US Puerto Ricans (who are US citizens and colonial subjects), Cuban Americans (who fled an authoritarian regime and extreme poverty), and Salvadoran Americans (who escaped the violence of civil war and drug cartels).

Although clear distinctions emerge between histories of migration by country of origin, differences can be found within countries, as well. It is possible for distinct waves of immigrants from the same country to have completely divergent experiences. This is evident in the contrast that emerges between the welcoming reception experienced by upper- and middle-class Cubans who fled after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the rejection felt by their compatriots, the underprivileged dark-skinned balseros (rafters) who escaped in makeshift vessels in the 1990s and who, unlike their predecessors, were not immediately allowed into the United States.3 Another crucial factor in the way migration is represented in literature is generation. With some exceptions, the closer an author is to the actual experience of migration, the more pronounced are the themes of nostalgia, longing, anger, or sense of uprootedness. For Latinas/os who belong to the one-and-a-half and second generations, the themes of biculturalism, bilingualism, hybridity, and integration into US society tend to be at the forefront. Regardless of the generation, however, the success or (most often) the failure to attain the American Dream seems to loom large in Latina/o writing.

Mode of transportation is another variable that is tied to the conditions that inform migration and that also determines how this experience is perceived and conveyed in literature. Until the mid-20th century most migrants arrived in the United States by train or ship, and later on commercial flights. Yet it is important to remember that the mode of transportation is determined by a range of factors that includes an individual’s status, capital, location, and US immigration policy toward the country of origin at that specific historical juncture. Since the late 20th century undocumented Mexican, Central American, and South American migrants have risked their lives walking and riding on top of trains in order to cross the Mexico-US border. Cuban migration through Mexico has increased since the early 21st century. Likewise, for decades unauthorized Dominicans and Cubans have attempted to cross the ocean using yolas and balsas (makeshift rafts) to reach Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys, many perishing in the process.

The way migration is understood has also shifted in recent times. Traditionally thought of as a permanent unidirectional displacement, migration has been transformed by technological advances and globalization, which allow short-term and circular migration to take place. The length of stay in the United States is often determined by push-pull factors including political and socioeconomic conditions in the United States and the country of origin. Since the late 20th century, return migration (to the home country) and circular (back-and-forth) migration have become common, and they contribute to the constant reinforcement and revitalization of transnational ties between populations in the countries of origin and their diasporas. Transmigration, in turn, has led to the interrogation and challenging of cultural, racial, and gender norms in the countries of origin. As migrants move between their home and host countries, their worldviews and perceptions—which travel with them—have led to the dismantling of static notions of identity. One example is the understanding of race: in the United States this is defined by the black-white paradigm, but it is much more nuanced in Latin America and the Hispanic Caribbean. Many Latinos/as have embraced their African roots as a result of their experiences living or growing up in the diaspora. This attitude marks a shift in mentality regarding prevailing identity discourses in the countries of origin, given that blackness and the African heritage have tended to be minimized or denied across Latin America and the Hispanic Caribbean.

As must be evident by now, migration is a highly complex phenomenon that is experienced, understood, and conveyed in different ways by different people. Because the majority of Latina/o literature has been produced since the mid-20th century, this article focuses on works published from the 1960s to the present. It is divided by country or region of origin in order to offer the reader a more cohesive overview of migration in Latina/o literature.

Mexican American Literature

A discussion of the Mexican presence in the United States must take into account the shifting geopolitical borders between the two nations. There has been a significant Mexican presence in the United States since 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed to put an end to the Mexican-American War. As a result of the treaty and the definition of a new Mexico-US border, the United States absorbed expansive territories that once belonged to Mexico and the populations that had lived on those lands for generations.4 The first significant wave of Mexican migration to the United States took place as a result of the Mexican Revolution, when thousands tried to escape the violence of war. Mexican and Mexican American workers became the backbone of the US economy during this period, but as a result of the Great Depression in 1929, thousands were forcibly deported to Mexico. Throughout the 20th century, the push-pull factors that have influenced Mexican migration have mirrored the interdependency that has long existed between the Mexican and US economies. The Bracero Program, for instance, brought thousands of Mexicans to the United States as temporary workers from 1940s to the 1960s, a time when the country desperately needed an expendable workforce.5 Although the vast majority of Mexicans in the United States have migrated to the country legally, many have done so without documents. Because the US economy and large corporations rely on a cheap labor force, Mexicans trying to escape extreme poverty and violence have been lured to the United States to work, even under conditions of exploitation. Gloria Anzaldúa’s foundational text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) is indispensable reading for anyone seeking to better understand the Mexico-US border, its borderlands, and migration through the lens of intersectionality.

Although Mexican American literary production is quite vast, migration has remained a major theme. Migration is at the heart of . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971) by Tomás Rivera, also known as the “father of Chicano literature.” Within the narrative frame the reader does not observe the characters crossing the Mexico-US border, but nonetheless as migrant farmworkers they are in a constant state of displacement. Uprootedness and dislocation characterize the lives of the people in this tight-knit community as they travel the migrant circuit between Texas and Minnesota searching for work during the harvest season. The impact of this difficult lifestyle on the unnamed boy protagonist—who provides a sense of unity to a story told from multiple perspectives and in multiple voices—is evident as we observe him struggling at school. In this bildungsroman we not only see the protagonist dealing with the challenges of adolescence but also see how his life as a migrant farmworker leads to an early loss of innocence. Prejudice, racism, exploitation, and extreme poverty are the defining conditions of life in this community. From the death of his aunt and uncle to the heatstroke that almost kills his own father and little brother, abuse at the hands of a corrupt couple who takes advantage of his family, and his expulsion from school after being a victim of bullying, the protagonist faces countless hardships. Yet he does not conform to the role of victim, a position that the adults in the community seem resigned to accepting. On the contrary, he challenges authority by questioning the system that keeps the group oppressed and by questioning God for not protecting his people. Through a series of gestures, the boy makes clear that he is ready to fight for his dignity, thus heralding the rebellious youth spirit that coalesced during the Chicano movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Rivera’s text, the production of playwright Luis Valdez’s theater company El Teatro Campesino was deeply influenced by the struggle of César Chávez’s and Dolores Huerta’s United Farm Workers (UFW), which began in the mid-1960s. Many of his earlier short plays defended the plight of the farmworkers and promoted their activism in the UFW by addressing relevant topics and using untrained farmworker actors who performed in the fields. In contrast, his masterpiece play Zoot Suit (1979) shifted attention to the Zoot Suit riots of 1943 in Los Angeles and gained him widespread recognition when the film version was released in 1981.

