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date: 19 January 2020

Spanish Language in Chicana/o Literature

Summary and Keywords

Spanish-language Chicano literary production is rich in tradition and scope. This article intends to provide a brief comprehensive summary of the Chicano literary representation of some of the most important writers and works written in Spanish. Most critics of Chicano literature will agree the Mexican American or Chicano had its symbolic birth in 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War. It is important, however, to begin by talking about this as a literary tradition that predates the war: Spanish colonization and Mexican independence from Spain are important in establishing an essential foundation for this literature. Representative Chicano literature in Spanish will be highlighted from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, with those from the second half of the 20th (1965 to 1990s) receiving more emphasis. It is during this period that Spanish-language Chicano literature offered its most important contributions: not only in the number of texts produced but more importantly in how this literature reflected the social and cultural manifestation of the Chicano ethos. (Note that the term “Mexican American literature” will be used to describe work leading up to the Chicano Movement, approximately 1965; “Chicano literature” will be used to identify the Chicano’s new post-1965 political and social consciousness.)

Keywords: Mexican American literature, Chicano literature, Spanish language, Southwest, corridos, Mexican Revolution, Chicano Movement, cultural nationalism, Chicanesque

According to Luis Leal, and other notable literary critics, the roots of Chicano literature can be traced to the Spanish colonial period starting in the 16th century and ending in 1821, the year Mexico gained its independence from Spain.1 Early Spanish explorers and missionaries who established Spain’s northern territory—what is now the Southwestern United States—wrote the first European representation of the flora and fauna of this “conquered area” and provided the earliest written works in the Spanish language. This early literary production was introduced by anonymous writers of popular drama who were represented in Spain’s initial exploration and conquest of the Southwest and by the countless number of explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and colonists who settled in this part of the world, leaving invaluable writings of Spain’s colonial period.

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s, Naufragios, and Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá’s, La historia de la Nueva México, are perhaps the most anthologized and studied works of the Spanish colonial Southwest and undoubtedly the ones that have influenced many writers and critics of Chicano literature. Naufragios chronicles Cabeza de Vaca’s eight-year journey through the American Southwest and parts of northern Mexico as a result of the failed Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to Florida. Cabeza de Vaca’s work narrated a detailed description of the lives of the American Indians he met during his extraordinary trek. What distinguishes Cabeza de Vaca’s crónica from that of other explorers is that in the process of meeting and living with a diverse group of the indigenous people, he empathized with their culture.

Another example of a colonial work that has captured the imagination of critics of Mexican American literature is Villagrá’s epic poem, La historia de la Nueva México (1610).2 Villagrá served as captain and legal officer in the Juan de Oñate expedition that crossed what is now El Paso, Texas, in 1598 to continue north and colonize what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico. The highly educated Villagrá studied at the University of Salamanca and participated with Juan de Oñate in the conquest and colonization of the territory’s indigenous people. Villagrá’s participation was recounted in La historia de la Nueva México, which narrates Oñate’s expedition that began in 1596 in Mexico City and concluded with the bloody encounter with the Acoma Pueblo people in 1599.

The work of Enrique Lamadrid, a scholar that specializes in the Chicano folklore of New Mexico, often provides insight into the representation of indigenous peoples and their oral traditions, specifically those from New Mexico. In his presentation of the “noble” versus the “ignoble savages” Lamadrid examines the early colonial plays, Los moros y cristianos, Los comanches, and the Indita de Cochiti.

The emergence of the Hispanic syncretism, culminating in the “noble” and “ignoble savage” to the “spiritual savage” is best reflected in Lamadrid’s examination of those links that culturally connected the Spanish with the natives, most of them based on the necessity to survive the austere realities of their colonies. For example, in dealing with regional disasters that endangered their survival in the new land (e.g., a drought), there would be a special saint/deity that would serve as an intermediary for both Spaniards and indigenous peoples to turn to for solace in their predicament. But the most important connection was their relationship with the land, which was the source of a deep spiritual value in both cultures.

The Spanish colonial period provides an important part of the background of Chicano literature because it initiates the Spanish-language tradition in the Southwestern colonial culture prior to Mexico’s independence from Spain. The Mexican period from 1821 to 1848 brings few cultural changes for the Mexican people who lived in the Southwest. This will drastically change when Anglo-American settlements were established and culminated in the United States defeating Mexico in 1848, thus initiating the Mexican American experience.

19th-Century Mexican American Literature (1848–1900s)

Critics of Chicano literature have agreed that 1848, the year that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed (ending the Mexican-American War), is the symbolic beginning of Mexican American literature.3 Given the choice to accept the new American government or maintain their loyalty to Mexico and leave the country, most Mexican Americans opted to stay, continuing to live their cultural lifestyle. As far as the contribution of Mexican American literature under the new government is concerned, the formally educated upper class were responsible for the first literary productions that dealt with this period of transition and accommodation. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, author of the first-known Mexican American novels Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) and The Squatter and the Don (1885), is one of the most-studied Mexican American writers of the 19th century.4 She wrote her novels in English. But Ruiz de Burton, like many other upper-class Mexican Americans in California, also produced written documents in Spanish. She wrote many letters to her dear friend don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, one of the most powerful and influential Californios of his time, and to José Matías Moreno, among other historical figures. Ruiz de Burton’s letters were collected and edited by Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita under the title Conflicts of Interest: The Letters of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, published in 2001.

