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Latin American Literature

The Latin American Literature

American literature includes many different branches, one of which is represented by Latin American literary works. Latin American literature has some specific features, but at the same time, it was affected by the development of European and American literature. Thus, Latin American writers express some specific themes and issues through the generally used literary forms and genres. These themes and issues depend on many factors such as the history of Latin America, the peculiarities of its relations with Europe and the USA as well as the social, political and cultural situation in Latin America in general. One of the most popular themes among Latin American authors of the second half of the XX century was the problem of immigration, which has at least two aspects. The first aspect is the inability of some immigrants to integrate into American society. The second one is the dissolution of the immigrants’ native culture in the general American cultural context. The brightest Latin American authors of the last few decades are Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros, who discuss the same issues but in different aspects and using different ways of literary expression. The works of Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros discuss the problems of Latin American immigrants, and in this way present them in Latin American literature.

The history of Latin American literature reflects the history of Latin America itself. Before European colonization of the American continent, the native peoples used to create their traditional texts such as “Popol Vuh”. This tradition includes “the literary expression of the highly developed American Indian civilizations conquered by the Spaniards” (“Latin American Literature,” 2016). After the beginning of the conquest, the literary tradition of these lands became represented mostly by historical chronicles describing the process of colonization. In this way, when the Spanish culture was established in Latin America, Western European literary tradition in its Spanish version became a relevant factor determining the further development of Latin American literature. Thus, the general line of the development of Western European literature was reflected in the development of Latin American one: the authors of the Spanish colonies created poems, plays and other forms of literary works as well as their European colleagues, who in the same way passed the periods of Romanticism, Modernism, and Surrealism in XIX and XX centuries. The situation changed after the World War I in the ‘Old World’ and such events as the Mexican revolution, which made the Latin Americans independent from the political and cultural dictate of Western Europe (“Latin American Literature,” 2016). In this regard, the multidimensional essence of the Latin American literary tradition demonstrated itself through the concern with the previously neglected issues such as the problem of Mexican immigrants’ identity in the USA. Thus, Latin American literature of the postcolonial period deals with the most topical themes.

One of the most representative Latin American literary works is “Mexicans Begin Jogging” by Gary Soto. The first-person narrative tells about the main character’s feeling of cultural alienation in the USA due to his Mexican roots. The narrator is a Latin American working at an American plant. When his boss wants to resign the man, he commands his worker to run and hurries him “through the back door” (Soto, 1981). The main character cannot prevent this by any means because his boss does not accept his American identity and despises him as an immigrant, as Soto underlines: “I shouted that I was an American. ‘No time for lies,’ he said” (Soto, 1981). Thus, the poem is a brilliant illustration of the constant feeling of insecurity experienced by Latin Americans. It not only describes a story of one Mexican worker but also provides a description of the destiny of “a short tail of Mexicans” (Soto, 1981), who may be deported from the USA at any time, just as it happened with the main character in the poem. The author uses some words that perform an ironic function in this context, such as ‘jogging’, for example. Literally, ‘jogging’ means some kind of exercise performed voluntarily, but in the poem, the word is applied to the Latin American who is coerced to leave the USA due to xenophobic and chauvinistic views held by the majority that make any immigrant a second-rate person. In this way, the poem provides a good illustration of Latin Americans’ problems with their cultural identity in the USA.

Another illustrative text is “Mericans” by Sandra Cisneros, which describes a typical day of a Latin American immigrant family. In this first-person short story, the narrator, a small Latin American girl, tells how her grandmother prays in the Church while her brothers, Alfredito and Enrique, are waiting for her outside. The text is full of different references to Mexican customs and traditions. In this way, the narrator makes the reader acquainted with this specific social reality in which she lives. At the beginning of the narrative, the girl prays with her grandmother, but the girl gets bored, and the grandmother allows her to go out and join her brothers. This episode is very important because it illustrates the girl’s cultural uncertainty through the prism of language: “The awful grandmother says it all in Spanish, which I understand when I'm paying attention. ‘What?’ I say… ‘What?’ which the awful grandmother hears as ‘?G?at?’” (Cisneros, 1991). In fact, the girl culturally belongs both to the Americans and the Mexicans, and in this way, her cultural identity is very uncertain. She attends Church where all masses are provided in Spanish, and at the same time, she does not accept this language as her native one. At last, when some couple wants to take a picture of the narrator’s brother and then wonders why he speaks English, the boy answers that they are “Mericans” (Cisneros, 1991). The narrator adds the most illustrative proof of her family’s double cultural identity: “We're Mericans, we're Mericans, and inside the awful grandmother prays” (Cisneros, 1991). Thus, the short story perfectly shows how Latin American immigrants lose their identity by accepting American culture.

“Mericans” and “Mexicans Begin Jogging” deal with the same issue of the Latin American immigrants’ cultural identity. The main characters (and narrators) of both texts represent two possible situations that may follow immigration to the USA. The narrator of the poem “Mexicans Begin Jogging” is despised by his boss, who draws a line between immigrants and those who consider themselves ‘true’ Americans. The couple that takes a picture of the brother of the narrator in “Mericans” also considers themselves ‘true’ Americans, as opposed to Mexicans who should speak Spanish. This fact is perfectly illustrated by the couple’s astonishment when the boy speaks English. Thus, the couple from the short story and the boss from the poem belong to the same type of ‘true’ Americans who want to see some cultural border between themselves and the immigrants. In this aspect, both texts deal with the same issue, but the details change the narratives’ focuses, and thus both authors show different aspects of the problem. It is clear that Soto exaggerates the situation to show the problem in general, whereas Cisneros describes a typical example of cross-cultural relations between Latin American immigrants and Native Americans. In this respect, the exaggerated narrative of Soto demonstrates the issue through the prism of immigrants’ inability to become an integral part of American society. The author underlines controversies between the xenophobic majority of the USA and Mexican immigrants who come to the country in order to realize their American dream. On the contrary, Cisneros uses as a narrator a small girl who cannot yet understand the difference between the cultures. Therefore, using a child’s naivete?, the author shows how the cultural borders between the immigrants and Americans become vague because of cultural assimilation. Thus, the narrator identifies herself as a “Merican” and mentions her grandmother, who prays in the Church in Spanish, in the same sentence. This detail helps the reader to understand that total assimilation is impossible, and every immigrant always exists between his native culture and that of the state he wants to live in. Thus, both narratives demonstrate the futility of some immigrants’ attempts to pass total assimilation because such a way is not correct in any case.

Thus, from the analysis provided, it is clear that “Mericans” and “Mexicans Begin Jogging” complement each other in the thematic aspect, demonstrating an alternative to each other’s plot. Both cultural alienation and assimilation may be very painful for those who experience immigration, and in this way, Latin American literature operates with painful issues that need a solution. While xenophobia is mostly painful at a personal level, cultural assimilation hurts at the collective level. The main point here is the need to find some compromise, which would help the representatives of different cultures to live together in one multicultural society.