Contemporary Latinx Literature in the Midwest
- Theresa DelgadilloTheresa DelgadilloDepartment of Comparative Studies, The Ohio State University
- and Leila VieiraLeila VieiraDepartment of Spanish and Portuguese, The Ohio State University
Latinx literature in the Midwest encompasses work created by authors from a variety of backgrounds, with authors of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent predominating in literature that takes locations throughout the region as its settings. Although much work focuses on Chicago, the multiple Latinidades of the region appear in fiction and poetry from across the region. Regarding genre, most of this literature falls into the categories of novel, short story, and poetry; however, works such as prose poems, novels in verse, heavily footnoted fiction, or metaliterary texts challenge genre boundaries and reveal Latinx literary innovation. This literature emerges from the history and experience of Latinx migration to the region, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, and, not surprisingly, that history often figures in the literature. Spanish-language Latinx literature about the Midwest also exists, and like its English-language counterpart, often addresses transnational experiences. Major publishers have made the work of Latinx authors in the Midwest well-known, yet there are also vibrant cultures of small press, community, and collective publishing, and self-publishing, through which Latinx authors have shared their talents with wider audiences in and beyond the region.
Some of the themes addressed by Latinx literature in the Midwest are migration, with characters coming both from other regions of the United States and directly from Latin America; labor, mostly industrial and agricultural work, but also involving characters in the service sector and professionals; belonging and the question of what and where home is and how to create this space in the Midwest; environment and gentrification; transnationalism, often evoking different ethnic backgrounds from the present; family relationships; gender and sexuality, focusing on what it means to be Latinx and part of the LGBTQ community and situations of discrimination with families and workplaces; race, including Afro-Latinx characters; and religion and spirituality, looking not only to Catholicism, but also to Judaism and African diaspora–inspired systems of Orisha worship.
Contemporary Latinx Literature in the Midwest
Midwestern Latinx literature encompasses work generated from each of the groups that predominate on either coast of the United States (Chicanx literature in the Southwest and Puerto Rican, Cuban American, and Dominican American in the East) as well as other Latinidades, and it often incorporates explicit attention to a multi-Latinx regional experience in its pages. The interaction among different Latinx groups is addressed by Cuban American author Achy Obejas in an interview with Eduardo del Rio, in which she states that “Chicago is a city unlike any other city in the United States, in terms of the Latino population. It’s not overwhelmed by any one group. You know how New York is pretty much overwhelmed by Puerto Ricans, Miami by Cubans, and Los Angeles by Mexicans? Chicago just doesn’t work that way, especially in the 1980s . . . There’s a theater group, for example, who are all Latinas. They sold tee-shirts after their first show with names on them that sort of really captured this whole spirit of bizarre integration we have in Chicago in the Latino community. It said things like Chicano-Riqueño, Guaterican, Mexiyorian, etc. It hyphenated, and merged, and fused all these different Latino identities.”1 Latinx literature is, therefore, as diverse as the label “Latinx.” Much literature takes Illinois, especially Chicago, as its setting, and is written in English by authors of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds. At least four nationally well-known Latinx authors take the Midwest as their setting: Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Achy Obejas, and Tomás Rivera. The work of Castillo, Cisneros, and Obejas often centers on Chicago, though that of Rivera, who lived and traveled through the region as a young migrant worker with his family in an earlier generation, drew inspiration for his groundbreaking bilingual novel, . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (. . . And The Earth Did Not Devour Him) (1971) from experiences in the rural spaces of Iowa and Minnesota.2 Like the work of Rivera, there is a significant body of literature about Latinx characters and communities in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota as well as western Pennsylvania written in both English and Spanish. The Latinx authors of this wider body of work include individuals of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds, but also of Argentine, Brazilian, Colombian, Dominican, and Peruvian backgrounds. Latinx authors writing about the Midwest most frequently do so in the genres of the novel, short story, and poetry, yet a few recent publications in the genres of documentary journalism, life story, oral history, and memoir also add first-person autobiographical accounts to the growing wealth of literature about the Latinx Midwest, while Midwestern Latinx zine publication is on the rise.3 Unlike Chicanx literature of the West and Southwest shaped by a historic and continuous presence in that landscape, or the political linkage or friction between Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic that figures in some Latinx literature, Midwestern Latinx literature emerges from a hundred-year-old migration and recruitment to the region and interaction with other migrants there. Traces of these distinct histories appear in Midwest Latinx literature’s attention to industrial, agricultural, and urban landscapes, and interconnections both between Latinxs across regions and between Latinxs and other parts of the Americas.
Thematically, Latinx literature in this region is multitudinous, addressing experiences of migration, education, labor and work, language, violence, discrimination, environment, transnationalism, community formation, personal formation, family relationships, generational changes, friendship, disability, gender, sexuality, race, ethics, justice, religion, and spirituality. It is significant that much of the literature wrestles with questions of belonging and home, for despite the long history of Latinx people throughout the region, Latinxs remain suspiciously foreign to a sector of the population, one significant enough to sometimes place a question mark over Latinx belonging in the region. Perhaps it is this former absence in the mainstream of the region that gave rise to grassroots efforts to cultivate Latinx creativity and share it with wider communities in the form of community-led publication efforts such as the anthologies I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin (1989, 1999, 2014), edited by Oscar Mireles, an outgrowth of his work in developing community arts programming for the United Community Center of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The emergence of literature written in Spanish in the contemporary period may very well be a continuation of early- and mid-20th century creative practices of Latinx communities in the region, when community periodicals and publications in Spanish also featured literary expression, but rather than marking the existence of Latinx populations who have continuously lived in the region and maintained Spanish, these contemporary works reflect more recent patterns of migration and transnational life that have been ushered in by increased economic globalization in the Americas. This article focuses on literature written by Latinx authors in the region, and one Latin American author, in either English or Spanish that takes the Midwest as a partial or full setting.
