Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 4 Part 1
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Latino Fiction &
he Modernist Imagination

By John S. Christie, Ph.D.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6


 Part I Part I Part I Part 1 Part I Part I

Part II

Part II

Part II

Part II Part II Part II


Part III

Part III

Part III   Part III

Chapter Four (Part I): Dreams and Betrayals: Latino Between Worlds

            The transition between a space of safety and order into one of difficulty and pain (oppositions Northrop Frye, after Blake, labeled worlds of innocence and experience) is particularly apt in Latino fiction since so much of this literature concerns the movement from one cultural world to another and the spaces between the two.  Mircea Eliade refers to the original edenic setting as a "land of innocence...a privileged land where time stands still (Myths 34) and "a pure region," "earth's navel," a "primordial Paradise, " and "man's ultimate problem" (Myth 16-17).  The phrase itself "between worlds" recurs so frequently in both the fiction (Benjamin Saenz's story of that title for example) and in post-colonial and Latino criticism that it is becoming nearly cliche.  The parallels between the pre-European southwest, the pre-Castro island of Cuba and the distant island greenery and peace of Puerto Rico in the imagery of these writings demonstrate the recurring motif of a lost paradise and the initiation into North American life.   The language that portrays this pattern, though obviously not unique to any one group of literary works, is perhaps central to the underlying questions Latino fiction raises.  This is true because Latinos write of crossing cultural and spiritual boundaries and about the problems of self-image and fragmented identity which such journeys and displacements create.   Examining the various dimensions of this particular trope should lead us toward understanding Latino hybridity as writer's attitudes are revealed when characters confront the metaphorical oppositions of past/present, ordered peace/the trials of the unknown, and innocence/experience.

            In her book Borderlands: La Frontera, the Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua has succinctly explained the importance of Aztlan as the central "Edenic place of origin of the Azteca," home to the first inhabitants of what is now the U.S. southwest.  Ever since the Aztecs ("the Nahuatl word for people of Aztlan"), one of several Toltec tribes, completed their migration south to Mexico in the twelfth century,  events have led to the continued exodus of "Spanish, Indian, and mestizo ancestors."  The U.S. government took control with the Hidalgo treaty of 1848 at which point the "truncated, disemboweled, dispossessed" Mexican Americans (8) began dreaming of a return to the "homeland" (4-10)   Chicanos were subsequently harassed (even lynched) by Texas Rangers, driven from their land by agricultural corporations, and exploited by the injustices of sharecropping in patterns similar to those suffered by black Americans following the civil war. 

            The return to a mythic homeland in the U.S. southwest is evident throughout Chicano fiction in one shape or another.  In Estelle Portillo-Trambley's Trini, the motif is a central structuring element as the novel's heroine, Trini, struggles against obstacles that bar the path home to her "rainbow cave" (and Native American mysticism) until she finally reaches her "Valverde" (green valley) where she "belongs."  In fact, Portillo-Trambley's stories are somewhat one-dimensional because the plots of her fiction (and its detailed imagery) so adamantly conform to her belief in what the critic Tomas Vallejos defines as "ancient mythical structures [that serve] as models of an ideal balance in the cosmos" (54).  Her "vision of cosmic wholeness" (54) and her optimistic conviction in an "unending cyclical regeneration of the universe" (55) which Vallejos traces in Portillo Trambley's early story collection entitled Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings is equally prevalent in her novel.  Like the characters in the early stories, Trini, the mestizo heroine, is on a clearly archetypal journey "toward oneness" (56) from the city of falsehood to the rural region of truth, from classist society and discrimination by rich, white men to nature, the earth and native American culture.  In the urban world, like those mistresses locked by their rich men in "blue casitas" (143), she is physically imprisoned by her carousing husband, Tonio (29).  Women must rely upon either the escape of marriage like Licha's to Don Alejandro Sosa (145), or the comfort of religious doctrine as does Trini's aunt Pancha (38).  Trini, however, moves "through a dark hole (204-207) to a "church on the other side (206) and is "reborn" to a natural earthly paradise, reconnected to dance, wind, music and laughter -- all qualities linked specifically to her -- and allied to Tonantz?, earth/fertility goddess, female deity of the mountains.  Portillo-Trambley's portrayal of the Latina's need for indigenous spirituality can be faulted for its oversimplification and, if we agree with Cherrie Moraga's article "The Obedient Daughter," for its romantic idealization of the male savior/hero (i.e. Sabochi, Trini's protector, lover and spiritual guru), but the novel clearly sets up a pattern of oppositions frequently found in Latino fiction, a pattern that becomes increasingly more complicated and problematic as Latino writers, especially women authors, manipulate the motif. 

