Australian lawyer Sunili Govinnage made big splashes on social media at the start of January when she declared 2014 the year she’d “only read books by writers of color.” And following Govinnage’s column in the Guardian, Book Riot, The Critical Flame and a host of bibliophiles have made similar pledges. (This guy was ahead of the curve, crowdsourcing a reading list pre-holidays!)
And I’m pumped about all the “let’s finally stop reading only dead white guys” sentiment. But I’ve got one small bone to pick here: Govinnage’s piece didn’t mention any Latin Americans or Latinos. Outside of the great James Baldwin, she didn’t even bother to name drop anyone from the Western Hemisphere.
So why—given our lengthy literary tradition—have people of Latin American descent been unceremoniously axed from the annals of the written word, especially given the column’s focus on writers of color? Sure, Govinnage’s Australia is geographically removed from the Americas. But perhaps it’s more a case of—consciously or otherwise—denying Latin American authors and their US counterpart’s agency in the literary world, where the most indigenous works are left to rot at the margins with the most European given a place among the classics of the Global North. You can’t choose to be a Great Latin American Author—the literary tradition of the Western Hemisphere belongs exclusively to the US because, you know, cultural dominance and stuff. Your Latin Americanness (or indigeneity or nativeness) is incidental to your writing.
Whatever. Latin American literature is changing, though the structures that keep the the works themselves tied down—government sponsorship, the importance of English translation, etc.—haven’t budged. So let’s stop perpetuating the cycle. We all know that the vast lands from Ciudad Juárez to Patagonia have more to offer than Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa.
So back away from One Hundred Years of Solitude and toss that old paperback of La casa de los Espíritus into the book donation bin, because Latin America’s rich literary heart was beating long before “the Boom,” long before colonization, even—and it hasn’t slowed yet.
With these 9 starters, we got you. (And all the friends who will doubtlessly ask you for recommendations.)
Roberto Bolaño (Chile/Spain) Bolaño turned every perverse and desperate sensation you’ve ever felt into words. If you’re pissed off and/or under 30, you’ve almost definitely read The Savage Detectives. Graduate to the big kid stuff with 2666, a 900-page beast, or one of El Último Maldito’s collections of verse, like The Romantic Dogs.
Julio Cortázar (Argentina) Gabo’s star may shine the brightest, but Cortázar is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the Boom of Latin American literature. And unlike Garcia Márquez, this Argentina native writes about more than just really old dudes hooking up with prepubescent prostitutes, instead choosing to delve into the intricacies of youth, expectations, and guilt. Bonus: Cortázar’s Hopscotch is widely considered the predecessor of Bolaño’s Detectives.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Mexico) Studying Latin American history in college, we ended up talking about Sor Juana in pretty much every class, mostly because she—a nun, poet and early model feminist born in the Spanish Empire in the mid 1600s who wrote in her native tongue as well as in Nahuatl—is among the first Spanish-language figures in Mexican literature. She famously penned the line: “I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less.” And any collection of Sor Juana’s poetry is worth picking up.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Spain/Mexico) Though he’s gained notoriety in the mainstream with his detective stories, Paco Taibo is a radical at heart—he’s collaborated on the novel The Uncomfortable Dead with Subcomandante Marcos of Zapatista fame and is a veteran of Mexico’s 1968 student movement. And his pocket-sized memoir/essay 68 is hands-down one of the best books I’ve ever read, oozing pithy one-liners and existential-crisis inducing observations. Looking for a higher page count? His biography of Che Guevara is a real page-turner. (Maybe more importantly, PIT once set off all the fire alarms in my college’s student center when he lit a cigarette in the cafeteria.)
Gloria Anzaldúa (Texas) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is the Holy Grail of Chicano studies, written by one of the baddest Chicanas and queer theorists of all time. And written from Aztlán—part United States, part Mexico—the book exists at a crossroads not only for Latinos, but for anyone who has ever felt like a walking contradiction.
Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua)
Belli was a Sandinista guerrilla in the lucha against the Somoza dictatorship, though she’s been openly critical of the FSLN government in recent years. Most of Belli’s writings focus on gender issues, but her novel The Inhabited Woman, the story of a “modern” woman compelled to join a revolutionary struggle after she is, er, possessed by a pre-colonial indigenous woman, hauntingly melds the pre- and post-1491 worlds.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Argentina)
By all accounts, Che was a mediocre doctor and an abysmal diplomat. But as a guerilla, Guevara was dynamic and decisive, fluid and inspiring. Same goes for the OG of insurgency’s writings. The Cuban Revolution’s own Renaissance Man left behind dozens of published works. And reading Guevara—from the Kerouac-esque Motorcycle Diaries to the slightly less readable Guerilla Warfare—is a thrilling peak into the mind of one of the most polarizing figures in all of Latin America.
Loida Maritza Pérez (Dominican Republic)
The author of Geographies of Home was born in the DR just two short years after the Trujillo dictatorship toppled. And like some other works that deal with that dark era of Dominican history, Perez’s novel centers on a Dominican immigrant family in the US, struggling with the cycle of abuse, ethnic schizophrenia and self-hate that garnered momentum from all they experienced under the trujillato. Pérez’s writing is unique, but don’t be surprised if you’re reminded of a certain other novel about Dominicans in NY—published 8 years later.
Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (Mexico)
Otherwise known as the real-life Úlises Lima, Santiago’s Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic has been compared to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Just do yourself a favor and read it.
So…who’s on your list?