Experimental and Metaliterary Literature
Some work by Latinx authors about Latinx life in the Midwest challenges the boundaries of traditional genres, such as Maurice Kilwein Guevara’s poems in prose in Autobiography of So-and-So (2001), which alternately center on Colombia, Pittsburgh, and northern Appalachia, or Ana Castillo’s novel in verse, Watercolor Women and Opaque Men (2005), in which “Ella,” a single, Chicana, working-class mother who comes of age in Chicago, vividly narrates her life story and her commitment to raising a different kind of son. Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986) also plays with form in its epistolary, ethnographic, and changeable sequencing.4 Cisneros’s Caramelo (2002) participates in blurring the lines that demarcate the novel from history or scholarship with its abundant use of footnotes referencing events and sources or providing further documentation of topics of the novel. Both The Mixquiahuala Letters and Caramelo also foreground the construction of narrative, inviting readers to consider narrative choices or participate in making choices themselves. This recourse to the metaliterary is another characteristic of contemporary Latinx literature in the Midwest, where we find authors who use poems, essays, and short stories to reflect on the creative process of writing, such as Esperanza Cintrón in What Keeps Me Sane (2013), Sandra Cisneros in House on Mango Street (1994) and A House of My Own (2015), Maurice Kilwein Guevara in Postmortem (1994), and even Tomás Rivera’s self-reflexive story about the traveling storyteller at the end of . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971).5
When the character Esperanza, in The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros, concludes the novel by observing about her childhood home that it is “the house I belong to but do not belong to,” she echoes Tomás Rivera’s migrant farmworker characters in the short story “Zoo Island” (The Harvest, 1989) who erect the ironic sign reading “Zoo Island” to mark their Iowa migrant camp and the many Anglo locals who drive out to observe them.6 In both cases, characters have arrived at an understanding of themselves that departs from the dominant view of them, constructing a sense of self and home that is both grounded in experiences in the region and yet not beholden exclusively to the region. In fact, for both sets of characters departure and mobility, whether in the form of migrant circuits or travel, fuels further individual and communal growth.7
This process of creating home in the region, building a place for oneself and one’s community, is a pervasive theme in Latinx literature of the Midwest. The acts of placemaking appear as a daunting challenge in literature that remembers the work and efforts of the generations that arrived in the region in the early and mid-20th century, seeking greater opportunity, such as the anonymous speaker in “Cuando lleguemos” of Rivera’s . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971) who vows he will join his uncle working in the hotels of Minneapolis to escape the brutal work of migrant labor; or the steelworker father in Hugo Martinez-Serros’s The Last Laugh and Other Stories (1988), who, in some ways, struggles not to be entirely subsumed by his position in the industrial economy; or the father figure, Inocencio Reyes, in Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo (2002), who chases the dream of a family business providing quality upholstery his entire life. In the contemporary period, works as diverse as Wendell Mayo’s Centaur of the North (1996) and the Spanish-language novel published in Argentina Jotón (2016) by Natalia Crespo portray Chicanx and Latin American characters, respectively, who migrate to the region. In Mayo’s “A Stone Kitchen,” a Chicana from Texas marries an Anglo and settles with him near Chicago but experiences a severe sense of disruption to her sense of self. This is echoed in Crespo’s novel about Marisa and Eduardo, who, in light of the Argentine economic crisis, relocate to Houghton, Michigan, for work. Crespo’s depiction, on every page, of the inordinate and overwhelming snowfall in Houghton metaphorically conveys the challenge of creating belonging that her immigrant Argentinian protagonists face in predominately Anglo-American spaces.
