You likely recognize that the depiction of Latin American immigrants in politics today – as a menacing mass of recalcitrant Spanish-speaking invaders – is overwhelmingly negative.
What you may not know is that stereotypes suggesting that Latin Americans represent a threat to United States culture are not just morally repugnant – they’re also historically inaccurate. Spanish-language literature actually predates the Puritans’ writing in English by nearly a century.
As my research reveals, many renowned Latin American writers actually produced some of their finest work while living in the United States. Latina and Latino writers have made exceptional contributions to American literary history.
For a fresh take on what it means to be a Latina or Latino in the U.S. today, check out these five literary luminaries.
1. José Martí (Cuba, 1853-1895)
For Cubans, José Martí is the equivalent of George Washington, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman combined. Born in 1853 in Havana, Cuba, Martí wrote the bulk of his 28 volumes of prose, poetry and speeches in late 19th-century New York.
Working as a diplomat, translator, Spanish teacher and journalist, Martí interpreted current events and cultural questions from his office on Front Street, in lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport.
He witnessed immigrants arriving by the boatload to New York – except the Chinese, who were banned in 1882. He knew about the lynching of black Americans and of atrocities against Native Americans. These stories found their way into Martí’s thinking about Latin America and its diaspora in the United States.
Martí also wrote dazzling accounts of New York, his adopted hometown, likening the cables of the brand-new Brooklyn Bridge to sated “colossal boa constrictors” resting atop towers.
Upon the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, Martí alluded to the fact that his distant island home, Cuba, remained a Spanish colony: “Those who have you, O Liberty, do not know you. Those deprived of you must not merely talk about, they must win you.”
Martí died in 1895, fighting for Cuba’s independence. In 2018, he was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, alongside local luminaries Colson Whitehead and Alexander Hamilton.
2. Julia de Burgos (Puerto Rico, 1914-1953)
Puerto Rico’s greatest poet also migrated from her Caribbean home island, where she was a teacher, to the isle of Manhattan. Julia de Burgos recounts this literary journey in one of her most famous poems, “Yo misma fui mi ruta” – “I was my own route.”
De Burgos’ inventive, daring poetry did indeed forge a new path for feminists, Latina and otherwise, in the early 20th century.
Against pressure to identify as white, the mixed-race de Burgos proclaimed her African heritage, calling herself “Black, of pure tint.”
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