Puerto Rican Literature has been deeply influenced by
Puerto Rico’s history of colonization and by massive migration during the
The development of national identity in Puerto Rico has
implied a series of contradictions which are reflected in its literature.
Many critics have pointed out that Puerto Rican literature is split
between two shores: Puerto Rican literature written by island authors and
the more recent Puerto Rican literature written in the United States by
the sons and daughters of the different migratory waves along the
twentieth century. Puerto Rican literature on the island has been
characterized by a number of recurrent themes concerning the definition of
cultural and national identity as a way to solve the contradiction of
being Latina American but U.S. citizens, of being a Caribbean nation which
is still US territory yet culturally and linguistically different.
Under the Spanish
colonial power, Puerto Rican literature did not emerge as such until the
second half of the nineteenth century with works like El jíbaro
(1849) by Manuel Alonso where a distinct local culture was presented. The
island would also become a beloved patria in the poetry written with a
nationalist urge by José Gautier Benítez (1851-1880). The 1898 events and
the arrival of North Americans after the Spanish-American wear brought new
difficulties to the emerging Puerto Rican identity. Writers like Manuel
Zeno Gandía wrote about the decline of an island and its people under a
new colonial power in landmark works like the trilogy Crónicas de un
mundo enfermo. New anti-assimilationist figures appeared after 1898
reaffirming a distinct Puerto Rican heritage, culture and language, among
them José de Diego (1866-1959) and Luis Llorens Torres (1878-1944), and
the modernist Luis Palés Matos (1898-1959) with his afro-caribbean poetry.
The literature written in Puerto Rico during the 20th century
has been marked by the prominent issues of cultural and national identity
and migration. The deep transformations that the island suffered in the
first half of the century –the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado,
the island industrialization, the decline of rural economy, cultural
and linguistic assimilation policies and the growing migration to the
United States– were the subject of works by writers belonging to the 40s
generation such as José Luis González, Pedro Juan Soto, René Marqués and
Emilio Díaz Valcárcel. A new generation of novelists and short story
writers continued dealing with these issues in the sixties and seventies
but they showed new literary techniques that left behind the previous
realist tradition to explore a more experimental writing closer to the
magical-realist Latin American tradition. Writers like Luis Rafael Sánchez,
Rosario Ferré, Ana Lydia Vega, Manuel Ramos Otero, Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá
and Magali Garcia Ramis among others, have shown a compromising attitude
towards the cultural and political situation of Puerto Rico and the effect
of massive migration on Puerto Rican identity.
From the 1940s onwards a
distinction can be drawn between the literature that is written and
published in Puerto Rico and the literature produced in the United States.
These two branches of a same tree have developed simultaneously providing
a representation of the complex experience of Puerto Ricans. The
beginnings of Puerto Rican literature in the United States can be traced
back to the 40s with the production of works like Memorias de Bernardo
Vega and Puerto Rican Sketches and other Stories by Jesús Colón.
Both works represent the experience of Puerto Ricans from the inside of
the community and transmit the feeling of belonging to the new space and a
new language as in the case of Sketches. But it is not until the
1960s and 1970s when a consolidated literature written by and about Puerto
Ricans in the United States can be found. This new literature, widely
described by many critics as NUYORICAN LITERATURE (even though some
authors like Piri Thomas do not identity as part of the movement) has a
deep concern for the social and economic situation of Puerto Rican
immigrants and also explore the identity crisis that emerges for
second-generation Puerto Ricans in the United States. The publication of
DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS (1967) by Piri Thomas marks the beginning
of a literature dealing with life in the Barrio and the living conditions
of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Nicholasa Mohr publishes in 1973
NILDA which describes the Puerto Rican urban experience from the
perspective of an adolescent girl and provides a different vision of the
Puerto Rican experience not limited to street gangs, drugs, and violence.
Both authors, Piri and Mohr, are prolific writers who are still publishing
and collaborating with their communities.
During the 1980s an
important group of writers, mostly poets and playwrights, emerge in the
New York area with a strong political voice. Connected to the Nuyorican
Poets Café and to the social and political movement of the Young Lords,
they produced a socially compromised literature. Some outstanding figures
of this literary movement are Lucky Cienfuegos, PEDRO PIETRI, Felipe
Luciano, MIGUEL PIÑERO, TATO LAVIERA and MIGUEL ALGARÍN. Nuyorican poetry
is especially remarkable for its originality as a new street poetry based
on the spoken word and with strong ties to jazz and salsa music (Laviera).
