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2009 National Hispanic Writers Conference
Keynote Speech


 

LA TAREA Y EL TRABAJO:

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF CONTEMPORARY LATINO AMERICAN LITERATURE

Keynote presentation at the 7th Annual National Latino Writers Conference hosted by the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, May 21-23, 2009

 

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University; Professor Emeritus, Texas State University System—Sul Ross.

 

Considered the founder of Chicano literary history with his pioneering work Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (first study in the field), University of New Mexico, 1971, he is principal scholar of “The Chicano Renaissance” (Journal of Social Casework, May ‘71), a term he coined to describe the efflorescence of Chicano literature at the time. He is the 2007 recipient of the Letras de Aztlan Award from the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies (Tejas Foco), and 2005 recipient of the Patricia and Rudolfo Anaya Critica Nueva Award from the University of New Mexico. 1980 recipient of the Presidio La Bahia Award from the Kathryn Stoner O’Connor Foundation and the Sons of the Republic of Texas for Contemporary Perspectives on the Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio, Best Work on the Spanish Colonial Period of Texas Letters.

 

 

O

ver the years that I knew Tomas Rivera, the Chicano author of Y no se lo trago la tierra—first recipient of the Premio Quinto Sol Award in 1972—he would say of his writing, “Ta cabron la cosa,” meaning the task of writing was not always easy. Still, se require el trabajo, the writing must be done. In that sense, all of us who write—especially those of us Latinos who write about our experiences as Latinos—somos trabajadores de la raza. As Paul Tournier, the Swiss physician and philosopher put it in the Meaning of Persons (1957): We are not free of the task, but neither are we free of its responsibilities. The task (la tarea) looms large before us but the work (el trabajo) must be undertaken to complete the task. And what is that task? For us as Latinos and as writers that task is not just to add our literary voices to the chronicle of the human condition but to testify to the presence of our people in that chronicle. That task is formidable, even daunting, but not insurmountable.

 

It seems to me that at the moment we are, like the followers of Senchan Torpeist—fabled Irish collector of The Tain—saga of the Irish tradition—that we are at the nexus of the task and the work. The Tain—saga of pre-historic and early Ireland—was a work—lost somewhere in dim antiquity—which none of Senchan Torpiest’s followers knew entirely—only bits and pieces. So he sent his followers out to recover the whole of The Tain (Bó Cuailnge). To tell our stories as Latinos in the United States, we must recover the whole saga of our people in this country—the Latino Tain—not just for our people but for the whole nation of which we are a part. At the moment only bits and pieces of the Latino saga in the United States are known.

 

To that end my efforts in the vineyards of Latino American literature have yielded Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971, first study in the field) and dozens of articles on Chicano and Latino American Literature, the one most cited being “The Chicano Renaissance,” Journal of Social Casework, May 1971. Several recent pieces of mine in that vein are “Latino American Literature” in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading, 2008, Volume 2; “Mexican American Literature: Reflections and a Critical Guide” in Chicano Studies: Survey and Analysis (3rd Edition), edited by Dennis Bixler-Marquez, et al. published by Kendall/Hunt, 2007; “Mexican American Literature: A Survey of Genres” prepared for the Sabal Palms Lectures, University of Texas at Brownsville, Summer 2004, published in the Chicano Critical Review, December 18, 2006; and “Chicano Poetry” in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry, published by Greenwood Press, 2006.

 

Those are initiatory contributions considering the conspectus of Latino American literature. However, the question is: where are we in that conspectus of Latino American literature? We are further along than many of us realize, the point I sought to make in “Latino American Literature” published in Books and Beyond by Greenwood Press. What is the state of Latino American Literature today?

 

First, let’s clear up some labels. I teach a course listed as Latino American Literature, works by U.S. Latinos; I also teach a course listed as The Literature of Latin America, works in English translation by writers of the Latin American countries of this hemisphere. The categories defined by these two courses are important distinctions. Terms of identity are particularly important in a review of Latino American literature, since there has been a tendency to lump all Latinos into one homogeneous group. The result of this lumping has been an undifferentiated mixture of Latinos from Latin America and Latinos who are of the United States. Why this differentiation? Because the experiences of Latin Americans and Latino Americans are different and those differences are reflected and manifest in their works.

 

Given this distinction, the state of Latino American literature today is extraordinarily vibrant made more vibrant by the pulse of Latin American literature. Of course there's a connection. Somos primos. Representing "various Latino nationalities" as Carlos Vasquez has described the participants of this conference, Latino Americans are attuned to the pulse of Latin America. The reverse is not always true. Latino American writers are not as widely recognized in Latin America as Latin American writers are recognized in the United States. Few Latino American writers find their works translated into Spanish for a Latin American literary public. While there is a significant number of Latino American writers who write in Spanish, they are not lionized by that Latin American literary public as Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, and Jorge Luis Borges--to name but a few--are lionized in the United States.