The melancholia of Latinx generations that arrived in the region for industrial and agricultural work in early and mid-20th century, such as that portrayed in Hugo Martinez-Serros’s The Last Laugh and Other Stories (1988), appears in literature set in the late 20th century, although here it isn’t primarily or exclusively about the intersection of class and race or ethnicity nor is the melancholia overarching, but instead partial, that which accompanies the painful negotiations of belonging in a changing world, among characters with greater physical if not economic mobility. In literature about late-20th-century Latinx life in the Midwest, we frequently see intermarriage with other racial or ethnic groups, death, new births, revised conceptions of family, disruption of norms regarding gender and sexuality, a reconsideration of ethnic or racial belonging, and recognition of networks of belonging across the Americas. These events mark a place made, a space won, a home built in the Midwest as the sites, landscape, economies, and political economies of the region infuse the affective life of Latinx characters, as in Caramelo when Celaya observes her father suffering in the hospital and states, “Like those mummies in the basement of the Field Museum; they pulled their innards out through the nostrils and stuffed them with cloves. That’s how I felt when I watched Father, nurses hustling around him and hustling us out. I couldn’t hold myself up.”8 Cisneros’s work in both Caramelo (2002) and House on Mango Street (1983) conveys how the complexity of the place of Chicago for the Chicanx subject pervades her affective life, while also mapping the spaces of not-belonging and belonging across Chicago and, in Caramelo, across the United States and Mexico. Fred Arroyo’s Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012) also homes in on the affective. Here we meet Manuel Perez when he has seemingly made peace with the many ways he is not seen or understood: “He moved from job to job, although work was always defined for him not by the specific task but by the places he experienced” across New York, Connecticut, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois.9 In this work, the places of the region can jolt with the memories they hold of loved ones, as Maria, a grieving mother, is jolted in “Someday You’ll See” by the sight of a path and a tree her deceased son must have also experienced: “Lorime would’ve been here, too, hugging a tree . . . I pressed my palm against the tree . . . I hear laughter, clapping . . .”10 Both María and Manuel, in different ways, craft their belonging in the region from both the multiple exclusions they experience and the opportunities afforded them, but their lives, and those of their children, are also linked throughout the collection, via vignettes, to their origins in Puerto Rico. Oscar Hijuelos, although most well-known for his fiction about Cuban Americans in New York, penned a young adult novel, Dark Dude (2008), featuring a young, light-skinned Cuban American teen named Rico Fuentes who runs away from Harlem to small town Wisconsin, an experience that prompts him to reflect on cultural belonging. Both Ana Castillo’s poetry collection, My Father Was a Toltec (1995), and her novel, Sapogonia (1990), feature the urban life of Chicago. Poems in My Father Was a Toltec often address the challenges of urban life in Chicago for working-class Latinxs, while the novel Sapogonia centers on characters deeply affected by the history of war in the Americas as they struggle to recreate themselves in ways not bound by that history.
Living in the Crossroads
Notably, as with the work of Cisneros and Arroyo, Latinx literature of the Midwest often lives at the intersection of multiple borders, moving across the Americas fluidly in the lives and memories of its characters. H. G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish (2004) moves among Cuba, Miami, and Chicago; Achy Obejas’s Memory Mambo (1996) invokes Cuba, Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Illinois; Brenda Cardenas’s poetry volume, Boomerang (2009), embraces both Mexico and the United States; Esperanza Cintrón’s Chocolate City Latina (2006) claims belonging in Detroit, the US South of her black ancestors, and the Americas; while a number of writers featured in I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin (2014) address their ongoing affective, relational, and physical belonging to both Wisconsin homes and those in El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Ecuador. Maurice Kilwein Guevara’s book of poetry, Postmortem (1994) moves between Colombia and Pittsburgh “to learn family/speak two hundred tongues,” while Rubén Martinez’s documentary journalism in Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail (2013) tells the tale of migrants from Cherán, Mexico, who have settled in California, Wisconsin, and Missouri.11 Reflecting on the many ways that migration brings transculturation to both US and Mexican locales, Martínez writes about a young woman of Purepecha origin growing up in Wisconsin: “‘I was born in Cherán, but I’m growing up here,’ she says simply. Her memories of living in the homeland are dim, idyllic. After all, she’s usually only there during fiesta time. She speaks accentless English and Spanish and easily travels between her two worlds.”12 Louis G. Mendoza’s memoir/documentary A Journey around Our America: A Memoir on Cycling, Immigration, and the Latinoization of the U.S. (2012), knits together the experiences of Latinx in the Midwest with those of other regions as it considers contemporary debates on immigration through interactions with both immigrants and non-immigrants while cycling across the United States.
Encounters and solidarities with both Native Americans and African Americans in the region frequently appear in the literature, a reflection of the ways that Latinxs are sometimes perceived as Native Americans in a region with many federally recognized first nations, work and live alongside Native Americans and African Americans in the region’s industries and neighborhoods, and/or are African American themselves. The work generally challenges logics of settler colonialism that erase or contain indigenous and black populations. Esperanza Cintrón, who hails from Detroit of Puerto Rican descent, is a founder of Sisters of Color, a women’s writers’ collective, and has published in anthologies of African American and well as Latinx writing (Double Stitch). In “Four Women” (1991) she pays homage to an African American grandmother who feels good about leaving the South—“No need nursing no pale children”—despite the recognition that the North offers a different kind of “colored jobs”; her daughter, who at mid-century marvels at black celebrity; and her great grand-daughter, who at century’s end celebrates both Prince and Diego Rivera.13 Brenda Cardenas’s poem “Someone” in Boomerang (2009) reflects on photos in the Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center. The poet Fabu, in “El Cubano,” reflects on an Afro-Cuban being mistaken for African American; Raymundo Saudia’s poem “A Friend” pays homage to a dear neighborhood friend who was Chippewa Indian; while Carmen Murguia’s “I Come from Greatness” aligns with “Puerto Rican and Black Trans sisters and drag queens/who fought for our rights.”14
Mobility, Forced and Unforced
