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Masculinity and Machismo in US Latinx Literaturelocked

  • Ricardo L. OrtizRicardo L. OrtizDepartment of English, Georgetown University


Latinx literature’s historical interest in the cultural, social, and political dynamics of gender plays as central a role in its long and varied discursive tradition as any other major thematic concern. Since the 19th century, representations of life in Latinx communities inhabiting what increasingly became the territory of the United States put the forces and conflicts of culturally based gender differences center stage, whether those differences came from within a culture, whose values shifted when it moved to a new geographic setting, or from without, when a culture confronted the differing values of an often dominant, oppressive other. Latinx literature is too vast and varied to accommodate a comprehensive account of these shifts and currents. But one can see a steady move away from the rigid binary logic of gender difference inherited from the traditional cis-hetero-patriarchal mindset of colonial Spanish-Catholic rule, a mindset that, historically, overwhelmed whatever more fluid or ambiguous formations of gender and sexuality circulated through indigenous American societies. That steady move cannot be traced in a single line or direction, but it does clearly demonstrate a greater opening of the possibility of dislodging gendered styles of expression from the particular anatomical manifestations of sexed bodies, as well as a greater opening of the possibility for mixed lines of attraction and desire between, within, and even beyond genders. While much liberatory work remains to be done in the actual world, Latinx literature has increasingly opened itself up to more inclusive, affirmative representations of nonnormative lives under the signs of sexuality and gender.

Introduction: Macho, Macha, and Machx on the Border Between Spanish and English

The very words “macho” and “machismo” require that we confront a basic logical challenge when attempting to analyze the history and play of gender and power in and across US Latinx literature, which is the impossibility of their translation from Spanish into English. “Macho” is both a noun and an adjective in Spanish; the adjective in particular veers from the merely descriptive to the more strongly evaluative (one can report that a person is male by saying he’s a “macho,” but one can fairly easily also put a more forceful stress on that person’s masculine demeanor or affect by describing—with a muy, or a tan, or even a demasiado—the degree to which he performs that masculinity). “Machismo,” grammatically, at least, a simple noun, in fact has no official translation. There is no term in English that captures how the Spanish word “machismo” extends the ontology (what one is) or performativity (how one acts) of gender into something like an ideology, a mindset, or a worldview that asserts the natural, social, and political “superiority” of men over women, of masculinity over femininity—not sexism, not misogyny, not cis-hetero-patriarchy or whatever else English might throw at the question, nothing quite matches the particularly aggressive spin of machismo. So English usage has done what it often does in these circumstances and imported “machismo,” this signifier itself, into its own lexicon without translation. This doesn’t apply as much to machista, the nominal and adjectival variant of “machismo” that can either name or describe the person or group that embraces and enforces the machismo worldview. One won’t encounter as often (if ever) the same easy slippage into English parlance of the charge (or the brag) of one’s (or one’s group’s) machismo as machista, so here, too, translation merely and eloquently fails. Perhaps this is, in part, because machista, ending in a feminizing a, confuses too much the silent, undetectable grammatical and phonetical logics of gender and gendering in English. To be clear, in Spanish, both the noun and the adjective machista are gender fluid—a male machista and a female machista take the same assignment at the level of the noun; whereas at the level of the article, he is un machista and she is una machista. For the purposes of the present discussion, it also bears noting that “macho” opens itself quite readily to additional ambiguation where gender and grammar touch. A butch woman is (a) macha in Spanish (and also in the English that accommodates her), betraying a vulnerability, which “macho” shares with a discrete collection of Spanish nouns, to an easy feminization, to a gender ambiguation that does what it does with the signifier in order to name what bodies do often enough to shift the logics, and the law, of gender in grammar and, more generally, in language. This is how, and why, in recent years “macho” can cede to macha, which can cede in turn to machx, each of the three signifiers offering signposts along the way to the history of literature’s participation in the processes of the naturalization, reification, construction, deconstruction, and evacuation of gender that the present discussion hopes to trace.

The thorough gendering of language in Spanish (as in most gendered languages) entails such a thorough gendering of the world that language creates, enacts, and describes; therefore any attempt at a focused analysis of even just the literary representations of gendered social life and gender politics in a culture pervasively conditioned by that gendering logic at the level of grammar must begin, as we just have, with an account of this state of linguistic affairs. Add to this the deeper complexity of conducting such a cultural life across many generations and vastly distinct regions in a constant state of bilingual tension between two languages, where the stakes of translation (not to mention political accommodation) are at once so constitutive and so fraught. Even the most prepared reader will need to expect such an analysis to proceed carefully and selectively over a vast, diverse range of material but always with a deep caution, indeed skepticism, about the evolving relationship between writing and the worlds with which it interacts, worlds it may variously want to describe, to create, and to transform. The discussion here therefore does not offer a comprehensive survey covering more than two centuries of what some could claim is arguably Latinx life in the United States. It chooses instead to discuss in greater detail a smaller selection of representative texts that nevertheless indicate the full range and diversity of gendered life and gendering politics as they are manifest in what we may now recognize as US Latinx literature, at once a historical process, cultural practice, and politico-aesthetic project from the middle of the 19th century to the second decade of the 21st century. The discussion will proceed as it started, with a critical focus on the manner in which the uniquely bilingual conditions of US Latinx life engender, reinforce, complicate, and render radically unstable a grammar, logic, and politics of gender in which “male” invokes “female,” and vice versa, but not in some cognate relation to how masculino can invoke feminina (or varón hembra, or hembra varón) and also “macho,” but where “macho” very differently invokes macha, and where in the early 21st century, it can easily also invoke (but not so easily pronounce) machx. At the same time, we will proceed with just as trained a critical focus on the settled historical fact that nothing makes the order of androcentric cis-hetero-patriarchy more visible, legible, and subject to analysis, critique, and dismantling than the forms of feminist, queer, and trans thought, writing, activism, and effective transformation that have for many decades now made discussions like the present one even possible.