Like Rivera’s protagonist, the main character in Helena María Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus (1995), Estrella, faces the obstacles that come with being the oldest daughter in a family of migrant farmworkers. Viramontes’s text is also a coming-of-age novel that traces Estrella’s development in the midst of unimaginable hardship. Abandoned by the father, the family members are forced to move from an urban to a rural area, where they must survive by working the land. As migrant farmworkers they endure brutal working conditions, violence, hunger, thirst, heatstroke, lack of adequate housing, and pesticide poisoning. As is the case with the unnamed boy in Rivera’s text, living under such conditions shapes Estrella’s character and inspires her to rise above her situation. Yet Estrella’s agency and anger lead her to express herself physically and unequivocally against those whom she perceives as her oppressors. She shares with the boy a rebellious spirit, but hers is also molded by the intersectionality of her experiences as a woman and an ethnoracial minority. Informed by Third World feminism, Under the Feet of Jesus sheds light on the double oppression that Latinas usually confront.6 Estrella’s strength and determination represent a beacon of hope for those who, like her, have been oppressed for too long. Rivera’s and Viramontes’s works seek to humanize and to bring visibility to a sector of the Latina/o population that has remained in the shadows despite the crucial role that it plays as the backbone of the US economy.

Luis J. Rodríguez’s poem “Running to America” (Poems Across the Pavement, 1989) addresses the predicament of the undocumented migrant. The poem opens with the following description: “They are night shadows/violating borders” (1–2).7 The darkness associated with the night mirrors the secretiveness of their movements. Whereas in these verses the poetic voice seems to be recycling the rhetoric of criminalization associated with the undocumented migrant, the rest of the poem challenges that perception. Those who are running to America include women and children; they are “[a] hungry people” who “have no country” (51–52).8 In their dire situation, “[t]hey must run to America” (41). Yet, once there,

Their skin, color of earth, is a brand for all the great ranchers, for the killing floors on Soto street, and as slaughter for the garment row. Still they come. (42–50)9

As the poetic voice points out, the migrants’ dark skin not only marks them as “Others” in US society but also facilitates their ill treatment. Whether in the service industry, slaughterhouses, garment factories, or the fields, these migrants have survived abuse and exploitation. They have also given birth to a new generation that is stronger because of their sacrifice: “Their babies are born/with a lion/in their hearts” (73–75). With these verses, the poem humanizes those who have been criminalized and objectified by society and announces a new dawn of hope.

Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance Between Us (2013), offers an important perspective that is often lacking in discussions about migration: that of the children who remain behind. In this work Grande recounts her experiences as a child left behind by her parents, who migrated to the United States in search of opportunities. Left under the care of her abusive grandmother, Grande and her siblings endure severe poverty and emotional mistreatment. Thinking that her life would be much better once her father brings them to the United States with him, she soon realizes that her alcoholic father is abusive and not capable of taking care of his children. Grande’s memoir is an invaluable addition to the Mexican American literary corpus because it provides a window into the experiences of thousands of children who are left behind by their undocumented parents in the country of origin and who later cross the border (also without documents) in order to reunite with them. Given the polarizing debate taking place in the United States about undocumented migration, Grande’s text puts a face to the statistics and sheds light on the suffering, abandonment, violence, poverty, and desperation that children of undocumented migrants are forced to endure. For anyone looking to arrive at a deeper understanding of the circumstances that lead to unauthorized migration—especially in the case of unaccompanied children crossing the border—this memoir offers a compelling perspective.

US Puerto Rican Literature

Puerto Rico’s colonial status as an unincorporated territory of the United States has had a profound impact on its migration history and has also marked a significant contrast to the histories, patterns, and conditions faced by other Latinas/os. Ceded by Spain to the United States after losing the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico has remained under US control for more than a century. Although US citizenship was imposed on Puerto Ricans by the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917, this is considered to be a second-class citizenship given that Puerto Ricans on the island do not have the same benefits and rights as do citizens on the mainland. That said, whereas stateside Puerto Ricans have more privileges than their counterparts on the island—such as being able to vote in presidential elections—they still tend to feel like second-class citizens because they are often perceived as foreigners.10 In other words, Puerto Ricans’ US citizenship has not led to this group’s incorporation into the US national imaginary. The paradoxical and conflictual condition of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora has been a central concern in their literary and cultural production. Many works question, challenge, and subvert the myth of Puerto Rican privilege by demonstrating how despite having US citizenship—which does confer them a degree of mobility across geopolitical borders that most foreign-born Latinas/os lack—US Puerto Ricans tend to experience conditions similar to those faced by other Latinas/os. These include racism, discrimination, poverty, unemployment, exploitation, and lack of adequate housing, schooling, and healthcare.

A significant Puerto Rican presence in the mainland—specifically in New York—can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, when Puerto Rican and Cuban exiles joined forces to fight for these islands’ independence from Spain. Cigar factory workers also established communities, known as colonias, and became politically and civically engaged in their societies.11 The works of Jesús Colón, Bernardo Vega, Julia de Burgos, and Arturo Schomburg, among others, offer insight into this early chapter of the Puerto Rican migration experience. In the mid-20th century, in part as a result of Operation Bootstrap, an initiative by Luis Muñoz Marín’s government to industrialize and modernize the island, migration augmented significantly. Attracted by the promise of employment and opportunities, about 650,000 Puerto Ricans went to the mainland between 1946 and 1964 in a wave known as the Great Migration.12 It was not surpassed until after 2010, with the Puerto Rican exodus that resulted from the economic crisis, and the devastation caused by the impact of Hurricane María (September 20, 2017).13 Most Puerto Ricans—usually low-skilled, uneducated, and from rural areas—who arrived during the Great Migration, faced difficult challenges in adapting to their new lives in the United States.

From the massive displacement of Puerto Ricans a new literature inspired by the experience of migration or adaptation to US society was born. Nuyorican literature, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, was profoundly informed by the civil rights and black power movements. The label “Nuyorican,” originally used as an insult to refer to Puerto Ricans outside the island—and which hinted at underlying racial, class, and linguistic prejudices—was reclaimed by Nuyorican poets and authors to distinguish themselves from insular Puerto Ricans and Anglo Americans. Piri Thomas’s autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets (1967), which follows the tradition of the bildungsroman, is considered a foundational work not only of Nuyorican literature but of Latina/o letters more broadly. The novel attracted national attention and instantly became a bestseller, in part because of its representation of the struggles, challenges, and prejudices faced by a young Afro–Puerto Rican in an urban setting. Thomas, born in New York in 1928 to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, offers a second-generation perspective that has been invaluable to the understanding of the repercussions of migration across generations from a literary standpoint.