Latinx Midwest literature that lives at the intersection of borders inevitably, necessarily, offers not a celebration of origins or homelands, but instead searing explorations of the ties that bind. Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2003) adopts the storyteller mode to explore the fictions that members of her transnational US-Mexican Reyes family construct about themselves, unmasking romantic origin myths as well as the ordinary half-truths and outright lies that might smooth relationships for a time but inevitably lead to painful reckonings. Daisy Cubias’s poem “Grandfather’s Hands,” published in English and in Spanish in I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin (2014), remembers a grandfather who taught her the indigenous history of the Americas, this remembrance of place and person and history, composed in Wisconsin, creating a thread of belonging across the Americas that is also a critique of its formation. Achy Obejas’s We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like This? (1994), is a collection of stories that features a Cuban American lesbian working out how to be who she is. Critics have noted the lesbian and gay themes of this fiction while overlooking the significance of its setting in the Midwest, a setting also present in her novel, Memory Mambo (1996). In the latter, Obejas focuses on a Cuban American lesbian character, Juani, who helps to run the family’s Wash-N-Dry Laundry/Lavanderia Wash-N-Dry business in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. Juani describes the neighborhood as Puerto Rican, Cuban American, and still slightly Polish from a previous era, and her family history and life as one with footholds in New York, Costa Rica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Miami, Florida. While Juani’s cousin has a homophobic husband, the novel also portrays a sense of the experience and ethics of Latina lesbians in Chicago at a moment of rising Latinx political power. It’s her present-day affiliations in Chicago that lead Juani to question her family background and stories, and eventually herself, in a quest to redefine herself and Latinidad in this new, and cosmopolitan location. A number of shorter pieces also wrestle with the inclusion of Latinx gay characters in Latinx communities, such as Rane Arroyo’s brief autobiographical account of being exiled for his homosexuality, then later accepted, by his Puerto Rican family in “A Mother-In-Law Cottage in Soddom and Gomorrah” (2000), which playfully portrays his life in Ohio and family re-integration. Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes’s short story “Júnior, Reggaeton Tropical” and Chuy Sánchez’s “Pregnant Boy,” both in the collection From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction (2011), explore, respectively, Caribbean and Mexican American identity as well as homosexuality, homophobia, race, relationships, and popular culture. A recent graphic novel that explores a different kind of cultural alienation is Jessica Abel’s La Perdida (2006). Abel’s work features a protagonist from Chicago who travels to Mexico City. Eager to connect with the Mexican heritage of her father, Carla has a tendency to romanticize her experience that gets the better of her in this black and white graphic novel. Unlike the observant and savvy Chicana protagonists of Ana Castillo’s Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), who take in their exclusion and offer us a critique of discourses of authenticity, Abel’s character, the child of an ethnic intermarriage, begins the novel at a remove from her Mexican heritage and ends it in a state of perpetual exile from herself, representing another storyline in Midwestern Latinx experience. Gender and sexual difference also figures prominently in the fiction of Chicana authors Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, whose work often represents disruptions to norms of gender and ethnicity or race, imagining new possibilities for their Chicana protagonists, a theme also well captured in the title of a young adult novel set in Chicago and written by Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017).
The Midwestern experience as one that brings together varied peoples in migration finds expression in Ana Castillo’s Loverboys (1996) when one character voices a sense of Latinx life in the region as a temporary or transit point—“back home, the windy city, Chi-town, where Latin people with open minds can congregate and share and talk as if we were all just passing through this country. Like it isn’t so much a country as a large stretch of territory where one can work and survive and possibly do well enough to go back home to the real country . . .”15 Castillo, like all the authors discussed in this article, so effectively grounds her fiction in physical landscapes, political economies, and Latinx histories of the region, that this statement comes to represent how Latinx characters in this collection maintain connections across region and national borders rather than aloofness from their present place, especially if reading the stories in succession. In the short story, “La Miss Rose,” which begins in New Mexico and ends in Chicago, two Chicanas—Misty and Carmen, join La Miss Rose, a fortune-teller with a West Indian background in what turns out to be a journey of healing to/in Chicago that includes a gradual education in Orisha worship, including participation in a St. John’s Eve Feast at the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago led by La Miss Rose. On many levels, this story and others in the collection, portray the ways that characters who are women of color, lesbians and gay, working-class Chicanxs and Mexicans create places and relationships through which their lives might thrive, and sometimes, as in “La Miss Rose,” these are spiritual spaces. Loverboys also imagines provocations to social, cultural, and familial erasure of lesbian love and life both historically, as in “Juana Gallo,” and contemporaneously in “Again like Before” and “Conversations with an Absent Lover . . .” Like Loverboys and Memory Mambo, H. G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish (2004) offers an extended meditation on gay and lesbian belonging, Latinidad, and the Midwest. Set in Chicago, Carrillo’s novel follows a schoolteacher, Mr. Delossantos, in a Catholic boys’ school who is dismissed when his homosexuality is discovered, an event that unleashes a series of reflections, at times fevered and at other times melancholy, that intertwine his family history of migration from Cuba with remembrances of his former lover and scenes of his classroom experience that lead him to new self-discoveries.
The representation of Orisha worship in Loverboys is not unique in that another aspect of Latinx literature in the Midwest is its attention to religious and spiritual life. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1992) by Cisneros, Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish, and other literature about Latinxs in the Midwest highlight these aspects of Latinx experience and cultures. Cisneros’s “Mericans,” in Woman Hollering Creek, figures the space of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City as one vector in the forces shaping her protagonist, and this theme surfaces strongly again in Caramelo in the character of the overly pious Awful Grandmother. One Midwestern Latinx writer who has published a book of poems inspired by Afro-Cuban Orisha worship is Orlando Menes, though another of his volumes, Fetish (2013), takes up, in part, Catholicism in South Bend, Indiana. Achy Obejas’s Days of Awe (2001) centers on her protagonist Alejandra’s discovery that her family is actually Jewish after a life devoted to Catholicism, as it also portrays the influence of Orishas from the Yoruba religion, such as Ochún, in the story of a Cuban American woman’s journey of discovery to Cuba. The title references the traditional Jewish period of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as it also signifies the self-learning that Alejandra experiences on her travels. Esperanza Cintrón’s Chocolate City Latina (2005) and Castillo’s Watercolor Women and Opaque Men (2005) both address spirituality as an integral part of life experience.
