Latino Fiction Literature Analysis Chapter 3 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 Three (Part I): Latino Voices and "English con Salsa"[37]

          As Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin have argued, a prominent concern for post-colonialist critics is how writers manipulate the dominant language of the center metropolis.  The "project of post-colonial writing [is] to interrogate European discourse...from [a] position within and between two worlds" (196).  Because Latino writers thrive in diglossic societies where "bilingualism has become an enduring societal arrangement" (Ashcroft 38), they, like post-colonialists throughout the third world, are involved in a continuous process of abrogating the metropolitan power over the means of communication and appropriating the dominant language in ways that force it to "bear the burden" of their own cultural experience (Empire 38).  Disruption of linguistic dominance becomes a means of questioning and challenging traditional, institutional power.  For the Latino writers of this study who write mainly in English, the English language (with its obvious ties to anglo-centric thought, history and culture) is challenged and manipulated as it is forced to carry the cultural essence of Latinos living on the borders and the fringes of U.S. society.   The principle resource available for accomplishing this task is the Spanish language, and as a consequence, the essence of Latino fiction can be found in the contact between the two languages. 

            In order to examine the complex usage of languages in Latino fiction, it will be necessary to look at the Latino writer's attitudes toward both English and Spanish.  If, as post-colonialists argue, a distinction is needed between English (referring to the standard language of the center) and englishes (referring to the variants of English used throughout the world) then one is also necessary between Spanish (Castillian) and spanishes (spoken throughout Latin America and the U.S.).  The levels of complexity are doubled to begin with as there are, in essence, two centers from which Latino writers consciously deviate.  Just as they modify English in order to create other englishes (the dialects with which Latinos communicate), they alter Spanish for the same reason, and in so doing reveal the cultural limitations of both standardized languages.  While any form of Spanish may serve to distort the dominant English, Castillian Spanish may also, like English, convey the same eurocentric values and prejudices often exposed by Latino works.  Standing in the margins, the Latino writer feels a conflicting need to dismantle and critique two dominant languages at the same time since both are saturated with anglo-european perspectives on life.  Disturbing two centers of power at once thus creates a particular sort of energized revolt unique to Latino literature and open to multiple interpretations.  For instance, to use a word like "la marketa" is to disturb standard Spanish, the violation being in adapting an English word into a Spanish grammatical system.  The closer one gets to the Spanish Academy, the more grievous such an error becomes.  In turn, the same word placed in an English structure is equally irregular, the difference depending only upon which set of purists is offended.  To the Nuyorican writer, however, the word may connote exactly the sort of cultural hybridity he or she wishes to represent, and neither "market," "mercado," "store," nor "bodega" will function as well.  Chicano critic, Bruce-Novoa coined the term "interlingualism" to describe such linguistic interchanges, and their importance to Latino aesthetics must be recognized (Retrospace 50). 

            English is the language of the center in Latino fiction, and generally points to the United States.  Because Latino stories and novels most often -- though not always -- take place within North America, Latinos therefore rely on a variant of Spanish (any one of numerous spanishes) to disturb the dominant linguistic codes of North American English.  The title to Coco Fusco's collection of essays, English is Broken Here, is more than a description of the linguistic state of affairs in the U.S.  The title celebrates that state as it describes as well the end result of the Latino artist's intentions to break down standard English until it adequately conveys Latino culture.  This does not mean, however, that these writers accept Castillian Spanish without qualification.  The Chicano writer shakes up his English narrative with Mexican Spanish, LA street slang or the mixed dialects of South Texas.  The Cuban-American might throw in Cuban Spanish idioms and the Puerto Rican writer may balance between his island Spanish and Nuyorican slang.  In fact, Latino writers reject Spanish in favor of some Latin American Spanish, or even indigenous dialects.  The reader detects the tendency to simultaneously veer away from two traditional linguistic codes.  Gloria Anzaldua claims that Pachuco or Calo[38] for instance, "is the language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English.  It is a secret language" (Borderlands 56).  When Latino writers use the Spanish language, they are no more giving their approval to an authoritative Academy of Spain, than they are endorsing the English Only Movement by writing their books in English.  Each Latino writer has a particular attitude toward the Spanish language and all that it carries with it in terms of memories, relationships and experiences, but their affections are most often tied, not to the Spanish of Spain, but to one or more of the varieties of Spanish born in Latin America and the Caribbean.  The language of the conquistadors is no more their own than is Standard English.  