Masculinity and Machismo in Chicanx Literature 1: Historical Roots

Given that Mexican Americans make up the largest and possibly longest-standing population of US Latinxs, this analysis opens with a collection of texts that emerge from or represent (or both) and comment on the politics of gender from the 19th century into the 20th, across the diverse regions of Mexican America. Américo Paredes’s With His Pistol in His Hands: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958) reaches back to the early 19th century to describe the lifeways of communities on either side of the Rio Grande to underscore how they did and did not change after the establishment of the US-Mexico national border in 1848, and to support the ethnographic and musicological work his seminal study goes on to do around the legend of Gregorio Cortez and the corrido tradition that celebrated that legend. Since the late 20th century, Paredes’s text has been lauded as perhaps the inaugural work of the as-yet-unborn fields of Chicanx and later US Latinx studies. But it has rarely been taken up as a work of literary creativity in its own right, though Paredes has also produced more explicitly literary pieces, such as his novel George Washington Gómez (written in 1935, published in 1990). According to Paredes, the people inhabiting what became these mostly rural, ranch-based border communities “lived under a patriarchal system that made them conscious of degree, [with] . . . the ‘captain’ of each community playing the part of the father to his people” (11).1 Paredes is quick to point out that the social order and the familial order reinforced one another, and that the wealthy, more powerful families held something like “patriarchal” sway over the others, which allowed for some minimal slippage in the alignments of power, pitting women in the prominent land-owning families over men from the poor and laboring classes. “There was a domestic hierarchy,” Paredes notes, “in which the representative of God on earth was the father, [making] . . . a father’s curse . . . the most terrible thing on earth.” On the rare occasion, however, when “the mother was a strong character,” he avers, “she could very well receive the same sort of respect as the father” (11–12).2 Paredes characteristically balances aggregate descriptions of systemic aspects of the social order with anecdotal asides, as one might expect from his more qualitative ethnographical methodology; but he leaves no room for doubt that for the vast majority of women in the early US-Mexico borderlands, life was lived at the behest and for the pleasure of the men in their families and their communities. Women, even as matriarchal pillars, mostly don’t appear at all in Paredes’s otherwise crucially gendered description of life in those communities: “Decisions,” he tells us, “were made, arguments were settled, and sanctions were decided upon by the old men of the group, with the leader usually being the patriarch, the eldest son of the eldest son, so that primogeniture played its part in social organization” (12). And though such consistent and traditional practices may have “allowed” this generally rural community “to govern itself,” Paredes also signals that alongside this strictly enforced social cohesion and stability, change was also occurring, if initially in the space of what he calls “town life,” which even then, he observes, was becoming “more complex” (11).3

One can readily trace the growing “complexity” of the social and political order in these border communities as the 19th century opens into the 20th, across a collection of texts that deepen and extend the characterization of gendered life for Mexican Americans thus initiated by Paredes. The Squatter and the Don (1885), Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s long-lost and then recovered novel of the cultural and political decline of California’s Mexican landowning class, due to the encroaching Anglo-American settlement of the state in the late 19th century, reflects many of the conditions of social and family life that Paredes attributes to the Californios’ Texan cousins, rich and poor, even as the wider world she imagines into being in her naturalist masterpiece allows individual characters and groups a greater diversity of experiences.4 Any feminist consciousness one might attribute to Ruiz de Burton mostly manifests itself in her insistence on situating her major female characters as squarely in the center of her complex, crowded narrative, as she does with her major male characters, attributing the qualities of strength of character, principle, and intellect to such figures of admittedly maternal (not to say matriarchal) authority as Doña Josefa de Alamar and Mary Darrell. These characters do important work, displaying feminine agency in ways that cannot be discounted. But for the most part, Ruiz de Burton imagines a world in which patriarchy reigns with few checks on its power. For this reason, much of the focus on the novel synthesizes the cultural and racial dialectics that pit (in the novel’s parlance) “anglo” Americans against “hispano” Californios with a gendered dialectic that plays out squarely and spectacularly on the field of masculinity, but where that masculinity is, in turn, riven by markers of class and status that the author hopes might serve to resolve the political, cultural, and racial conflicts that drive its narrative.

For Ruiz de Burton, that resolution requires an evolution of the modes of masculine patriarchal competition and collaboration from one generation to another, even requiring a new social order that rejects cultural and racial difference in favor of commonalities in the politics of family (read gender) and class. While the older generation of patriarch is embodied on each side of the racial divide by the “Squatter” William Darrell and the “Don” Mariano Alamar, each married to a woman from his own ethnic group and each exercising a more directly patriarchal power over everyone in his orbit, the younger generation is embodied by their respective eldest sons. Clarence Darrell and Gabriel Alamar both marry women from another racial group, but only one, Clarence, succeeds (through his enlightened character and his marriage to Mercedes Alamar) in manifesting a new heroic ideal of a softer, more benign patriarchal power; Gabriel, unfortunately, must embody the actual historical decline of the Californios by dying in poverty and shame despite his purportedly noble, aristocratic nature. Ruiz de Burton must be credited, however, for objectively and critically recognizing that all traditional systems of social and political authority clinging to antiquated notions of essential superiority, whether based on race or gender or culture or a combination of these, were quickly receding from the stage of the new liberal, capitalist modernity she saw emerging. She understood, too, that they were being replaced by new hierarchies of power, which may have retained vestiges of the traditional constructions of superiority and inferiority, but only and increasingly as alibis for the one logic or power that really mattered, the economic. As the narrative concludes, readers understand that the only gendered dialectic that matters is the one pitting her imagined vision of benign patriarchal heroism, embodied by Clarence Darrell, against the brutal combination of political and economic power, embodied in the historically existing Leland Stanford, who has only a brief cameo in the narrative, but whose actual work in the world created the conditions of social, political, and cultural existence with which her invented characters had to deal.