Much of this literature portrays both migrant work and industrial work, especially in earlier periods, while more recent Latinx literature in the Midwest represents characters who are small-business owners, teachers, artists, and other kinds of professionals. Tomás Rivera’s . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971) and The Harvest (1994), selections in Volumes 1 and 2 of I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin (1999, 2014), and Arroyo’s Western Avenue and Other Fictions (2012), are examples of the former, representing migrant characters and work. A few of Brenda Cárdenas’s poems in Boomerang (2009), Hugo Martinez-Serros’s The Last Laugh and Other Stories (1988), and Western Avenue and Other Fictions portray Latinxs working in factories, canneries, and railroads.
Gentrification, and the awareness that their communities are being displaced is also present in contemporary Latinx literature in the Midwest. Works that explicitly take up the process of gentrification in Chicago are Ana Castillo’s Peel My Love Like an Onion (2000), Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic Sunrise: Detroit Poems (2014), and poems in some of the community-generated volumes discussed here, but Cisneros’s Caramelo (2002) also reflects on processes of gentrification in Chicago. In this work we see that neighborhoods and spaces formerly occupied by Latinx characters and communities such as the Maxwell Street Market are no longer available to them, and Latinxs wrestle with creating belonging in yet another new space.
Latinx Literature in Spanish
While there has been significant publication in Spanish by Latinx authors in the region, much of it is not about Latinx life in the region, but about other parts of the Americas. Authors such as Rey Emmanuel Andújar, Pepo Costa, Ani Palacios, and Johanny Vásquez Paz have published numerous volumes in Spanish, both fiction and poetry, that are set in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or other parts of Latin America. That these writers are actively producing fiction and poetry in Spanish read in other parts of the world as well as in the Midwest, from the Midwest, speaks to the global interconnections of the region’s artists. Spanish-language literature that takes the Midwest as its setting includes De una a siete (2013), a volume edited by Ani Palacios and generated by a writer’s workshop in Columbus, Ohio; Daniel Torres’s Moriras si da una primavera (1993); Johanny Vázquez Paz’s Streetwise Poems/Poemas Callejeros (2007); Margarita Saona’s Objeto perdido (2014) and Comehoras (2008); and Lawrence LaFountain-Stokes’s Abolición del pato (2013). Written in Spanish about Argentine economic migrants to Michigan, Natalia Crespo’s Jotón (2016) is an Argentine novel almost entirely focused on the Michigan experience.
As we find in works written in English, it is also common for Spanish-language literature about Latinxs in the Midwest to live at the intersection of multiple borders, both within and outside the United States. This is the case in Ani Palacios’s Nos vemos en purgatorio, which takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, but still looks back to the characters’ pasts in North Carolina and Peru; and Johanny Vásquez Paz’s Streetwise Poems/Poemas Callejeros, which reflects on the life of Puerto Ricans in Chicago, but looking back to the island with nostalgia and focusing on the opposition between aquí and allá, as we can see in the verses “Aquí/una ciudad para sobrevivir el hambre.//Allá/la isla de jamás olvidar.”16 This nostalgia for Vásquez Paz is often related to nature as well, with the beaches, sand, and sea of Puerto Rico as markers of this exile and displacement. Some of the topics that surface in her bilingual collection of poems include loneliness, motherhood, womanhood, and the importance of family and heritage. Nature is also used to contrast the Midwest and Puerto Rico in Pepo Costa’s poem “La mano en la arena traqueta el silencio,” in Sangre y canela, in which the beach and sea of the island is put in opposition to Ohio’s rain, fields, and urban spaces; “Donde falta arena/hay aceras.”17 Saona’s Objeto Perdido examines loss, love, relationships, violence, writing, urban life, and familial relationships and features some very short mini-narratives. Saona’s Comehoras, a collection of short stories written in Spanish, deals with themes such as the art of writing, familial relationships, urban/nomadic lives, the (female) body, loss, and longing. Lawrence LaFountain-Stokes’s Abolición del pato (2013) is a collection of short-stories on “Puerto Ricanness,” queer life, homosexuality, popular culture, the process of writing, and otherness. It should be noted that the word pato in the title is a pejorative term to refer to an effeminate man or homosexual. Formally, this work is also very performative and experimental.
It is interesting that many authors of Spanish-language fiction about Latinxs in the Midwest share a background in academia. Many of them—such as Larry LaFountain-Stokes, Margarita Saona, Pepo Costa, and Daniel Torres—are professors at universities across the Midwest, such as University of Michigan, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Ohio University, and this might explain why migrant labor and industrial and agricultural work are not prevalent themes in literature about the Midwest in Spanish, in contrast to works such as Rivera’s . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra and Fred Arroyo’s Western Avenue and Other Fictions.