In about the same period, Nuyorican poets Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero published their landmark collection Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings (1975), which opened the floodgates for many more publications by Puerto Ricans in the diaspora.14 Pedro Pietri’s foundational poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” (1973) strongly denounces the conditions of oppression and exploitation that Puerto Rican colonial migrants have faced in the United States. The poem, which became a hymn of sorts among members of the Nuyorican community, seeks to dismantle the myth of the American Dream that leads this group not only to remain passive in the face of systemic violence (“They worked/ten days a week/and were only paid for five”), but to sacrifice their cultural identity (“Dead Puerto Ricans/Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans”) in order to attain the dream of upward mobility promoted by the media.15 Although the poem decries the injustices that Puerto Ricans face in the United States, it also holds them responsible in a gesture that seeks to awaken their conscience in order to promote social change. Tato Laviera’s poetry collection La carreta Made a U-turn (1979) also addresses the theme of migration. This is evident from the title, an ironic play on René Marqués’s La carreta (1953), a landmark drama about the migration of a peasant Puerto Rican family that moves from the mountains to San Juan, and later to New York City, in search of survival during the Great Migration. His collection AmeRícan (1985) also explores migration as well as transculturation. In the poem “nuyorican,” the speaker reflects upon his return to the island after years of absence. In his apostrophe to Puerto Rico, he denounces the prejudice (linguistic, class, racial) that he has endured as a result of the differences that he, as a “Nuyorican,” or transcultural “other,” embodies. He declares:

yo soy tu hijo, de una migración, pecado forzado, me mandaste a nacer nativo en otras tierras (8–11)16

In these verses migration is depicted not as a choice but rather as an experience that was imposed or forced on underprivileged and disenfranchised Puerto Ricans. Although Operation Bootstrap aimed to modernize the island, it was also supposed to curtail “overpopulation” by promoting migration to the mainland. Ironically, despite the government’s push to promote migration, it was looked down on and sometimes even articulated as a form of treason, the “pecado forzado” (“forced sin”) that Laviera alludes to in this poem.17

Judith Ortíz Cofer’s Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990) is one of the first works of US Puerto Rican literature to address el vaivén, or the back-and-forth pattern of circular migration that has characterized the lives of many Puerto Ricans.18 In this hybrid text, one that combines memoir, short story, and poetry, the protagonist struggles to navigate the opposing cultural worlds of her homeland and the United States. As a “Navy brat,” she and her family are forced to migrate to the United States to accompany her father, but they also spend half of the year at her grandmother’s house in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Although the narrator-protagonist is aware of her privilege in relation to other Puerto Ricans that she knows—in terms of both her class and her light skin color—that privilege is not enough to offset the prejudice and discrimination that she faces growing up in New Jersey. In one of the most oft-cited passages of the text, she states,

As a Navy brat, shuttling between New Jersey and the pueblo, I was constantly made to feel like an oddball by my peers, who made fun of my two-way accent: a Spanish accent when I spoke English; and, when I spoke Spanish, I was told that I sounded like a “Gringa.” Being the outsiders had already turned my brother and me into cultural chameleons.19

Here, the protagonist articulates her sense of otherness—based on her cultural hybridity and own process of transculturation—as she navigates the distinct cultural terrains of Puerto Rico and the United States. Not feeling that she fully belongs in either one, her sense of identity emerges from the condition of in-betweenness.20

Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), helps shed light on the phenomenon of Puerto Rican migration to the mainland during the mid-20th century. Unlike the depiction of migration as a vaivén observed in Ortíz Cofer’s Silent Dancing—a result of her privileged economic status—Santiago’s text portrays it as a one-way displacement. Her family’s position as poor jíbaros, or peasants, leads them on a path that was all too common among the rural population: migrating from the interior to San Juan and eventually to New York. As a result of her parents’ unstable relationship and the father’s constant abandonment, Negi’s mother moves the family to Santurce and later to New York. The fact that most of the action takes place in Puerto Rico—ten in thirteen chapters are set on the island—is significant because it emphasizes the extreme conditions that lead the family to migrate. The trauma that the protagonist faces as she is about to board the plane is palpable when she describes herself as “unwilling to face the metal bird that would whisk us to our new life.”21 Negi understands the gravity of the situation and seems aware of the repercussions that the move could have for her identity. In a frequently cited passage, she states: “For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased, and another one was created. The Puerto Rican jíbara who longed for the green quiet of a tropical afternoon was to become a hybrid who would never forgive the uprooting.”22 With these words, the adult Negi reflects on the painful process of transculturation on which she was about to embark, which destabilized her sense of cultural identity as a Puerto Rican. Cultural hybridity emerges as a result of navigating two linguistic codes and distinct sociocultural mores as a Puerto Rican teenager recently arrived in the United States. The last three chapters of the book address her process of adaptation to her new urban environment.23 The sequels Almost a Woman (1998) and The Turkish Lover (2004) provide greater insight into the process of transculturation that begins at the end of When I Was Puerto Rican.

Whereas most US Puerto Rican literature dealing with the theme of migration has focused on the experience of adaptation to urban environments—especially on the East Coast—few works have delved into the experiences of Puerto Ricans who settled in rural areas. This lack is in part a result of the fact that most Puerto Ricans settled in cities. But not all did; few people realize that thousands of Puerto Ricans were recruited to work as seasonal farmworkers between 1948 and 1990 all across the United States.24 This is why Fred Arroyo’s literary production represents such an invaluable contribution. In his semiautobiographical collection Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012), Arroyo offers a narrative that simultaneously continues and breaks away from the established East Coast–based and urban-centered body of US Puerto Rican letters. Like other works, Western Avenue denounces the poverty, abjection, racism, gender violence, substance abuse, and criminalization that have characterized the lives of many Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. The difference, however, is that these characters are depicted in a rural midwestern setting, whether working at the Green Giant cannery in Niles, Michigan, or digging potatoes and picking vegetables in southwestern Michigan. Because they are always migrating and in search of work, these Puerto Ricans’ lives seem closer to those of Mexican braceros and migrant farmworkers than to those of their compatriots on the East Coast. In fact, if something is clear after reading the text, it is that Puerto Rican farmworkers, despite having US citizenship, have been treated like foreigners and exploited in the fields. By depicting the rural experience of Puerto Rican farmworkers in the Midwest, Arroyo’s work challenges, enriches, and diversifies the dominant narrative about Puerto Rican migration to the United States.25

And finally, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot Trilogy—consisting of the plays Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue (2007), Water by the Spoonful (2011), and The Happiest Song Plays Last (2014)—also represents a unique contribution to the literary and cultural production of the Puerto Rican diaspora. The plays follow the life of Elliot, a Puerto Rican Iraq War veteran who grew up in North Philadelphia, as he confronts the impact of PTSD and addiction. Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue examines the effects of war across three generations of Puerto Rican soldiers. By its representation of Elliot’s grandfather’s participation in the Korean War, his father’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and his own service in Iraq, the play unveils the connections between Puerto Ricans’ colonial condition and the legacy of war. Water by the Spoonful, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, is a darker play that delves into the complexities of adapting to civilian life as a war veteran. The play addresses addiction, mother-son relationships, online group therapy, depression, suicide, and survival. The last of the installments, The Happiest Song Plays Last, follows Elliot as he returns to the Middle East (Jordan) to film a movie and his Philadelphia-based cousin Yaz, a music professor and activist in her community. With Yaz and Elliot’s reunification in the end, the play emphasizes the strong links that unite this Puerto Rican family, while it also offers an insightful reflection on the meaning, fluidity, and complexity of the concept of family.