But in reality, when one considers the impact the Spanish language had on Chicano literary history, it was the common folk—the working class—that provided the true spirit of the majority of the Mexican American population of the 19th century. Folklorist scholars Aurelio Espinoza, Juan Real, and Arthur Campa studied the oral traditions of Mexican Americans in New Mexico and Colorado, but their studies focused on the importance of the Spanish cultural traditions in their research. It was not until Américo Paredes, a native of Brownsville, Texas, came along that a scholar emphasized and validated the unique contribution of the Mexican American residents who lived in the US-Mexico border area. Paredes specialized in the study of the corrido, (defined as a narrated ballad) and claimed it as the folk base of Mexican American letters.5

Paredes’s landmark study of the “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez” in With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958), provided a significant contribution in understanding the life of the social bandit and the cultural conflicts that existed between Mexicans and Anglos in the American Southwest. He further expanded his research with his comprehensive study of corridos in A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border (1976) by analyzing a large number of corridos that represented the cultural sensibility of the people of south Texas (that in turn, personified all Mexican Americans of the Southwest). The corridos collected by Paredes dealt with a multiplicity of themes, including the significant economic contributions made by Mexican Americans in American history, as expressed in the “Corrido de Kiansis” and the “Corrido de la Pensilvania”; the plight of the social bandit in “El General Cortina” and “Corrido de Jacinto Treviño”; and trade and smuggling in the “Corrido de los tequileros,” among many other topics. A corrido of particular interest is “Rito García,” which presents the theme of the Mexican American who searches for justice and cultural refuge in Mexico, something he finds impossible to secure in the United States. García, however, will soon experience the cruel reality that Mexico, in fact, now considers him a foreigner: the Mexican authorities, far from sheltering him, mercilessly return him to Texas.

The importance of the Spanish language in the backgrounds of Mexican American literature is also manifested in the numerous and important Spanish-language periodicals that appeared throughout the Southwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries and in the New Mexico cuandos and the Californio testimonies. The cuandos are similar to the corrido because they narrated regional events but with less structure as the corrido (they lacked an introduction and a farewell), and the latter consisted of a large number of narratives collected by the Hubert H. Bancroft research team as a way to record the experience of the common Mexican American folk in 19th-century California. Several books have been published on the subject, and one of the most anthologized testimonies is that of “Apolinaria Lorenzana,” an orphan from Mexico who as a child came to California and served most of her life at the missions. Other testimonies will be written by powerful Californios such as don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who wrote a history of California in which he lamented the unfortunate fate of the Mexican American under US rule.

Perhaps the earliest novels written in Spanish is the one attributed to Eusebio Chacón, who published El hijo de la tempestad y Tras la tormenta la calma in 1892 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.6 Of equal importance is Eusebio’s first cousin, Felipe M. Chacón, an accomplished poet who published Obras de Felipe Maximiliano Chacón, ‘el cantor neomexicano’; poesía y prosa (1924), which includes the novelette Eustacio y Carlota, a highly sentimental story of a brother and sister whose parents died at a young age. The couple grew up with different families in distant geographic spaces. Fate reunited them as young adults, and unaware of their brother/sister relationship they fell in love and almost married until, fortunately, they found out the truth about their common lineage.

By the end of the century, a number of authors from New Mexico provided examples of poetry written in Spanish that continued to publish into the early 20th century. José M. Arrellano, Jesús María H. Alarid, Euletario Baca, and Felipe M. Chacón are some of the most representative poets. Chacón wrote poems full of romanticism and regional pride, as the ones written to his native Santa Fe:

  • Allí donde florecen de tu arcilla

  • Frutas y mieses, entre mil amores

  • bajo tu azul repleto de fragancia

  • Se ha nacido la cuna de mi infancia

and New Mexico, in celebrating its inclusion to the Union:

  • Por fin habéis logrado, suelo mío,

  • De lauros coronar tu altiva frente,

  • Alcanzando del cielo del estío

  • Una estrella gloriosa y esplendente

Also important is Vicente J. Bernal who wrote Las primicias (1916), a poetry collection that is half in English and half in Spanish. In both languages, the poems express the transition of moving from a Mexican cultural environment to an Anglo-American one, a concurrent theme of the period.

20th-Century Mexican American Literature (1900s–1950s)

As a result of the political turmoil of the early decades of the 20th century that led México to a bloody civil war, many Mexican nationals left their home country to escape persecution and the denial of their freedom of speech. A group of writers and journalists that came to the United States during this period contributed to the Mexican American literary productions as they settled in cities with large Mexican American populations. Four of these writers stand out: Adolfo Carrillo, Jorge Ulica, Leonor Villegas de Magnón, and Daniel Venegas.

Adolfo Carrillo was a Mexican journalist who criticized the government of Porfirio Díaz after Díaz took control of Mexico and forced then president Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada into exile. In 1885 Carrillo served four months in prison for his stance against the Díaz government and soon he, too, was driven out of Mexico: he first went to Spain, then to France, and eventually settled in San Francisco, California in 1887. Carrillo remained in California until 1910 when the Mexican Revolution ousted Díaz. He returned to California, however, in 1914 as a member of the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate but lost his privileged position due to his attacks on Victoriano Huerta’s ruthless government. That outcome turned out for the best, as Carrillo was able to travel through California in preparation for a book he was writing. The result was the short-story collection Cuentos californianos. The collection included a number of stories dealing with re-creations of legends found in mission manuscripts. The collection did not include a specific year of publication, but critics believe it to be in the early 1920s, based on Carrillo’s travels through California previous to 1922.