Masculinity and Machismo in Chicanx Literature 2: 20th- and 21st-Century Interventions

“Early-” to mid- to late-20th-century Chicanx literature quite often took its cues from the terms of patriarchal gender politics described by Ruiz de Burton and Paredes, either layering onto this foundation accounts of the struggles of that political order to maintain its authority in the face of increasingly liberal attitudes about gender and power, or confronting that order in its work as an engine producing these very attitudes, first about the equality of men and women, and later about the social construction of binary gender, and after that about gender’s radically fictive, performative status and its openness to infinite modes of potential play, critique, and, indeed, escape. Seminal pieces of literary expression doing this work with a clear focus on the social field of masculinity as the embodied product of a traditionally hetero-patriarchal order include such foundational works as José Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho (1959), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Rodolfo Gonzlaes’s Yo Soy Joaquín (1967), Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1978), Richard Rodríguez’s Hunger of Memory (1982), and Arturo Islas’s The Rain God (1984). To these male-authored texts, Chicana women, feminist, and lesbian writers including Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo (among many others) would start to contribute a series of important critical and expressive interventions, starting in the early 1980s and continuing into the 21st century, interventions that would make the emergence of work by queer and trans writers since the 1990s possible; this work would dramatically expand, even explode, the ways of experiencing the play of gender and power in a variety of social and cultural fields marked as Chicano, Chicana, and Chicanx. A trio of texts—Villarreal’s Pocho, Valdez’s Zoot Suit, and Islas’s Rain God—together testify to the shifts in status and possibility in Chicanx family and social life across the early to mid-20th century, each involving a generational shift between a father and son, where the father’s roots extend back to some degree to the Mexican Revolution, and where the American son finds himself encountering the opportunities and challenges of a North American liberal modernity unavailable to his Mexican father, mostly through access to education or other forms of social mobility, for example, military service or other forms of public service or professional employment, which enables him to have a middle-class lifestyle.5

All three narratives work in the genre of Bildungsroman, but only The Rain God follows the son character well into his adult life. Pocho and Zoot Suit leave their young protagonists, Richard Rubio and Henry Leyva respectively, at the brink of adulthood, looking forward to adult lives shaped by the military service each is about to begin. But both Richard and Henry know by the end of their narratives how different their lives will be from their fathers’: Henry, thanks to his coming of age in a prewar United States that had turned urban adolescents of color, especially boys, into presumptive criminals if they acted at all on the new freedoms the culture was increasingly offering to young people generally (in dress, style, and social and sexual behavior); Richard, in his encounters with shifts similar to the ones available to Henry, including encounters between urban youth of color and the police, but also (and more than Henry) with the possibility of pursuing relationships that fall well outside the conventions of Mexican and Chicano hetero-patriarchy, in the first place with women who are not Chicana, but also in a social context that recognizes the existence of queer and non-gender-conforming people, including the characters of a tomboy girlfriend and a gay mentor. Valdez’s play, based on actual historical events, is necessarily set in 1940s Los Angeles. Villarreal’s novel, very loosely based on his own life, takes place in the slowly urbanizing but still mostly agricultural region of northern California and is situated around the Cities of Salinas and San José. And Islas’s novel, also loosely based on his own life, concentrates mostly on events that occur in protagonist Miguel Angel’s hometown (a version of Islas’s hometown of El Paso, Texas), but it frames those scenes with others that depict Miguel reminiscing about his childhood from his perch in San Francisco, California, and pursuing his adult life as a university professor and a gay man in the early years of the LGBTQ rights movement. Together, these narratives carry readers from the first decade of the 20th century to at least the early 1970s as much as they explore the conditions of life in both urban and rural settings and in the Chicanx population centers in Texas and California. And though they range mostly within the set of possibilities available to Chicano men based on the conditions of both family life as determined by the internal values of the culture and social and political life based on Chicanos’ marginalization in American society, they also set the stage for the proliferation of texts that would by the late 20th century, test and contest these internal and external limits to what masculinity could be and do in the world, without direct reference to any familiar, recognizable form of the hetero-patriarchy described by Ruiz de Burton or Paredes.

Indeed, the tempered modes of mid-century masculinity we encounter in Henry, Richard, and Miguel will give way by century’s end to a much broader range of possibilities for masculinity (as a macho, macha, and machx formation) in texts as diverse as Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Richard Rodríguez’s Days of Obligation (1992), Yxta Maya Murray’s Locas (1997), Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning (2012),6 and multiple titles from such writers as Michael Nava, Manuel Muñoz, Rigoberto González Luis Alfaro, and Adelina Anthony. As early as 1987, Gloria Anzaldúa can rewrite even the prehistory of the borderlands social and sexual order we first encountered via Paredes, recounting how in her mid-century childhood she heard from “la gente del pueblo” about a “muchacha [who] for six months . . . was a woman who had a vagina and bled once a month, and that for the other six months . . . was a man, had a penis and . . . peed standing up.”7 This “half and half (mitá y mitá)” figure, “neither one nor the other, a strange doubling,” offers Anzaldúa an occasion to anchor the possibility of liberation from the violent restrictions of the norms of binary gender, both within the very tradition that imposes such restrictions and by forcing the rupture of the binary construct by pushing it past its own logical conclusions:

There is something compelling about being both male and female, about having an entry into both worlds. Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other.8

Anzaldúa concludes, “But I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female.” And indeed, the Chicanx literary and cultural genealogy that follows upon Anzaldúa’s powerful proclamation bears out the potentiality of its simultaneous synthesis and deconstruction of the prevailing dialectics of gender.

