Expanding the Literary Canon: Hispanic Literature Is Growing in Popularity, and Scholars Would like to See It Better Incorporated into High School, College Curriculums

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For most college students, literature courses began in high school and consisted almost entirely of the classics of America and Western Europe. But English professor Norma E. Cantu says the emergence of Hispanic literature and its growing popularity on college campuses around the country--and the world--is proof that American literature is expanding and making room for the diverse cultures that make up this country.

"American literature has been growing since the beginning," says Cantu, who teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio "[Herman] Melville and others entered the canon where traditionally there were only British writers. Then the canon expanded to include African-American writers and more."

Although Hispanic literature isn't new, it has generally been left out of world literature courses, says Cantu. "Since the 1930s, there were writers being published, not by New York presses but by smaller presses," she says.

Dr. Louis Mendoza, chair of the Chicano studies department at the University of Minnesota, says high schools and universities have a role to play in exposing students to diverse types of literature.

"We want kids who are better writers, who are able to express themselves, and when they enter college, it shouldn't be the first time they have been exposed to this," he says. "I was 25 the first time I was exposed to Hispanic literature. It changed my life and became my life's calling. And that was very sad that it happened so late."

Cantu says American literature has evolved and will continue to evolve as writers from different ethnic groups emerge on the literary scene. But she would like to see this shift, for example, reflected on the GRE's English exam.

"There are some African-American writers represented there, but no Chicanos," she says. "It's a continuous struggle to expand that canon and get equal time and equal space."

A Long Time Coming

Cantu says the civil rights movement helped bring new styles of literature into the mainstream, pointing to the current popularity of East Indian, Iranian and Vietnamese writers as examples. But, she says, it was Black and Hispanic writers who opened the door for the others.

Mendoza agrees, adding that both groups used literature during the civil rights movement, "as a cultural weapon and as a source of affirmation and cultural celebration."

The next big leap came with the multicultural movement of the 1980s and '90s, which prompted colleges and universities to begin recognizing the gaps in their curriculums.

In his 2003 nonfiction book, Crossing Into America, Mendoza examines the political event that he says set the stage for the multicultural movement and other social changes. In 1965, the U.S. Congress voted to repeal the immigration restrictions of the 1924 National Origins Act. The federal law had long discriminated against people from Latin America and Asia, giving immigration preference to well-educated and well-funded Europeans. The repeal of the quotas meant Latin Americans and Asians were free to enter the United States in large numbers for the first time.

"The coming of those peoples created a layer base of people to produce that body of literature," Mendoza says.

Within the growing body of Hispanic literature is also older work by Hispanic writers, which must be recovered, Mendoza says. He specifically praises the work of Arte Publico Press, which has been working to restore the literary history of American Hispanics. Scholars across the country have been helping the Press with the "Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project," uncovering the writings of Hispanic and Latino explorers, settlers and writers since the 1500s.

In 2002, the Press published En Otra Voz: Antologia de Literatura Espana de Los Estados Unidos (Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature in the United States, the English-language version, was published by Oxford University Press), the first comprehensive collection of Spanish-language literature from U. …

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