Grassroots Writers—Community Creativity
Community-generated print publications and spaces for creative expression emerge from across the Midwest. The three-volume I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin series parallels the rise of a number of community-published or small press literary works by Latinx authors in the Midwest. Edited by Oscar Mireles, himself a poet, the first volume of I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin appeared as a photocopied 8 1/2 by 11 inch book bound with plastic spiral binding in 1989 under the sponsorship of the United Community Center of Milwaukee, however Volumes 2 and 3 have been published as books by Mireles through the founding of a small press for this purpose. The three volumes to date include long-time community poets and writers and incorporate new authors from new generations and migrations. Each volume is squarely centered on exploring the Latinx experience in Wisconsin but from a variety of vantage points. Volume 2 of I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin (1999) incudes poetry, short fiction, and vignettes of life in Wisconsin divided into sections on Cultural Identity, Death and Things Worse, Sisterhood, Mothers and Fathers, and Ideology and Action, with most of the work falling into the first section. Most of the selections in this volume are in English, however approximately fourteen of them are published in Spanish, and a few of the English selections engage in code-switching between Spanish and English. Much of this work addresses in one way or another variations both more positive and far more negative on the “Really, where are you from?” question that one poem invokes.18 The question and its variants work to “other” and distance Latinxs in Wisconsin from so-called natives, but this collection also includes multiple selections that voice solidarity with struggles of Latinxs in New York and Los Angeles and of the marginalized in Mexico and Colombia and South Africa, and that critique racializing and gender discourses that divide Latinxs. Volume 3 of this series, published in 2014, represents the maturity of experience in building a home in the Midwest. Volume 3’s thematic sections are: “Beginning in Madison,” “Searching for Home,” “Wisconsin Is More than Snow and Cold,” “Voices and Tongues,” “Our Mothers,” “Our Fathers,” “Around the Kitchen Table,” “Forging Identities,” and “Beginning Again en Español.” Each section has between five and thirteen entries, most poetry, but some short stories, as well as short personal memoirs or reports of events. In Rubén Medina’s poem, “Mapa del día,” the speaker declares “I am in all the places I/want to be” and describes walking, seeing, breathing, feeling, hearing, sleeping and waking in the textures of life in varied sites in Mexico, Cuba, Minnesota, and Madison, coming to the conclusion that “Mi cuerpo/es un país/sin fronteras,” and conveying a tactile sense of place that refuses borders.19
Several important community-generated volumes and venues, in English and Spanish, emerge also from Kansas City and Chicago. Cuentos del Centro: Stories from the Latino Heartland (2009), which portrays both urban and rural experiences of Latinxs, and Primera Pagina—Poetry from the Latino Heartland (2013) are both published by the Latino Writers Collective of Kansas City. The print collection Between the Heart and the Land/Entre el Corazón y la Tierra: Latina Poets in the Midwest (2001), edited by Brenda Cardenas and Johanny Vazquez Paz, is published by March Abrazo Press in Chicago, the publishing arm of the Movimiento Artistico Chicano, founded in 1975. The Spanish-language online site Contratiempo, founded in Chicago in 2004, regularly publishes contemporary literature in Spanish produced by authors living in Chicago and hosts Spanish-language literary events in Chicago.20
A mainstream press regional literary anthology includes both nationally known and grassroots writers from Michigan. Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001 includes Latinx poetry alongside an extensive selection of poetry from multiple authors who represent the multicultural city. Esperanza M. Cintrón, José Garza, Lolita Hernandez, Osvaldo R. Sabino, and Trinidad Sánchez Jr. are included in this collection. Melba Joyce Boyd, editor, acknowledges the power of this poetry to make a home when she tells us that these poets “write under the shade of weathered trees, bathe their words in a river that withstands the undertow of the Great Lakes, and with each new poem rebuild meaning for the city.”21 Lolita Hernandez’s “Garcia’s Market” conveys the simple urgency of shopping for the “morena” who “knows real dreams will come/from bacalao/if moistened by aceite.”22 Trinidad Sánchez Jr.’s poem “Let Us Stop This Madness” considers the interrelationship between the violence against Central Americans and South African blacks and violence against people of color in Detroit.23 Cintrón is the only Midwestern poet included in the anthology ¡Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets (2017), and her poem “Chocolate City Latina,” also the title of her own poetry volume, offers “a canto for decades of overcoming” that moves across the Americas and poetically bathes the poet “in the dust of the ancients” and the interconnections of indigenous peoples in this hemisphere.24
Discussion of the Literature
Ramón Saldivar’s Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (1990) observes that each story in Cisneros’s House on Mango Street (1983) “narrates Esperanza’s negotiations with the realities of working-class life” as it also “opens the interiorized space of the house and the private self to the collective world of work and commerce symbolized by the figure of the street.”25 Saldivar’s analysis, therefore, addresses aspects of Cisneros’s work, as this article argues, that repeatedly surface in Latinx literature of the Midwest: migration for work and relationship to work and commerce versus landscape. In Movements in Chicano Poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins (1995), Rafael Pérez-Torres argues that the figure of the migrant is a feature of Chicanx poetry, because “for most Chicanos, especially those in California and the Midwest, the history that brought them and their communities to the United States has more to do with migration and immigration than with invasion and manifest destiny.”26 Pérez-Torres unpacks the migrant as metaphor for “economic and social displacement” in the literature.27 Taking up an Ana Castillo poem set in Chicago, Pérez-Torres analyzes the poetic invocation of an in-between state in it as a poem that conveys how the subject is brought by