In works as dissimilar as Richard Rodriguez’s essay “Mexico’s Children,” Yxta Murray’s novel Locas, Rigoberto González’s memoir Butterfly Boy, and Eduardo Corral’s poem “In Colorado my Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” readers will find the contemporary Chicanx literary project working restlessly to test the limits of and explore any remaining productivity attributable to anything resembling conventional masculinity. Rodriguez’s essay, for example, devotes important space to an almost vestigial apology for at least a benign version of machismo, one that emphasizes a filial devotion and loyalty to a mother and a family over a paternal or patriarchal authority over either, in the service of an account of Mexican migration, especially undocumented migration, to the United States as the primary sacrifice sons make to both actual and national mothers out of a sense of duty to support the family in the wake of the father’s failure to do so. Murray’s novel, though it focuses on young women in an immigrant community in inner-city Los Angeles who turn to the gang life to survive, queers, in productively Anzladúan terms, the conventional masculine dynamics of that gang life by depicting its two female protagonists as they access modes of masculine authority and violence for themselves: the conventionally femme Lucía, by seizing the reins of territorial power in her neighborhood from male peers who are no match for her cunning and ruthlessness; and the butch lesbian Cecilia, by embracing her gender nonconformity in time to become one of Lucía’s key lieutenants in the turf war that engulfs the barrio. González’s Butterfly Boy, in turn, upends some of the remaining vestigial elements of the masculinity one finds surviving in Rodríguez’s and Murray’s texts. The memoir refuses to assign any conventional qualities of self-sacrificing generosity and heroism to persons based on their gender, opting instead to depict people as functions of often quite idiosyncratic features of specific relationships, whether familial or social. Growing up in a desperately poor family of seasonal agricultural migrant workers in a desert community in southern California, González’s protagonist cannot predict from one moment to the next how his parents will live up (or fail to live up) to any expectations one might have of them as male or female, as father or mother, and instead, he finds himself navigating both his family’s poverty and his waking discovery of his own experience of queerness, on the strength of his personal resources, primarily his embrace of the open play of his active imagination, his committed pursuit of queer sociality and queer pleasure, and his fascination with reading and, eventually, writing.

Corral, in an oft-cited poem from his award-winning verse collection,9 plies similar ground to González, but “In Colorado” further crystalizes the dynamic of father-son succession, the key channel through which one might imagine masculinity trying to reproduce itself, first by leaving the question of the gender of the poem’s speaker open (there is no explicit indication that the speaker is male) and also by refusing to set any narrative the reader may detect across the poem’s lines in any recognizably domestic, familial setting, especially one that includes a mother. The opening line of the poem, which also serves as its title, has the father doing the kind of domestic (read women’s) work that in public settings, such as post-NAFTA American restaurants, is often done by (undocumented Latinx) men. And the rest of the poem depicts an inheritance from parent to child that maintains a critical refusal of conventional gendering (“He’s an illegal. / I’m an Illegal-American.”). That inheritance, by turns cruel and affectionate, indifferent and fateful, features plenty of the trappings of conventional masculinity, but always radically fragmented, partial, and therefore in part inadequate, even if by the end, the speaker can claim from it the very resources that make the poem’s existence possible: the father is enough of a singer (“Nightly, / to entertain his cuates, around a campfire, / he strummed a guitarra, sang corridos.”) and a poet himself (“Once, borracho, at breakfast, / he said: The heart can only be broken / once, like a window.”) that the poet can declare that s/he is his child without revealing being his daughter, or son, or both, or neither:

When I walk through the desert, I wear his shirt. The gaze of the moon stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin. The snake hisses. The snake is torn

Masculinity and Machismo in US Caribbean Diasporic Literatures by Men

As we introduce the complementary dimension of mostly Caribbean and Central American literary negotiations of masculinity and machismo into this discussion, it bears noting that the organization and deployment of gender ideologies taking root across the southern regions of the western hemisphere bear the complex, heterogeneous, and uneven influence of the major populations (indigenous American, African, Asian, European) that found themselves in intense, often nonreciprocal interaction over the violent five-hundred-year history of the so-called new world—that is, since the historical watershed encounter between Columbus and Caribbean natives we shorthand with reference to the year 1492. Four centuries later and following, that mixed inheritance had been sufficiently absorbed into most Latin Americans’ understanding of themselves as a people. One encounters a fairly familiar and repetitive account of it in the discourse of the late 19th century, through a collection of tropes that both evidences hetero-patriarchal masculinity’s dominance across that history and crystallizes the long legacy of the Spanish-Catholic colonial and imperial project. In an essay as famous, and as literary, as José Martí’s 1893 manifesto “Our America,” we thus find powerful gender and racial shorthands simultaneously deployed. For Martí, the idealized figure of the free citizen of any emerging Latin American republic presents himself for philosophical consideration as possibly mixed race but necessarily male, and virile and principled but also physically invincible: “In America,” Martí intones, “the natural man has triumphed over the imported book . . . over an artificial intelligentsia. The native mestizo has triumphed over the alien, pure-blooded criollo . . . The natural man,” he concludes,

is good, and esteems and rewards superior intelligence as long as that intelligence does not use his submission against him or offend him by ignoring him—for that the natural man deems unforgiveable, and he is prepared to use force to regain the respect of anyone who wounds his sensibilities or harms his interests. (290)10

The conceptual linking here of political sovereignty with both an uninterrogated, inviolable masculinity and a more symbolic construction of ethnic indigenous authenticity carries not only through Martí’s larger body of work, but also through some central strands of 19th- into 20th-century Latin American and even US Latinx political and cultural thought. It certainly conditions the drama Martí stages to conclude his essay, where a personified (as female) Latin America is assertively commanded “to show herself as she is,” since

the disdain of her formidable neighbor who does not know her is our America’s greatest danger, and it is urgent—for the day of the visit is near—that her neighbor come to know her, so that he will not disdain her . . . [and will in turn] remove his hands from her in respect.11