            Recent Cuban writers look toward Cuba as the lost island paradise principally for political reasons.  The pre-Castro garden of peace and pleasure for middle class Cubans who fled after the 1959 revolution remains an integral part of the Cuban-American psyche while the (generally poorer), second generation of immigrants to the U.S. "escaping" Cuba in the early 1980's (the Marielitos) have perhaps a different, less adoring perspective.  Paralleling the political arguments going on in Washington, debates between characters from both generations over Cuban issues dominate much of the fiction's thematic content.    

           Eliana Ortega discusses the notion of Puerto Rico as island paradise, the legend of the "Anacaona, the pre-Hispanic origin, a mother origin, an Afro-Antillean origin" with respect to Puerto Rican poetry ("Poetic Discourse" 122-123), and the metaphorical motif of the paradisal island of Puerto Rico is common as well to Puerto Rican literature written on the island itself.  Rene Marques classic play of disillusionment, "La Carreta," follows the tragic story of a family's migration from rural paradise to urban (first San Juan and later New York) disaster.  Yet Nuyorican fiction writers have perhaps intentionally shunned the motif in their efforts to assert themselves as Latino writers, uninterested in a mythical land that is less real to them than the urban social ills of New York.  Avoiding the myth of a lost paradise becomes a means of establishing a U.S. Latino identity separate from the island's ideals.   Occasionally, as in certain stories of Nicholasa Mohr, there are characters who long for the glory of a lost past, a pre-Columbian "Borinquen," and whose lives are twisted or complicated by an "impractical" desire for the impossible.   The theme occurs, nevertheless, in Judith Cofer's The Line of the Sun, where Guzman flees into the tropical forest of the island and there understands how the original inhabitants, the Taino Indians "had led an easy life in an earthly paradise" (134).  Piri Thomas's famous autobiographical novel of urban struggle, Down These Mean Streets, opens with the family's attempt to create the warmth of their "Puerto Rican Paradise" with games and music in a freezing Harlemapartment (8-14).  Generally, however, perhaps because of the intensity of the inner city conflicts of poverty and crime with which Puerto Rican - American fiction is so often concerned, the problematic, psychological dilemma of longing for the perfect world back in the mountains of the island becomes somewhat secondary.  There is also the fact that access to Puerto Rico is very different from access to Cuba and that while Cubans are essentially in exile, a Puerto Rican "enjoys" a dual citizenship.  Still, without dwelling on the motif as often as other Latino writers, Puerto Rican - Americans are conscious of the distinction between original home and present reality.  They are constantly juxtaposing the often sordid practical reality of New York with a green and peaceful island simplicity; the cruelty of U.S. poverty and isolation versus the sharing of the burden on the island.


            Nicholasa Mohr, one of only a few Nuyorican fiction writers, usually presents the dream of returning to a perfect past as a delusion which afflicts most of the first generation Puerto Rican immigrants of her stories.  A father in "A Very Special Pet" from El Bronx, Remembered plans on returning to an idyllic farm: "We gonna get everything and we gonna leave El Bronx" (3); a mother in "Tell the Truth..." speaks of "making a killing on the 'bolita'" [the lottery] and moving home to the island; an uncle in "Uncle Claudio" longs for his home (specifically fruit and food) in Puerto Rico.  Where, in the minds of these characters,  the cold weather kills a young boy in one story (19), the island's climate cures (20).  These unhappy immigrants relish memories of their "beautiful island where tall green palm trees swayed..."(12), their "Island of Paradise" (28), where all is "magical" and "wonderful" ("Lucia" 95).  Younger generation Puerto Ricans in Mohr's stories harbor different feelings.  They revolt against the prejudices of the U.S. as well as the nostalgic fantasies of their relatives.  They make fun of recently arrived Islanders ("greenhorns"; "jibaros" - farmers).  They see the palm reading of the elderly island woman as "hocus-pocus" (19); they don't speak Spanish (166) and they resent the day-dreaming adults as much as they do the religion of the "Aleyluya" people (Bronx 194).  In "Uncle Claudio," the children cannot understand why Claudio is offended by a young man in the subway, until it is explained to them that he "lives in another time and that he is dreaming instead of facing life" (25), that he is tied to classist island society and cannot cope with Nuyorican deviations from old world traditions.  One young girl listens to her grandmother's stories with enthusiasm, but recognizes also that they are "too impossible to be true" ("A Thanksgiving Celebration" 85).  Like the young, women often refute the delusions that sustain their husbands as does the wife in "A Time with a Future." 