industry and agriculture to the region, yet also seeks to escape those spaces.28 Isabel Alvarez Borland and Lynette M. F. Bosch note that Achy Obejas repeatedly foregrounds issues of “minority politics, gender issues, and women’s rights” in her fiction, and Eliana Rivero notes that Memory Mambo focuses on working-class characters—both observations that contribute to locating Obejas’s fiction within Midwestern Latinx literatures.29 These voices represent a tiny slice of the extensive scholarship on Latinx writers of the Midwest, with analysis of works by Rivera, Cisneros, Castillo, and Obejas predominating in the critical scholarship. Recognition of this region’s literary production surfaces in newer literary projects, such as the anthology Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing (2011), edited by Lázaro Lima and Felice Picano, which explicitly mentions its care in “offering a wide variety of urban, rural, East Coast, West Coast, and midwestern perspectives on Latina and Latino queers from different walks of life.”30 However, while the secondary literature on the authors discussed in this article is extensive, few critics analyze the significance of the Midwest in this and other literature created in the region about the region. Notable exceptions include “Exiles, Migrants, Settlers, and Natives: Literary Representations of Chicano/as and Mexicans in the Midwest” (1999), which takes up a number of works not discussed here, and the 2003 essay on . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra that appeared in the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature in 2016 and situates Tomás Rivera as a Midwestern author.31 William Barillas’s work is also important here, including his essay on Tomás Rivera’s work in the volume Midwestern Literature, as well as his essay in the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature (2016) on “Latino/Latina Literature,” which provides an extensive discussion of this literature in this region organized by ethnic sub-groups.32 Barillas also guest edited an issue of the journal Midwestern Miscellany in 2002 that featured three critical essays on Latinx literary cultures in the region by María DeGuzmán, Theresa Delgadillo, and Catherine Ramírez and creative work by Rane Arroyo.33
- Abel, Jessica. La perdida. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
- Aparicio, Frances R., Brenda Cárdenas, and Johanny Vázquez Paz. Between the Heart and the Land: Latina Poets in the Midwest / Entre el corazón y la tierra. Chicago: March/Abrazo Press, 2001.
- Arenas, Andrea Teresa, and Oscar Mireles. I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin: An Anthology of Hispanic Poetry. Milwaukee, WI: Friends of the Hispanic Community, 1989.
- Arroyo, Fred. The Region of Lost Names: A Novel. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008.
- Arroyo, Rane. “A Mother-In-Law Cottage in Soddom and Gomorrah.” Edited by Dean Kostos. In Mama’s Boy: Gay Men Write about Their Mothers. Edited by Dean Kostos and Eugene Grygo, 35–42. New York: Painted Leaf Press, 2000.
- Arroyo, Rane. Home Movies of Narcissus: Poems. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.
- Castillo, Ana. Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
- Castillo, Ana. My Father Was a Toltec: And Selected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
- Castillo, Ana. Peel My Love like an Onion: A Novel. Pymble, NSW: Flamingo, 2001.
- Castillo, Ana. Watercolor Women, Opaque Men: A Novel in Verse. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2005.
- Cárdenas, Brenda. Boomerang: Poems. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2009.
- Cintrón, Esperanza. “Insomniac.” In Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers & Daughters. Edited by Patricia Bell-Scott, et al., 11. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
- Cintron, Esperanza. Chocolate City Latina. Jamaica Plains, MA:: Swank Books, 2006.
- Cintrón, Esperanza. What Keeps Me Sane: Poems. Detroit: Lotus Press, 2013.
- Cintrón, Esperanza, Lillien Waller, and Lina Cintrón. Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic Sunrise: Detroit Poems. Ithaca, NY: Stockport Flats, 2014.
- Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1992.
- Cisneros, Sandra. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
- Crespo, Natalia. Jotón. Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Modesto Rimba, 2016.
- Cubias, Daniel. Barrio Imbroglio. Los Angeles: Telemachus Press, 2015.
- Cumpián, Carlos. Cuentos del Centro: Stories from the Latino Heartland. Kansas City, MO: Scapegoat Press, 2009.
- Delgadillo, Theresa. Latina Lives in Milwaukee. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.
- Guevara, Maurice Kilwein. Poema: Poems. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009.
- Hijuelos, Oscar. Dark Dude. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009.
- La Fountain-Stokes, Lawrence. “Júnior, Reggaeton Tropical.” In From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction. Edited by Charles Rice-González and Charlie Vázquez, 17–23. Maple Shade, NJ: Tincture, 2011.
- Latin Writers Collective. Primera Página: Poetry from the Latino Heartland. Kansas City, MO: Cucui Press, 2008.
- Martinez, Rubén. Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail. New York: Picador, 2002.
- Mayo, Wendell. Centaur of the North: Stories. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1996.
- Mendoza, Louis G. Journey around Our America: A Memoir on Cycling, Immigration, and the Latinoization of the U.S. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.
- Menes, Orlando Ricardo. Fetish: Poems. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
- Mireles, Oscar. I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin: 30 Hispanic Writers, vol. 2. Madison, WI: Focus Communications, 1999.
- Obejas, Achy. We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like That? Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1994.
- Obejas, Achy. Memory Mambo: A Novel. Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press, 1996.
- Obejas, Achy. Days of Awe. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
- Obejas, Achy. The Tower of the Antilles. Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2017.
- Palacios, Ani. De una a siete. Gahanna, OH.: Pukiyari Editores, 2013.
- Paz, Johanny Vázquez. Sagrada familia. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Isla Negra Editores, 2014.
- Ramirez, Leonard. Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
- Rodriguez, Luis J. My Nature Is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989–2004. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2005.