Dominican American Literature

Although Dominicans have been present in the United States since the 19th century—and, some would argue, before that period—not until the 1960s did the confluence of political and economic forces lead to massive migration from the Dominican Republic to the United States.26 The first significant wave occurred as a result of the assassination of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1961 and the political upheaval that ensued, namely, the overthrow of the democratically elected President Juan Bosch by neo-Trujilloist factions. When pro-Bosch revolutionaries sought to restore him to power in 1965, the US military invaded the Dominican Republic for the second time in the 20th century, crushing the rebellion. In the end, the US intervention facilitated the rise to power of Joaquín Balaguer, Trujillo’s right-hand man and the regime’s ideologue, who in turn launched a violent persecution campaign against his enemies. Seeking refuge from political oppression, thousands of Dominicans migrated to the East Coast and to Puerto Rico. A second wave followed in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the economic crisis, which led many Dominicans to seek survival and better opportunities outside their country. Although the majority of those who migrated did so legally, a significant number arrived in the United States and Puerto Rico without documents.27 Ironically, the issue of citizenship has resurfaced since the passing of TC 168-13, also known as La Sentencia, a highly controversial law that has rendered stateless thousands of Haitian Dominicans. The Dominican Republic’s complex history and neocolonial relation to the United States have propelled migration, and its transnational character has been captured in the literature of its diaspora.

The literary production of Dominicans in the United States extends as far back as the nineteenth century, but most works produced until the 1990s were written in Spanish and therefore only reached a limited audience.28 The more recent Spanish-language publications of US Dominican poets Marianela Medrano and Sussy Santana and authors Aurora Arias, Rita Indiana Hernández, and Rey Andújar, continue to enrich Dominican letters in the United States.29 A watershed moment for this corpus occurred with the publication of Julia Alvarez’s widely acclaimed novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991). The work depicts the life of the García family as it moves between the Dominican Republic and the United States for political reasons. It is the father’s participation in anti-Trujillo insurgent activities that forces them to flee their country in order to survive. Told from different perspectives and following a nonlineal development, it privileges the stories of the four García daughters as they each struggle to navigate the cultural expectations placed on them by their traditional parents (Old World) and by US society at large (New World). Trying to adapt to their new home, Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia are forced to negotiate their processes of transculturation. Class also plays a key role given that the family also has to adapt to the loss of their privileged status as a result of their migration to the United States. The novel traces the search for identity that marks the lives of the members of the García family. As the daughters mature, they begin to understand what they have gained and what they have lost in the process of migration. They gain a significant degree of freedom, but they also lose—to varying degrees—their accents, homeland, and Dominican cultural identity. Focusing on issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, transculturation, and transmigration, the novel is the first work of Dominican American literature to examine the complexity of Dominican migration from a feminist perspective while reaching a mainstream US audience.

Angie Cruz’s Let It Rain Coffee (2005) likewise centers on the experience of migration while it challenges some of the myths associated with it, such as the myth of the Dominican Dream.30 The novel follows the lives of two main characters, Don Chan and Esperanza. Don Chan, who was brought from China to the Caribbean as part of the “coolie” trade, acquires a strong sense of Dominican identity that in political terms positions him against the Trujillo dictatorship.31 He embodies patriotism to such a degree that migration to the United States—or the heartbreak caused by his forced move after the death of his wife—literally sends him to the grave. Esperanza, Don Chan’s daughter-in-law, represents the opposite posture. Not only does she descend from a family of Trujillo supporters, but she does not display any emotional attachment to the Dominican Republic. On the contrary, from rural Los Llanos, where she lives with her husband Santo (Don Chan’s son), she dreams of escaping to the United States and making a better life for herself. But unlike the majority of Dominicans, whose main destination has been New York, Esperanza’s obsession with the television show Dallas leads her to dream about settling there. Despite the unconventional choice of destination, her trajectory mirrors that of thousands of Dominicans who embark on the dangerous journey from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico in a yola, a precarious vessel. Esperanza arrives pregnant and undocumented in Puerto Rico, which becomes a stepping stone in her journey to the continental United States. Although she eventually ends up living and raising her two children in New York, her desire to achieve a luxurious lifestyle—like the one she was exposed to on television—remains a constant in her life that has a negative impact on all of her close relationships. A noteworthy aspect of the novel is the portrayal of return migration, an important theme that until the publication of this book had not garnered much literary attention. Esperanza’s return to the Dominican Republic, as well as her reception by her family, sheds light on the dynamics that often play out between the diaspora and the homeland. As a migrant, Esperanza is expected to succeed in the United States and to share her wealth with her family. Her return is tainted by the greed displayed by her family members and the pressure that they place on her for not having achieved a high level of financial success after leaving the country. Let It Rain Coffee questions the fictions that sustain the myth of the Dominican Dream by depicting the challenges and pressures associated with migration to the United States.32

Migration to and from the Dominican Republic has also been a major concern in the works of Junot Díaz, possibly the most celebrated Dominican American author to date. Because Díaz’s popularity also extends to the realm of academic scholarship and his works have garnered significant critical attention, this discussion is limited in order to focus on works by less well-studied literary figures. In his short story collections Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012), as well as in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), his main characters often have to negotiate their Dominican pasts and their American presents, which often bring to the fore issues of race and gender. His ever-present character (and alter ego), Yunior, is only a child when he first appears in Drown. Growing up black and underprivileged in the Dominican Republic, he and the rest of the family must endure the father’s subsequent move to the United States in search for a better life (in the story “Aguantando”). The father’s physical and emotional abandonment (he starts a new family in the United States) is shown to have a great impact on the family, though he later manages to bring them to New Jersey. The story “Fiesta, 1980” offers a multilayered reflection on the topics of migration, adaptation, masculinity, race, and ethnicity. In it, Yunior’s father is depicted as an authoritative and violent figure who controls his wife and children through fear and terror—symbolically representing the legacy of Trujillo’s dictatorship. The story’s overlapping of the family gathering (fiesta) and the father’s visits to his mistress coalesce in the depiction of Yunior’s sickness (revulsion) when he rides in his father’s new Volkswagen, which in turn is a symbol of the status he has achieved as an immigrant. Yunior, who knows very well the price that his family has had to pay for the luxury of having migrated to the United States, appears to be subconsciously rebelling against everything that his father represents. As Yunior’s life journey continues and he becomes a young adult, he must negotiate the challenges that he faces as an Afro-Dominican American man.