Jorge Ulica, the pen name of Julio G. Arce, is another journalist that was forced to leave Mexico due to his criticism of the government’s censorship policies. Ulica, a native of Guadalajara, was educated as a pharmacist, but his love for journalism led him to start several newspapers in Mexico and in San Francisco, where he settled after being forced to leave his country because of his liberal political ideology. In 1915, he founded La Crónica (later renamed Hispano América) to serve, according to the critic Juan Rodríguez, as a forum for the Spanish-speaking people of the area. The newspaper was so popular, writes Rodríguez, “que hasta la actualidad ha gozado de mayor éxito entre la colonia latina de la Bahía de San Francisco.”7 Under the title Crónicas diabólicas, Ulica wrote short sketches describing life in the San Francisco Bay Area and commenting on the social concerns of the community. Many of these dealt with Mexican assimilation to the dominant culture, which he criticized using satire and humor. Important pieces include “La Peste Spanish,” where Spanish-speaking people are seen as a health threat to society, “Do You Speak Pocho” and “Por no hablar ‘English,’” where the loss of Spanish is a concern to fellow compatriots. For example, in the former story, Ulica writes: “El pocho se está extendiendo de una manera alarmante. Me refiero al dialecto que hablan muchos de los ‘spanish’ que vienen a California y que es un revoltijo, cada día más enredado, de palabras españolas, vocablos ingleses, expresiones populares y terribe ‘slang,’”8 The latter story is a mishmash of English wrongly translated by Mexicans who supposedly know the language and in the process almost prompting unnecessary surgery on a woman for making doctors believe that the patient had a miscarriage.9 Rodríguez collected Ulica’s short stories under the title Crónicas diabólicas (1982) and wrote the critical introduction to the text.

Leonor Villegas de Magnón offers an important personal experience of the immigrant of the time. Magnón was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and lived on both sides of the US-Mexico border. She came from a well-to-do family and was educated in the United States but lived in Mexico City when she married a Mexican military man. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, she sympathized with the Madero government and the country’s need for social reforms. She was concerned with the extreme poverty in Mexico and the sense of abandonment that its indigenous population suffered. When she returned to her old home in Laredo, she devoted herself to a life of social service by founding the Cruz Blanca in Laredo, Texas, in 1913. Villegas de Magnón’s, La rebelde (published as The Rebel, English version, in 1994) is an autobiographical work that talks about her world vision and her commitment to the betterment of her fellow man. She summarizes the purpose of her life narrative in the following way:

Commanded by the dead, and wishing to do justice to the worthy nurses and brave women who so patriotically defended their country, the Rebel watches the outcome of the years that flamed at white heat in the fiery crucible of the Mexican Revolution.

One can argue that Daniel Venegas is one of the most acclaimed writers of early-20th-century Mexican American literature. Not much is known about Venegas’s life, but his Las aventuras de don Chipote, o cuando lo pericos mamen (1928) is considered one of the first novels written in Spanish that deals with Mexican immigration to the United States. Similar to Ulica’s work, Venegas also uses satire and humor to present his social criticism. In picaresque style, the narrator presents a critical view of the social and working conditions facing Mexican laborers, not only in the United States (where he suffers discrimination and humiliation) but also in Mexico, the origin of his distress. Venegas informs readers (using the narrator’s omniscient voice) that the country suffers from such extreme poverty and helplessness that many of its citizens are forced to look for better economic opportunities elsewhere. The fundamental message that Venegas emphasizes is that the imagined economic paradise they envisioned was a fallacy. What they did find was exploitation and injustice. Toward the conclusion of the story, don Chipote, the protagonist who left his small village in Mexico to find wealth as promised by his compadre, realizes that justice is served only “cuando los pericos mamen,” meaning, never at all. Sadly, don Chipote’s return to Mexico did not translate into a promising future. On the contrary, he finds himself in worse shape than when he left, since his wife sold all their worldly possessions when she left her village to search for her husband in the United States.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the period of transition and integration was almost complete, since most Mexican American writers used English in their creative narrative. Some of the most important ones of the first half of the century are Cleofas Jaramillo, Jovita González, María Cristina Mena, and Fray Angélico Chávez. The first two were folkloric and stressed the Spanish cultural tradition as part of their identity. José de la Luz Sáenz and Américo Paredes are two representative writers of the period who wrote in Spanish.

Sáenz, born in south Texas, in Rialitos, served as an educator most of his life and was deeply involved in the social and political life of his region.10 In fact, he was one of the founding members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and actively wrote for the organization’s newsletter. He was a soldier in World War I and wrote a memoir about his experiences in the conflict. His autobiographical book, Los méxico-americanos en la Gran Guerra, (y su contingente en pró de la democracia, la humanidad y la justicia) (1933), is a valuable piece of work that deals with Sáenz’s military activity from his entry into the army, his fighting in Germany, and to his return to south Texas. Perhaps what is most important is that literary critics consider him to be a precursor of Chicano Movement literature, as his writing possesses many of the characteristics associated with the movement, including an emphasis on cultural nationalism (where indigenous and mestizo pride are stressed), social protest, and self-determinism.