- Sánchez, Chuy. “Pregnant Boy.” In From Macho to Mariposa: New Gay Latino Fiction. Edited by Charles Rice-González and Charlie Vázquez, 85–94. Maple Shade, NJ: Tincture, 2011.
- Sánchez, Erika L. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017.
- Serros, Hugo Martinez. The Last Laugh and Other Stories. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1988.
1. Eduardo R. del Rio, “Achy Obejas,” in One Island, Many Voices: Conversations with Cuban-American Writers (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2008), 85–95, quote at p. 87.
2. Theresa Delgadillo, “. . . .Y no se lo tragó la tierra,” in Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, vol. 2, Dimensions of the Midwestern Literary Imagination, ed. Philip A. Greasley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).
3. Leonard G. Ramirez, Chicanas of 18th Street: Narratives of a Movement from Latino Chicago (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011); Louis G. Mendoza, A Journey around Our America: A Memoir on Cycling, Immigration, and the Latinoization of the U.S. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012); and Theresa Delgadillo, Latina Lives in Milwaukee (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
4. Alvina E. Quintana, “Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters: The Novelist as Ethnographer,” in Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, ed. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 72–83.
5. Hector Calderón, “The Novel and the Community of Readers: Rereading Tomás Rivera’s Y no se lo tragó la tierra,” in Calderón and Saldívar, Criticism in the Borderlands, 97–113.
6. Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 110. Originally published Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1983.
7. Theresa Delgadillo, “Exiles, Migrants, Settlers, and Natives: Literary Representations of Chicano/as and Mexicans in the Midwest,” JSRI Occasional Paper 64 (East Lansing, MI: Julian Samora Research Institute, Michigan State University, 1999), 1–11. Also available as: “Exiles, Migrants, Settlers, and Natives: Literary Representations of Chicano/as and Mexicans in the Midwest,” Midwest Miscellany 30 (2002): 27–45.
8. Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), 462.
9. Fred Arroyo, Western Avenue and Other Fictions (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 4.
10. Arroyo, Western Avenue and Other Fictions, 23.
11. Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Postmortem: Poems (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 7.
12. Rubén Martínez, Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail (New York: Picador, 2013), 259–260.
13. Esperanza Cintrón, “Four Women,” in Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers & Daughters, ed. Patricia Bell-Scott, et al. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 182–185.
14. Fabu, “El Cubano,” in I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin: Three Decades of Hispanic Writing, ed. Oscar Mireles, Walter Sava, and Armando Ibarra (Middleton, WI: Cowfeather Press, 2014), 79; Raymundo Saudia, “A Friend,” in Mireles, Sava, and Ibarra, I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin, 216–217; and Carmen Murguia, “I Come from Greatness,” in Mireles, Sava, and Ibarra, I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin, 214–215.
15. Ana Castillo, Loverboys (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 46–47.
16. Johanny Vázquez Paz, Streetwise Poems/Poemas Callejeros (Bay City, MI: Mayapple Press, 2007), 16.
17. Pepo Delgado Costa, Sangre y canela (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Isla Negra Editores, 2009), 88.
18. Oscar Mireles, I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin: 30 Hispanic Writers (Madison, WI: Focus Communications, 1999), 15.
19. Rubén Medina, “Mapa del día,” in Mireles, Sava, and Ibarra, I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin, 24–25.
21. Melba Joyce Boyd and M. L. Liebler, eds., Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 21.
22. Lolita Hernandez, “Garcia’s Market,” in Boyd and Liebler, Abandon Automobile, 167.
23. Trinidad Sánchez Jr., “Let Us Stop This Madness,” in Boyd and Liebler, Abandon Automobile, 323–325.
24. Esperanza Cintrón, “Chocolate City Latina,” in ¡Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets, ed. Melissa Castillo-Garsow (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2017), 203, 204.
25. Ramón Saldivar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 184, 183.
26. Rafael Pérez-Torres, Movements in Chicano Poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 104–105.
27. Pérez-Torres, Movements in Chicano Poetry, 105.
28. Pérez-Torres, Movements in Chicano Poetry, 266.
29. Isabel Alvarez Borland and Lynette M. F. Bosch, “Introduction,” in Cuban-American Literature and Art: Negotiating Identities, ed. Isabel Alvarez Borland and Lynette M. F. Bosch (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 5; and Eliana Rivero, “Writing in Cuban, Living as Other: Cuban American Women Writers Getting It Right,” in Alvarez Borland and Bosch, Cuban-American Literature and Art, 112.
30. Lázaro Lima and Felice Picano, eds., Ambientes: New Queer Latino Writing (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011).
31. Delgadillo, “Exiles, Migrants, Settlers, and Natives,” 1–11. Although this essay was submitted to Philip A. Greasley in 2003, it was not published until 2016 when volume 2 of the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature appeared in print. See Delgadillo, Theresa. “. . . .y no se lo tragó la tierra,” 892–896.
32. William Barillas, “‘Your Homeland Is Where You Live and Where You Work’: Challenging Midwestern Pastoral(ism) in Tomás Rivera’s . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him,” in Midwestern Literature, ed. Ronald Primeau (Ipswich, MA; Salem Press, 2013), 76–93; and Barillas, “Latino/Latina Literature,” in Greasley, Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, 2:424–437.
33. William Barillas, guest editor, Midwestern Miscellany 30 (Fall 2002). This journal is published by Midwestern Press and Center for the Study of Midwestern Literature and Culture of East Lansing, Michigan.