A friend recently asked me what Latino literature I would recommend that would broaden her understanding of Latino experiences in the US. She enjoyed the now-classic The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, but what should she pick up next? A few older classics (The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Esmeralda Santiago’s books) immediately came to mind as well as exciting work in community theatre (Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino) and seminal, more theoretical texts of Chicana Feminism (Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza and the works of Cherrie Moraga). After a bit more brainstorming, the following list evolved. Also, there are many existing lists out there of Latino books that I haven’t gotten to yet, but they might be of interest.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)–the NYTimes bestseller is a slim, easy to read volume of poetic vignettes that tell a coming-of-age story about a Chicana girl, growing up in Chicago. It’s so easy to read that it’s often assigned reading in middle and high school (which surprises me given some of the intense experiences described by the protagonist). Cisneros uses some codeswitching, humor, and incredible details that make the vignettes memorable and illuminate experiences of Chicano youth as they establish their identity within U.S. society.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas (1967)–in one of the earlier novel-memoirs by a Latino, like Cisneros, Thomas tells a coming-of-age story about growing up in Spanish Harlem as an Afro-Latino of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent. In contrast to The House on Mango Street, this text uses harsher language and is grittier, more explicitly considering violent and criminal themes–it was actually banned in some states and schools because of this content. Additionally, the identity struggles differ in how Thomas navigates prejudice from both a Latin-Caribbean heritage and an African-American physical appearance. Besides this well-known book, Thomas was also a poet and is considered one of the pioneers of spoken word poetry (more about this on the PBS Independent Lens accompanying webpage).
…And The Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomas Rivera (1971)–also comprised of vignettes told from multiple perspectives, this book focuses on the experiences of migrant farm workers in the 1940s and 1950s in the border region. Few in the U.S. are familiar with the history of the bracero program, importing Mexican workers to farms in the U.S., mere decades after a significant repatriation (aka deportation) program during the Great Depression. And this text sheds light on the miserable working and living conditions, extreme vulnerability of such workers, and the impact of such circumstances on younger generations. I didn’t find the work as satisfying a read as some others on this list, but it is a great way to learn about Chicano social justice issues and the types of issues Cesar Chavez was working so furiously to address.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Álvarez (1991)–like Diaz, Alvarez tells the stories of individuals with Dominican ancestry, but this novel centers on female characters. It traces the differing experiences of assimilation among four sisters while engaging a narrative structure inspired by Aristotle. For me, the most interesting aspects of the work are how it engages with Dominican history and presents the story in three parts, reverse chronologically.
Contemporary Novels & Short Story Collections
Drown (1996), This is How You Lose Her (2012) by Junot Diaz–these two collections of short stories blew my mind the first time I read them, not just for the Latino-specific experiences of Diaz’s Dominican subjects but also for his narrative flair. Diaz channels his protagonists perfectly, has a unique voice as an author, and is unafraid to lay out the harsh realities immigrants face. The stories in This is How You Lose Her told in second-person made me want to try to write a story in the point-of-view because of how compelling the strategy was in the context of the stories. Very highly recommended, especially for fans of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz-Cofer (2004)–I picked up a copy of this to read during my trip to Puerto Rico since I had read it told was a coming-of-age story about a bookish girl living in San Juan. While set in San Juan, the text as a whole pushes beyond the boundaries of the Caribbean U.S. territory to consider ways in which the U.S. became involved in the economy and society during the 1950s. The book tackles complex themes, considering mental illness through the character of Consuelo’s sister who has schizophrenia and whom the family tries to protect, and characterizing the stigma of homosexuality through a character who is a close relative of Consuelo and exploring his sexuality.
War by Candlelight: Stories by Daniel Alarcón (2005)–when I spent a summer in Lima, Perú, I was desperately looking for literature that would help me understand the city. I eventually came across Alarcón, featured as one of The New Yorkers 20 fiction writers under 40. Some of the stories in this collection are set in Peru, others in Manhattan, but they all have the flavor of a Latino author, Alarcón having attending UC Berkeley and anticipating a US audience for the book. Many of the stories deal with war, as the title suggests, but the “wars” lived through by the characters are wide-ranging. Beyond this collection, he has also published two acclaimed novels, and produces a fantastic radio program named Radio Ambulante that reports on Latino and Latin American topics in Spanish and English (English programs are referred to as Ambulante: Unscripted)
Vida by Patricia Engel (2010)–I picked up this collection of short stories on a whim from the remainders section of the Harvard Book Store (I should admit, the paratext of a Junot Diaz endorsement on the book cover swayed me). The stories focus on a young Colombian woman living in Miami, trying to understand her heritage and her identity in the context of living in the US. I enjoyed reading the stories, but they didn’t leave a strong impression, besides being pleasant quick-reads.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez (2014)–this novels tells the stories of various tenants occupying a shabby apartment building in Delaware. The residents all have Latin American ancestry but hail from distinct countries and immigrated for a variety of reasons. The work is ambitious in its attempt to represent such a plurality of voices and backgrounds, but it is not without direction; there is clear emphasis on the story of most recent arrivals at the building: a family from Mexico who relocated to Delaware for the daughter to attend a school for students with special needs (after suffering an accident, leaving the daughter with brain damage). While this family resides legally in the US, they still suffer from marginalization, injustice, and the language barrier, not to mention the parents are struggling with protecting their daughter in the new environment and managing evolving family dynamics with the circumstances after the daughter’s brain injury.
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)–the short novel (really more of a longer short story) is a great introduction to the genre of narcoliterature. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy, trying to make sense of shady characters he comes into contact with who are abusing corrupt systems for their own gain. While he may be an unreliable narrator and try to impress with overly complicated vocabulary, the son of a drug kingpin provides enough clues for the reader to piece together the extent of violence and crime surrounding his upbringing. The reader is left both laughing and cringing at the dark humor and grim world of the drug gangs.
The Story of My Teeth by Valerie Luiselli (2015)–I recently picked up this book by the young Mexican author when I saw it on display at McNally Jackson in Manhattan and was intrigued to learn that Luiselli wrote it with collaboration from Jumex factory workers (a large Mexico-based juice company). I had heard of Luiselli after reading praise from Mario Bellatin (who I love but didn’t include on this list since he is a Latin American, not Latino author, focusing on Latin American rather than Latino subjects). The book as a material object is a work of art, with designed page inserts and parts (particular the latter sections) having a scrapbook vibe, presenting relevant photographs, quotations, and other references that complement the main narrative plot. The afterword explains the process of working with the Jumex factory employees as Luiselli shared her work in installments with workers and received input, which she incorporated into the final product.
Guilty by Juan Villoro (2015)–while browsing at McNally Jackson, I noticed this small book of short stories, also by a contemporary Mexican author. I wish I could say I don’t judge books by their covers, but I was certainly drawn to this one after reading the quotation from Roberto Bolaño on the cover (another favorite author, but, again, a Latin American who does not deal mainly with Latin subjects, thus, I didn’t include him on this list), celebrating Villoro’s writing. Then standing in the store and reading the first story, about a disillusioned mariachi superstar and the projects he becomes involved with after his prime, I was immediately enchanted. I am eager to read the others but am pacing myself to savor the dark humor and mockery of US-Mexico cultural exchange and appropriation. So far, I am also impressed by the meditations on contradictions comprising Mexican identity, struggles to find authenticity, and nationalist culture as represented in Mexican arts production.
Image source: northcountrypublicradio.org