One must consider seriously the history of interaction between the United States and Latin America across the 20th century to determine whether the kind of geopolitical dominance figured by Martí here as rape was actually averted or whether it took some form that might be better served by an alternative dramatic illustration. But certainly, the interhemispheric dynamic throughout the course of the United States’ emergence as a regional then global power, and, later, a superpower through the turbulence of two world wars, economic booms and busts, an extended and global Cold War, and the general neoliberal order that succeeded it all point to a decided advantage for the United States, both politically and economically. This advantage was consolidated during the Cold War, when the United States was pitted against its Soviet nemesis in a polarizing global standoff that turned all the smaller countries in the United States’ regional orbit into pawns in that broader conflict. This includes all the countries that from the 1940s to the 1990s became major population feeders for the United States—in no particular order: Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, in particular, one can understand Puerto Rico’s indefinite maintenance as a colonial territorial possession of enormous strategic importance, the United States’ extended maintenance of a dictator who was as brutally monstrous to his people as the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, and everything about the US’s Cuba policy from retention of the naval base at Guantánamo to the still-unsettled terms of the economic embargo against the Castro and post-Castro regimes, as functions of conditions that were either created or reinforced during the Cold War and that fed into the massive migrations of people from those islands to the mainland United States. These large migrations created populous diasporic communities; these, in turn, produced representative literary and cultural artifacts that have taken up and reconfigured from their Caribbean perspective the dynamics of gender and power deployed by Martí at a regional scale.

Three landmark narrative texts that do this work in tandem and across a wide expanse of time are two highly fictionalized memoirs, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967) and Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls (1992), and a novel, Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).12 Thomas’s mid-century text doesn’t foreground the geopolitical issue of Puerto Rico’s by then seven-decade-long suspension as colonial holding, favoring instead a detailed personal account of the writer’s experiences negotiating race, culture, class, and gender as a young, black Latino man in the United States (urban and suburban, northern and southern) between the 1930s and 1960s. Of mixed Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage but reading to society as black, Thomas’s protagonist navigates a world that has much in common with the one encountered by Valdez’s young men in Zoot Suit; it is primarily urban, working-class, and vulnerable to racist pressures that target young men of color for relentless marginalization and violent criminalization. Thomas’s narrative therefore also shares a great deal with narratives from the African American literary tradition, including Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and Malcolm X’s Autobiography (1965). But Thomas offers the unique contribution of his experience of blackness in the United States that is layered and complicated by a Puerto Rican, “Latino” identity that could often skew mainstream and official perspectives on his actual place in society. Piri’s narrated life often pauses at moments of his encounters with white women, whether in school during his youth or in the city as a young man trying to find his way into adult life, and even in a prolonged excursion into the American South, where he experiences both the aggression and incoherence of antiblack racism in the 1950s and 1960s, the moment when the African American civil rights movement was beginning to coalesce into the political engine that would bring so much positive change to the country. These experiences teach Piri to appreciate that his position in US society hinges on his color rather than on his less-visible Latino subjectivity, and that basic fact determines a great deal, not only about the sexual and affective life he can have, but also his eventually landing in prison, where he finally has the opportunity to read books and to contemplate his life enough to become the writer who can produce the memoir his readers will read.

Arenas’s and Díaz’s later narratives spin away from Thomas’s along dramatically different paths, but their relevant points of contact with it work in complementary and powerful ways. There is no evidence that Arenas read Thomas, but Before Night Falls works in part as the white Cuban and Cuban American queer complement of Down These Mean Streets. It tells the story of a young Cuban man in the decades before the Castro revolution, growing out of abject poverty and making his way to Havana in time to experience all of that revolution’s transformations of Cuban society, from the political to the social to the cultural to the sexual. Arenas recounts discovering his homosexuality and his vocation as a writer simultaneously, twin adventures that each experienced the violent swings in revolutionary attitudes to both sex and art. By the late 1960s, he finds himself in prison, put there both for his outspoken criticism of the revolution and his sexuality; and after years of social marginalization and even persecution, he eventually must leave Cuba to save his life. Like Thomas, Arenas threads the process of coming to political awareness of how his gender, race, and sexuality powerfully determine his place in society through a series of explicit sexual encounters with men, discovering as he goes along that whatever advantages accrue to him thanks to his whiteness and his masculinity could be violently mitigated thanks to his Latino brownness and his queerness, and this in as distinct a set of hetero-patriarchal social contexts as those operating in postrevolutionary Havana and Reagan- and AIDS-era New York City. Junot Díaz, on the other hand, certainly read Thomas and has singled the memoir out as a foundational inspiration for his literary fiction, across all three of his major published works, the story collections Drown (1997) and This Is How You Lose Her (2013), as well as the novel Oscar Wao (2008). Like Thomas, in his fiction Díaz focuses on the experiences of young urban men of color, mostly young black men from the Caribbean diasporic communities in the New York City area, here also primarily heterosexual young men, though on occasion he explores aspects of homosexuality and homosociality that also course through and condition sexual life and sexual opportunity in these communities. As with Thomas and Arenas, Díaz’s literary style owes a great deal of its effect (and its success) to an assertive vocal swagger, embodied in Díaz’s case in the narrative voice of Yunior, a kind of authorial alter ego who dominates much of the Díaz oeuvre in these three titles, including the bulk of the narrative of Oscar Wao. Like Arenas, Díaz also devotes a great deal of narrative space in his novel to depictions of social and sexual experience in a mid-century Caribbean capital living under an oppressive dictatorship with a pervasive hold on its citizens’ lives, although in Diaz’s case it’s in the form of the notoriously sexually (and in every other way) brutal regime of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who from 1930s until his assassination in the early 1960s used the captivity, torture, and rape of Dominican women as a weapon of political control, which reverberated across Dominican society and touched countless Dominican families. All of Díaz’s fiction can indeed read like an extended attempt to relive in order to exorcise the legacies of this masculinist program of violent sexual and social control, not only from collective Dominican national memory, but also from Dominican diasporic culture in the United States, where strong machista tendencies persist to the present day.13