Américo Paredes, also from south Texas, is considered one of the most important and fundamental folklorists of Mexican American studies. His work on the Southwest corrido, is of utmost importance. As far as his creative writing contribution is concerned, his narratives and poetry are particularly noteworthy. In 1937 he published Cantos de adolescencia, a book of poetry he wrote as a young man in his late teens and early twenties.11 He was an able writer in both languages and published Between Two Worlds (1991), which includes poems written between 1934 and 1970. The general themes of the collection deal with the author’s experience of living on both sides of the US-Mexico border and his experiences as a soldier in Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia. A good number of the poems are written in Spanish, including “Alma pocha,” a piece that laments the pocho (a Mexican American who is accused of losing his Mexican culture, including his ability to speak Spanish) being seen as a stranger in his own country, and “Sueños del sur,” where he celebrates México by describing Yucatán as “tierra de dioses, de golondrinas y del faisán”12 and Mazatlán, a coastal city “donde las rítmicas pescadoras vienen y van.”13

20th-Century Chicano Literature (1960s–1990s)

The first half of the 1960s features the literary production of Sabine Ulibarrí, a poet and short story writer from Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. Ulibarrí wrote several books of poetry, two of which are Al cielo se sube a pie (1961), published in Mexico, and Amor y Ecuador (1966), published in Ecuador. Although acclaimed as a poet, Ulibarrí will eventually be more celebrated as a short story writer known for the nostalgic and regionalist nature of his literary style. His Tierra Amarilla: Stories of New Mexico/Cuentos de Nuevo Mexico (1964) is set in his native northern New Mexico region and offers a realistic and romanticized representation of his people’s way of life. The influence of Latin American authors is evident in many of his stories. Of particular interest is “El hombre sin nombre,” where he combines existential concerns with glimpses of magical realism.

With the emergence of the Chicano Movement, beginning in the mid-1960s, Mexican American literature—now identified as “Chicano literature” due to its civil rights agenda—expanded at an accelerated pace. Its rich and prolific literary production promoted cultural nationalism, which helped Chicano literature to self-determine its place in mainstream society. Emphasis was placed on studying Chicano history and culture, specifically its cultural ties with the Chicano’s mestizaje, which embraced Spanish, Mexican, and indigenous elements. It was a literature of urgency presented in various linguistic manifestations, including English, code switching (the use of Spanish and English in the same sentence), caló (specialized language of a specific group within the culture), and Spanish. This openness in the use of language led to a resurgence of the use of Spanish in Chicano literature, a language that had maintained its spoken function within Mexican American society but that had lost ground in its written representation. Newly founded Chicano literary journals, most notably El Grito (1968, Berkeley, California) and Con Safos (1968, Los Angeles, California) helped to promote this literature to Spanish-speaking readers. A selected number of the most representative writers of the period, as well as key fundamental texts written in Spanish, are discussed. Other texts in which Spanish is not the primary language will also be mentioned, since the Spanish they do utilize plays an integral part in the cultural manifestations of these works.

English is the primary language of choice in most of the published poetry of this period, but Spanish will always be present by the use of specific words or phrases to highlight its Chicano Mexican culture. Alurista, perhaps the most important and celebrated poet from the Chicano Movement, published Floricanto en Aztlán (1971) using bilingualism (English and Spanish) and code switching in the bulk of his work. Most of the poems include titles in Spanish (e.g., “libertad sin lágrimas,” “las canicas y mis callos,” “el sarape de mi personalidad,” “bendito sea tu vientre”) to then proceed and write entire sections in either Spanish or English. An added feature of Alurista’s linguistic selection is his use of indigenous languages, primarily Náhuatl, to highlight the Chicano’s connection to his pre-Columbian cultural background.

Ricardo Sánchez, another important poet from the Chicano Movement, will also use both Spanish and English in his poetry; however, he chooses to write a number of poems entirely in Spanish. In his Canto y grito mi liberación (y lloro mis desmadrazgos . . .) (1971), for example, he uses Spanish in poems that are deeply personal, including “Recuerdo,” which expresses his love and admiration for his father, and “Jacinto Treviño,” where Sánchez celebrates the building of a Chicano school on the grounds where the Texas Rangers used to kill Chicanos.

The majority of the poets from this period followed this trend, including Abelardo Delgado with Bajo el sol de Aztlán (1969) and Neftalí de León, who in his book Chicano Poet (1973) also wrote poems in Spanish; however, unlike Sánchez, he provides English translations to his editions. Angela de Hoyos goes a little further; her celebrated Arise, Chicano! and Other Poems (1975) is a complete bilingual edition of her book. Sergio Elizondo’s, Perros y antiperros: Una épica chicana (1972), Tino Villanueva’s Hay Otra Voz Poems (1972), Miguel Méndez’s Los criaderos humanos (1975), and Margarita Cota-Cárdenas’s, Noches despertando inConciencias (1976), are examples of books of poetry written in Spanish.

The theater production of this period, like poetry, had a strong Spanish representation in the titles of plays (nine of the ten plays included in El Teatro Campesino’s Actos, are in Spanish: “Las dos caras del patroncito,” “Los vendidos,” “No saco nada de la escuela,” to name a few) but not necessarily in the complete body of the text. Like poetry, the use of Spanish words and phrases throughout the plays promotes a strong cultural connection to the Chicano’s Mexican culture. As far as drama written entirely in Spanish is concerned, Fausto Avendaño’s, El corrido de California (1979), is one of the few published in that language. It is a historical play that focuses on the social changes experienced by a Mexican family in Alta California during the American invasion of 1846.