            Chicano writer, John Rechy, reflecting a similar urban skepticism concerning overly mystical connections to a past perfection, illustrates the progressive deflation of the dream of Aztlaz in  The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez.   In the first LA wall mural, Amalia Gomez sees a proud Aztec figure, "amber-gold-faced, in lordly feathers" as she hears from an old man the dream of "muslin-clad" revolutionaries and a future "promised land of justice" (45).  The next mural, however, startles her with its image of a tall, plumed Aztec carrying a dying city child (56), and finally the myth is rewritten, in the "red bleeding paint" of gang graffiti as "Aztlan es una fibula" [Aztlan is a fable] (70).  To the inner city, crime-ridden world of Amalia's family, one's ancient heritage is useless, or, in the words of her daughter's biker boyfriend: "bullshit."  "Where's all that pride bullshit got you?"  He tells Amalia. "What are you? Just another fuckin' Mexican maid" (181). 

            Balancing a (usually impractical) desire for the lost Eden of one's youth with the need for success in the modern U.S. world is central throughout Latino fiction.   William O. Deaver, Jr. writes in an essay on Roberto Fernandez that the Cuban-American is spiritually absorbed with aspects of Cuban life like Santeria or the Calle Ocho parades (and one might add dominos, cigars, coffee and a legion of other elements of Cuban culture), but materially connected to credit cards and consumerism.  It is Deaver's thesis that Raining Backwards is about the disintegration or "death of Cuban exile culture" (112), and that members of the older generation are drowned "in a process where assimilation and reintegration actually destroy their uniqueness without fully incorporating them" (117).[49]  The generational division is comically demonstrated when one Grandpa, for instance, in Raining Backwards is "blind" to anything except the memory of Cuba while his granddaughter thinks "Cuba" is a restaurant (213).  


           Name changes, usually from the original Spanish to an anglicized version, signal a symbolic transition from one culture into another.  As a shift in clothes or outward appearance can reflect an inner change,[50] a name change often suggests some form of identity modification.   Deaver cites four young Cubans in Raining Backwards who, on route to "The American Dream," anglicize their names: "Jacinto becomes Keith, Consuelo becomes Connie, Joaquin becomes Quinn, and Miguel becomes Michael" (Deaver "Raining" 115).  The street youths of Abraham Rodriguez's Spidertown are equally oblivious to the organic essence of a mythical island paradise.  They, like the characters in Rechy, Fernandez and Mohr identify themselves ethnically only as a recognition of community, a sense of belonging to a certain group marginal to the labyrinthine urban society.  Subverting the police, members of drug gangs change their names to simplistic symbols of their underground reputations: "Firefly" (a pyromaniac) and "Spider" (a drug dealer who climbs walls).  Surrounded by people named Toasty (119), Domino (118), Boom (126), and Flyboy, the protagonist, Miguel, has little connection to his Puerto Rican heritage.  Though these Latinos seek support from group identity, they see the rituals connected with the island as extraneous. The youth of Alberto Rios's stories similarly nickname themselves after animals: "Sapito" ("The Iguana Killer"), "Pato" (His Own Key").  In one story, a boy from Guatemala calls himself Usmail and another boy is named Usnavy -- identity becoming dependent more upon U.S. institutions than upon family, culture and individuality.  This is how Faulkner debunked his Snopes: Montgomery Ward Snopes and Wallstreet Panic Snopes in The Town, and, by inference, lamented  the decline of southern society into materialistic capitalism.  A black Mississippi mother in La Maravilla, in search of a name for her daughter, is "not overly fond of the new urban black predilection for naming the child after the first thing the new mother sees in her hospital room after delivering the child. 'Visine Robinson' did nothing for her, nor did 'Aspirina,' 'Chlorina' or 'Sylvania" (91).  Ultimately, she chooses the name Boydeen, after a Harlem waitress, a "beautiful Liberian girl named after her great grandfathers, both former slaves.  Vea, like Faulkner, suggests the necessity of linking one's name and, consequently one's identity to something of greater value than material objects.  For Rodriguez's protagonist, distance from adults like his own absent, negligent father, his older sister who abuses her daughter (126), his on again/off again mother or Amelia's traditionally moral, old world father (188) constitutes a separation from island myth.  Though gang members refer to themselves as "Boricua," there is no intentional reminiscing, or longing, or belief that anything in Puerto Rico holds value for them.  In fact, Miguel's ability to escape the underground world of gangs and drugs is to some extent dependent upon his being outside the clique of Puerto Rican allegiance.  He relinquishes his "Boricua" self by refusing some "empanadas"(238); he doesn't like "Gloria fucken Estefan" (read Gloria fucking Stephen - 279) and unlike his political friend, he has little use for island philosophers like Betances or independence minded revolutionary heroes like Albizu Campos.  In these respects he resembles the older son of Alejo Santinio in Our House in the Last World, Horacio, who rejects Cuban cuisine as "too greasy" and "boring" (83).  Most importantly, in a novel almost entirely dialogue, Miguel reads books and thinks about becoming a writer.   Like his more famous Latino predecessor Richard Rubio from Villareal's Pocho,  he is caught in the basic tensions of immigrant life; in Jose David Saldivar's words, he must "either assert an Americanized individuality, or succumb to the burden... imposed upon him by his father and his community" (Dialectics 110).  This is essentially the problem for the narrator of Rodriguez's story "The Boy Without a Flag" around whom the mythic revolutionary figures of 20th century, Puerto Rican political history have metamorphosed into a group of accommodating weaklings.  From Jose Marti we now have Miss Marti, a militaristic assistant principal with "a battlefield for a face and constant odor of chicklets" (13), with the "mouth of a lizard" (19) and "reptile legs" (25).  "You're nothing," she tells the narrator, "You're not worth a damn" (19).  From Filiberto Ojeda Rios, one of the founders of the Puerto Rican revolutionary group "Las Macheteros,"[51] we get Mr. Rios, a man with "rodent features" having an adulterous affair with a woman named Miss Colon (read Columbus).   "You're just a puny kid," (24) he declares to the young man.   Even the boy's father fails to live up to the revolutionary ideals of Pedro Albizu Campos,[52] the very same ideals he has struggled to instill in his son.  When the boy refuses to pledge allegiance to an American flag and not become what his father calls, a "Yankee flag-waver," there is no one around to support his small rebellion.  The glorious political rebels of Puerto Rico's past fade into irrelevancy and it is up to this Nuyorican teenager to compromise, to make "peace with The Enemy" (29).  Somewhat didactically, Rodriguez ends the story with boy accepting the U.S. flag in recognition that through his "Americanized individuality" and not through his father's political rhetoric ("once so rich and vibrant" - 28) will he find his "own peace, away from the bondage of obedience" (30).   He winds up "without a flag" between worlds.   