It is a poetry which is created and read for the community (usually
presented at the Café) and which pursues to move the reader towards an
understanding of Puerto Rican experience in the Barrios, their obstacles
and troubles and also interethnic relationships. The roots of this poetic
language are street language, music and the two languages, Spanish and
English, which become vehicles for poetic expression and experimentation
at the same time that their combination (spanglish) gives unity to
a fragmented Puerto Rican identity.
One of the best
known Puerto Rican poets is Victor Hernández Cruz. His poetry is a
wonderful product full of contrasts between Puerto Rican and American
cultural forms and also full of symbolic contradictions, of ironic plays
on words between Spanish and English and of a constantly present Latin
rhythm. His poetic language emerges from the urban mode and symbols to go
deep into the images and the experience of bicultural individuals. The
experimentation with words, images , sounds and languages from both
cultures is represented in the term “tropicalization,” also the title of
his 1976 collection, that is the representation of a subversive process by
which different elements of Latin American culture penetrate American
culture as an aesthetic response by Latinos and Latinas living in the
United States. Many
expressions can be found where the poet plays with the reader as in “the
world could blow up but you tranquil” or the poem “Puerto Rican
Joke Riddle Told in English” whose only sentence reads “Can he take the
can,” an elaboration of the phrase “dar la lata.”
The urban experience of
Puerto Ricans is also represented in US Puerto Rican theatre. MIGUEL
PIÑERO, stands out as one of the best known Puerto Rican playwrights. His
work Short Eyes, winner of the New York Drama Critics Award for
Best American Play in 1974, is a dramatic representation of Puerto Rican
survival in American prisons and the difficult relations with other ethnic
groups. Other Puerto Rican playwrights in the northeast area are Federico
Fraguado, Cándido Tirado, Richard Irizarry, Ivette M. Ramírez, Alberto
Sandoval and Carmen Rivera. Puerto Rican theatre in the 80s and 90s is
especially concerned with common realities and the daily experience of
racism, crime, poverty and drugs. More contemporary plays explore the
psychological dimension of characters and the complexity of relationships
within the community and with other ethnic groups.
During the last decades,
a more diverse number of Puerto Rican writers have continued producing
autobiographical novels about growing up Puerto Rican in the Barrios and
fiction works about the development of a US Puerto Rican identity. Some of
these writers are Edward Rivera (Family Installments, 1983),
Esmeralda Santiago (When I was Puerto Rican, 1993), Ed Vega (Mendoza’s
Dreams, 1987), Judith Ortiz Cofer (The Line of the Sun, 1989),
Abraham Rodríguez Jr. (Tales of the South Bronx: The Boy without a
Flag, 1992) and Ernesto Quiñonez (Bodega Dreams, 2000). They
have very different perspectives on Puerto Rican identity depending on
their own experience but most of them include in their works the role of
the island as an important element of their cultural past and the need to
find a new “home”/identity as US Puerto Ricans in the United States.
Puerto Rican identity is for these writers something complex they have to
explore and redefine all the time but it is also something new and full of
life and energy as a product of the interaction of cultures on American
soil. However, there are still some recurrent concerns such as racism,
ethnic stereotyping, social discrimination and isolation, and lack of
respect and understanding by mainstream society.
Antush, John V. ed. Nuestro
New York: An
Anthology of Puerto Rican Plays.
York: Mentor, 1994.
María Teresa ed.
Borinquen: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Literature.
New York: Vintage, 1974.
González, José Luis. Literatura y
sociedad en Puerto Rico: de los cronistas de indias a la generación del
98. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1976.
Hernández, Carmen Dolores.
Voices in English. Interviews with Writers.
Wesport and London: Praeger, 1997.
Manrique Cabrera, Francisco.
Historia de la
Piedras: Editorial Cultural, 1969.
Mohr, Eugene V. The Nuyorican Experience. Literature of
the Puerto Rican Minority. Wesport, Connecticut and London, England:
Greenwood Press, 1982.
Lisa. Boricua Literature: A Literary History of the Puerto Rican
Diaspora. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Santiago, Roberto ed. Boricuas. Influential Puerto
New York: Ballantine, 1995.
Turner, Faythe ed. Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the
Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1991.
University of Huelva,