Academic journal article MELUS

The Politics of Language: Latina Writers in United States Literature and Curricula

Academic journal article MELUS

The Politics of Language: Latina Writers in United States Literature and Curricula

Article excerpt

A few years ago Nuyorican poet Sandra Maria Esteves came to Mount Holyoke College to read from her new collection, Bluestown Mockingbird Mambo. A vibrant, warm, humorous woman, I was struck by the generosity but also by the passion with which she shared her poems. Esteves spoke of "creating poems from the ashes of charred histories / ... focusing the tip of this superfluous pen / from a ragged surface into a balanced line of dignity / opening doors to the unspoken..." (1990, 82), and I was struck once again by the fact that this literature deserves a much wider audience than it has thus far generally had. "Invisible," Esteves called her type of literature, reminding her audience that:

Images of women come in multiple shades.

Tints and lights of prism-fractured textures

forming semi-precious facets,

opaque, clear, crystalline,

capturing color blends of unrecorded histories... (36)

The incorporation of the literature of Latino/a writers into U.S. college curricula has traditionally been a thorny issue, principally because of a linguistic dilemma that places many of these authors squarely into a Catch-22 situation: English departments tend to shy away from writings that contain Spanish words and Spanish departments are loath to teach texts that are at least partially--or totally--in English. In this study I propose to look at some examples of Latina literature, to examine the reasons for the particular choice of the language in which they write, and to advocate for the inclusion of this literature into the curricula of both English and Spanish departments.


Who or what is a Latino/a? In his 1990 article on Latino writers, Earl Shorris ran squarely into this problem of definition: "No one is really quite certain about who exactly qualifies as Latino--or whether Latino, Hispanic, Spanish, Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, Nuevo Mexicano, Puerto Rican, Neorican, Borinqueno, Puertorriqueno or other apellations are proper names.... How shall the category be defined? By ancestry? Surname? Subject matter? Or geography?" (27). In the creation of our book Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, my co-editors and I had a similar struggle with the definition of this politically sensitive term, finally concluding that a Latina is a woman of Latin American origin or descent who resides more or less permanently in the United States, who may choose to express herself in Spanish or English or both, but who identifies with a Latin heritage rather than opting to assimilate into the dominant Anglo culture of this country.(1) The general preference for the term "Latina" over "Hispanic" is again a political statement, for the latter adjective is perceived as a term imposed on Latino groups by the Anglos (Ortega 163), yet a perusal of their work shows that even among the Latinos themselves use of this adjective is not yet universal (cf. the title of Evangelina Vigil's anthology, Woman of Her Word: Hispanic Women Write or Nicolas Kanellos's Biographical Dictionary of Hispanic Literature in the United States).

The cultural, linguistic and racial heritage of Latinos differs greatly. In the process of establishing their identity within the United States, these groups have suffered multiple forms of marginalization: economic, racial, linguistic and cultural; in the case of the Latina women who have had to function as "a marginal group within a marginal group" (Herrera-Sobek 10), one can add sexual discrimination as well. Within the restricted parameters of this study, I plan to limit myself to a discussion of several representative Chicana and Nuyorican writers who have written from within this highly charged setting and have consciously used their language politically as well as esthetically in order to address the two issues that are central to their survival ethnicity and gender (cf. Sanchez 1-23).

Latina writing in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating from the early seventies. …

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