Masculinity and Machismo in US Caribbean Diasporic Literature by Women

Latina women writers from the Caribbean diaspora in the United States have also contributed important work to the ongoing negotiation of masculinity and machismo throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, though understandably, much of the most influential work coming from these writers focuses on the experiences of women protagonists and minor characters. Three highly prolific writers whose works have had a unique impact on Latinx literary culture over the same historical periods and across the same national and diasporic spaces as those already attributed to Thomas, Arenas, and Díaz are the mainland Puerto Rican memoirist and novelist Esmeralda Santiago, the Cuban American novelist Cristina García, and the Dominican American novelist and poet Julia Alvarez.14 All three writers saw early critical and commercial success in the 1990s, but each has devoted some part of her literary project to an excavation of the more-distant historical past, even as she has continued to produce important work well into the 21st century. Santiago has produced a trio of memoirs and two novels; in the former in particular, she offers an account of growing up Puerto Rican in the shadow of US colonial rule that complements that of Thomas. Her story takes place both on and off the island, when she is a young girl in the 1950s and then a woman in the 1960s facing the challenges of her deeply hetero-patriarchal culture, often doing so in a household led by her mother and bereft of a father. Santiago’s portrayal of the relationship between her protagonist (and alter ego) Negi and her father carefully includes both his attempts to assert what masculine authority he can in their profoundly impoverished circumstances and the complexity of his personal character: he is both a tender, loving father who teaches his daughter poetry and a stereotypical philandering husband who often abandons his wife and children to pursue sexual affairs (sometimes producing children with other women), and who as often returns, but only to fight violently with Negi’s mother, who eventually realizes that she must leave him, and the island, for the opportunities that beckon in diasporic Puerto Rican New York City. Like Thomas and Díaz, Santiago is careful to emphasize the parallel process of the dark-skinned Negi’s negotiations of differently white-dominant societies in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, but in her case, the primary emphasis remains on the character’s intersectional experiences of gendered and cultural oppressions, intensified by her family’s deep poverty that continues even after they settle in Brooklyn. Across all three of her memoir texts (When I Was Puerto Rican, 1993; Almost a Woman, 1998; and The Turkish Lover, 2004; her two novels are América’s Dream, 1996; and Conquistadora, 2011), Santiago situates her female protagonist in a world where masculinity, especially white straight masculinity, reigns, even without there having to be any white straight men present in the immediate social space to enforce that dominance.

A similar analysis applies to the narrative outputs of Alvarez and García, although in each of their cases, the material has arrived primarily in the form of an ambitious series of pieces of literary fiction. Julia Alvarez has published multiple novels, some of which loosely follow the experiences of her middle-class Dominican family as they settle into their diasporic lives in the United States (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, 1991; and ¡Yo!, 1997), and some of which excavate Dominican political and cultural history on the island (In the Time of the Butterflies, 1994; In the Name of Salomé, 2000; and Saving the World, 2006). Cristina García, on the other hand, wandered away from her and her family’s actual story to venture more expansively, mostly in her early work (Dreaming in Cuban, 1991; The Agüero Sisters, 1997; Monkey Hunting, 2003; King of Cuba, 2013), across Cuban and Cuban-American political and cultural history; and in much of her later work, the focus expands beyond Cuba and Cuban America to larger regional and even global frames (A Handbook to Luck, 2007; The Lady Matador’s Hotel, 2010; and Here in Berlin, 2017). Drawing parallels between Alvarez’s and Garcia’s careers also fails when one considers each writer’s attempt to widen the scope of her examination of masculinity from a comparably Latina feminist perspective. Alvarez has stayed close to manifestations of Dominican masculinity, through her representations of characters based either on men in her family, such as her father, or on historical Dominican figures, such as Francisco and Pedro Henríquez, Salomé Ureña’s husband and son (in In the Name of Salomé); the notorious dictator Rafael Trujillo (in In the Time of the Butterflies); and the young Dominican men who, in the 1940s and 1950s, participated alongside the heroic Mirabal sisters in the resistance to Trujillo. Alvarez has also explored the gendered dynamics that manifest when immigrant Latina women find themselves navigating conflicting cultural and other expectations when they date and even marry non-Latino, especially “white-anglo” American men, as they forge into their own American lives. Variants on this theme arise in her more autobiographical fiction, but also in poetry collections such as The Other Side / El Otro Lado, in 1995 (see “The Bill Poems”), and even in her historical novel, Saving the World, in 2006.

These themes also arise in García’s even more prolific body of work in literary fiction; García has, in the latter half of her career, ventured far in exploring masculinity, both from the direct subjectivities of a collection of male characters and from a collection of masculine women characters who even more radically deconstruct gender’s traditional binary logic, pushing her work far beyond the limits to which Alvarez has been willing to go. Versions of these experiments appear as early in García’s career as 1992, in the character Ivanito Villaverde in Dreaming in Cuban, protagonist Pilar Puente’s gay first cousin, to whom García devotes a rare chapter of male focalization in the first person; and they are also there in the main character in The Agüero Sisters (1998), the mixed-race mulata Reina Agüero, whose imposing physical stature, proficiency as a public works electrician for Castro’s revolution, and voracious sexual appetite strongly masculinize her, especially in comparison with her much more conventionally “femme” (and “white”) sister Constancia, who goes into exile in the United States and founds “Cuerpo de Cuba,” a highly successful company specializing in beauty and rejuvenation products for women. Reina and Constancia illustrate García’s early interest in experimenting with styles and power dynamics of gender that refuse patriarchy’s conventional binary logic by serving as the central pair of characters to tease out the text’s masculine–feminine dialectic, anchoring it in two female bodies first, before orbiting out to include male characters (their father, husbands, and sons, etc.), who in turn embody a wide array of masculine traits, styles, and power.

