The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Fiction from Mexico City

Article: U.S. Latino Poetry: The 1960’s to the Present

Article by Don Cellini, USA (Published in Issue 25)

By Don Cellini


The territorial United States has long been a home to Spanish speakers and writers.  Poetry written by Latinos in the US goes back to a time before 1776.  In recent years, however, there has been a new wave of literature written by Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, Dominicans, and others who now live in the United States – U.S. Latinos.

This most recent boom in literature finds its roots in the social and political events of the 1960’s, particularly the Civil Rights Movement.  The 1970’s saw the addition of courses in Hispanic Studies added to the curriculum in colleges and universities of the US.   By the 1980’s, there was already a second generation of US Latino writers, many with college degrees in creative writing (Kanellos).  The continued growth of literature by US Latino writers in the new millennium suggests that the trend is now mainstream.  Novels and poetry – in English, Spanish, and sometimes a combination of both – by these writers are now published by small presses and large publishers alike.  

Chicano Poetry: El Espoo/The Mirror

The current state of US Latino poetry owes a debt to the Chicano Poetry Renaissance of the 60’s.  These poets were sometimes writers with little formal education and other times those with advanced college degrees.  In either case, they saw their role as one of helping the disempowered, farm laborers, factory workers, others on the margins of society.  Much of their poetry focused on developing a “Chicano” identity through the appropriation of mythology from Mexico, the use of code switching and vernacular language, the continuation of an oral tradition, the search for the mythical Aztlán.  

Consider the poetry of Alurista who created a bilingual poetry that suggested the street language of many Hispanic youth (40):

Mis ojos hinchados

    flooded with lágrimas

de bronce

melting on my cheek bones

of my concern

    razgos indígenas

the scars of history on my face

    and the veins of my body

that aches

vomito sangre

y lloro libertad

    I do not ask for freedom

I am freedom.


Or these few lines by Luis Omar Salinas (187) which beckon Chicano readers to consider their indigenous Mexican heritage:

    I am an Aztec angel
        offspring

of a woman

            who was beautiful

Ricardo Sánchez (199) urges his audience to consider their indigenous identity, their role in society, their humanity in his poem “it is urgent’ which ends with the following stanzas:



WHO ARE WE?

we are the urgent voices

venting expletives

 

praising our haunted senses

stemming from our human-ness…

 

WE ARE UNIVERSAL MAN,

a spectral rivulet,

multi-hued and beautiful –

 

WE ARE LA RAZA

 

the cradle of civilization

crucible of –ness

yesterday, today & tomorrow

 

MESTIZO HUMAN-NESS.


The spirit and energy of this early period is best reflected in the anthology by Octavio Romano, El Espejo/The Mirror published in 1969.  The title alone reflects the search for identity and there are many works which also reflect the struggle against social and political conditions of the times.


US Latino Poetry: After Aztlán

The Chicano Renaissance was followed by an influx of immigrants, especially from Cuba.  These poets, as well as poets from Puerto Rico and immigrants from places such as the Dominican Republic added their voices to those of Chicano poets into what is now known as US Latino literature.  Although authors themselves identify as Mexican-American, or Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, such geographical divides in terms of literature have become less pronounced as Latino poets share the page with their Hispanic brothers and sisters. The anthology After Aztlán: Latino Poets in the Nineties, compiled by Ray González, reflects this change and also places the movement in relationship to the earlier generation of Chicano poets.

Sandra Cisneros, well known for the success of her novel The House on Mango Street published in 1984, also gained attention as a poet during this era.  Another fiction writer, Dominican Julia Álvarez, also published poetry.  Puerto Rican poet Martín Espada not only published several volumes of poetry, but his work Imagine the Angels of Bread, 1996, won an American book award.  Clearly US Latino poets of all backgrounds were publishing and receiving national attention.

On the west coast, Chicano poet Francisco Alarcón began attaining national and international attention for his poetry, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, or even in Nahuatl.   Consider this poem from his work From the Other Side of Night/ Del otro lado de la noche: New and Selected Poems (187):

Aids Blues

 

almost all

our friends

in San Francisco

are gone now

 

no more cards

no more calls

no more tears

no more laughs

 

silence and fog

now darken

our once sunny

Mission District

 

everywhere

we go now

we’re just a pair

of strangers.


The focus here is no longer on social identity, but on broader social issues.  But this new generation was varied.  Consider the angry voice of Jimmy Santiago Baca in his poem “So many Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans” (24):

Oh Yes?  Do they come on horses

with rifles, and say,

Ese gringo, gimme your job?

And do you, gringo, take off your ring,

drop your wallet into a blanket

spread over the ground, and walk away?


Pat Mora attained a wide readership with her poetry for adults as well as picture books for young readers.  The opening poem in her Book of Practical Saints, shows a subtle humor and deep understanding of the role of Catholic saints in the lives of her ancestors (11):

At sixteen I began to pray to you, old friends,

for a handsome man who would never stray.

Devoutly, I’d say

Saint Peter the Apostle

please grant me this miracle.

Saint Raphael, the Archangel

remove every obstacle,

San José, dear father,

may he frown at liquor

Saint Clare,

for Mother, could he be a millionaire.


Clearly, the 1980’s and 90’s produced many new and well-trained Latino poets in the US with styles and themes as varied as their countries of origin.  


The Current Wave: The Wind Shifts

Francisco Aragón captures the significant changes from previous decades of US Latino poetry with the title of his anthology The Wind Shifts, published in 2007.  Some references to the mythology of Mexico appear; issues of identity continue as themes, but much less than in earlier years.  A few poems appear in code-switching and some bilingual poems that appear side by side.  These new poets, however, show a strong interest in developing the craft of poetry.  Most have attended graduate school and have degrees in creative writing from some of the major university programs in the country.  These poets and their work tend to be more urban.

