What Defines Latino Literature?

In compiling the latest anthology in the Norton series, professor Ilan Stavans researched the themes explored by Latino authors

Latino writer Martín Espada is one of many mentioned in The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature who say Walt Whitman influenced them and consider him as a godfather. (AP Photo / Daily Hampshire Gazette, Kevin Gutting)

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We can’t talk about America today without feeling that the ghost of Whitman is sitting next to us, particularly when you are dealing with so-called minority or ethnic literature. In the 19th century, Whitman was receptive to the idea of multitudes—a country that is made of many countries. He looks at New York City as a metaphor for the rest of the country, and that New York City is a symphony of voices, of backgrounds. In particular, when it comes to poetry, there are a lot of Latino writers that view him as a godfather, or even as a compadre. William Carlos Williams, Martín Espada, and Jimmy Santíago Baca, for instance. Whitman is in writers who want not only to produce aesthetic artifacts but also use those cultural and literary artifacts as tools or weapons for change.

In the section titled “Into the Mainstream” you say that Latinos are united by their language and minority status. Do you think that the literature will change when Latinos are longer in the minority?

It has been said that by the year 2050 one of every three Americans will be of Latino background. Maybe in 2050, you won’t have to put together a Norton Anthology of Latino Literature because Latino literature will be American literature. But, on the other hand, the more global the world and the country become, the more we emphasize our differences. The more we all look the same and eat the same food and dress the same way, the more we want to say that some of us came from Italy and some of us came from Ireland, or we’re Jewish or Latino. I think that we will see something not unlike the Jewish American experience, in which Latino culture becomes so integrated into the DNA of mainstream culture that it will be very difficult to distinguish between one and the other. How long that will take, I don’t know.

About Chloe Schama
Chloe Schama

Chloe Schama is deputy editor of the New Republic and writes regularly about books for Smithsonian magazine. She recently published Wild Romance, a critically acclaimed nonfiction account of a Victorian-era marriage scandal.

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