García’s work also escapes the orbit of her homeland more than Alvarez’s work tends to do. In the 2003 novel Monkey Hunting, García traces the central family’s genealogical line from China to Cuba in the mid-19th century through her male protagonist Chen Pan’s experiences of forced transportation, enslavement, and escape in Cuba, which take him as far as a successful career, in 19th-century Havana’s burgeoning Chinatown, as a shopkeeper specializing in colonial antiques. Through Chen Pan, García explores the historical complexity of Cuban masculinity by anchoring it in the body of a Chinese man who, with his Afro-Cuban peers, undergoes the degradations of plantation enslavement before escaping, making his way to freedom and financial success in Havana and purchasing the mulata slave Lucrecia, who will eventually buy her freedom from him, marry him, and bear his children, who will variously embody the generational synthesis of a Euro-Afro-Asian island Cubanidad that was not uncommon in the late 19th century. García then turns her narrative back to China, following Chen Pan’s granddaughter Chen Fang in her experiences as a gender-nonconforming girl in early 20th-century China, where she acquires a boy’s education before her “true” gender is discovered and she’s forced into a loveless marriage to bear a child, after which she is discarded by both her and her husband’s families, which ironically sets her “free” to live single and unmarried in a society completely unequipped and unwilling to grant such a person any kind of recognizable social, sexual, or political existence. Through Chen Fang, García explores the cultural complexity of Chinese masculinity by anchoring it in the body of a “masculine” girl who acquires an education not intended for her, and who eventually manages to escape forced conscription into the cis-heterosexual order. That limited “freedom” in early-20th-century China allows Chen Fang, on the one hand, the extraordinary opportunity to pursue one gorgeous moment of queer romance with the wife of a French diplomat but, on the other, condemns her nevertheless to a variant of social death thanks to her radical invisibility to the logic and law of sexual possibility in her time and place of existence. In the body of work we call US Latinx literature, therefore, both Chen Pan and Chen Fang figure as rare examples of explorations of masculinity that either dislodge or detach that register of gendered experience from its conventional couplings (in the context of the field in question) with race and ethnicity. From the examples of these two characters, García has extended her explorations of gender’s, and masculinity’s, endless fluidity, and the accompanying endless fluidity of its possible intersections with race and ethnicity, across all her subsequent fiction, focusing as often on characters who strongly conform to the logic of cis-gendered, raced, and national identity, such as her fictionalized, satirical treatment of Fidel Castro in King of Cuba (2013), as on characters who decidedly do not so conform, such as Suki Palacios, the Japanese Mexican American female bullfighter title character of The Lady Matador’s Hotel (2010). Indeed, thanks to characters with the range and diversity of Reina Agüero, Chen Fang, and Suki Palacios, readers can reliably turn to Cristina García’s three decades of literary work to trace her remarkable elaboration of Latinx masculinity, not only through characters who are, predictably, explicitly men, but also through an array of characters who are, importantly less predictably, women.

After Men: Restaging Masculinity, Restaging Gender in Latinx Texts after 2010

By the close of the second decade of the 21st century, the critical gender work this article has traced across a complex discursive and literary genealogy had led to a surprising return to some basic issues regarding gender in general and masculinity in particular. This is visible in work as major and mainstream as Quiara Alegría Hudes’s dramatic Elliott Trilogy and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epochal Hamilton, and as fringe and avant-garde as poet-performer Raquel Gutiérrez’s trio of verse chapbooks, Breaking Up with Los Angeles, #WhiteBoo, and Running in Place: Poems about Institutionality.15 Hudes’s three-play project starts with Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, performed as early as 2006, and continues through Pulitzer Prize–winner Water by the Spoonful (2012) and The Happiest Song Plays Last (2014). The three works are united by their focus on the character of Elliot Ortiz. Across the three projects that focus expands to include members of his family, past and present, and, eventually, a global cast of additional characters, living and dead, set in locations as scattered as Puerto Rican Philadelphia, Puerto Rico itself, Iraq and Jordan in the Middle East, and a cyberspace chatroom connecting characters across the United States and as far away as Japan. Of the three plays, the first is the most explicitly interested in masculinity as political and cultural patrimony, and it traces Elliot’s inheritance of the soldierly vocation from his father and grandfather, the three men serving as they do in US military conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. This narrative conceit allows Hudes to explore Puerto Rico’s history of colonial enthrallment to the United States through the analogue of a family history organized around the three men and the varying forms of consent, conscription, and coercion that motivate their enlistments and sacrifice. The focus on Elliot in the succeeding plays also allows Hudes to trace the risks and the costs of that sacrifice through the long aftermath of that service as he struggles with physical disability and mental illness, thus resisting the temptation to characterize his experiences in and after battle as simply heroic or triumphant (or both). While all three works also play very ambitiously with staging and narrative and all the other material resources of theater, one can note the attention a feminist playwright like Hudes can devote to her protagonist’s wounded, vulnerable masculinity in the deceptively simple staging of the first play’s first scene. The audience meets a young Elliot wearing just a towel, and then changing into white underwear and looking at his reflection in a mirror, taking stock of himself before he ships off to Iraq, the stage of global power and imperial violence where so much of his fate will be determined.

If Hudes’s focus on Latinx masculinity orbits around the diminishing force of its colonial conscription via the Puerto Rican patrimony handed down through generations to Elliot, the efforts of her In the Heights (2005) collaborator and fellow mainland Puerto Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda in the massively successful Hamilton flip that logic of patrimony on its head. Miranda offers audiences instead the national myth of the Founding Fathers in strategic, interventional, critical brownface, as embodied by an array of mostly performers of color; he also accomplishes the arguably masculine browning of the American Broadway musical tradition by inserting hip-hop as the signature genre of the majority of the piece’s musical numbers, especially those that do the bulk of the work of narrating the nation’s founding story back to itself. Like Hudes, Miranda is quite adept at paralleling the national and the familial. For all that the play focuses on familiar tropes from accounts of the United States’ founding, from George Washington’s military sponsorship of Alexander Hamilton during the Revolutionary War to Hamilton’s various friendships and rivalries with figures as notable as the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, it spends as much time narrating its main characters’ personal stories—in particular, the complicated romantic triangle involving Hamilton and the Schuyler sisters, Angelica and Eliza—as well as the investments in marriage, family, and literal fatherhood of the play’s central rivals, Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton has understandably experienced serious scrutiny and criticism thanks to the structural risks that its central conceit required: that is, its depicting central historical characters, all white, in familiar aspects of their purported heroism and vision (moral, political, and personal flaws notwithstanding), leaving any explicit critique of the crimes of racial, gendered, economic, and political dominance necessarily muted and marginalized for the sake of historical verisimilitude. But if Hudes balances her work’s fascination with the fictional Elliot Ortiz as a deeply compromised embodiment of conventional cis-hetero-masculinity with her equally serious focus on the heroism and dignity of a number of her female characters, Miranda balances his obvious fascination with the white- and male-dominant terms of the United States’ founding national myth with his radical subversion of those terms in almost every other aspect of Hamilton’s stagecraft, from the unapologetically black and brown urban contemporary ring of its music and lyrics, to the explicit refusal of a white-male-presumptive aesthetic, from its casting to its costuming to its choreography.