           Essentially, Latino writers are following their British/American Modernist precursors in trying to introduce vernacular into their literary work.   Eliot recorded British dialects (i.e. the famous bar scene in "The Wasteland"), and Pound sought to blend literary rhetoric with everyday American dialect which he mimicked in phonetic spellings (i.e. "Kulture).  Frost attempted to authenticate the colloquialisms of New Englanders by combining "Yankee" speech with measured blank verse.  For writers to look outside the academic world toward the folk traditions for material is nothing new.  The difference here is that for Latino literature, the vernacular material is often derived from the dialects of two different linguistic codes and forms itself from the mixtures and blendings of both.  In this case, the language of the people is a reflection of Spanish and English in confrontation with each other, and the music and rhythms (what Brathwaite called the "very software of language" 311), thereby produced give imaginative writers a material that is new and vital. The creative use of "interlingualism" (or what is more commonly referred to in negative terms as "slang," "spanglish," or "tex-mex") is an integral part of Latino fiction.  Rather than lament, like Ilan Stavans, that "Spanish is in a state of degeneration by its daily contact with the English Language" (165), or that English is being dismantled and destroyed by the same process, or that one of the two is more important for success than the other, a more productive view is to see "interlingualism" as a powerful form of communication, a "positively creative innovation in literature" (Aparicio 797).   If English and Spanish are "broken here," the literary mosaics that result form the intermingling of both languages can be viewed as something original and dynamic.  In Latino fiction, the blending of languages becomes both the source of imaginative, linguistic experiments and the most direct and obvious spectacle of Latino hybridity.  Language determines identity.  The legitimization of generally considered "inferior" language intrudes upon ones notions of the "truth of language" at the same time it authenticates those peoples (Latinos) who speak such languages in daily life -- serves to give them voice, to sanction their self expression, and consequently, their culture.  Interlingualism obliges readers to cross linguistic borders and to consider the deficiencies of the particular cultural frameworks through which they view the world.  At those points where languages intertwine, the liminality of Latino characters will present itself with a special clarity, just as the novels and stories will open themselves to subtleties of meaning previously unnoticed. 


             Latino writers nearly always display an affection for the Spanish of their Latin American heritage.  First of all, it is the language of family and the link to cultural values, to "abuelitas" and "abuelos" [grandparents].  Spanish is the language that communicates precisely the Latino's emotional memory (Cisneros's "Tepeyac"), and the language spoken between mother and infant (Saenz's "Obliterate the Night").  In a well-known passage of her story "Bien Pretty," Cisneros makes the case that Spanish is the language of passion:


Ay! To make love in Spanish, in a manner as intricate and devout as la Alhambra. To have a lover sigh mi vidi, mi preciosa, mi chiquitita, and whisper things in that language crooned to babies, that language murmured by grandmothers, those words that smelled like your house, like flour tortilla, and the inside of your daddy's hat, like everyone talking in the kitchen at the same time, or sleeping with the windows open...Nothing sounded dirty or hurtful or corny. How could I think of making love in English again?  (Women 153)

 In her novel, Cristina Garcia concurs: Pilar and a Peruvian boyfriend named Rub? "speak in Spanish when [they] make love" because "English seems an impossible language for intimacy" (Dreaming 180).  Spanish is fluid and easy where English is filled with "starched r's and g's...crisp linen syllables. English crunchy as apples, resilient and stiff as sailcloth" ("Bien Pretty" 153).   Rosario Morales records the "high rapid fire" of Puerto Rican Spanish with its "softness of dropped syllables and consonants, round and soft and familiar...[suggesting] the laughing: high loud laughter out of wide open mouths" (Rosario 19), while her daughter notes the "accentless English...the sweet cadence words ironed out...the edges flattened down, made crisp, the curls and flourishes removed" (Aurora 24).  Spanish is what bubbles out unconsciously when inhibitions are removed.  The Santeria preacher of Abella's novel, literally "speaking in tongues," moves from the language of law to sermon:


          Where will it lead us, Your Honor, where will it lead us? I will tell you where it will lead us, to the gates of Hell, Your Honor, to the gates of the infierno, that abre sus puertas y nos espera all?in the darkness amid the gnashing of teeth y el concierto de las almas malditas, all?in the heights, where the empyrean coro de angelitos danza en torno the clouds mientras que un God choleric wreaks his wrath...(263)

This tirade stuns the narrator: "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The non sequiturs in Spanish and English rolled in and out of Ramon's though some perverse spirit were seizing control of him" (263).  

