“Latino writer” is a label whose purpose is to make you feel like you are a part of something big, important and ultimately has nothing to do with you as an individual.
“Latino writer” does not denote quality or innovation, it is not a movement nor does it embody a single worldview, but what it does do is turn distinct voices into a generic product.
I am not a product. Are you?
If not, then fuck being a “Latino writer.”
Being a Puerto Rican writer in the U.S. means, according to the marketing powers that be, that you live in New York. A Puerto Rican writer in the U.S. is inevitably Nuyorican, and so all of us who grew up in Florida, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Texas, or like my daughters, Colorado, you’re shit out of luck. Unless you are Nuyorican, according to publishers, media and artistic organizations, you do not exist.
I first experienced this phenomenon with my second novel, The Feast of San Sebastian, which is a crime noir about human trafficking in Puerto Rico. I thought the book would have great appeal amongst Nuyoricans and especially Puerto Rican activists and intellectuals in New York. Yet when I approached New York-based publications and organizations that clearly focus on Puerto Rico, I was given rather shocking replies, such as this one:
Oh, we don’t deal with books about the island. We are only concerned with the Diaspora.
(And by the “Diaspora,” there was an underlying reasoning: we mean “Nuyoricans.” As in, you are not one of us.)
Mexican American writers experience a similar pressure to assimilate to a singular type of literature, namely, it has to be set in the Southwest or California, it has to have some level of mysticism, a reference to La Llorona (the song or the myth) is a must, and much like a Holocaust movie is guaranteed to win you an Oscar, a book about immigration (especially with a pro-U.S.A. slant and latent or direct critique of Mexico) will get you published and win you awards, because you are embracing the ‘Latino writer’ brand.
So what is the solution? How do we writers who wish to tell stories of varied genres, from romance to science fiction to horror and crime and literary realism, do so without taking on the baggage of the “Latino writer” behemoth?
The answer, for me at least, is abandoning English writing and the “Latino” literary community of the U.S.
I have long dreamt of writing solely in Spanish. Spanish is the language I think in when creating stories and poems. I speak Spanish at home and feel a special kinship with my Spanish-speaking friends. The language frees me, its poeticism enchants me, and when I am either speaking it or writing in it, I feel I can express myself more honestly, more deeply, and more artfully. I recently completed my first Spanish-language novel, Tristiana, and I found it heartening being able to write about ideas, worldview and experiment with style and tone without having to defend myself. I can write anything I want without worrying about the “Latino writer” label because in Latin America and Spain, you are just a writer, like any other.
Why has the “Latino writer” label gained so much power?
Four words: access to white people. No matter what a writer does to try to “Anglicize” their work, or if they try to avoid approaching their culture altogether, a last name like Díaz, Gutiérrez, Ojeda, etc. will forever follow us in our literary pursuits. We will always be “other” no matter how much we try to fit in. “Otherness” especially bothers the Latino American community, which desperately wishes to be seen as just “Americans.”
The problem with this is that the United States was and continues to be, in spite of several attempts at multiculturalism, an Anglo nation. The culture is white European, the language is white European, the food is white European, the customs, traditions—you get the point. No matter how much we try to make the U.S. brown or at the very least, slightly tanned, it is a white patriarchal nation.
I tire of the prevailing worldview in the Latino community that we have to be accepted into the American fabric. I have written elsewhere about the need to direct our attention back to our homelands and work to build nations where our kids can grow up without being “others” because they are already home. America is a dying empire anyway, why are we so concerned with jumping aboard the Titanic? Are we really that self-destructive? (I fear the answer is yes.)
I am Puerto Rican, I was raised to be Puerto Rican, and Puerto Ricans speak and write in Spanish. To be true to that, to speak directly to my people instead of through an interpreter, I will no longer write books in English. My novel Kings of 7th Avenue, due out this summer, will be, for the foreseeable future, my last English-language book. Maybe something will change years from now, but presently I embrace my true self, and that is not as a “Latino writer” with all the unnecessary baggage that comes with it. In Spanish I can be myself, a Corsican-Puerto Rican who addresses the concerns and realities of his people. To be a Puerto Rican writer is to embrace a different literary tradition, one of de Burgos, Llorens Torres, Luis Rafael Sánchez and María de Hostos, that conceives storytelling in a vibrant, confrontational, poetic manner that is bonded with the literary modes of other Latin Americans and Spaniards. I will no longer have to explain my experimentations because they are a part of the Puerto Rican canon.
In conclusion, fuck “Latino writing” and fuck the dominance of the New York writing scene. Why present my books where I’m just another “minority” writer, when I can present one in San Juan and be amongst my people?
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest and The Feast of San Sebastian deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at [email protected].