 

Many Latinos in the United States have their origins in Spanish settlements dating back to the Sephardic (Spanish) Jews of New Amsterdam, the Spanish communities that were part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803–especially in New Orleans–and the Spanish communities like St Augustine that were part of the Florida acquisition by the United States in 1819. Countless Latinos immigrated to the United States from the founding of the nation to the present. The Cuban American community of Yuba City, Florida, dates from the early 20th century, long before the mass exodus of Cubans to the United States after 1959.

 

In the United States today there are two categories of Latino writers each with considerably wide latitude in definition. The first group includes Latino writers from the Latin American countries previously mentioned with the exception of Puerto Rico since—because of the politics—all Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens). For the most part, these Latino writers are still citizens of their countries, and their literary and social orientation are generally congruent with the literary and social orientations of their homelands. Many are in the United States as political refugees or exiles, although many more are in the United States because they are simply at odds with the ideological trends in their countries. The Cuban poet Valladares is a good case in point of a Latino writer living and writing in the United States because of political differences with the ruling group of his country. For the most part, this group of Latino writers deals with themes and conventions traditionally part of the literary orientation of their homelands, not with themes pertinent to Latino struggles in the United States. Their works are therefore not classified as Latino American literature. In this regard, the works of the Russian writers Solzenitzen written while he lived in exile in the United States are not considered American literature.

 

The second group of Latino writers is essentially indigenous to the United States, that is, Latinos who are citizens of the United States and identified as members of a Latino group like Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubanos, Hondureños, Dominicanos, etc.

 

L

 

ike the British roots in the new American soil, U.S. Latino literary roots have yielded a vigorous and dynamic body of literature which, unfortunately, has been considered historically as part of a foreign enterprise rather than as part and parcel of our American literary heritage. Looking for U.S. Latino writers in the 60s, one would not have found them since the Library of Congress and the Dewey Decimal System did not have that classification. For example, looking for Mexican American writers then one would have found them under the classification of “Mexicans in the United States.” And asking a librarian for the location of Latino American writers would have yielded the names of Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gabriela Mistral and Miguel Angel Asturias, all in the card catalogs as Latino writers but not Latino American writers.

 

The point is that the term “Latino Writers” most often directs inquiries to Latin American writers. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that few Americans outside of Hispanic literary specialists know very much about U.S. Latino literature today. To be sure, there are successful U.S. Latino writers like Sandra Cisneros Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez, Piri Thomas, Miguel Algarin, Nicolasa Mohr, Achy Abejas, and Angel Castro. In the main, however, when pressed, uninitiated Americans will ask quizzically: Are there U.S. Latino writers. Who are they? What this points to is the woeful ignorance of Americans about U.S. Latinos despite their long historical presence in the United States. This also points to the woeful inattention to and neglect of Latino Americans in the daily mainstream of American life.

 

This brings me to the heart of this presentation. Latino Americans today are poised on the crest of a tectonic shift in the demographics of this country, a demographic shift of paradigmatic proportions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau projections, by the year 2040 one of every three Americans will be Latino. This is not a demographic boom due principally  to immigration No! This is a demographic shift due to fertility and motility, due to the mass of Latinos who are and have been part of this nation for more than 160 years. The United States is the nation with the second largest Latino population in the world. Only Mexico has more Latinos.

 

Latino American literature is rich in literary diversity with voices from all of the Latin American countries, American voices like Julia Alvarez and Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic, Jaime Manriquez from Colombia, Francisco Goldman from Guatemala, and Isabel Allende from Chile. Closer to home there are Latino American voices like Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez and Ana Castillo from New Mexico; Gloria Anzaldua, Rolando Hinojosa, and Tomas Rivera from Texas; Dagoberto Gilb, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Naomi Quiñonez from California; Nicolasa Mohr, Piri Thomas, and Miguel Algarin from New York.  

 

There is a symphony of Latino American voices from all across the United States. Today, Latino Americans are in every county of the country, writing in every genre, winning Pulitzer Prizes. There are large enclaves of Dominicans in New York City and the District of Columbia. Outside the Hispanic southwest, more than 4 million Mexican Americans are spread across the Ohio Valley Crescent from Northfield, Minnesota to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Large clusters of Puerto Ricans reside in New York, New England and the Mid-west. Cuban Americans are populating the Atlantic states from Florida to Virginia. We are everywhere.

 

But we are still in the minority as writers. Fairly recently I received the 2300 page 10th Edition anthology of The  American Tradition in Literature from McGraw Hill. Not until page 2199 do we find the first and only Latina/o writer—Isabel Allende. Despite the immanent demographic increase of Latinos in American society, mainstream publishers like McGraw Hill offer us only token representation in their anthologies of American literature. This is why mainstream Americans don’t know who Latinos are.

