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The Latina/o Literary Presence in U.S. Literature

From Cabeza de Baca to the Present

Photo of Professor Charles Tatum

In this lecture, Professor Tatum explores the history of Latina/o literary tradition by connecting past and present.

In 2011, U.S.-Latinas/os number over 50 million of this country’s population. In the Southwest, Latinas/os of Mexican descent will within three decades become the majority population. Whether Latinas/os have come from ancestors who settled much of what is today the U.S. Southwest and Southeast as early as the 16th century, or whether their families came as immigrants in the early part of the 20th century or more recently, many have continued to maintain their connections to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

More than 100 years before the appearance of the 17th century foundational works of American literature in the English language, accounts of the Iberian conquest, exploration and colonization of the Americas had already been published in Spanish. These foundational narratives of U.S. Latina/o literature form the basis of the environmental, racial, class, religious, political and economic structures upon which the evolving literary tradition would be built.

In the mid-19th century, much of today’s U.S. Southwest was sold under pressure by the Mexican government to the U.S. Many Americans of Mexican descent see the U.S. occupation of these lands as a form of colonialism. A similar perception exists in Puerto Rico that became part of the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Professor Tatum argues that the U.S. Latina/o literary tradition has been characterized since the 19th century by a deep sense of rupture and displacement that has its roots in racism, anti-Hispanism, and the feeling of being an alien in one’s own homeland. At the same time, many contemporary U.S. Latina/o writers celebrate their double consciousness as Latin American and U.S. cultural citizens and embrace their plurality of customs, language, traditions and values.

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