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.
This strategic use of supplements takes pressure off the author to convey all that background material about culture and history inside the literary work itself, which may address both basic and complex issues in US and US Latino history. Furthermore, some Latino literature (including Dreaming in Cuban) has been translated from English into Spanish; publishers have begun to argue for the existence of a viable Spanish-language market for Latino books.
Latino writers today are exploring such diverse aesthetic approaches and such a wide range of subject matter that no one publisher offers an adequate portrait in miniature. Some writers have set up their own publishing initiatives to encourage and support others—for example, Palabra magazine, an attractive publication edited by poet Elena Minor. Other writers play leading roles in magazines not dedicated specifically to Latino expression, such as Carmen Giménez Smith, current editor-in-chief of New Mexico State University’s Puerto del Sol: A Journal of New Literature, and Roberto Tejada, founding editor of Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas.
Overall, there’s a wealth of resources to support general-interest reading and educational projects. Readers who don’t speak Spanish need not feel intimidated. Latino literature is a bilingual field in the big picture; many contemporary creative writers explore translation, but there’s ample material in English. This is either because a lot of work was first published completely or mostly in English, or because someone arranged for translation. New Spanish-language writing does continue to appear in the United States—in Illinois we need look no further than the pages of Chicago’s Contratiempo magazine for examples (http://revistacontratiempo.com/)—but it’s also important to recognize that many Latinos around the nation don’t speak or write in Spanish.
The remainder of this commentary focuses on a particular type of book: the anthology. Literary anthologies display traditions and tell us our past—both functions that influence the reader’s sense of the present and maybe the future to come. Recent decades have seen changes to two anthology formats that can include Latino writing: volumes dedicated to American literature in general and volumes specifically dedicated to Latino literature. Used widely in classrooms, both models affect our perceptions of who American writers are and what American literature is.
Editors of general anthologies of American literature know that the field grows and changes over time like any other. Classes focused on American literature first began appearing in the late 1800s, preceding a more general recognition of the area as a significant field in the twentieth century. American literature saw its consolidation as a field in the 1920s. At this point it reflected the attitudes of the era, staking its early claims to authority on the development of an “elite” canon of works by white, male writers and excluding those who didn’t fit the image. The civil rights era led to a conscious and marked expansion of research, teaching, and publication in the late twentieth century. Today most editors have seen something of Latino studies (Chicano—that is, Mexican-American—writing, at least, is usually on their radar) and have begun to invite specialists in Latino literature to participate in the making and remaking of teaching texts. There is much still to be done, but it’s important to note the achievements of recent decades.
For example, The Heath Anthology of American Literature now makes Latinos’ historical literary presences more visible than anything most current teachers and professors would have seen in past decades, when as students they took survey courses of American literary history. The Heath volume for the early to mid-nineteenth century includes an overview about Spanish America (introducing the centuries-long presence of Spain in the Americas) and a series of documents that put Mexican-American writing into context: notes on the 1846–1848 Mexican-American War, with excerpts from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; folktales associated with Mexican-American populations in terrain that was once Mexico and is now part of the Southwestern United States, such as the state of New Mexico; and texts responding to the US incorporation of Mexican lands and peoples. These resources help anthology readers to see that the border itself migrated in the nineteenth century, one of many events affecting US-Mexico relations and the American people.
Because Latino literature remained marginalized in American literary publishing and teaching for so much of the past century, there has also been a need to develop anthologies in this particular field. For almost a decade, interested readers have had access to a solid anthology from a major university press, Oxford’s Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States. Its general editor is Nicolás Kanellos, widely known for his work with Arte Público Press (http://www.latinoteca.com/arte-publico-press). Based at the University of Houston, Arte Público houses several series that have broadened the field, such as Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage (republishing works from the past) and Piñata Books (an imprint dedicated to children’s literature).
The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature now joins Herencia on the shelves. Overseen by general editor Ilan Stavans, the Norton volume offers a whopping 2,489 pages. Alongside Herencia it puts paid to any unconscious bias that either there aren’t any Latino writers or that no more than one or two are important. Nor does this book allow for the notion that only one genre, aesthetic vision, or time period can be represented. These are the messages that even the most open-minded students will internalize if they graduate from high school and even college without seeing evidence to the contrary. Because Norton has long held a prominent position in sales of literary anthologies for teaching, this anthology may reach a whole new demographic. Merely picking it up in a store is a physical demonstration of literary presence: according to my bathroom scale, the hardback edition weighs between four and five pounds.
