ReviewThe Norton Anthology of Latino Literature Weighs In
Review of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, edited by Ilan Stavans, W. W. Norton, 2,489 pages, $59.95
In many of my classes at Illinois State University, I’ve been setting aside time to ask the following questions of my students: How many works by US Latino or Latina writers have you encountered in your classes so far? Who are the authors? I’ve seen striking patterns in the students’ answers. Most of them come up with zero to two writers and works. I don’t take this outcome as a reflection on the students themselves. They often express curiosity to learn more, and students who volunteer personal identification as Latino give the same answers as everyone else. Instead, I consider their answers to give a working portrait of what is and isn’t getting attention in schools.
The name almost always mentioned is Sandra Cisneros, and students seem to have read one or more excerpts from her celebrated The House on Mango Street in high school. Meanwhile, although most of my undergraduates have grown up somewhere in Illinois, they don’t remember hearing that Cisneros was born in Chicago or studied at Loyola University there; so far as they can recall, she hovers vaguely in the sky near the Mexican border. Considering that Illinois has a significant percentage of Latino citizens (a 2011 report from the Pew Hispanic Center based on 2010 Census findings puts Illinois fifth in the nation, trailing only California, Texas, Florida, and New York), this displacement of Cisneros is odd. Biographical blurbs at the ends of her books may note a residence in Texas, but they also assert her connections to Illinois, and the streets of Chicago anchor sections of her books.
Informal and limited as our conversations are, they suggest that US Latino literatures remain invisible or distant to many students in Illinois, as well as to their parents, to their teachers at the K–12 level, and to the professors who train those teachers. And yet . . . this field is booming.
US Latino/a writers have a double presence in our culture today: invisible in some quarters, highly visible in others. There’s no shortage of Latino writers, past or present, who have produced compelling work with broad significance for American culture and society. Universities, commercial publishers, and contemporary writers have all contributed actively to this body of work in recent decades. I’ll remark very briefly on each of these arenas before turning to the new anthology from Norton, since some readers may, like nearly all of my students, be unfamiliar with those developments.
In the universities, professors who once hypothesized that literary works might be languishing in archives have not only tracked down fascinating memoirs, short fiction, novels, and poetry from the past but have shepherded them into republication. Major university presses publish scholarly books about the many strands of Latino literature and culture, and some print new creative writing. Research institutions—such as the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), which offers a multidisciplinary program in Latin American and Latino Studies—support exciting work by students and professors. Curricula vary nationwide, ranging from courses that have been on the books for decades to newly established offerings. On the not-so-sunny side, Latinos remain significantly underrepresented in the professoriate nationwide, and Latino studies programs must now battle with the corrosive economic crisis (just like every other area of higher education), as well as public misperceptions about their work.
These and other challenges, however, do not diminish the fact that Latino studies has become a dynamic part of university life on many campuses. In a 1999 interview, Frances Aparicio (a past director of UIC’s Latin American and Latino Studies program) summarized the growth of US Latino studies, with positive implications for the next generation of teachers and scholars:
Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to offer courses that examined the history of Latino studies as an academic field, courses that usually function as the central seminar of the discipline. . . . In history, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and law, among other fields, there now exists a critical body of work as well as a canon of primary texts produced by this sector.
With ten more years under their belts since Aparicio’s assessment, scholars have gained ground in the effort to make Latino presences more prominent. And as patrons of Barnes & Noble and other chain stores may have noticed, commercial publishers are investing in Latino literature too. Some are open to the idea of presenting Latino writers as the new faces of “American” literature; others emphasize a more specific niche and audience. Marketing support for the books includes strategies to broaden both kinds of audiences. Both from Ballantine, my editions of Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García and another Cuban-American selection, Days of Awe by Achy Obejas, come with extra features in the back. The supplements respond to the general public’s need for ongoing education in Latino literatures and histories, so often left out of supposedly inclusive American studies classes. In the back of Days of Awe, for example, are a multilingual glossary; an interview with remarks about Cuban literature, Cuban exiles in the United States, and Jewish histories in the Americas; and a list for further reading.