Why Latino Lit Isn’t Progressive

Readers of Latino literature who either don’t read Spanish or don’t read translations of Spanish-language books are likely ignorant of how vastly different the stories told in Latin America are from those written by Latinos in the United States. Issues of identity are fairly nonexistent, the characters are in their country of origin, and the ease with which the characters exist and regard each other as humans rather than mere nationalities is quite similar to the way white authors write white characters. Which is to say, esoteric themes are geared more toward what it is to be human, subject matter is expansive, and the professions and class identifications of the characters are varied. Race may play a role or it may not, but if it does, it is in service of a story, rather than just commentary. There is another aspect that is even more important to me, which is, aside from real maravilloso works (also known as “magical realism”), these stories are oftentimes urban and modern, with depictions of technology and characters with a wide range of knowledge about worldly matters.

There is a discrepancy between pre-magical realist works like the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, magical realism, and post-Macondo books (if you are unfamiliar with Macondo, it is the fictional town Gabriel García Márquez used in several of his books as a stand-in for Latin America as a whole). The discrepancy comes from perspective. Magical realism had a specific purpose, which was to address the fact that Latin Americans based their cultural mythology on either indigenous or European myths, but lack a mythology designed for their specific history. The purpose of these books would be to develop a way of understanding the post-Columbian history of the Americas in an allegorical manner along the lines of what the Greeks did. However, problems arose when the style became an international phenomenon that downplayed the historical and allegorical aspects of the genre and instead focused on the “magical,” which is to say fantastical, aspects of it. Magical realism became a tool for whites to understand Latinos by turning our stories and cultures into narratives that resonate with mysticism and otherworldly knowledge.

Writers in Latin America saw how this misperception of the hugely anti-capitalist, anti-imperial, and often anti-American stories that arose from writers like Carpentier, Rulfo, and Márquez trivialized Latino culture by making us out to be rural, backwards and superstitious, and set out to correct the narrative with post-Macondo literature. This genre, which has been the dominant form for over 20 years, is deliberately realistic, oftentimes with a journalistic bent. These books focus on daily life and daily struggles of Latin America at all levels of society. The writing is largely leftist, in a way American literature rarely is. The dignity, complexity and depth of Latin American literature stands in stark contrast with Latino literature as a whole.

What Latinos learned from the magical realist movement was that publishers want their brown people much like they want their black people — as magical and wise, or backwards, violent and ignorant — and happily abided in order to get published. There are three dominant narrative themes from Latino writers:

1. Immigration/American Dream: A family travels across the border, or on a raft, and while they struggle, the children assimilate and graduate college and become the successful capitalists the parents had dreamed of them becoming. The adults are either uneducated or have personal beliefs that are either of the most fundamentally religious variety or are stuck in the 19th century (sometimes earlier than that). The children are blatantly progressive — having fully embraced American culture, oftentimes refusing to speak Spanish — and have to find a balance in respecting tradition while embracing their American identity (progress). Examples: The Book of Unknown Americans, House on Mango Street, When I Was Puerto Rican.

2. Indigenous/African Spirituality: In order to break away from Western, colonial bonds of Christianity/patriarchy, the character relies on or becomes a follower of a pre-Christian religion brought to Latin America via slaves, or is a follower of a hybrid of Christianity and indigenous or African religions (such as Santería). Embracing this religion often gives the person supernatural powers. Example: Bless Me, Ultima.

3. Identity in All Its Forms: This one is often tied to immigration (but doesn’t have to be) and is not only racial but oftentimes gender- or sexuality-based. The character rejects the patriarchal, mostly Catholic identity of their parents, which is associated with Latin America, and instead identifies with minority identities that are based on American principles of freedom. Examples: Anything written by Richard Rodriguez.

Dominican girls dressed up as Taínos (Global Panorama/Flickr)
Dominican girls dressed up as Taínos (Global Panorama/Flickr)

All three have a common thread, that of Latin America being “savage,” while the United States represents “modernity.” The older generations universally come from a rural village of some sort, implying that Latin America does not have urban centers. The older generation has no knowledge of technology, because Latin America lacks technology. Same for education, medical procedures, progressive movements, feminism, LGBT rights, and on and on. The United States has all that is new and good, and Latin America is just a place you love because your grandparents or parents came from there and you love them. The journey in points one and three above are centered on the protagonist shedding the backwards culture of their parents in order to become who they truly are, which no matter what moniker that is, the underlying goal they seek is being American above all else.

Reading Latino literature, you’d think everyone either lives in a shack in the desert or a bohío in the jungle and that there are dirt roads everywhere, zero medical clinics, and zero schools or universities.

For some readers, I probably don’t need to explain why this worldview is so wrong, but just bear with me. Let’s deal with one misperception at a time:

1. American culture is inherently progressive: Yeah, which is why #BlackLivesMatter exists — not because racist cops continually murder black and brown people with impunity, but because Americans are just so fervently dedicated to protecting minorities that we created a group to express our unity as a people. Yeah, sure, give me some of that Kool-Aid;  it must be spiked with some potent shit. But seriously, America is full of bigoted, backwards, uneducated people, many of whom occupy high levels of power and government. So why does Latino literature not focus on this reality? I recently read a crime novel that described Mexico City as the “dark heart” of an evil country that destroys those who live there, even though the main characters live in an Austin, Texas, full of extreme violence and drug abuse. Yet Austin is portrayed as a good city with bad parts, as though Mexico City couldn’t be thought of in the same way.