Moving from its sheer bulk into the book’s contents raises a new twist. It clearly makes Latino writing visible, but the next question is how. The editors open with a preface that sets up two separate tables of contents with different organizing principles. This double move is integrally related to the most basic item in the preface, a brief definition of the term Latino. By this definition, the label “describes the people living in the United States who come from Spanish-speaking countries (Mexico, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean Basin. Brazil, Portugal, and the Philippines are not included).”
The editors acknowledge that the very naming of its different groups is a central tension in the field of Latino studies. Gender represents one complication. While the spelling of this term is often simplified to Latino for general publication, with the idea that the masculine grammatical form of the word in Spanish can be used universally, writers and scholars have long suggested that women should receive explicit recognition with the grammatically feminine version, Latina. As a result, many people use Latino/a with the two vowels at the end—LatinO, LatinA, and it’s not unusual to see Latin@ as a creative alternative to the o/a slash. For an excellent introduction to debates about even more extensive concerns with the ethnic label, see Suzanne Oboler’s prominent study of the terms Latino and Hispanic: Ethnic Labels, Latino Lives: Identity and the Politics of (Re)Presentation in the United States (1994). Oboler and many others have argued that labels are essential to visibility but can also create misperceptions (messed-up “visibility”). For example, the words “come from” in the above definition from the Norton anthology could be misinterpreted to mean that all Latinos in the United States are recent immigrants. This, the misperception of Latinos as “foreigners” regardless of their real citizenship status or family history, has been one of the most common misunderstandings in American culture for more than a century. It remains an unfortunate complement to anti-immigration rhetoric about Latinos today. The Norton anthology’s editors do speak to the important contributions made by immigrants, but they also pause to emphasize the reality that “scores of other Latinos, especially those in certain parts of the Southwest, Florida, and Puerto Rico, have never moved from the terrain where their families have lived for centuries.”
Another key issue with the term Latino is its abstract nature. Like Hispanic, it’s a generalizing term applied to people who may not use it to describe themselves. Hispanic is more often defined negatively by scholars as a label imposed by outsiders for institutional purposes, best exemplified by the US Census. Latino has been claimed as an alternative by many scholars and activists. As a label, Latino is still problematic because it’s applied to vast groups of people for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Latinos don’t all speak Spanish or share a race (enormous Native American and African populations must be recognized, among others, and much has been written about the importance of interracial histories); Latinos do not all follow the same religion or eat the same food. But at least this name was chosen for self-identification by community activists, writers, and scholars rather than imposed. It can be turned to positive uses; as the editors point out later in the book, America is also a term we use to inspire large groups of individuals “to partake in a shared sense of history” despite their many differences.
Historically, many people have found nation-specific subgroups (based on a heritage country, like Colombia or Mexico) to be more meaningful than these vast pan-ethnic labels, particularly for discussing moments when large numbers of people were incorporated into the United States (as in the colonization of former Mexican lands in the nineteenth century) or arrived from a particular place (as in the waves of exiles coming from Cuba after 1959). Writers and scholars frequently adopt nation-specific rubrics and express some caution about blanket terms.
The Norton volume avoids Hispanic and puts more specific heritage constructs into dialogue with the umbrella term Latino to enable a more grounded experience for readers. Teaching resources often refer to national rubrics, so the Norton volume offers an alternate table of contents organized according to heritage country. Here nations appear in alphabetical order, starting with Chile and ending with Spain.
By contrast to the nation-specific listing, the main table of contents highlights time over space. It lays out a chronological order for readers who want to develop a broad view cutting across different groups and their histories. Like Herencia, the Norton anthology draws on Spanish writers for early American texts to set the stage for modern literatures. It’s a parallel gesture to what we see in general American literature anthologies, which have long included the Puritans and more recently added representation from Native and Spanish America. These populations all predate the existence of the United States as a nation, but their works are central to understanding its past and present. Spain’s Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Juan de Castellanos, and others circulated in territories that are now part of the United States (such as Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico), and their works provide concepts important to contemporary American literature. Mixed populations also get their very early and significant start in the colonial period; writers such as “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega illustrate this point.
