I’m not a fan of anything prescriptive, so I’m usually weary of lists. So why write a list like this one? The idea came to me as I reviewed a similar list someone had posted on Goodreads. It claimed to be a list of “fiction about Latino/Latina culture by Latino/Latina authors.” As I perused the list I noticed that some books were actually not fiction at all—Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, for example—and the majority were written by Latin American writers. As a professor of Latina/o Literature, it pains me to see that someone who apparently loves reading and takes the time to construct such a list, does not understand the fundamental difference between writers of Latin American or Hispanic ancestry living in the U.S. who principally, if not exclusively, write in English and those writers from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean who write in Spanish. The distinction is not arbitrary or nuanced; there are profound cultural, historical and linguistic differences.
But clarification, as important and valuable as it may be, is not the sole reason to compile and post a list of 51 Essential Latina/o Novels. As I asked myself what type of list would be essential–a “must read” list–for anyone not conversant with this literature, I pondered the various criteria for the list. Before discussing the criteria, I want to make it clear I am not claiming to have a definitive list here. This is an exploratory list to initiate thinking and present an introductory framework for reading in the field. As with any list, there will be disagreement. Please post a comment, if you believe I’ve egregiously left out someone who should be on the list. Second, these are novels and do not include other genres that would appear on other lists of notable Latina/o works of literature. Please understand the criteria I’ve constructed to come up with these novels, which follow:
1. Novels that most literary critics and historians consider either foundational or seminal, or have in some way influenced or reformulated the discourse on this corpus.
2. Novels that have added new ideas, concepts, or approaches to the lived experiences of Latinas/os from the United States.
3. Novels representative of authors who have demonstrated, if not mastery, a dedication to novelistic craft and art.
4. Novels that, as a whole, represent a strong introduction to the expansive nature of Latina/o literature and thus Latina/o experience.
5. Novels that have opened or expanded the borders of Latina/o literature.
Some of the authors on this list have written other fabulous novels. They made it difficult to choose only one; in those cases, I kept my criteria in mind. In some cases—Hinojosa and Ruiz de Burton, for example—I felt it necessary to include more than one novel. At any rate, I hope this list will inspire you to read more of their work.
My listing of novels should not, in any way, be interpreted as an attempt to privilege that literary art form. In the future, I’d like to compile a list of similarly notable short fiction collections and poetry.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have included my novel, The Accidental Native. As a fiction writer, I seriously have taken to heart Toni Morrison’s charge to write books that you want to read that aren’t written yet. Such was the case with The Accidental Native—the first novel about the Puerto Rican reverse migration. That is one reason among others why I believe it belongs on this list. In all sincerity, if this novel had been written by another author, I would feel compel to teach it in my Latina/o Lit courses. For ethical reasons, I do not. However, because I strongly believe it fulfills some of the established criteria, and since this is my blog after all, at the risk of sounding solipsistic and self-aggrandizing, I have included it on the list.
Review the list; use it for your own literary interests, pursuits, amusement, or whatever. Let me know what you think. I’d like to hear from you.
Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Revolt of the Cockroach People.
Alarcón, Daniel. Lost City Radio.
Alire Saenz, Benjamin. Carry Me Like Water.
Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies.
Ambert, Alba. A Perfect Silence.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima.
Castillo, Ana. So Far From God.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street.
Corpi, Lucha. Eulogy for a Brown Angel.
Cruz, Angie. Soledad.
Garcia, Cristina. Dreaming in Cuban.
Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Di Iorio, Lyn. Outside the Bones.
Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Sor Juana’s Second Dream.
Goldman, Francisco. The Ordinary Seaman.
Hinojosa, Rolando. The Valley.
Hinojosa, Rolando. Klail City.
Hinojosa, Rolando. Rites and Witnesses.
Hijuelos, Oscar. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Islas, Arturo. Rain God.
Limón, Graciela. In Search of Bernabe.
Lopez, Erika. Flaming Iguanas.
Mendez, Miguel. Pilgrims in Aztlan.
Menéndez, Ana. Loving Che.
Mohr, Nicholasa. Nilda.
Olivas, Daniel. The Book of Want.
Ortiz-Cofer, Judith. The Line of the Sun.
Paredes, Americo George Washington Gomez: A Mexico-Texan Novel.
Perez, Loida Martiza. Geographies of Home.
Plascencia, Salvador. The People of Paper.
Quiñonez, Ernesto. Bodega Dreams.
Rechy, John. City of Night.
Rivera, Thomas. And the Earth Did Not Devour Him.
Rodriguez, Abraham. Spidertown.
Rodriguez, Joe. Oddsplayer
Rosario, Nellie. Song of the Water Saints.
Ruiz de Burton, Maria Amparo. The Squatter and the Don.
Ruiz de Burton, Maria Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It?
Suarez, Virgil. The Cutter.
Tobar, Hector. The Tattooed Soldier.
Torres, J.L. The Accidental Native.
Troncoso, Sergio. From This Wicked Patch of Dust.
Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Vazquez, Charlie. Contraband.
Vazquez, Richard. Chicano: A Novel.
Vega Yunque, Edgardo. The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into The Impenetrable
Venegas, Daniel. The Adventures of Don Chipote.
Villarreal, Jose A. Pocho.
Villaseñor, Victor. Macho.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. Their Dogs Came With Them.
Yglesias, Jose. A Wake in Ybor City.