The emerging Afro-Dominican performance poet Elizabeth Acevedo has been carving a space within Dominican-American, Latina/o, and American letters more broadly, as illustrated by the fact that her first novel, The Poet X, won the 2018 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Born and raised in New York, Acevedo produces works that are informed by her Afro-Dominican identity and her family’s immigration story. Her poetry collection Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths (2016) addresses a number of thematic concerns such as migration, racism, sexism, classism, prejudice, writing, poverty, and living in the inner city, as well as Dominican myths, history, and identity. Her poem “Mami Came to This Country as a Nanny” explores the link between the poetic voice and her mother by addressing the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. The title’s reference to the mother’s immigration story is illustrative of the conditions under which thousands of Dominican and other Latina women have arrived in the United States to be employed as maids and nannies. In the poem, the poetic voice reflects on her upbringing and coming-into-womanhood, symbolized by the skill—passed down from mother to daughter—of washing her underwear by hand. Mastering this domestic chore becomes a matter of pride: “no menstrual cycle ever made me more woman/in mami’s eyes than this learning how to wash my own ass” (11–12).33 The mother’s work and sacrifice seem to pay off as the speaker attends college. But for the daughter, disconnecting from the past, from her roots, is impossible. As she states,

this memory tightens my fist that first week of freshman year when katie kerr’s mother, who has a throat made for real pearls, points her unsoftened mouth at me, you better take care of Katie, she’s always had help. (14–17)34

The poem underscores how race, ethnicity, class, and gender intersect in the eyes of Katie Kerr’s mother, who from her privileged position reads the body of the poetic voice as help instead of her daughter’s fellow student. Her comment reveals the prejudice, classism, and racism that Afro-Latina women face in US society. Dehumanization and invisibility also emerge as conditions that oppress Latinas and women of color. The poem suggests that while the poetic voice can enjoy opportunities denied to her mother, the prejudice and discrimination that she has inherited as an immigrant and woman of color will continue to be challenges for the rest of her life.

Cuban American Literature

As with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, there have been Cubans in the United States since the 19th century, but it was not until the mid-to-late 20th century that mass migration from Cuba began in earnest. Given their distinct reasons, historical contexts, demographic profiles, and reception by US society, sociologists and anthropologists have often divided Cuban migration into various waves. According to Grenier and Pérez, these are the early exiles, the Airlift, the Mariel Exodus, and the rafter crisis.35 The early exiles (1959–1962) constituted the first wave to leave the island as a result of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Most people in this group settled in Miami, were part of the Cuban elite, were mostly light-skinned, and received substantial help from the US government upon arrival because of their refugee status. The Airlift (1965–1973), or the “freedom flights,” at first brought mostly women and the elderly, but later on the group included small entrepreneurs and white-collar employees. The Mariel Exodus of 1980 followed the overtaking of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana by more than 10,000 Cuban nationals seeking to escape the country. When Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so from the Port of Mariel, more than 125,000 left. This group included dark-skinned Cubans who belonged to the lower socioeconomic strata of the population, but it also included intellectuals, artists, and professionals.36 The arrival of this particular group caused a shift in US public opinion about US migration policy toward Cuba. Compared to earlier waves, this group faced significant prejudice and racism from mainstream society and the Miami Cuban community. The balsero (rafter) crisis reached its peak in 1994 during the Special Period, the label given in Cuba to the decade of the 1990s, which was characterized by extreme poverty and government repression in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.37 Desperate to leave, thousands of Cubans escaped in makeshift vessels; some made it to US soil, others where intercepted and sent to Guantánamo, and an unknown number perished on the journey. As a result of this wave, US policy toward Cuban migrants was forever altered.

Given these migration waves, Cuban literature in the United States is highly diverse. Because early exile literature such as Lino Novás Calvo’s Maneras de contar (1970) was typically written in Spanish, it had limited circulation. One exception is the play El Súper (1970) by Iván Acosta, about a Cuban exile family in New York trying to cope with displacement. The play was turned into a film directed by León Ichaso and Orlando Jiménez Leal in 1979. Without a doubt, Cristina García is recognized as one of the most important Cuban American authors. Her debut novel Dreaming in Cuban (1992) garnered national attention and became one of the works associated with the Latina literary boom of the 1990s. Dreaming in Cuban tells the story of three generations of a family that has been physically and emotionally divided as a result of the Cuban Revolution. The two opposing political views are reflected in the characters of Celia, the matriarch of the family, and Lourdes, her daughter. As an ardent follower of Fidel Castro, Celia remains in Cuba with her daughter Felicia and her grandchildren and does whatever she can to defend the Revolution. Lourdes, in contrast, goes into exile and settles in New York City, where she lives with her husband and daughter Pilar. As a staunch anti-communist, Lourdes thrives in her new homeland. She spends her life trying to achieve the American Dream, first as a guard and later as the proud owner of Yankee Doodle Bakery. Her teenage daughter Pilar finds herself at a crossroads in her search for her identity as the daughter of Cuban parents in the United States. Despite the distance that separates them, Pilar and her grandmother Celia develop a deep bond that leads Pilar and Lourdes to return to Cuba for a visit. Through the characters’ relationships, the novel offers a polyphonic exploration of the effects of Cuban history on the family by privileging female voices.

The theme of Cuban migration is also central in Ana Menéndez’s short story collection In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd (2001). The title story centers on the life of Máximo, a Cuban exile who left as a result of the revolution. An older widower, Máximo struggles to survive in the midst of his losses. The story takes place in Miami, and more specifically Domino Park, where he often joins friends to play dominoes. Intermingled with poignant commentary regarding the demographic changes faced by Little Havana in recent decades (from Cuban to pan-Latino enclave) and its exoticization at the hands of the tourism industry is the story of a man who is trying to make sense of who he has become after years of exile. Present-day Miami is contrasted to the Miami of the past, as well as to the Cuba of yesterday (la Cuba de ayer), that is, Cuba before Castro. We learn that Máximo had been a professor at the university who left abruptly (“he said good-bye to no one”) two years after the triumph of the Revolution. In Miami, he first drove a taxi and then convinced his wife to open a small restaurant in Calle Ocho, the heart of Little Havana, where “a generation of former professors served black beans and rice to the nostalgic.”38 The loss of social capital and status as a result of exile is highlighted as one of the most impactful repercussions of migration. After losing his wife, Máximo spends his days reminiscing about the Cuba that he left behind. One way to channel the feelings of loss and nostalgia is by telling jokes, which he tends to do while playing dominoes. In these moments, through his performance and his friends’ reactions, Máximo is forced to confront the anguish that lies underneath. In “In Cuba I was a German Shepherd,” Menéndez offers a critical yet compassionate portrayal of a Cuban generation also known as the “Golden Exile.” More important, the story challenges the perception that the members of this particular wave made an effortless transition into US society given all of the support they received from the US government. As the story shows, uprooting and exile are always painful.