            In Latino fiction, Spanish is the language of emotion.  English is reserved for the practical, the necessary.  Richard Rodriguez, in his famous essays from Hunger of Memory, sees Spanish as "private" and English "public," but his rejection of Spanish for this reason is in no way typical of Latino writers.  One Hijuelos character in The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien delivers a lecture to his children concerning the necessity of speaking English in his presence, as Spanish has no "value" to him except as a means of dealing with the children's mother when "she doesn't understand some things in English" (Fourteen 82).  With this long speech (something uncommon in Hijuelos's writing where dialogues are short and infrequent), the writer may be advancing the Rodriguez side of the argument that Spanish should be kept at home.  Yet Nelson O'Brien is not Latino and his attitudes toward Spanish cannot reflect those of his son and fourteen daughters who, one assumes, are the subjects of the novel.  Couched as they are in a chapter Hijuelos fills with a nostalgic tone (i.e. "as Scott might have said"(28), "as a crooner might have sung - 66), Nelson's opinions can even be judged as the suspect delusions of a solitary man.  His spirits "sometimes low" (87), he is perpetually "drinking his medicinal concoctions" (61),  and taking "refuge in silence" from the "overwhelming femininity" of his many daughters (89).   Bejamin Alire Saenz's Richard/Ricardo Diaz has purposely forgotten Spanish because it "made him feel like he was all alone and stupid," yet having English as "his only tongue" gets him no closer to what "people said, people thought, people meant" ("Kill the Poor" 73).   For the Mambo Kings, Nestor and Cesar, English is necessary, and they study a book called A Better English Grammar for Foreign Speakers and learn to say, among other things: "Yes sir, no Sir. Please don't call me Pancho, sir."  Still, "the hard consonants and terse vowels of the English language never fell on their ears like music" (37), never, in short, reached the emotional depth that Spanish could.  For the protagonist of Spidertown, his mother's use of English is "always a bad sign. English made her voice sound testy and severe, hinting at an oncoming barrage of churning, scathing Spanish if the answer didn't please her" (205).  Affection is restored when he agrees with her demand to speak Spanish: "Yes. I mean si" (207).  She considers his use of English as "being contemptuous" of her, and he recognizes her using English as an indication of her anger.  The emotion, when it reveals itself, whether anger or affection, does so through Spanish.   The central character in The Ultraviolet Sky uses Spanish only when she refers to her grandmother's phrase "Los estoy juntando" which Villanueva translates as "I am gathering." The meaning is connected to gathering anger, something "like a threat" (143).  In this novel of feminine anger, of a woman's coming to terms with her "wild" side, her inner "wolf" personality (if we borrow the notion from Pinkola Est?'s Jungian study), Spanish is related to an emotional depth both vital to the protagonist and perhaps inaccessible through English.    

           As with most aspects of Latino fiction, attitudes toward Spanish are complex.  Latina writers, for example, often connect Spanish with an authoritative male voice.  In Helena Viramontes, a father, Ap?[Papa], pounding the table, warns his "disrespectful" daughter that if she didn't go to Mass every Sunday, she "had no reason to go out of the house, period. Punto final" ("The Moths" 25).  The same father figure shows up in the following story with similar authority:  "TU ERES MUJER, he thundered like a great voice from the heavens, and that was the end of any argument, any question, because he said those words not as truth, but as a verdict" ("Growing" 32).  An intolerant husband in "The Broken Web" lapses into Spanish cursing as his anger overcomes him: "You tramp. You righteous bitch. Don't I have the right to be unfaithful? Weren't you? Vete mucho a chingar a tu madre, mi cabrona que la chingada..." (55).[39]   For Viramontes, Spanish is often associated with the voice of Mexican/Chicano machismo and working class, dominating, male figures.  A man, under stress, struggling to cope with daily existence, with prejudice (like the "hard" father in "The Jumping Bean"), and a fear of losing of control, this character type reacts aggressively against his family's insubordination and stands in the way of women's creativity, independence and voice.  "Her father could no longer trust her, because she was a woman" thinks Naomi in "Growing" (38) while the colonized wife of "The Broken Web is "tired and wrinkled and torn by him [her husband Tom?], his God, and his word...He owned her, her children owned her, and she needed them all to live" (56).  It would be a mistake to claim that only Latina writers focus upon this negative side to Spanish as is clear when one considers the character of Hector Santinio in Hijuelos's first novel, Our House in the Last World.   Hector rejects the "enemy" Spanish of his authoritative, abusive father to such an extent that in the hospital he becomes "deaf" (103).  While Chicana writers are critical of Spanish as conveyor of Mexican machismo, many Latino writers take exception to that aristocratic brand of Spanish with ties to Castillian snobbery and conquistador traditions.  Arturo Islas, Ana Castillo and Alfredo Vea confront directly the prejudices of those, especially the Hispanos of New Mexico, who claim superiority over all of mixed Indian/Mexican/Spanish blood.  Islas's Mama Chona and her family (i.e. Angels) consider themselves "better than the illiterate riffraff from across the river" (15), and refuse "to associate ...with anything Mexican or Indian because it was somehow impure" (27).  This sort of racism becomes overt in Celia's offensive mother-in-law in Dreaming in Cuban who leaves cream on her face overnight in order "to remove any evidence of her mulatto blood" (41).   Vea's Josephina from La Maravilla often laments the loss of her "most marvelous educated Spanish."  To her way of thinking, this "perfect Spanish, a gentleman's Spanish," this "Espanol de Granada, de Seville" hardly compares with the "Mexicano Spanish or Espanol de Nueva Mexico or that pocho stuff from over in California" (147).  Yet, she will eventually come to understand the good in her Yaqui husband's ways, to appreciate what Vea calls "the fugue of...mixed bloods" (286).   usually, Latino writers see the valuing of their mestizaje heritages as essential.  To glorify the European roots at the expense of the Indian and Mexican cultural ties is counter-productive since it negates the living reality of Latino hybridity which feeds their creative imaginations.  Aurora Morales condemns the racism that lies beneath such linguistic snobbishness in Getting Home Alive:


I'd say 'Puerto Rico' and watch the oh-oh sort of look creep up over their faces before they tightened up their how nice look...They get a kind of flat look in their eyes, not the interested, excited look they'd get if I said 'Spain' or 'Argentina' or something else exotic and faraway and not associated in their ratty little minds with cockroaches or welfare or knives (173).

A character in Ed Vega's story "An Apology to the Moon Furies" justifies Puerto Rican Spanish this way:


although the language was Spanish, it was ciphered and sifted through the common experience of harried people to protect them from outsiders; the language twisting and turning uncomfortably, the words five, six, seven times removed from their original meaning so that when they were spoken, one could tell immediately whether the person was friend or foe... (Casualty Report 88) 

            To Ed Vega, the deviations of Puerto Rican Spanish (from Castillian Spanish) are the result of political circumstances, and the coded language spoken by Nuyoricans serves that marginalized community.  Nuyorican writers recognize the validity and power of a language otherwise considered substandard and reflective of uneducated minds.  Vega confronts the purists who argue that the Spanish spoken by Puerto Ricans has been destroyed by its contact with English.  Yet, since Puerto Rican Spanish stands at the opposite end of the Spanish language continuum from Castillian, and closer to the Latino's English, it offers the Nuyorican writer a wealth of linguistic possibilities in terms of "creating signifiers...derived from linguistic 'deviations'" (Aparicio 798).   Chicano Spanish is in a similar position: frowned upon by purist Mexicans, it is nevertheless celebrated by Chicano writers for its deviations and peculiarities.  This is why writers like Castillo privilege the vernacular of their characters, highlighting the indigenous over the European, emphasizing the interlingual blendings of their speech.  Nuyoricans do the same thing, in an effort to legitimize their hybrid language.  For example, we find characters in Castillo's So Far From God referring to each other continuously as "parna" meaning partner, while in Rodriguez's Spidertown they call each other "pana."[40]  Here, Puerto Rican and Chicano are connected across cultural borders by an interlingual word derived from English (partner) but molded into a Spanish form.  Such language is an example of how two separate Latino groups have twisted standard English and Spanish in similar ways in order to communicate their own sense of community and fellowship.  

            Conversational fillers or verbal pauses -- the equivalents of North American English's "ya know," "it's like," "I mean," or "like" -- crop up within informal Latino dialogues as "ese" (Chicano), "pues," "mi hermano," "bueno" (Latin American), "co?," "chico," "que va," "tu sabe" (Cuban).  These interjections may be tangential to official Castillian Spanish but they are integral to Latino identity and sense of community, as much so as any other element of culture like dance, music or food.  Furthermore, the argument Luis Leal makes about food can be made about words: some of these expressions are untranslatable since they have no Spanish or English equivalents; they are terms from the spaces between the languages, distinctly associated with Latinos and often have no English or Spanish equivalents (Three American Literatures 16).  Neither Castillian Spanish nor English can sufficiently cover what Latinos wish to express.  Rodriguez's Miguel hears "stiff, formal Spanish" as something "alien, barely used" (Spidertown 124-125).  In Vea's novel, the mystical connection between Manuel, the elder Yaqui Shaman, and the Arizona desert lies outside either language. "Spanish can't say this," he declares to the initiate Beto who gathers the meaning from a musical interweaving of Yaqui simultaneously translated into English and into Spanish: "The three languages interleaved and beat frequencies; only the summed, third upper harmonic excited a vestigial bandpass in the boy's mind" (216). 