Chicano writers who wrote in Spanish during the 1960s and 1970s would utilize narrative for their mode of self-expression, leaving in its path an impactful and profound legacy among readers and literary critics. Because of the rich representation of its iconic Chicano writers—including Sergio Elizondo, Miguel Méndez, Tomás Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa, Alejandro Morales, Aristeo Brito, Margarita Cota-Cárdenas, Juan Bruce Novoa, Ricardo Aguilar, among others—this period should be considered the golden age of Chicano literature written in Spanish.14

Rivera’s . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971)—some identify it as a novel, others as a collection of short stories—provides a realistic view of the Chicano migrant workers who leave south Texas and travel to various parts of the United States following the agricultural harvest seasons. The fragmented structure of the storyline presents a wide variety of themes dealing with the sense of hopelessness suffered by these people. Their dismal economic situation seems to direct them to a perpetual state of “cuando lleguemos,” which is a sense of futility that comes from an inability to get anywhere in life. Hinojosa’s Estampas del valle y otras obras (1973) and Klail City y sus alrededores (1976) also take place in south Texas but present a more detailed account of the people that populate the region. Narrated with humor and wit, the tone of the anecdotes may seem less fatalistic than Rivera’s, but that does not change the dismal economic conditions that Hinojosa’s characters suffer in their daily lives. Hinojosa’s work, Klail City y sus alrededores, holds the distinction of winning the prestigious Premio Casa de las Américas literary award (Cuba), which recognized Chicano literature at the international level. As opposed to Rivera, who published a limited amount of creative work, Hinojosa wrote additional novels that expanded his Klail City regional south Texas spaces.

A notable novel is Aristeo Brito’s El diablo en Texas (1976). Brito’s literary production is minimal: he did not produce any further novels or collections of short stories. But this work, a story that presents a profound and surreal vision of life in Texas, gained popular acclaim at the time and was the topic of literary studies and dissertations.

Alejandro Morales’s Caras viejas y vino nuevo (1975) and La verdad sin voz (1979), are two novels that were published by the prestigious Joaquín Mortiz editorial house located in Mexico City. The first novel created controversy, since Morales dealt with the crude and stark realities of a Chicano barrio, which was described as full of violence, drugs, and perversion; it was an unromanticized image of the barrio that cultural nationalists wanted to avoid. The second novel is also problematic because it depicts a Chicano professor whose insecurity stops him from helping his own people. In contrast to the professor’s passive behavior, his Anglo counterpart—a socially committed doctor—becomes the martyr and hero of the people of a Mathis, Texas barrio.

The novels published by Rivera, Hinojosa, Brito, and Morales became instant Chicano classics and are still highly regarded in Chicano literary history. But perhaps one of the most celebrated and studied Spanish-language novels from this period is Miguel Méndez’s Peregrinos de Aztlán (1974). Even though originally Méndez self-published his novel, it nonetheless gained immediate international fame. The baroque style of his narrative, which includes the use of caló and yaqui words, as well as a unique structure, intrigued and fascinated readers.

Saúl Sánchez’s Hay Plesha Lichans Tu Di Flac (1977) and Sergio Elizondo’s Libro para batos y chavalas chicanas (1977) are short-story/poetry collections that present a grounded vision of Chicano life. Their collections contrast with Sabine Ulibarrí’s Mi abuela fumaba puros y otros cuentos de Tierra Amarilla (1977): this is because the author continued to provide regional sketches of his native New Mexico that included a mixture of nostalgic and realistic portrayals of his people.

It is vital to stress the importance that new journals in the 1970s played in promoting the Spanish language in Chicano literature. These include De Colores (1973, Albuquerque, New Mexico), Revista Chicano Riqueña (1973, Indiana; later renamed Americas Review, Houston, Texas), Caracol (1974, San Antonio, Texas), Xalmán (1970s Santa Barbara, California), and most importantly, La Palabra (1979, Phoenix/Tempe, Arizona): the latter journal made it imperative to publish all their content exclusively in Spanish.15

In the 1980s and 1990s, Chicano Movement writers who wrote in Spanish continued to produce excellent novels that represented the Chicano Southwest. Rolando Hinojosa continued to expand his south Texas saga in Mi querido Rafa (1984), Claros varones de Belken (1986) and Los amigos de Becky (1991); Miguel Méndez’s sustained his mystical world of the Sonoran desert region in El sueño de Santa María de las Piedras (1986), and Los muertos también cuentan (1995); and Sergio Elizondo maintained its readers intrigued with Muerte en una estrella (1984) and Suruma (1990). Méndez also published Entre letras y ladrillos: autobiografía novelada (1996), a deep and insightful piece that talks about his extraordinary journey in the academic world. Méndez, an autodidact and construction worker, did not obtain a formal education. His motivation to succeed eventually led him to become a celebrated writer who taught literature and creative writing at Pima Community College and at the University of Arizona, where he was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1984.

Other important novels of this period include Alejandro Morales’s Reto en el paraíso (1983) and Margarita Cota-Cárdenas’s Puppet (1985). With Reto en el paraiso, Morales contributed to the emerging Chicano historical novel and to bilingualism, as roughly half the novel is written in Spanish. This is a breaking point for Morales for his future novels will be written mostly in English, a shift soon followed by other writers. It is important to mention Erlinda Gonzales-Berry’s Paletitas de guayaba (1991), a novel about a Mexican American woman who discovers her chicanidad in Mexico, whom she deeply loves. Three equally important but lesser known novels are Reynaldo Ruiz’s Encuentro con Estanislao Eckermann (1989), Juan Estevan Arellano’s Inocencio: Ni pica ni escarda, pero siempre se come el mejor elote (1992), and Saúl Cuevas’s Barrioztlán (1999).

Sabine Ulibarrí and Miguel Méndez continued with their prolific short-story production. Ulibarrí wrote Primeros encuentros (1982), Pupurupú: Cuentos de niños (1987), El Gobernador Glu Glu y otros cuentos (1988), El Cóndor and Other Stories (1989), and Corre el rio (1992), collections that were published in bilingual editions; Méndez published Tata Casehua y otros cuentos (1980), De la vida y del folclore de la frontera (1986), Cuentos y ensayos para reir y aprender (1988), and Que no mueran los sueños (1991).