The theme of Cuban exile is rendered even more complex in Speaking Wiri Wiri, a poetry collection by Dan Vera (2013). Vera’s experience as a Cuban American born and raised in southern Texas, thus growing up outside a Cuban enclave and, more specifically, along the Mexico-US border, has informed his writing in unique ways. In contrast to the vast majority of literary works by Cuban Americans—which often deal with exile while privileging the geographical location of Miami—Vera’s poems shift the location to the Texas border. His poem “Lago de Mil Ojos,” for instance, describes the drive that the poetic voice used to take with his father between Laredo and Freer. Stopped by agents at a checkpoint, the father would hand “proof of identification” while the child (the poetic voice) translated:

How old was I when I recognized the interrogation or understood the importance of my answers? To be born here and never belong. To fear the suspicion of authorities
Who might question the presence of a Cuban in the middle of this desert, who didn’t speak the language, who depended on a boy to tell his story. (9–16)39

Linguistic barriers and the experience of child translators is commonplace in Latina/o immigrant literature, but what makes this poem stand out is the sense of dislocation that it highlights by focusing on an experience more commonly associated with migrants of Mexican and Central American descent along the Mexico-US border. Suspicion, racial profiling, and criminalization of these migrants are widespread in a region where surveillance has increased over the years. In contrast, until relatively recently, Cubans have enjoyed an unparalleled degree of protection and support from the US government. The poem challenges the privilege associated with Cuban exiles by showing how the highly politicized border region becomes a great equalizer: any migrant who does not speak English will always be regarded with suspicion. By shedding light on the unique circumstances of growing up Cuban along the Texas border, Vera’s poetry not only adds to the richness of Cuban American cultural production, but it bridges the distance between Latina/o groups that are considered to be symbolically and culturally distant from one another.

US Central American Literature

Central American migration to the United States dates back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, mass migration grew substantially during the last decades of the 20th century as a result of the civil wars that plagued the region. Violence, persecution, terror, extreme poverty, and genocide led thousands of people to flee their homelands. Most of the migrants hailed from the countries consumed by the chaos of civil war—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—though others in the region were also affected. That said, the experience of migration as a survival mechanism differed among the citizens of each country based on US migration policy toward them. For instance, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were routinely denied refugee status, and therefore did not enjoy the government support that comes with that designation, because they were migrating from US-backed regimes.40 Nicaraguans, on the other hand, obtained significant support as they fled the Sandinista government, which the United States was fighting. In the 21st century, the surge in Central American migration to the United States has originated from the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—mostly as a result of extreme poverty, organized crime, narco-trafficking, gang violence, and corruption. For those who study the region, the roots of the present violence can be clearly traced back to the civil wars that plagued the region decades earlier. In order to understand the literature produced by US Central Americans, it is not only important to be cognizant of the specific histories of each country, but also to recognize the additional level of trauma that many in the diaspora share as a result of that violent past.

Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier (1998) is one of the first novels written in English by a Guatemalan American to address the impact of the Guatemalan civil war in the diaspora. The text tells the story of Antonio and Guillermo, enemies whose paths cross during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Through the use of flashbacks, the reader learns the history behind Antonio’s and Guillermo’s migration to the United States and how they represent opposing sides during the war. The narrative does not shy away from depicting graphic details of the ethnic cleansing campaigns that killed more than 200,000 people, most of whom were Mayans. By developing Antonio and Guillermo’s conflict on US soil, the novel not only emphasizes that migration does not erase the trauma of war, but perhaps more important, serves to highlight the central role that the United States played in the war through the training and financial support of the government, that is, the side doing most of the killing. Some of the themes that the novel challenges and questions are warfare, violence, impunity, the perception of the United States as a champion of justice and freedom, the fine line between victim and victimizer, and poverty.

Sylvia Sellers-García’s novel When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep (2007) also examines the impact of the Guatemalan civil war, in this case through the story of Nítido Amán. Born of Guatemalan parents, Nítido is raised in the United States but returns to Guatemala to learn more about his family’s past. Through a series of turns of events, such as the fact that he is mistaken for a priest, he begins to unearth some of the reasons for the silences surrounding a nearby town affected by the trauma of war. Sellers-García’s and Tobar’s novels have enriched the Latina/o literary corpus by examining a chapter of Latina/o history that has not received enough attention to date.

William Archila’s poetry collection The Art of Exile (2009) also represents an important addition to Latina/o literature that illuminates the struggle of US Central Americans as victims of vicious civil wars. Born in El Salvador, Archila fled the country in 1980 with his mother and siblings at the age of twelve. The poems in the collection delve into the past (civil war), the moment of migration, and the return to the homeland.41 The poem “Immigration Blues, 1980” reflects on the condition of the speaker, who positions himself by claiming, “I’m a war away from home” (8).42 As he states,

I think of torn bodies, cramped,
unburied in a ditch, covered in weeds or dust. They become items for the evening news, documents from another small-foot country,
another Lebanon, a mile from God. (20–25)43

The speaker’s description of himself hints at the different layers of his feeling of being a “foreigner.” From his physical appearance (“black hair”), he moves inward to address the linguistic barriers (“raw accent”) that mark him as an “Other” in US society. But beyond this, hiding under the surface, is the trauma of war. Despite living in another country, the memory of the tortured and the dead continues to haunt him. Not only that, but despite having witnessed unspeakable violence, he is forced to confront the fact that the suffering of his people is minimized—relegated to “items for the evening news”—by the very country (United States) that financially backed the civil war that forced him to flee. As this poem illustrates, Central American migration to the United States occurred under conditions of extreme violence during the civil wars. Unfortunately, violence continues to be the driving force behind migration today, so trauma remains a central concern in the literary production of this group.

Javier Zamora’s incursion into the Latina/o literary landscape represents a welcome and necessary addition to this corpus. His first poetry collection, Unaccompanied (2017), offers a much-needed reflection on Central American migration from the perspective of an unaccompanied immigrant child. He was born in El Salvador and migrated at the age of nine in order to reunite with his parents in the United States. The poems in the collection deal with the memory of the process of migration. This process is marked by the unexpected, evident in the poem “Second Attempt Crossing,” when he was protected by an MS-13 gang member:

     So I wouldn’t touch their legs that kicked you, you pushed me under your chest,      and I’ve never thanked you
Beautiful Chino (14–17).