            Loyalties to one or the other of Spanish or English often reveal emotional relationships between members of different generations.  The younger generation Latino may explicitly ridicule his or her parents' ties to a lost past.  In a scene, for example, in Virgil Suarez's short story "Full House," a young boy named Danny serves dinner to his father and his father's Cuban friends during a poker game.  One man, Coco, calls Danny "rat?" which the omniscient narrator translates immediately: "Raton means mouse."   Interestingly, Danny responds by saying "The only rat here's you," and in so doing makes his linguistic affiliation clear; he has understood the word as an English speaker would, as referring to a rat, not a mouse.  From this particularly dialogic use of language, the story will proceed to outline in a much less subtle manner to what extent the younger boy longs to imitate his rebellious older brother Rudy and to reject his father's world of gambling and cigars.  The father "can't play like he used to" (Welcome 84) and so now enlists his daughter's help in cheating at cards.  The linguistic disconnection in the beginning of the story hints at the young man's loyalties outside the family (to English rather than Spanish), beyond the smoky, Cuban atmosphere of the room upstairs where the men play cards and the women abide by chauvinistic rules.  Early in Arturo Islas's The Rain God, the young Miguel Chico misunderstands Mama Chona's reference to the cemetery.  "Campo Santa," she calls it, meaning "Field of Saints," but the boy understands a "place where Saints go camping" (9).  As in the Suarez story, the miscommunication because of the false cognate presents the reader with a character bound to be, as Miguel and Danny are, somewhat disengaged from the monolingual, familial sphere.  The language here communicates their liminal status which will become the center of focus as the stories progress.    

            In Viramontes's story "Neighbors," a poor old man named Macario Fierro de Ortega is visited by the ghost of his dead son.    The young boy first appears during Fierro's morning shaving ritual in a scene accented by the father's use of Spanish which solidifies the warmth between father and son.  When the age of the boy ghost changes to that of a nineteen year old street tough, so does the form of communication, shifting into a mixture of Spanish and English as the father rejects the son's idiomatic usage of the English phrase "lay off."  Finally, in Fierro's memory of their last encounter, on the day the son will be murdered, the language between them has changed into slang vocabulary ("Chavoalos", "tecatos"), and ultimately become pure Calo "Ay, te watcho, Jefito" says the boy, the distance of his language from Fierro's Spanish paralleling the distance he has gotten from his father.  A similar situation arises in Hijuelos's The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien when Emilio is emotionally separated from his mother because he cannot fully understand her Spanish and she can't express her love for him in English (248-249).  Eventually, she will watch him performing on stage and think of him, the actor, as an "absolute American," at which point she will regret her inability to really know her son (297).


[37]See Gina Valdes's poem "English con Salsa" in America's Review Vol. 21 (Spring 1993) 49-50.

            Welcome to ESL 100, English Surely Latinized,

ingles con chile y cilantro, English as American

as Benito Juareez.  Welcome, muchachos from Xochicalco,

learn the language of dolares and dolores, of kings

and queens, of Donald Duck and Batman. Holy Toluca!

In four months you'll be speaking like George Washington,

in four weeks you can ask. More Coffee? In two months

you say, May I take your order? In one year you

can ask for a raise, cool as the Tuxpan river.


Welcome, muchachas from Teocaltiche, in this class

we speak English refrito, English con sal y limon,

English thick as mango juice...

[38]Sanchez defines Calo as an "urban code...spoken by Chicanos in the Southwest" incorporating "standard Spanish, popular varieties, loan-words from English and even code-switching."  She links it primarily to young males (Chicano Discourse 128).

[39]In La Maravilla, Alfredo Vea spends a paragraph defining "La Chingada" as, among many other things, "anyone who is fooled, prodded, ripped open by the chinga, the ripper. Every Mexican is a son of La Chingada. There is no equivalent English word" (43).

Continue Chapter 3: Part II

Last Updated:
July 25, 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