An Overview of Latin American Literature

The literature of Latin America has undergone a steady process of change and development over the last several centuries. The history of Latin American literature begins with the oral traditions of indigenous peoples of the pre-Columbian Americas and continues through the e-books and electronic newspapers of the present day. The topic is far too broad and has far too many subcategories to be covered in a single thousand-word post, but the following is a concise summary of literature in Latin America.

People of the Maya, Aztec, and other indigenous groups recorded their history in both oral and written form. Tragically, Spanish conquistadores and colonizers destroyed the vast majority of indigenous writings after their arrival in the Americas. Many of the surviving records were looted from conquered and assimilated cultures and sent back to Europe, where they now sit in museums and private collections. The surviving texts, in the form of codices, are primarily named for their current location rather than for their place of origin. The codices address a variety of topics, but most of them focus on religious and scientific understandings of the world. The most famous of these codices is the Dresden Codex, which is widely accepted to be the oldest surviving book from the Americas.1 The Dresden Codex, written by Mayans around the 13th century, functions as a calendar and astronomical text.

File:Dresden Codex pp.58-62 78.jpg
A section of the Dresden Codex depicting mathematics and astronomy.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dresden_Codex_pp.58-62_78.jpg; unknown author/public domain

Even after the Spanish conquest, indigenous Americans continued to resist assimilation and produce great works of literature. Many of the works produced in the century or two after Spanish arrival focus on preserving indigenous history, folklore, and religion for future generations. Although it is impossible to know how many of these cultural tomes were lost to Spanish torches, one of the most important surviving texts was written by Peruvian Huamán (or Guamán) Poma around 1615. Titled El primer nueva crónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), Poma’s work was originally a letter to the Spanish king describing the origins of the Inca people and their history up until the arrival of Spaniards.2 In addition, the First New Chronicle describes the harsh and brutal treatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish and includes nearly 400 illustrations of daily life in Peru. It is unclear if King Philip II ever read the First New Chronicle, but the document has been invaluable for researchers studying the era of Spanish conquest.

The Spanish and their descendants also produced many works of literature in Latin America. Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and Francisco Pizarro each produced accounts of their exploration and conquest that informed Spanish opinions and policies for decades to come.3 Religious leaders and colonial officials continued to record what they saw and did in their lives, and in the 17th century poetry arose as a popular genre for missionaries in the region. Juana Inés de la Cruz—a Mexican nun, writer, and philosopher—was an early advocate of feminist ideology, and her poetry and prose attracted a number of followers, although her works were forgotten for a long period of time before scholars began disseminating them again in the last century.4 Literature also played a role in the movement to gain independence from Spain; in successive generations, anti-colonialists like Simón Bolívar made great use of pamphlets and mass-produced writings to recruit followers to their causes and overthrow Spanish rule.5

Modernismo arose in the late 19th century as the first purely Latin American field of literature, connecting all of Latin America and eventually spreading to Spain and France, among other countries. While the movement began in Nicaragua in the 1880s, writers from Mexico, Cuba, Uruguay, and Argentina all gained followings in this era. Modernismo authors often gave their works exotic and elegant settings, which served both to highlight the materialism of everyday life as well as provide an escape for the ugliness of the real world.6 Modernismo was also notable for its strong resistance to imperialism, particularly that of the United States. In particular, the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s prompted a new wave of avant-garde literature.

File:Madero en Cuernavaca.jpg
The unrest of the Mexican Revolution proved fertile ground for the authors of Latin America during the era of Modernismo. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_en_Cuernavaca.jpg; public domain

The next major era of Latin American literature was the Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. Characterized by a willingness to experiment with new techniques and topics, as well as by reflections on the unstable political climate of the era, the Latin American Boom launched authors from the region onto the global stage. Heavily influenced by modernism, Boom writers challenged the established conventions of Latin American literature, most notably bringing to the forefront the genre of magical realism.7 Magical realism is a broad term describing a style of fiction that depicts a realistic view of the modern world, but with magical elements added.8 Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who utilized magical realism to great effect, would become the most famous and successful of the Boom-era writers, and perhaps the most famous Latin American author in history.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez Quote: Wisdom comes to us when it can no ...
A picture depicting Gabriel García Márquez alongside a quote reading, “Wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” The quote comes from Love in the Time of Cholera. Found at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/490610953151380377/

In the last forty years, Latin American literature has continued to evolve, as contemporary writers find new subjects and approach old ones with fresh perspectives. One of my favorite works from the 1980s is Jamaica Kincaid’s controversial A Small Place, an emotional essay that examines the impact of colonial practices and tourism on Kincaid’s home island of Antigua. This work notes the inequalities of life in Antigua in the aftermath of British dominion. Essays continue to be a popular form of literature, with other authors finding their niche in short stories. Journalists, novelists, and poets have carved out their own niches in contemporary literature. But today, the literature of Latin America is as varied as the peoples of the region, as it has been for centuries.

  1. World Digital Library: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/11621/
  2. Royal Library of Denmark: http://www5.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/project/project.htm
  3. National Humanities Center: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/contact/text7/text7read.htm
  4. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Project: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~sorjuana/
  5. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon7/simon-bolivar-el-libertador-writings-of-simon-bolivar-david-bushnell-editor-1.pdf
  6. poets.org: https://poets.org/text/brief-guide-modernismo
  7. Pope, Randolph D. (1996), “The Spanish American novel from 1950 to 1975”, in González Echevarría, Roberto (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, Volume 2: The Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 226–279.
  8. MasterClass: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-magical-realism

Published by Alexander

I have always been a student of history: in undergrad I explored both Philosophy and History as double majors, while my MA program was in Global History. My primary focus is Latin American history, with a particular interest in Chilean history. I am highly interested in examining the world around me and working to ensure that it is an equitable place for all to live. I am currently furloughed from my work in Residence Life at a small, private university, so I'm using my time and energy to explore my passions and carve out a niche for myself in the world of academia. My hometown is Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but I've lived in a few East Coast states and Oklahoma during my lifetime. My major passions include baseball, naval history and culture, and exploring and adventuring with my Queensland Heeler named Sylens. You can usually catch me listening to pop or rock music, reading historical fiction and nonfiction, or playing strategic board and video games.

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