Other aspects of the Norton anthology’s structure differ from that of Oxford’s Herencia. Under general editor Stavans, it represents the vision of a different editorial group. Stavans is a figurehead, a prolific writer who has produced a large number of books, making many contributions to the field. Speed hasn’t always been his ally, however; in the past he drew fire for ignoring relevant scholarship by colleagues. Some felt that he lost sight of factors that would complement or complicate his statements and failed to represent the field effectively. Aparicio noted specifically in 1999 that he had been criticized for giving insufficient attention and respect to expressions of working-class communities and to discussions of how the emergence of Latino literatures has related to the social status of its authors, who have been consistently imagined by the dominant culture to be “other” in our national community.
However, Stavans has continued to expand his expertise, tackling projects such as a sustained study of the iconic labor leader César Chávez. Furthermore, he worked with a team of coeditors who bring substantial expertise to the table: Edna Acosta-Belén, Harold Augenbraum, María Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Under their collective guidance, the Norton volume—which, according to Stavans’s preface, took thirteen years to prepare—explodes with possible approach angles. For those who want to focus on community activism, items such as speeches by César Chávez and the iconic poem by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, “I am Joaquín,” are there. Iris Morales offers a complex, impassioned discussion of the Young Lords (a radical Latino organization of the early 1970s), which pairs nicely with Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) texts.
In addition to these canonical offerings, a section entitled “Popular Dimensions” invites readers to put literature in dialogue with sayings, jokes, cartoons, and more. There’s even a subsection dedicated to music, where corrido and salsa traditions meet children’s songs, boleros, Chicano rock, hip-hop, reggaetón, and other forms. These extras allow readers to see additional important articulations of community manifested in popular culture.
The anthology includes many complementary texts helping readers to see crosscurrents, such as a chapter from Américo Paredes’s famous study of the corrido, a ballad form popular in the US-Mexico border region. After using the Paredes text alongside the corrido of Gregorio Cortez in an English-language classroom this spring, I particularly appreciated the fact that where multiple versions of song lyrics or poems exist, the editors seem to have made an effort to synchronize the anthology’s versions with famous recordings—in this case, historic recordings available through the Arhoolie label. My students could follow the English translation as they listened to the Spanish song without being lost by unexpected discrepancies between versions, so we could still talk about students’ takes on how the language relates to the feel of the music, rather than dealing with isolated texts on a page. The editors have also incorporated useful references to other potential teaching aids. For example, the filmmaker Luis Valdez produced a famous 1969 interpretation of the poem “I Am Joaquín”; it is duly noted in the introduction to Gonzales’s poem. Notes like these help students and professors to follow an emerging dialogue amongst cultural producers in class.
One subheading, “Into the Mainstream: 1980–Present,” is ambiguous at first glance: Is this a claim that mainstream culture in the United States has become so diversified as to admit all these writers without reservation, or does it suggest that these Latino texts have been assimilated into a still restrained mainstream? It’s intriguing and a bit jarring to see an avant-garde writer using extended, untranslated Spanglish appear under the mainstream heading (Giannina Braschi), not to mention other names associated with radical work. Even Gloria Anzaldúa, who is well known in English departments around the nation today, still seems radical to general readers—and as a result, she embodies the contradictory, visible-yet-invisible status of Latino writing in the United States. Can she be called a mainstream writer? The editors’ commentary accompanying this section demonstrates their logic and may be one of the most interesting sections for general readers and students alike. It explores broad demographic shifts in the United States in recent decades, specifically noting reactions in the press to the rising percentage of Latinos. Here we also hear more about the complexity of the umbrella term Latino, again with attention to the contributions of both immigrants and native-born US citizens. The editors outline an array of social and cultural activities intertwined with new calls for the greater visibility of Latinos in US society, including the rise of Latino studies in universities, and they devote a subsection to discussing the Latino literary renaissance of the moment.
A series of appendices at the end of the book, like its alternate table of contents, continues to multiply potential ways to frame readings of the literature. I speculate that the Norton anthology is consciously designed to heighten our awareness of the decision-making aspects of reading. By this I mean that the book ratchets up a challenge common to anthologies: teachers and professors have to make active decisions about how to move a class through and around a large book, given that in any semester they can devote careful attention only to a limited amount of material. In this case there will be absolutely no illusion for teachers, or for general readers who take an interest in the supplementary material, that they can cover it all. I see this enhanced awareness about decision-making and partial coverage as a good thing generally, although the same multiplicity will almost certainly raise concerns about shifting priorities in the field (e.g., that it will become too easy to avoid or lose figures like Chávez and Gonzales in the mass of other options). We’re forced to become more conscious of how we use the tool we hold in our hands, to decide whether and why we would pick a different text, and to feel the tangible depth and range of a growing field. I also like the idea that students can see far beyond the boundaries of their syllabus if they have specific interests or want to be surprised by works they’d never find otherwise.