El Salvador and its civil war loom large in these poems, especially in “El Salvador”:

               Tonight, how I wish
you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier      to never have to risk our lives (16–18).

Fear, terror, trauma, hope, and nostalgia all combine in raw verses that unveil the suffering behind what has been lost:

Abuelita, I can’t go back and return. There’s no path to papers. I’ve got nothing left but dreams [. . .] (“To Abuelita Neli,” 6–7) Other contributions to this growing corpus include Guatemalan American Maya Chincilla’s poetry collection.44

Southern Cone

Although migration from South America to the United States has an extended history that dates back to the 19th century, this diverse subgroup among Latinas/os has received limited attention in comparison to others. This is explained in part by the fact that these are smaller, more dispersed, and more recently established immigrant communities. In addition, the literary and cultural production of US South Americans has been slower to emerge. Given the diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, politics, and country of origin—not to mention each country’s unique relationship with the United States—it is difficult to generalize. Owing to the widely shared experiences of living under dictatorial regimes, state- and nonstate-sponsored terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and civil war, South American literary production in the United States tends to address these themes. The literature of Peruvian-American author Daniel Alarcón is a case in point. His works War by Candlelight (2005), Lost City Radio (2007), At Night We Walk in Circles (2013), and the graphic novel Ciudad de payasos (2010) are works that, to different degrees, address internal (rural to urban) and external migration (from Peru to the United States) as a result of political instability and poverty. Alarcón’s talent and tendency to focus on the Peruvian sociopolitical and cultural landscape has earned him a level of recognition and prestige in his country of origin that is rarely reached by Latina/o writers. Other South American Latina/o authors include Marie Arana (Peruvian), Marjorie Agosín (Chilean), Ariel Dorfman (Chilean), Ernesto Quiñonez (Ecuadoran–Puerto Rican), and Sergio de la Pava (Colombian).

Discussion of the Literature

Given that the theme of migration is such a central concern in Latina/o literature, most of the criticism that has developed over the decades addresses this topic. Because Mexican and Puerto Rican letters in the United States saw significant growth during the 1960s and 1970s, the literary criticism produced during those decades focused on these specific groups. As Cubans, Dominicans, and Central Americans began to settle in the United States their literary production slowly came into existence. Until relatively recently, the critical literature about Latina/o literary production followed a pattern determined by nationality. But in recent years, the tendency to publish scholarship based on a particular group has given way to more inclusive critical works that seek to connect—from a pan-Latina/o perspective—the production of distinct subgroups.

Relevant scholarship concerning Chicano/a and Mexican American literature includes Limón’s Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry (1992), Calderón and Saldívar’s Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology (1991), Aldama’s Brown on Brown: Chicana/o Representations of Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity (2005), Guidotti-Hernández’s Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican Imaginaries (2011), and Román’s Race and Upward Mobility: Seeking, Gatekeeping, and Other Class Strategies in Postwar America (2017). The emergence of Third World feminism in the 1970s and 1980s also entailed critical works by Chicana feminists such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. The need to consider the intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality is evinced in the foundational anthology This Bridge Called My Back (1981) by Anzaldúa and Moraga, Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Saldívar-Hull’s Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature (2000), Brady’s Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space (2002), and Rincón’s Bodies at War: Genealogies of Militarism in Chicana Literature and Culture (2017). More recently, Arias’s Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America (2007), Rodríguez’s Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Cultures, and Literatures (2009), Padilla’s Changing Women, Changing Nation: Female Agency, Nationhood, and Identity in Trans-Salvadoran Narratives (2012), and Vigil’s War Echoes: Gender and Militarization in U.S. Latina/o Cultural Production (2014) are important additions to the growing criticism regarding US Central American literary production.

Latina/o Caribbean literature has a robust critical scholarship. Early interventions focused on US Puerto Rican letters, but as the Cuban and Dominican populations came of age in the diaspora, so did their literatures and the critical scholarship about them. Barradas’s Partes de un todo: Ensayos y notas sobre literatura puertorriqueña en los Estados Unidos (1999) and Flores’s Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity (1992) and From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000) are considered foundational works of US Puerto Rican cultural criticism. Other works dealing with Puerto Rican migration in literature are Sánchez González’s Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora (2001), Negrón-Muntaner’s Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (2004), Moreno’s Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland (2012), and Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry From the Sixties to Slam (2014). Relevant scholarship concerning Dominican American literature includes Suárez’s The Tears of Hispaniola: Haitian and Dominican Diaspora Memory (2006), Méndez’s Narratives of Migration and Displacement in Dominican Literature (2012), and García-Peña’s The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction (2016). In the field of Cuban American literary studies, the following critical works are central: Pérez Firmat’s Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way (1994), Álvarez-Borland’s Cuban American Literature of Exile: From Person to Persona (1998), and López’s Unbecoming Blackness: The Diaspora Cultures of Afro-Cuban America (2012).

Along with the increase in critical studies about the literary production of specific Latina/o groups, recent decades have been marked by what could be called a pan-Latina/o turn. One of the early contributions to this growing body of scholarship was Aparicio and Chávez-Silverman’s Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of “Latinidad” (1997). Works that followed include Martínez–San Miguel’s Caribe Two Ways: Cultura de la migración en el Caribe insular hispánico (2003), Dalleo and Machado Sáez’s The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (2007), Caminero-Santangelo’s On Latinidad: U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity (2007), Falconi and Mazzotti’s The Other Latinos: Central and South Americans in the United States (2008), Pérez Rosario’s Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration (2010), Socolovsky’s Troubling Nationhood in U.S. Latina Literature (2013), and Irizarry’s Chicana/o and Latina/o Fiction: The New Memory of Latinidad (2016). Flores’s The Diaspora Strikes Back: Caribeño Tales of Learning and Turning (2008) offers a pan-Latina/o approach to the topic of return migration in the Caribbean, a theme that has become more relevant over the years but which remains understudied.

The study of Latina/o literature from the viewpoint of race and ethnicity represents a relatively recent direction in this scholarship and provides crucial avenues of intellectual inquiry for future investigation. Flores and Jiménez-Román’s The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (2010) and Rivera-Rideau et al.’s Afro-Latin@s in Movement (2016) are two important contributions in the field of Afro-Latina/o studies. Saldaña-Portillo’s Indian Given: Racial Geographies Across Mexico and the United States (2016) blends Mexican American and indigenous studies. Queer and LGBTQ Latina/o literary production has also expanded significantly in recent decades, and so has the criticism about it. Important critical works include J. M. Rodríguez’s Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces (2003), La Fountain–Stokes’s Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora (2009), and Ortíz’s Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (2007). Other key identity issues are at the center of Minich’s Accessible Citizenships: Disability, Nation, and the Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico (2013), in which she explores the intersection between disability and Latina/o literary studies. Just as the corpus of Latina/o literature continues to grow and diversify, so does the critical scholarship concerning it. Latina/o literature is an ever-expanding field that will continue to enrich the US literary corpus for decades to come.

