Next 500 Years: A Greeting to the Past and Future of Latinx Letters in the U.S.

Next 500 Years: A Greeting to the Past and Future of Latinx Letters in the U.S.

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BY GUEST WRITER: Dr. Kenya Carmen Dworkin y Méndez, Carnegie Mellon University Professor and Latin American Cultural Union Co-President

Our identity as Latina/o/s/x from the Past to the Present and Beyond

In returning to our previous survey of Latinx letters, we find that by the eighteenth century as evidence of our presence. We have accounts or testimonies from people like Eulalia Pérez (1766-1878) and Apolinaria Lorenzana (1790-1884), both of them head housekeepers at Spanish missions in California. They both testified to the living conditions endured by the Indigenous people who were forced to live and work in them. María de las Angustias de Guerra Ord (1815-1880) offers her own testimony regarding the numerous native uprisings, and Mexican and U.S. invasions in California. With her own articles (published in Century Illustrated
Monthly Magazine) about life in Mexican California, Brígida Briones (1881-?) contributed to the romanticization of the gentle and pastoral life of Monterey and the coast, an image quite contrary to the version of the West that was being promulgated through other sources (the press and serialized novels). There are also an infinite amount of letters and editorials in Hispanic newspapers by people like Platón Vallejo (1841-1925), son of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo; Juan Nepomuceno Seguín (1806-1890), from a powerful political and ranching family; Francisco P. Ramírez (1837-1908), Pablo de la Guerra (1819-1874), Aurora Lucero White (1894-1965), María Amparo Ruíz de Burton (1832-1895), Jovita Idar (1885-1946), P.G (Pero Grullo, an “anonymous” contributor to the Revista de Taos), among others. Aurora Lucero White and P.G., for example, wrote about the protection and promotion of the Spanish language, as well as of English. In 1855, Ramírez, editor-in-chief of El Clamor Público, wrote and published an editorial
questioning the U.S. concept of freedom, enumerating a series of laws that he considered discriminatory and unjust. Ruíz de Burton, in her own right, is one of the superstars of our U.S. Latinx canon, but not only for the copious number of letters—in both Spanish and English—she penned in correspondence with statesmen in Mexico, the U.S., and a number of other
countries, but also because she published two novels in English in Philadelphia. Her purpose was to communicate with the English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon public. Her novel Who Would Have Thought It? (18720, the first novel published by a Mexican author living in the U.S. (California
was already part of the U.S.). is about the corruption and racism present in the society and religiosity of New England and Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, and entirely deconstructs the concept of race, class, gender, and human rights at that time. She also published The Squatter and the Don (1885), a novel that accurately captures the situation of landed California
Mexicans who were losing there legitimate lands to powerful and land grabbing Americans.

Once in the twentieth century, some of our U.S. literature reflects the kind of identity conflicts that would arise naturally from living in a country whose dominant culture is different from one’s own, even if the first vastly predated the second. This is certainly the case with authors such as Américo Paredes (1915-1999), who ouevre—novels, stories, and journalistic essays—forged a path for Latino studies in U.S. universities. For his part, Tomás Rivera, contributed to this with his texts, among them his stream-of-consciousness novel …y no se lo tragó la tierra […and the Earth did not Swallow Him] (Berkeley, CA: Quinto Sol, 1971), containing a very personal view of the lives of migrant workers. Chicano activist Jesús “El Flaco” Jiménez (1944- ), on the other hand, puts his emphasis on the symbols of everyday life for ordinary folk. In his poetic odes, for example, Oda al frijol and Oda al molcajete, he elevates humble food and daily implements through beautiful, codeswitching poetry. Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera, too, uses codeswitching to purposely help the reader/listener visualize the daily struggle of Latinos struggling to retain a language disdained and denied by a society whose dominant language was English.

A bit later on, Cuban exile Iván Acosta’s theatrical piece El Súper gives life to the vicissitudes of a Cuban refugee family in New York City, as well as to the more universal, intergenerational tensions it experienced. Salvadorean Mario Bencastro (1949) wrote a number of novels, among them Odisea al Norte Odessey to the North, published by the Recovery Project. In it, he offers an intimate view of the cultural conflict and alienation endured
by immigrants in large cities like D.C., in this case. Cuban Dolores Prida, on the other hand, in the play Coser y cantar To Sew and Sing, offers us a dramatic perspective on how the tension between past and present, Spanish and English, and Cubanness and Americanness can quite literally and figuratively divide a woman in two parts—ELLA and SHE.

The future?

A poem by Mexican Guillermo Gómez-Peña (1955- ) will allow us to end this brief survey of the rich history of Hispanic letters in the U.S. through a transborder perspective that deconstructs for us the path we have to follow. It allows us to see that this centuries-old corpus of texts with one foot in the fifteenth century and another in the 21 st has experienced a kind of
evolution that has included Spanish, English, Spanglish, and even a return to Spanish, thanks to the constant arrival of new immigrants. Thus, what we have is a literary production that sometimes splits—in English or Spanish—but always keeps reflecting the complexity of our past, present, and future, all three of them amply conditioned by countless factors: country of origin, mother tongue, citizenship status, geography, religion, gender, race, and politics. The following excerpt from Gómez-Peña’s poem Lección de geografía finisecular [A Turn-of-Century Geography Lession] captures the essence of this tension, which will shape Latinx literature in
the U.S. regardless of what language it is written in.

dear reader/dear audience
repeat with me out loud:

México es California
Marruecos es Madrid
Pakistán es Londres
Argelia es París
Cambodia es San Francisco
Turquía es Frankfurt
Puerto Rico es Nueva York
Centroamérica es Los Angeles
Honduras es New Orleans
Argentina es París
Beijing es San Francisco
Haití es Nueva York
Nicaragua es Miami
Chiapas es Irlanda
your house is also mine
your language mine as well
& your heart will be mine
one of these nights
es la fuerza del sur
El Sur en el Norte

Dr. Kenya Carmen Dworkin y Méndez was born in Havana, Cuba, but grew up in NYC. Totally bilingual in Spanish and English, she is a professor of Hispanic Studies and Translation at Carnegie Mellon University. Over the past 25 years, she has received a combined total of $250,000 in both research and community project education and arts grants, and serves on numerous editorial and research boards in the U.S. and abroad. In Pittsburgh, she volunteers as the Executive Director of Coro Latinoamericano, Co-President of the Latin American Cultural Union, and Co-Director of the CMU Hispanic children’s outreach program, CIRCULO. Contact Kenya at 412-721-9208 or kdworkin@andrew.cmu.edu.

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