The first appendix is straightforward: a chronology beginning in 1492, which locates major historical and literary events running all the way to 2010. In addition to helping readers orient themselves in a massive book, the chronology makes the anthology’s historical range all the more visible, another strike against misperceptions that Latinos all arrived last week or have no legacy of significant contributions to this nation.
The second section presents historic treaties, acts, and propositions; more specifically, it presents events in US history that have been downplayed or left out of most classrooms. The documents show how populations from specific countries—particularly Mexico and Puerto Rico—came to have certain relationships with the United States. Citizenship status, in particular, is often a point of confusion for general readers and students. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the Treaty of Paris (1898), the Jones Act (1917) that rendered Puerto Ricans US citizens, and the Bracero Agreement (formalized 1942, revised 1943), is California’s famous Proposition 187, a relatively recent document that speaks to charged contemporary debates. It was an attempt to restrict illegal immigrants’ access to resources (education and health care), passed in-state in 1994 but overturned at the federal level in 1997. Proposition 187 is useful not only as a partner text for other items in the anthology, but as another gateway to companion books with contemporary resonance if readers want to step out of the anthology into a larger world.
The Norton’s third appendix introduces other transnational aspects of Latino literature, providing essays by Latin Americans who have influenced literary history across the hemisphere. These writers discuss influential cultural concepts such as mestizaje, a keyword pertaining to the historic mixing of races in the Americas. Introducing each writer in the appendix’s statement, the editors give us a brief but complex orientation. Regarding a selection from José Vasconcelos, for example, editors note that his famous text on mestizaje envisions a “Brown Race,” loading that vision with both harmonious and hierarchical implications. Because his message is complicated, and because the piece has been used by later writers in different ways, a more extended explanation would be useful for readers new to the area. Teachers and professors who were not trained in Latin American studies will need to put extra preparation time into this section, just as those with less preparation in American (US) studies will need to do for other works in the book. While more extensive notes here would help general readers, their absence doesn’t necessarily indicate any failing of the book for classroom use, since the anthology as a genre presupposes that professionals will bring advanced study to their teaching.
The editors use the fourth appendix to address the need for additional context. Called “Selected Bibliographies,” it gives starting points for finding more information. General overviews of scholarship come first, directing readers to further resources about Latino literatures in general. Next come summaries of more specific traditions (Puerto Rican literature on the mainland, for example). These are followed by notes on individual writers and their publications, matched to the primary table of contents.
Closing the cover on these features, I look back at my syllabus and, though all the works on it are well worth reading, I feel guilty that I couldn’t fit even more material from the Norton anthology into our schedule, not to mention all the writers who arguably should have been included but weren’t. Most would agree, for example, that Edwin Torres should be in this anthology. If some of Torres’s poetry looks too strange, too experimental, or too playful for an anthology from a staid publisher like Norton, perhaps segments from his new collection, Yes Thing No Thing, will be considered in the future, such as the strikingly lovely pairing of “Moonboy” and “The Boy Made of Glass". Maria Melendez, Mónica de la Torre, Rosa Alcalá, Urayoán Noel, Daniel Borzutzky, John-Michael Rivera, and many others seem poised to appear in future editions as well.
Giant as this new book is, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature cannot transcend its status as a sort of museum: anthologies have a lag time that places them outside the exciting publishing action coming out of other corners, as well as a necessary commitment to the dead when historical scope is part of the mission. And no anthology can give us enough writers or works to say and do it all. But this impossibility itself is the best symbol of the vibrant field that Stavans and his fellow editors seek to represent. Meanwhile the next generations of Latino writers are emerging all around the nation now—not only in major urban areas like Chicago, but in suburbs, smaller cities and towns, and rural communities. They too will bring new perspectives to the making of American literature.
Kristin Dykstra is Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University, specializing in literatures of the Americas. Her translations and commentaries are featured in bilingual editions of work by Reina María Rodríguez and Omar Pérez (Cuba). Her forthcoming projects focus on Cuban-American and Chilean-American writers, as well as contemporary Cuban poetry.