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A Companion to U.S. Latino Literatures (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 64, Number 4, April 2008
pp. 620-622 | 10.1353/tam.2008.0050

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The cover of A Companion to U.S. Latino Literatures strikes the eye. It shows in full-quality color The Immigrant (1985) by the Cuban painter and immigrant Luís Cruz Azaceta. The painting is worth studying as the threshold object to the twelve chapters that comprise the book. It represents an absorbing visual beginning to a remarkable and valuable anthology that fulfills its aim as a companion to the burgeoning curricular and scholarly disciplines of U.S. Latino Studies.

The plural "literatures" comes with the territory occupied by the multi- and extra- territorial Latino writing. For, although written in English as well as in-between American English and various accents of Spanish and Portuguese, Latino literature comes in either of these two prime languages, often hybridized through migratory experiences. Latino writing has had its recent resurgence in a Diaspora environment. Companions akin to this one would deal with offshoot writers in French and British postcolonial circles. One wonders who Orhan Pamuk (winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature) has become if not such an offshoot writer, one now inconceivable without the cultural bridges he creates between Turkish, the Ottoman imperial legacies, Europe, and Europe's own westward and eastward imperial pasts.

Two fine chapters by Jorge Febles and Sergio Waisman draw up an expanded cartography of Latino writing over the national literatures of Cuba and Argentina respectively. Febles dissects those lucky enough to suffer from the Cuban condition, either in bilingual Cubanglo virtuosity, (Pérez Firmat, Virgil Suárez) or only in English (Cristina García), but with the Spanish/Cuban missing limb doing the ghost writing, as in her first two pansexual novels. Febles goes to the essence of romantic irony: of "efforts to play at being, to regret not being and to reposition characters (and by extension authors) in a place—mythic, holy, or crudely real—where full realization or complete self-awareness may have been achievable under given circumstances" (p. 71). The double-edge and cool edginess in these writers leads to a sort of egony or egonía (transcendentally in Reinaldo Arenas) that may end up running on empty, or into one-person ethnographies burdened by an "excessively personalistic aura" (p. 84). In this regard, Febles offers a stunningly depressing encounter between José Martí and a young U.S. immigrant woman named Mary González, sketched with apocryphal venom in the writings of Alfonso Hernández Catá. The encounter ends with Marti's tribal epitaph "I can trust somebody named Smith. I will never trust a North American González" (p. 84). In the age of Lou Dobbs, a native insult of the kind may travel far, particularly if the "González" should end in "s"—but the issue at hand in Febles is how to learn to trust, beyond her sheer egotism, someone named Behar (so vividly Cuban and Jewish, in no particular order) who insists on naming herself jubana.

Waisman has an easier task as he dissects the truly extraterritorial bond between Argentine academic high brows like Silvia Molloy and Alicia Borinsky and practitioners like himself, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Sergio Chejfec, Ricardo Piglia, Luisa Valenzuela, and others, shall we say, dual-patriates, or double-dippers, who have breached the gap between Buenos Aires and the urban United States and New York, in particular, harking back to the peerless master, Manuel Puig. One finds liberating the inclusion of Argentine writers because it harbors the promise of finally exhausting idiomatic territoriality, beginning with the Latino label itself. (The same applies to the case of Jewish-Latino and Brazilian writing, examined in two chapters, from which the hope rises that the seeming ghetto effects that such micro-labels might inspire would instead have a dissolving effect upon such too narrowly drawn enclave particulars.)

Transcendent particulars of a sort bring us back to Rigoberta Menchú, whose dubious inclusion in the U.S. Latino curricular and political sphere is born during the breach of Guatemala's sovereignty by the United States in 1954. Her testimony not only represents the searing instance of recent U.S. Hispanic writing of personal agony and self-fashioning, it also grounds the U.S. geopolitical hegemonic connection inherent in such...