Brenda Cárdenas uses Spanish and English in her work.  Not to create a street-like tone, but rather to double her opportunities for alliteration.  Consider a few lines from “Duración – V” from  From the Tongues of Brick and Stone (32).

Aquí
The new sounds echo
a chamber older than memory.
Our v’s fling their arms open
and come back to us.   B’s.
We have seen balas
faster than veins of light
etching the night sky.

They fill our heads with ringing.

Rane Arroyo acknowledges his debt to the work of earlier Hispanic poets such as Pablo Neruda in Arroyo’s poem “The Visitor” (22):

Dawn

still painful, old amigo, and pain is

always a vague ghost nostalgic for

the blue bread that we eat to forget

 

our missing talent for love.   The dead

have mud for skies, ¿no?  Imagine, poet,

we can incorporate, shell shares in ourselves!

 

Sí, the world is still extraliterary.  Are there

bakers in the afterlife?  Poetry asks for you

by name, the one finally yours. Stop grinning.


Rigoberto González writes lyrical poems about family, death, characters of everyday life.  “What Smells Dead” is from his book So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (73).

If through whisper and caress we sense them,

if the yellow light sneaking out

at the splitting out of their bones betrays them,

why not notice the dead through smell?

 

…The dead don’t always have idle smells,

like those than linger at the tips

of gloves or those that rise from the mouths of shoes,

from the chair just emptied;

 

there is also the discharge of passions.

In lovers, the older the corpse, the stronger the letting go.

Secrets finally resurface…


And while earlier writers acknowledge a link to Spanish poets of previous times, this generation also acknowledges Keats, Whitman, Rita Dove, and others of the US cannon as well as Neruda, as their inspiration.  Eduardo Corral gives a nod to Robert Hayden in his poem by the same title “To Robert Hayden”:

Less lonely, less . . .

I gave you

a tiny box.

You lifted the lid,

praised

the usefulness

of my gift:

a silver pin shaped

like an amper-

sand. As you fastened it

to your lapel,

I thought again of

that motel

outside of Chicago.


Where the current wind shift will take poets is still unknown.  However, this Latino breeze carries many talented young writers including Steven Córdoba, Lidia Torres, Sheryl Luna, Kevin González, Brenda Cárdenas, Ricardo Blanco, Aracelis Girmay, as well as equally talented fiction writers.

Conclusion

Writing in 1971, Felipe de Ortego y Gasca lamented that there were no Chicano poets (or novelists) listed in the Cambridge Dictionary of American Literature.  And in 1980, Gary Keller and Francisco Jimenez complained of the few outlets for the publication of creative writing by Hispanics in the United States.  Today, Arte Público Press brags of more than 30 years of publishing and Bilingual Review Press, founded in 1973, has nearly 40 years of publishing history.   However, today US Latino poets are publishing with major houses such as Sandra Cisneros’ Lose Women by Vintage; Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca from Grove Press; Pat Mora’s Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints, by Beacon Press; books by Gary Soto and Francisco Alarcón, by Chronicle Books; Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems by Juan Felipe Herrera by City Lights, and this is but the beginning of what could be a long list.  Even more Latino poets have published with smaller presses, as is true of poetry in general in the US.  These authors and their books are reviewed in the New York Times and included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Like Black literature, work by US Latino poets has become more mainstream today.   Perhaps sometime soon there will no longer be the need for adjectives such as Black or Latino and all poets will simply be considered US poets.

Works Cited


Alarcón, Francisco X.  From the Other Side of Night/ Del otro lado de la noche.  Tucson: The University of Ariona Press.  2002.

Alurista.  Floricanto. Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Center, University of California.  1971.

Aragón, Francisco, ed.  The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry.  Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.  2007.

Arroyo, Rane.  “The Visitor.”  Harold Augenbraum and Ilan Stavans, eds.  Lengua Fresca.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.

Baca, Jimmy Santiago.  Immigrant in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems.  New York: New Directions.  1990.

Eduardo C. Corral.  “To Robert Hayden.”  Poetry Magazine.  December 2011.

González, Ray.  After Aztlán: Latino Poets of the Nineties.  Boston: David R. Garodine.  1992.

González, Rigoberto.  So Often the Pitcher goes to Water until It Breaks.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.  1999.

Kanellos, Nicolás, ed.  The Hispanic Literary Companion.   Detroit: Visible Ink.  1997.

Mora, Pat.  Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints.   Boston: Beacon Press.  1997.

Ortego y Gasco, Felipe. “An Introduction to Chicano Poetry.”  Modern Chicano Writers:A collection of critical essays.  Eds.  Joseph Sommers and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto. Englewood Clifs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.  1979.

Ramos, Octavio, ed.  El Espejo/The Mirror: Selected Mexican-American Literature. Berkley, CA: Quinto Sol.  1969.

Keller, Gary and Francisco Jimenez, eds.  Hispanics in the United States: An Anthology of Creative Literature.  Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual Review Press.  1980.

Salinas, Luis Omar. “Aztec Angel.”  Voices of Aztlan: Chicano Literature of Today.  Eds. Dorothy E. Harth and Lewis M. Baldwin.   New York: Mentor Books.  1974.

Sanchez, Ricardo.  “It is Urgent.”  Voices of Aztlán: Chicano Literature of Today.  Eds. Dorothy E. Harth and Lewis M. Baldwin.   New York: Mentor Books.  1974.

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Bio: Don Cellini is an educator, poet, translator, photographer. Author of two bilingual chapbooks and a book of prose poems. Translator: Elías Nandino: Selected Poems (2010 McFarland) and Imágenes para una anunciación / Images for an annunciation (2012 FootHills).