            An allegiance to an Edenic vision of  "Borinquen" (the indigenous name for the island of Puerto Rico) is not, for Nicholasa Mohr, a healthy reality, but rather a restrictive force against Nuyorican achievement.  Mohr has spoken against the "mythic vision" of  PR as a paradise, claiming that such ideas have "little or nothing to do with Puerto Rico, its inhabitants, and the reality of that culture" ("Puerto Rican Writers" 114), and her younger generation Puerto Rican characters seem to reflect that view by their frequent intolerance of their parents' nostalgia.  Judith Cofer's characters suggest a similar mistrust of the nostalgic paradise of the island.  In Line of the Sun, the recent immigrants gather in "EL Building" -- that "bizarre facsimile of an Island Barrio" (220) -- to reminisce about Puerto Rico.  Feeling "safety in numbers," they grow "misty and lyrical in describing their illusory Eden"(174),  yet their peaceful nostalgia will be shattered by a fire (the "horrible disaster" 279) which destroys their fragile sanctuary.   Nuyorican Miguel Algarin, in his poem "A Mongo Affair," bluntly sums up the younger generation Puerto Rican's anti-nostalgic attitude: "don't fill me full of vain / disturbing love for an island / filled with Burger Kings."


[49]Mary Vasquez, a critic who has written several articles on Roberto Fernandez would probably disagree with Deaver, since she has referred to Fernandez's works as being "satirical, yet loving depiction[s] of life in Dade County" ("Gender in Exile" Literature of Emigration and Exile.  Ed James Whitlock and Wendell Ayrock. Texas Tech. U. Press, 1992 Studies in Comparative Literature #23).  According to Gabriella Ibieta, the title of the novel refers to "a sign of death, a return to a beginning, the end of a cycle" ("Transcending the Culture of Exile: Raining Backwards" Literature and Exile, ed. David Bevin. Rodopi, 1990, 72)  and that the Fernandez's novel, while sympathetic to the Miami Cuban world, suggests that at least a part of that world is disintegrating, probably for the better. 

[50]For example, Fausto's dream of pulling off his own skin in the opening of Arias' Road.

[51]For more on Puerto Rican political history see the works of Ronald Fernandez, specifically: Prisoners of Colonialism: The Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico.

[52]Founder of the Nationalist party in Puerto Rico in 1920 and central political voice calling for independence

Continue Chapter 4:  Part II


Last Updated:
February 26, 2011
Copyright 2006 design and content by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez
Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie