Analysis

On Celebrating Natalie Diaz’s Pulitzer Success and Remembering the Pulitzer’s History of Failure

When Natalie Diaz, the gifted Latina and Mojave poet, won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, she joined an elite group of poets that includes (among others): Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Sexton, Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, and Yusef Komunyakka. No doubt, the announcement gives us reason to celebrate, but it should also give us reason to reflect on what we are celebrating.

The coveted Pulitzer Prize is a well-deserved affirmation of the creative, innovative, and critically thoughtful style that is a stamp of Diaz’s poetry. She is a wordsmith whose writing will break your heart and make you fall in love—all at once. The announcement made me want to read and reread every single one of her poems over and over again, not just because she won this prize but rather because she is that good. I am overjoyed as I celebrate her words and her craft. I have to admit that a big part of me also wants to celebrate the fact that she is only the second poet of Latinx descent to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (William Carlos Williams, the often overlooked poet whose mother was Puerto Rican, was the first). But the more I think of how she is only the second, the harder time I am having doing just that.

When the Cuban-American author, Oscar Hijuelos, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989 for his novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, I remember being awed by the fact that a Latino had won this award. Seeing the novel transformed into a film, The Mambo Kings, starring a young Antonio Banderas, I was certain that it would only be a matter of time before more Brown faces would populate the big screens, bookshelves, and yes, Pulitzer Prize lists. The American Book Award had already recognized such Latinx poets as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Leroy Quintana, Tato Laviera, Gary Soto, Cherríe Moraga, Miguel Alguarin, and Juan Felipe Herrera. And even though it wouldn’t be until 2008 that another Latinx author, Junot Diaz would win a Pulitzer Prize, I still had faith that more was coming. In the meantime, I became so inspired by Latinx poets that I would go on to write poetry and eventually publish my own collections. No one, and I mean no one could convince me that the likes of Cervantes, Laviera, and poets like Francisco X. Alarcón, were not worthy of a Pulitzer. Each time I’d read these poets, I would wonder—when is their Pulitzer time coming? After all, were they not writing to excellence?

No one, and I mean no one could convince me that the likes of Cervantes, Laviera, and poets like Francisco X. Alarcón, were not worthy of a Pulitzer. Each time I’d read these poets, I would wonder—when is their Pulitzer time coming? After all, were they not writing to excellence?

José B. González

Throughout the years, the list of talented Latinx poets who deserve national recognition has grown exponentially, and I am not the only one to have noticed. For example, poets such as Carmen Tafolla, Levi Romero, Octavio Quintanilla, Margarita Engle, Gwendolyn Zepeda, Valerie Martinez, Michelle Otero,Laurie Anne Guerrero, Luis J. Rodriguez, Claudia Castro Luna, Raquel Salas Rivera, Emmy Perez, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Luis J. Rodriguez received due praise through poet laureate designations—yet their names have been absent from Pulitzer Prize lists.

The Pulitzer is not the only guilty party. Since 1975, when it first started recognizing poets and other writers, the only Latinx poets the National Book Critics Circle has awarded are Herrera and Ada Limón. The National Book Award’s record is even worse. It has not recognized a Latinx poet since it gave William Carlos Williams its inaugural prize in 1950. But there is something to be said about the fact that the Pulitzer has been in existence since 1917 and that it is presumably, an iconic marker of American achievement.

By ignoring Latinx poets, Pulitzer Prize Boards have repeatedly sent a pathetic message about Latinx poets as writers and as Americans. Natalie Diaz changes this, but only to a certain degree. This is the same organization, after all, that named Lalo Alcaraz, a Mexican-American cartoonist, a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning, only to conclude that it would be better not to award that prize this year. It remains to be seen whether Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winners in the near future will be of Latinx descent, but it is difficult for me to feel the same sense of optimism that followed when Hijuelos won. In short, I am celebrating Diaz’s impressive accomplishment (and it is impressive), but I refuse to celebrate a history of systemic erasure of Latinx poets.

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