Several short-story collections that merit attention are Sergio Elizondo’s Rosa, la flauta (1980), Ricardo Aguilar’s Madreselva en flor (1987), Juan Bruce Novoa’s Manuscrito de origen (1995), and Fausto Avendaño’s, Sueño de siempre (1996), the last three published in Mexico. Novoa’s work includes six short stories that provide excellent examples of the Mexican literature influences in his work and his sophisticated use of the Spanish language. He is also influenced by Mexican onda writers and their use of 1960s popular rock music and revolutionary sexuality: this influence is evident in most of his stories. Avendaño’s collection also exudes a certain sophistication, since it experiments with structure and delves into the surreal and fantastical. A story worth mentioning is “El forastero,” which takes place in the agricultural fields of Brawley, California. Like Novoa’s stories, it involves intricate love affairs but with less eroticism. This story deals with the fantastical: the frustrated woman of the story experiences a love affair with “el forastero” (the foreigner), who turns out to be the devil.

It is important to include the work of Jim Sagel and Justo Alarcón, two authors whose literary production is identified as “Chicanesque,” a term coined by Donaldo Urioste and Francisco A. Lomelí to include works from non-Chicanos who write about subjects relevant to Chicano life. Alarcón, originally from Spain, published the novels Crisol (1984) and Los hijos de la llorona (1986) and the short-story collection Chulifeas fronteras (1981), among others. Jim Sagel (native of Colorado), a prolific writer, published books of poetry and short stories, mostly presented in bilingual editions, including Hablando de brujas y la gente de antes: Poemas del Río Chama (1981), El Santo Queso: Cuentos (1990), and Más que no Love It: Cuentos (1991). His collection, Tunomás Honey (1981), won the prestigious Premio Casa de las Américas in 1981, and award previously won by Hinojosa, thus solidifying Chicano literature’s place on the international scene.

In poetry most of the published works continued the use of Spanish words and phrases in their poems, thus nourishing their cultural ties with Mexican culture. Some poets would continue to use Spanish in the titles of their poems but use primarily English in the content, as Evangelina Vigil does in “Sin ganas en primer lugar.” Others such as Ana Castillo included poems written entirely in Spanish, again to voice the author’s private world, as expressed in “Si acaso,” “Me dices,” and “Cartas” from her collection Women Are Not Roses (1984). The same can be said of Gloria Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) in the poetry sections of her book.

The following are excellent examples of poetry books written entirely in Spanish. One of them is by the Mexican-born Lucha Corpi, who came to California as a young adult and published Palabras de medianoche (1980), which expressed the trials and tribulations of immigrating to another country. Tino Villanueva’s Crónica de mis años peores (1987) uses poetry in an autobiographical work about his life growing up in a difficult environment in Texas. Francisco X. Alarcón, one of the most prolific of the new poets who writes in Spanish, wrote De amor oscuro (1991) and Cuerpo en llamas (1992), poetry collections that are highly influenced by Mexican, Latin American, and Spanish authors, especially Federico García Lorca, whose haunting voice permeates many of Alarcon’s poems. Gina Valdés, like Alarcón, would write mostly in Spanish. Some of her work includes Puentes y fronteras: Coplas chicanas (1982) and Comiendo lumbre (1986). Colorado native Gloria Treviño, who lived and worked most of her life in California, wrote I Used to Be a Superwoman (1994) in Spanish but retained an English-language title. In her collection, Treviño writes of the conflicts of being a socially conscious Chicana who struggles to satisfy her cultural and academic roles to perfection, a demand that only a “superwoman” can meet.

21st-Century Chicano Literature: 2000s to the Present

Unfortunately, in the first two decades of the 21st century, there has been a paucity of Chicano works written in Spanish. Some possible reasons can be considered here. First, the sense of urgency to promote a Chicano cultural nationalism has abated due to the diverse and more complex social and political circumstances of our 21st-century reality. The second reason, closely tied to the first, is that those pioneering writers who made important innovations to Spanish-language writing in Chicano literature have either shifted to English as their preferred written language (as in the case of Alejandro Morales) or have simply stopped producing creative works. Another reality, a difficult one to face, is the deaths of some of the most eminent writers who used Spanish in their narrative: Tomás Rivera, Juan Bruce Novoa, Ricardo Aguilar, Sabine Ulibarrí, Miguel Méndez, and Francisco X. Alarcón.

As far as the literary production of the period, Morales did return briefly to writing in Spanish by publishing Pequeña nación (2005), a work that includes two short stories and a novella named after the title of the book. His interest in history, the realities of the barrio, and the surreal always prevail in his stories. For her part, Margarita Cota-Cárdenas wrote Santuarios del corazón [Sanctuaries of the heart] (2005), a novel that deals with personal sanctuaries that affect those that feel a sense of social entrapment. Before he passed away in 2015, Miguel Méndez published the novel El circo que se perdió en el desierto (2002) and a collection of short stories and essays entitled Cuentos y ensayos para reir y aprender (2002) and Camilo José Cela: Entre sahuaros y nopales (2002): this latter is unique for it is a hybrid text that includes poetry and essays written in Spanish.16

Key collections of short stories include Rosaura Sanchez’s Entró y se sentó y otros cuentos [He walked in and sat down and other stories] (2000); Alfonso Rodríguez’s La otra frontera (2000), and Alicia Alarcón’s La migra me hizo los mandados (2002). The last two highlight the never-ending theme of the border and its importance in the Chicano ethos. David Muñoz and Saúl Cuevas are two authors from Phoenix, Arizona, who have contributed to this corpus of literature. Muñoz has published extensively on various themes, including nostalgic remembrances of Mexico, as presented in México de mis recuerdos (2005). Cuevas is a remarkably experimental and cutting-edge writer who published a collection of short stories, Ensueños (cuentos i estampas) (2003) and Verde (2015), the award-winning novel of the Premio Nacional de Narrativa Chicana en Español, among other works. Both works use experimental language and present a more complex vision of what it means to live in the borderlands.

In poetry, Francisco X. Alarcón continued to be productive and published Sonetos a la locura y otras penas (2001), Del otro lado de la noche (2002); and Ce uno one: Poemas para el Nuevo Sol/Poems for the New Sun (2010). Others important writers include Alfonso Rodríguez, who wrote a number of books of poetry, including Polvo en la luz (2001), a collection that reflects on philosophical questions and universal tensions, including the linear and cyclical representations of time and the controversial and artificial demarcations of borders; also important is Guillermo Gómez-Peña, an experimental writer who uses multi-language representations to highlight his narrative, poetry, and performances. This is a literary characteristic present in all of Goméz-Peña’s productions, but Bitácora del cruce: Textos poéticos para accionar, ritos fronterizos, videografitis, y otras rolas y roles (2006), published in Mexico, is one of his works written entirely in Spanish.

The Future of Chicano Literature Written in Spanish

As the Chicano and Mexican population increases in the United States, so will the role of the Spanish language in American culture. Without any doubt, Spanish speaking will continue to flourish in the United States. This will be the case not only because of the proximity to Mexico and Latin American countries (thus making it possible for many generations of Chicano and Mexicans to perpetuate the culture of their antepasados) but because many non-Hispanics/Latinos are also learning it: either to better understand the diverse cultural world they live in or to exploit its economic benefits. With a high number of potential Spanish-speaking readers, Spanish language in Chicano literature should thrive, as will a new generation of Chicanos who choose Spanish as their language of creative expression.

For the time being, however, that optimism should be placed on hold. Even though the number of Spanish speakers has grown tremendously, the literary production of Chicano literature in Spanish has drastically decreased in the 2000s and 2010s. The cause of this low productivity is not due to a lack of readership, as there are many Spanish-speaking people reading translated Chicano texts originally written in English by celebrated Chicano writers including Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, Alejandro Morales’s The Brick People, Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God, to name only a few iconic titles. Publishers are clearly taking advantage of the success of these acclaimed works and have decided not to promote the work of new authors who choose to write and publish their works in Spanish. In that sense, these writers will have to rely on grassroots literary presses to publish their work—an option used by 1960s and 1970s Chicano Movement writers.

To reiterate a few observations concerning the Spanish language in Chicano literature, it is safe to say that English has been the language of choice for most Chicano writers, and most of their literary production is written in that language. But it is important to note that the use of the Spanish language (be it a word, a phrase, or a simple sentence) seems to be ever-present in most Chicano written works. In this sense, the Spanish language serves a fundamental cultural necessity in the overall essence of the creative writer’s voice.

As far as genre is concerned, poetry, the novel, and the short story far outnumber the production of plays, essays, or autobiographical works. Many of the celebrated pioneering writers of the 1960s and 1970s who used Spanish in their work are slowly fading into obscurity. There is a need for more literary anthologies to be published, along the lines of Tino Villanueva’s Chicanos: Antología histórica y literaria (1980); La voz urgente: Antología de literatura chicana en español (1995), edited by Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez; Literatura Chicana, 1965–1995: An Anthology in Spanish, English, and Caló, edited by Manuel de Jesús Hernández-G and David W. Foster; Nicolás Kanellos’s Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States (2001), and Ricardo Aguilar-Melantzón’s Cuento chicano del siglo XX (2006), to stimulate a growth and interest in this literature. The same can be said of the need to increase the number of literary journals, such as Ventana Abierta (Santa Barbara, CA; founded by Luis Leal and Victor Fuentes and now edited by Francisco A. Lomelí and Sara Poot Herrera) and Puentes: Revista méxico-chicana de literatura cultura y arte (Tempe, AZ, founded an edited by Jesús Rosales) to continue to promote and publish authors who desire to express themselves in Spanish.

Chicano literature is a relatively young literature in the annals of American literature; yet, it enjoys a rich Spanish colonial background and is deeply rooted in Mexican cultural traditions. Its humble Mexican American folkloric existence initiated with the corridos in the second half of the 19th century and slowly transitioned in the early 20th century. It came of age with the Chicano Movement and matured in the last decades of the 20th. The 21st century will undoubtedly produce extraordinary works that will reflect the diverse and multicultural reality of the postmodern Chicano of the future.

Further Reading

Aguilar, Ricardo, ed. Cuento chicano del siglo XX. El Paso, TX: University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Languages and Linguistics, 2006.Find this resource:

Arellano, Anselmo F. Los pobladores nuevomexicanos y su poesía, 1889–1950. Albuquerque, NM: Pajarito Publications, 1976.Find this resource:

Calderón, Héctor. Narratives of Greater Mexico: Essays on Chicano Literary History, Genre, and Borders. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Chacón, Eusebio. El hijo de la tempestad; Tras la tormenta la calma: Dos novelitas originales. Santa Fe, NM: El Boletín Popular, 1892.Find this resource:

Cota-Cárdenas, Margarita. Noches despertando inConciencias. Tucson, AZ: Scorpion Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “Chicano Literature in Spanish: Root and Content.” PhD diss., University of New Mexico, 1978.Find this resource:

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. Paletitas de Guayaba. Albuquerque, NM: El Norte Publications, 1991.Find this resource:

Herrera, Spencer, ed. Before/Beyond Borders: An Anthology of Chicano/a Literature. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2010.Find this resource:

Herrera-Sobek, María, ed. Reconstructing a Chicano/a Literary Heritage: Hispanic Colonial Literature of the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Hinojosa, Rolando. Klail City y sus alrededores. Havana, Cuba: Casa de las Américas, 1976.Find this resource:

Kanellos, Nicolás, ed. The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Leal, Luis. Aztlán y México: Perfiles literarios e históricos. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Martín-Rodríguez, Manuel M. La voz urgente: Antología de literatura chicana en español. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Fundamentos, 1995.Find this resource:

Méndez, Miguel. Peregrinos de Aztlán. Tucson, AZ: Editorial Peregrinos, 1974.Find this resource:

Morales, Alejandro. “Visión panorámica de la literatura mexicoamericana hasta el boom de 1966.” PhD diss., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1975.Find this resource:

Paredes, Américo. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Rebolledo, Tey Diana, and María Teresa Márquez, eds. Women’s Tales from the New Mexico WPA: La Diabla a Pie. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Rivera, Tomás. . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra. Berkeley, CA: Editorial Justa, 1971.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, Del Pino, Salvador. La novela chicana escrita en español: Cinco autores comprometidos. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Sánchez, Rosaura. Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonios. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Ulibarrí, Sabine. Tierra Amarilla: Cuentos de Nuevo México. Quito, Ecuador: Editorial Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, 1964.Find this resource:

Ulica, Jorge. Crónicas diabólicas, ed. Juan Rodríguez. San Diego, CA: Maize Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Venegas, Daniel. Las aventuras de don Chipote (o cuando los pericos mamen). Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Villanueva, Tino. Antología histórica y literaria. México City, Mexico: Fondo de CulturaEconómica, 1980.Find this resource:

Villanueva, Tino. Crónica de mis años peores. La Jolla, CA: Lalo Press, 1987.Find this resource:


(1.) Luis Leal divides Chicano literary history into five periods: (1) the Hispanic period (up to 1821); (2) the Mexican period (1821–1848); (3) the Transition period (1848–1910); (4) the Interaction period (1910–1942); and (5) the Chicano period (1942 to present). See “Periodización de la literatura chicana.”

(2.) For an in-depth study of Villagrá and of his epic poem see the critical work of the Manuel M. Martín- Rodríguez.

(3.) In Literatura chicana: Texto y Contexto/Chicano Literature: Text and Context (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), Tomás Ybarra-Frausto and Joseph Sommers, for example, have indicated “that the Mexican War of 1846–1848 is a historical point of departure for the development of a Chicano literature” (xxiv). Américo Paredes, in his seminal essay “The Folk Base of Chicano Literature” argues that Chicano literature emerged as a result of the cultural conflict between mexicanos and Anglo-Americans expressed through 18th-century Southwest corridos.

(4.) See Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita’s critical editions of Burton’s two novels published by Arte Público Press.

(5.) Vicente T. Mendoza’s study of the Mexican corrido provides an excellent source to compare Paredes’s corridos of the US-Mexico border with the corridos from Mexico.

(6.) An excellent study of Eusebio Chacon’s work can be found in A. Gabriel Meléndez and Francisco A. Lomelí’s The Writings of Eusebio Chacón (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

(7.) That currently has enjoyed major success among the Latino neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area (my translation).

(8.) The pocho form of speech is spreading alarmingly. I am referring to the dialect that many of the 'Spanish' who come to California speak, which is a mishmash, each day more complicated, of Spanish and English words, popular expressions and terrible 'slang' (my translation).

(9.) Other short stories dealing with the Spanish language include “Redactor del Papel Spanish,” “Los Parladores de ‘Spanish,’” and “No hay que hablar en Pocho.”

(10.) Suárez wrote a biographical manuscript titled “Yo ‘Omnia mea mecum porto’ “ in which he voices—in Spanish—many of the Chicano Movement literary characteristics, including a strong sense of cultural determinism and respect for the Mexican American’s indigenous past.

(11.) B. V. Olguín and Omar Vásquez Barbosa published a new edition of Américo Paredes’s Cantos de adolescencia. In their edition, titled Cantos de adolescencia [Songs of Youth] (1932–1937), (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2007), Olguín and Barbosa wrote a literary introduction and provided the first-ever English translation of the original Spanish poems.

(12.) Land of gods, of swallows and of the pheasant (my translation).

(13.) Where the swaying fishing boats come and go (my translation).

(14.) In La novela chicana escrita en español: Cinco autores comprometidos (Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual Press, 1982), Salvador Rodríguez del Pino studies the work of Tomás Rivera, Miguel Méndez, Alejandro Morales, Aristeo Brito, and Rolando Hinojosa, five of the most important writers of Chicano Movement literature who wrote in Spanish.

(15.) The celebrated journal Casa de las Américas (Cuba) dedicated an issue to Chicano literature: “Presencia Chicana” (July–September, 2008). All the critical and creative writing selections were published in Spanish.

(16.) Miguel Méndez’s fiction caught the attention of Camilo José Cela, the Spanish 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature winner. In 1987, Cela spent a month in Méndez’s house in Tucson learning about the Arizonian desert and the Southwest in preparation for his book Cristo versus Arizona (1988). Mendez’s Camilo José Cela: Entre sahuaros y nopaleras (2002) is a self-published book that deals with his personal experience with Cela.