Further Reading

  • Álvarez-Borland, Isabel. Cuban American Literature of Exile: From Person to Persona. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
  • Aparicio, Frances, and Susana Chávez-Silverman, eds. Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997.
  • Bost, Suzanne, and Frances Aparicio, eds. The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature. London: Routledge, 2015.
  • Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. On Latinidad: U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007.
  • Dalleo, Raphael, and Elena Machado Sáez. The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Flores, Juan. From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • García-Peña, Lorgia. The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • González, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Penguin, 2011.
  • Jiménez-Román, Miriam, and Juan Flores. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Latina Feminist Group. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
  • Martínez–San Miguel, Yolanda. Caribe Two Ways: Cultura de la migración en el Caribe insular hispánico. San Juan: Ediciones Callejón, 2003.
  • Méndez, Danny. Narratives of Migration and Displacement in Dominican Literature. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  • Moreno, Marisel. Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
  • Noel, Urayoán. In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry From the Sixties to Slam. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.
  • Ortíz, Ricardo. Cultural Erotics in Cuban America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
  • Pérez Rosario, Vanessa, ed. Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Cultures, and Literatures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
  • Saldívar, José David. Trans-Americanity: Subaltern Modernities, Global Coloniality, and the Cultures of Greater Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Torres-Padilla, José, and Carmen Haydée Rivera, eds. Writing off the Hyphen: New Perspectives on the Literature of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.


  • 1. See Suzanne Oboler’s Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

  • 2. See Juan González, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (New York: Penguin, 2011).

  • 3. For a more detailed analysis of patterns of Cuban migration to the United States, see Guillermo Grenier and Lisandro Pérez, The Legacy of Exile: Cubans in the United States (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003), and Jorge Duany, Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration Between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

  • 4. González, Harvest of Empire, 99.

  • 5. González, Harvest of Empire, 103. See also Mireya Loza, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial, Sexual, and Political Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

  • 6. For a definition of Third World Feminism, see Paul Allatson, Key Terms in Latino/a Cultural and Literary Studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007).

  • 7. Luis J. Rodríguez, Poems Across the Pavement, 1. (Chicago: Tia Chucha, 1989)

  • 8. Rodríguez, Poems Across the Pavement, 2.

  • 9. Rodríguez, Poems Across the Pavement, 2.

  • 10. See Jorge Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  • 11. See Virginia Sánchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

  • 12. Jorge Duany, Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration Between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 51.

  • 13. See Arelis Hernández, “Exodus from Puerto Rico Grows as Island Struggles to Rebound from Hurricane Maria,” Washington Post, March 6, 2018.

  • 14. For a detailed analysis of Nuyorican poetry, see Urayoán Noel, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry From the Sixties to Slam (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014).

  • 15. Pedro Pietri, Puerto Rican Obituary/Obituario Puertorriqueño (San Juan: Isla Negra, 2000).

  • 16. “I’m your son / of a migration, / forced sin, / you sent me to be born in other lands” (my translation). Tato Laviera, AmeRícan (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985), 53.

  • 17. Laviera, AmeRícan, 53.

  • 18. See Duany, Puerto Rican Nation on the Move, 52–53.

  • 19. Judith Ortíz Cofer, Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1990), 17.

  • 20. See Marisel Moreno, Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

  • 21. Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 209.

  • 22. Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican, 209.

  • 23. See Moreno, Family Matters.

  • 24. See Duany, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move, 88.

  • 25. See Marisel Moreno, “The Untold Midwestern Puerto Rican Story: Fred Arroyo’s Western Avenue and Other Fictions,” Studies in American Fiction 42, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 269–289.

  • 26. See Ernesto Sagás and Sintia Molina, eds., Dominican Migration: Transnational Perspectives (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Duany, Blurred Borders, 55–60.

  • 27. For a detailed study of unauthorized migration from the Dominican Republic, see Frank Graziano, Undocumented Dominican Migration (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013).

  • 28. Hispanophone Dominicans in the United States include the poet Marianela Medrano (“El ombligo negro de un bongó” in Regando Esencias/The Secret of Waiting, New York, Ediciones Alcance, 1998), the performance poet Sussy Santana (Pelo bueno y otros poemas, United States, Atento a mi Publishing, 2009), Rey Andújar (Candela, Santo Domingo, Santillana, 2008), and Daisy Cocco de Filippis, who has written extensively on Dominican literature in the United States. See Silvio Torres-Saillant, “La literatura dominicana en los Estados Unidos y la periferia del márgen,” Cuadernos de poética 21 (1993): 7–26.

  • 29. See Marisel Moreno, “‘Burlando la raza:’ La poesía de escritoras afrodominicanas en la diaspora,” Camino Real: Estudios de las Hispanidades Norteamericanas 3, no. 4 (2011): 169–192.

  • 30. See Patricia Pessar, A Visa for a Dream: Dominicans in the United States (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995).

  • 31. See Andrew Wilson, The Chinese in the Caribbean (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2004).

  • 32. See Marisel Moreno, “Dominican Dreams: Diasporic Identity in Angie Cruz’s Let It Rain Coffee,” Sargasso no. 2 (2008–2009): 101–116.

  • 33. Elizabeth Acevedo, Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths (Portland, OR: Yesyes Books, 2016), 13.

  • 34. Acevedo, Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths, 13.

  • 35. Guillermo Grenier and Lisandro Pérez, The Legacy of Exile: Cubans in the United States (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003).

  • 36. Grenier and Pérez, Legacy of Exile, 24.

  • 37. See Duany, Blurred Borders, 46–47.

  • 38. Ana Menéndez, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd (New York: Dove Press, 2001), 7.

  • 39. Dan Vera, Speaking Wiri Wiri (Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2013), 29.

  • 40. See González, Harvest of Empire, 129.

  • 41. For a study of Archila’s poetry see Marisel Moreno, “The ‘Art of Witness’ in US Central American Cultural Production: An Analysis of William Archila’s The Art of Exile and Alma Leiva’s Celdas,” Latino Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 287–308.

  • 42. William Archila, The Art of Exile (Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 2009), 25.

  • 43. Archila, The Art of Exile, 25–26.

  • 44. Guatemalan American Maya Chincilla’s, The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética (San Francisco, Kórima Press, 2014); Salvadoran American Leticia Hernández-Linares’s Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl: Poems (San Fernando, CA, Tia Chucha Press, 2015); and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, edited by Tobar et al. (San Fernando, Tia Chucha Press, 2017).