2. Latin America is almost entirely rural: Yes, which is why Sao Paolo is the fourth largest city in the world by population, and both Mexico City and Lima have larger populations than New York City. Latin American capitals and cities are notoriously massive, with Bogota at 9 million people and Buenos Aires at 12 million. To have Latino characters almost always be from rural areas completely disregards these massive population centers.

3. Latin America lacks basic human needs, institutions or infrastructure: Reading Latino literature, you’d think everyone either lives in a shack in the desert or a bohío in the jungle and that there are dirt roads everywhere, zero medical clinics, and zero schools or universities. Yet Mexico alone has 4,466 hospitals, public and private. My cousin went to medical school at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, a school that attracts students from around the world (she told me half the students were from the U.S., in fact). The National Autonomous University of Mexico is a hugely prestigious university, as is the University of Buenos Aires. Cuban scientists found a vaccine for lung cancer, in spite of the U.S. embargo and other limitations. All Latin American cities have libraries, museums, art galleries, colleges and universities. Nearly all Latin American metropolises have subway systems. For the last seven years, Uruguay has provided all elementary school students with laptops so they are computer literate at a young age. Uruguay was also the second country in the world, after France, to have mandatory universal education. So what was that about Latin Americans being ignorant and lacking even indoor plumbing, as one would rightly assume when reading a Latino book?

4. Latin American culture is stuck in backward cultural norms and lacks any progressivism — especially for women: Undoubtedly much work has to be done in several Latin American societies when it comes to eradicating machista attitudes and culture, but you know where else men are pigs? Just about every country the world over. Misogyny is not a uniquely Latino problem. It is hilarious to me that a region with so many socialist societies — Cuba, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela — and where just a couple years ago three countries (all of whom are neighbors, funny enough) had female presidents, and where Argentina legalized gay marriage before the United States did, is depicted in Latino literature as wholly conservative. There is a large array of political ideologies in Latin America, ranging from Leninist Marxism to fascism, and while many societies remain religious, the Catholic Church has lost much of its power in recent years. Protestantism, in fact, is on the rise in Latin America, and not always the conservative variety. There are also atheists, and Buddhists, and every other belief system you can think of. Yet this plurality is rarely, if ever, shown in Latino lit.

5. Indigenous/African spirituality: By far the most offensive trend is the portrayal of Santería and curanderos and other African-based religious practices. The offensive part isn’t that these depictions exist; it is that they are always tied to the supernatural. These aren’t just religions to better a person like any other one, but to follow them gives one healing powers or powers of intuition. They allow a person to dodge bullets and sometimes even fly. These depictions are tied to an idiotic belief that anything Western is wrong, that indigenous cultures were privy to knowledge lost in the nightmare of colonialism, and that by following these religions, the person can reconnect with their spiritual roots, free of patriarchy and Western influence. The reverence for these spiritual systems speaks to the “savage versus civilized” tightrope these books traverse. While post-imperial Latin America is depicted as backwards, undeveloped and oppressive, pre-Columbian America is depicted as enlightened, unified, peaceful and advanced. So by returning to spirituality free of colonial influence, we as a people can recapture the superior civilizations that existed prior to Columbus’s arrival.

There are a few problems with this, aside from the historical inaccuracy that pre-conquest America was a peaceful utopia, but the most glaring is that these santeros and spiritualists are glorified witch doctors. Stick a bone through their nose and have them walk around half-naked with no shoes on, and they are no different than racist depictions of uncivilized African societies. There would be outrage if the main character who seeks out these medicine men and women were white. It would be seen as appropriation. So what makes it less offensive when the protagonist is Latino? The implication when one goes to a character such as this is that Latin America is magical, meaning it is not a real place, and its people, not real people. The implication is also that Latin Americans only use these witch doctors for medicinal needs due to their lack of infrastructure and modern technology. Yet this could not be further from the truth. If you get shot in Latin America, there are medical clinics, there are hospitals, there are doctors and surgeons of every variety. So why are the only health care professionals depicted in Latino literature witch doctors?

What need do we have to rail against white savior characters when our own protagonists are essentially Oreos who view Latin America in the same way as racist white characters in a Rudyard Kipling novel view Africa? Instead of providing realistic and nuanced depictions of Latin America, we view it as a massive ghetto of ignorance, a backwards culture that must be avoided. Our own authors depict us this way. Our own authors write books that are incredibly racist toward their own people, and worst of all, it is in the service of emboldening and praising the very country that abuses and creates chaos in our homelands.

My point isn’t that Latin America is perfect — it most certainly is not — but when you are writing books that uphold a land with higher murder rates, higher drug addiction, extensive political corruption, and a militarist tradition that has been a disaster for our region, as the height of civilization, while Latin America is just a land of savages, you might just need to reexamine who is the civilized and who is the savage. Latino lit needs narratives that stop demonizing Latin America. We need real, nuanced depictions of our homelands, and more discerning, critical examinations of the United States.


Featured image: Shannon McGee/Flickr