And, finally, if both Hudes and Miranda approach their work in differently ambitious but similarly major chords, a good deal of important work has also been appearing in much more local, granular, minor chords, and often doing the necessary work of reimagining gender altogether without losing in the process the possibility of representing some still-legible intersectional manifestation of masculinity and latinidad. The butch-identified poet-performer-impresarix Raquel Gutiérrez, for example, self-published, in the mid-2010s, a trio of chapbooks of verse work, Breaking Up with Los Angeles, #WhiteBoo, and Running in Place: Poems about Institutionality, using her Econo-Textual Objects imprint and making the books widely available at Gutiérrez’s many public appearances and through social media and other online platforms. Gutiérrez, a founding member of the historic Los Angeles–based performance troupe Butchlalis de Panochtitlán, engages with queer butch experience in many of the pieces that make up each of her three chapbook volumes. In Breaking Up with Los Angeles (2014), for example, she follows a piece entitled “#21: Ole Dad,” which is as much a critical rumination on the limits and failures of cis-hetero fatherhood as it is any kind of template for butch parenthood, with “#22: For the Brony,” a tender, loving tribute to trans survival and assertion addressed to a close friend and creative collaborator. But without even knowing anything of the biographical backstory involving the poet and her friend, any reader encountering “Brony” will discover in it the unmistakable play about a masculinity that does not require the presence of any literally cis-male bodies.

The “Brony” speaker’s descriptions of their friend suggest a genuine loving intimacy between them, an intimacy that’s more about gender than about sex (we learn that he’s “flummoxed by the way people fuck”), the insistent use of masculine pronouns to describe him only cedes to the possibility of nonbinary expression in his wearing of “a ski cap in the middle of imperial summer/stitched with a patch that reads die cis skum.” In the piece, “Brony” wears his latinidad rather lightly, so much depends on the lines that name his geographical origins: “He’s puro Riverside; evading the homicide and suicide that haunts a native son / Like a freeway chase on the evening news.” Gutiérrez’s evocation of queer trans Latinx masculinity thus circulates through the Southern California to which so much of the chapbook is dedicated via a mixture of the open mobility of the “freeway” and a constant dread of “haunting” by policing violence that operates with the relentlessness of pursuit, and also of targeted persecution. But within such an intense threat environment for this most vulnerable and precarious form of masculinity, Gutiérrez interjects some bracingly simple assertions regarding the necessary conditions for machx survival: in one two-line stanza, “I love him / because he is good,” and in a half-line from another, “He lives in the art of those he loves.” It’s almost impossible to measure the distance that anything one might want to call “Latinx masculinity” has traveled from any place in the historical past to the present as rendered in “For the Brony,” but the distance feels remarkably vast if one considers the routes traveled to arrive here, even just from the “patriarchal” Chicanx societies of two centuries ago, as described by, say, Paredes and Ruiz de Burton, with which this discussion opened.

Further Reading

  • Decena, Carlos. Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Gonzalez, Ray. Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their Manhood. New York: Anchor, 1996.
  • Hurtado, Aída, and Mrinal Sinha. Beyond Machismo: Intersectional Latino Masculinities. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.
  • Jauregui-Sifuentes, Ben. The Avowal of Difference: Queer Latino American Narratives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.
  • Mirande, Alfredo. Hombres y Machos: Masculinity and Latino Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2017.
  • Quiroga, José. Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Rodríguez, Juana María. Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
  • Rodríguez, Richard T. Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
  • Varon, Alberto. Before Chicano: Citizenship and the Making of Mexican American Manhood, 1848–1959. New York: New York University Press, 2018.


  • Alarcón, Daniel. Lost City Radio. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991.
  • Alvarez, Julia. In the Name of Salomé. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 2000.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
  • Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Translated by Dolores Koch. New York: Viking Press, 1993.
  • Corral, Eduardo. Slow Lightning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Díaz, Junot. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007.
  • García, Cristina. The Agüero Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
  • García, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • García, Cristina. Monkey Hunting. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
  • Goldman, Francisco. The Ordinary Seaman. New York: Grove Press, 1998.
  • González, Rigoberto. Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.
  • Gutiérrez, Raquel. Breaking Up with Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Econo-Textual Objects, 2014.
  • Hudes, Quiara Alegría. Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2012.
  • Hudes, Quiara Alegría. The Happiest Song Plays Last. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2014.
  • Hudes, Quiara Alegría. Water by the Spoonful. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2012.
  • Islas, Arturo. The Rain God. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
  • Martí, José. “Our America.” In José Martí: Selected Writings. Translated by Esther Allen, 288–296. New York: Penguin Classics.
  • Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: The Revolution. New York: Grand Central, 2016.
  • Murray, Yxta Maya. Locas. New York: Grove Press, 1998.
  • Paredes, Américo. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958.
  • Rodríguez, Richard. Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
  • Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. The Squatter and the Don. New York: Modern Library Classics, 2004.
  • Santiago, Esmeralda. When I Was Puerto Rican. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1993.
  • Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.
  • Tobar, Héctor. The Tattooed Soldier. New York: Delphinium Books, 1998.
  • Valdez, Luis. Zoot Suit and Other Plays. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1992.
  • Villarreal, José Antonio. Pocho. New York: Anchor Books, 1970.