The 20th century in Latin America began, in literary terms, with the emergence of Modernism, which exerted enormous influence over both sides of the Atlantic. From then on, the literature of the region—at least the literature written in Spanish and Portuguese—has been on a long process of assimilation in favor of the best features of the universal tradition enriched with the specificities of Latin American culture and history. Impacted both by competing aesthetic trends and social and political upheaval, the literature of Latin America provides a unique place from which to observe the contradictions of the region, as well as to attempt to answer the major questions that the region poses. Some basic certitudes do not prevent one recurring question from coming up: Does a Latin American literature exist? The answer is more complex than it appears on the surface, but the truth is that the most significant and ambitious moments of that literature—Modernism, the Vanguards, and the celebrated boom of the novel in the 1960s—have been those in which Latin American writers have been recognized as belonging to a common literary space. A journey through fictional narrative, poetry, essays, and even a relatively new genre such as testimony can attest to the way in which Latin Americans see themselves and think of themselves, with their own national and regional specificities and, in contrast with the others, beyond the space of the region. In the last decade of the 20th century, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Latin America was no longer what it had been for thirty years. By then, revolutionary dreams, guerrillas, the long nights of dictatorships, and the recovery of democracy—just to mention a few of its most recognizable aspects—felt like a distant past. In this context, a new generation emerged in order to close out the 20th century, and beyond that, to begin the 21st. To read, even if it is from a bird’s eye view, the interval between the Modernists to the 21st-century generation is the aim of these pages.
Latin American literature is a broad and heterogeneous category composed of voices from many countries spanning two continents. In the United States, more attention has been given to Cuban, Chicano/a, and Central American literatures than to writers from other South American countries. This article tries to remedy this disparity by focusing on the presence and influence of literature from South American countries, among them Colombia, Peru, and Argentina. The Latin American Boom was one of the most important literary movements that introduced Latin American literature into the United States and the broader international scene. After the revolution of 1959, Cuba began to offer opportunities for writers and artists from all over Latin America who wanted to pursue their intellectual or artistic interests. One of the reasons the United States government established the Alliance for Progress was to counter Cuba’s influence on Latin American intellectuals. The insidious program Alliance for Progress had a darker side that supported repressive military regimes across Latin America that were responsible for the death, torture and disappearance of thousands of South American citizens. At the same time, it did facilitate the translation and publication of Latin American novels; making them available to the American public. As a result, the works of Colombian, Peruvian, Argentine and Chilean writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso, Manuel Puig, and Mario Vargas Llosa were published and widely read in the United States. South American literatures have developed a strong presence in the United States such as Andean literature and literature of exile. Since the 1980s, indigenous populations of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador have migrated legally or extra-legally to the United States, whether in search of better opportunities or to escape the violence of their home countries. These vibrant Andean populations have contributed to expanding the Andean Archipelago of literature. Similarly, high numbers of Argentines went into exile during the military dictatorship of 1976 to escape government violence and repression. Scholars such as Yossi Shain affirm that exiles expand the borders of the country by creating a diaspora that continues to interact with their compatriots in their home country and with those spread throughout the world. One example is Luisa Valenzuela, an Argentine writer, who continued to be committed to resisting the dictatorship while in exile. Her work is engaged with the process of writing, and how the exile experience influenced her work and her identity.
Born in the small Andean city of Andahuaylas on January 18, 1911, the Peruvian writer and anthropologist Jose María Arguedas put a dramatic end to his life on December 2, 1969, by committing suicide after a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with depression. At the time of his death in Lima, Arguedas was writing his most ambitious novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, in which the writer’s tortured chronicle of what ultimately came to be his last days stands in powerful counterpoint with a narrative set in the coastal port and boom town of Chimbote. Bilingual in Spanish and Quechua, Arguedas penned narrative fiction, poetry, and anthropological works bridging the predominantly criollo coast and the Andean hinterland. He was respected and admired as a writer in Peru since the publication of his first book, the short story collection Agua (1934), a watershed in Peruvian indigenismo. Broader recognition in Latin America came with Los ríos profundos (1958), a novel of formation whose narrator-protagonist is a memorable alter ego of the author himself. His ethnographic studies of peasant communities in the Central and Southern Central highlands, as well as his numerous translations of Quechua poetry and folktales, established Arguedas as a leading figure in the nascent field of Andean anthropology. Arguedas’s stature as both a writer and cultural icon has grown enormously in his home country and abroad since his demise. Along with the avant-garde poet César Vallejo and the socialist thinker José Carlos Mariátegui, Arguedas stands as an exemplar of the radical mestizo intellectuals who have played a decisive role in shaping modern Peruvian culture. Given the subject matter of his short stories, novels, and poems, Arguedas is commonly described as an indigenista writer. Arguedas spent his formative years in the Peruvian highlands, and endeavored to do justice in his fiction, poetry, and ethnological writings to the complexity of a rural hinterland in which a vast majority of the population was made up of Quechua-speaking peasants, whose worldview and cultural traditions permeated the views, tastes, and everyday lives of those who, like Arguedas’s own father, harbored racial prejudices. In the first decades of the 20th century, a growing concern about the so-called Indian question prompted an array of critical, political, and artistic responses, which came to be grouped under the umbrella term indigenismo. Visual representations of Indian peasants and Andean landscapes were prominent in paintings and frescoes by José Sabogal (1888–1956), who frequently collaborated with Amauta, the left-wing and avant-garde magazine founded by José Carlos Mariátegui in 1926. Arguedas’s favorite indigenista painter was Julia Codesido, whom he lavishly praised in Canto Kechwa (1938), a bilingual anthology of Quechua songs. Other journals and magazines, like Boletín Titikaka and La sierra, were also part of the indigenista ferment. In the longest of his Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (1928), Mariátegui, whom Arguedas credits with his embrace of socialist ideas while still a high-school student, advocated indigenismo as the driving force of a genuinely national literature, even though the actual number of novels and short-story collections set in the Peruvian highlands was still quite meager at the end of the 1920s.