 

This was the situation we encountered more than 40 years ago. In 1968 as Chair of the Chicano Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English I joined with other caucuses of NCTE to form the Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. Our blistering report in 1973 entitled Searching for America did not find just token representation in the texts of American literature—we found NO representation in those texts. We were invisible.

 

I

 

n 1968 when I was the only Mexican American in the English department at New Mexico State University I received an invitation from a Texas publisher to submit a piece for an anthology the publisher was compiling. I sent the publisher a short story of mine entitled “Chicago Blues” which in 1957 won an international short-story contest juried by Richard Wright. The publisher sent it back to me with an explanation that what they were expecting from me was a piece like J. Frank Dobey’s “The Straw Man” which characterized Mexican Americans as peones living in jacales, wearing huaraches and a straw hat, speaking poor Spanish mangled with English. My story of “Chicago Blues” was about a Mexican American jazz guitarist in post-World War II Chicago, hip from the word go. Needless to say, I was not included in that anthology. American publishers were not ready for stories about how Latinos saw themselves. American publishers were tied to the stereotyped images of Latinos hardened by the tenets of The Black Legend.

 

This was the history Latino writers faced 40 years ago. But resilience and determination has changed much of that history even though much of that  history still confronts us. There is no doubt that the civil rights consciousness of the 60s and the early 70s cleared away much of that stereotyped debris. Most important in that consciousness is determinationsi se puede! As fledgling and experienced Latino and Latina writers we must trust our art. This is not to say we cannot improve it. On the contrary, the life of a writer is predicated on growth and introspection.

 

In 1970 I sent a piece of fiction entitled “The Dwarf of San Miguel” to John DiStefano at the New England Review. Within a week he called me excitedly hoping I hadn’t committed the story elsewhere. It was a good story, he said, and he wanted to publish it in the very next issue of the New England Review. I didn’t tell him his was the 21st journal I had sent it to. The 20 previous rejections told me they liked the story but that the beginning needed work or that the middle didn’t quite hold the story together or that the ending needed something punchier. For me this episode confirms that a piece finds its publisher. Of the million words I’m sure I’ve written by now I don’t write with a publisher or a reader in mind.

 

As an essayist and journalist my genre is literary non-fiction. I do better in that realm, though I’ve written a fair amount of fiction, poetry, and drama.

 

Al fin se me parece apropriado terminar esta ponencia con un consejo. Ya que el papel del escritor, por lo general, es darle cara a lo asombrado o a lo que no se da la luz—sea en poesia, prosa, ficcion—la tarea de ese papel no es facil. El escritor trabaja aislado, manipulando los simbolos semioticos en pantalla o en papel. Pero ese trabajo no es para el agrandecimiento del escritor si no para el lucimiento de sus lectores. No es decir que el escritor no merece agrandecimiento.

 

Ninguno de nosotros llegamos a ese punto de la creatividad sin las influencias de los quien han sidoparte de nuestras vidas. Esas influencias etan siempre con nosotros. Son parte de la paleta creatia que usamos en nuestro trabajo como escritoires.

 

Se nos cae a nosotros, escritores latinos, avanzar nuestra historia, nuestra lucha, no en escrbir año tras año la misma narativa como el escritor Español del siglo 19 si no en las obras que reflejan nuestra maestria de los generos literarios. Estamos a pied como el caballero de la Mancha que tenia un pied en el estribo del caballo que habia sido antes un rocin.

 

Estamos a pied de un cambio tsunamico en este pais, un cambio en el cual los hispanos de los estados unidos representaran una tercera parte de la demografía nacional. Que haremos con esa presencia? Que haremos? No gastarla es lo que utenemos que hacer!

For the non-Spanish speakers let me put it this way:

 

Finally, it seems appropriate to me to end this presentation with some reflection. Since the role of the writer, generally, is to shed light on shadows or on that which is dimly lighted—be it through poetry, prose, or fiction—the task of that role is not easy. The writer works alone, manipulating semiotic symbols on a screen or on paper. But the writer’s work is not for self-aggrandizement but for the enlightenment of his or her readers. This is not to say that the writer doesn’t deserve aggrandizement.

 

None of us reaches the pinnacle of our creativity not having been influenced by those who have been a part of our lives. Those influences are always with us. They are part of the creative palette we use in our work as writers.

 

It befalls us as Latino writers to exposit our history, our struggle, not by writing year after year the same old story like the Spanish writers of the 19th century but by creating works that reflect our mastery of the literary genres. We are at this  historical moment like the cavalier of La Mancha with one foot in the stirrup of the charger  who used to be a horse—rocinante.

 

We are afoot of a tsunamic change in this country, a change in which Latinos of the United States will be one-third of the American population. What shall be the outcome of that presence? What shall we do? We should not waste it is what we should do.

 

Copyright © 2009 by the author. All rights reserved.