By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez, EFE
This year, the Unites States was the guest country at the International Book Fair of Panama. The list of writers sent to represent the United States was notable for the number of authors with Hispanic surnames. Rather than coming as a surprise, this fact confirms the increasing relevance of Latinos in the economic, political and, in this case, cultural spheres of North American life. Rigoberto González was part of the delegation. A well-known poet, novelist, and literary critic, he recently joined a select group of critics-at-large at the L.A. Times who are free to write on topics they deem interesting for the newspaper.
“It’s a great opportunity. I had been writing reviews for the El Paso Times for ten years. The editor of the L.A. Times, Caroline Kellogg, wanted people who could write on a great variety of topics and who could do it quickly. These are very interesting times in the United States and through literature, the political voices of diverse communities, including African American, Asian, and, of course, Latino, can be heard. Many communities are represented in literature,” says González.
González’s literary career began with the poetic compendium So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until it Breaks (1999), a work that earned recognition by the National Poetry Series. His career continued with other notable works such as the children’s book Antonio’s Card (La tarjeta de Antonio) in 2005; Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (2006), an autobiography in which he explores the challenges of growing up gay in a community that idolizes machismo; The Mariposa Club (2010); and Red-Inked Retablos (2013), which continued to explore the issues of LGBT minorities; and Unpeopled Eden (2013), a book of poems that addresses the desperate reality most undocumented immigrants face in the United States.
As can be concluded from reading his work, the writer’s proximity to the experiential realities of minority groups in the United States is two-fold: he is a member of both ethnic and sexual minorities. “From the beginning, I had to accept that I could not separate these two identities and I would have to navigate them both. I discovered that Chicano and gay identities come together in a unique intersection that many people experience, and that getting involved in both struggles is not a deadly combination. I represent both communities and I’m not going to choose one over the other. There are problems with racism among the gay population. How can you begin to confront these problems if you do not have people who represent both communities who can begin to have conversations and build bridges to highlight shared concerns and interests?” explains González.
In any case, González’s works and those of other Latino writers in the United States are helping create vessels for communication within a diverse community. “We are fighting to preserve our community while recognizing our different cultures and identities, whether Chicano or Cuban, within this great Latino family. This helps us preserve the sense of who we are and leave a legacy for future generations. We want to be represented by our governments and have the same opportunities that other groups have had. We need to feel proud of our identity, especially now, when things are happening that make us feel a little bad about who we are. Literature helps us know that, even though we come from different backgrounds, we are proud and empowered by our identity and no one is going to take that away from us.”
Beyond community empowerment, the rise of Latino literature has also helped the rest of the country begin to understand the issues facing Latino communities. “I don’t know if our literature is making it to Latin America because it is primarily written in English and very few of us write in Spanish. The United States benefits from our literature, however, since it helps North Americans understand Latin American cultures. Most of us are the children or grandchildren of immigrants and we maintain a connection of memory, feeling, and history with our different homelands.”
But does Latino literature in the United States have a revolving door effect, sending messages from the Latino communities to other groups in the country, but also to the authors’ countries of origin in Latin America? The author doesn’t think so, since much of the Latino literature produced north of the Rio Grande isn’t translated and doesn’t cross over to the south. He recognizes, however, that there is value in this literary legacy that could have a positive influence on our countries. “The working classes have the opportunity to be empowered through reading, and literacy is important to advance. My country, México, sometimes doesn’t put much effort into that; they don’t invite young people to imagine themselves as artists, they only want them to be workers. I, for example, am the son of illiterate immigrants and grape harvesters, and because everyone in the United States has access to an education, I became a university professor.”
Another way González believes that Latino literature in the United States can have an influence in Latin America is through its sense of coexistence and plurality. “We can convey an appreciation for a world in which there are diverse communities that can live in harmony, even if there are tensions and problems, learning from each other. It’s a problem I have seen everywhere and I don’t know if Latino literature being written in Spanish is reflecting these tensions.”
What is certain for González is that what he and his colleagues write about in this literary moment will become a point of reference for the United States in the future. “The day is fast approaching when Latinos will make up the largest minority in the U.S. This population group will want to see its history and past reflected in literature. We always look back to find out who we were and how we got where we are. This is the work we are doing now as writers. At this moment, Latino literature is not as popular in the U.S. as other types of literature, but I think that’s a mistake. In the future it will become the most widely-read literature, the genre that will have the most influence as our descendants begin trying to find out what our voices were, what we were told, how we were treated, and how we fought and changed.”
About Rigoberto González
An American literary critic, editor, and author of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and bilingual children’s books. His most recent poetic work, Unpeopled Eden, won the Lambda Literary Award and the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has been the recipient of prestigious fellowships such as the Guggenheim, NEA, and USA Rolón, in addition to receiving the Shelly Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, among other awards. He is currently a professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. Since 2016 he has served as critic-at-large for the L.A. Times.