Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, edited by Ilan Stavans

*****Tino Villanueva, Boston University professor and one of Somerville's Bagel Bards is included in this new anthology of Latino Literature. Tino presented the book at a recent meeting of the Bards. I asked my old friend and retired University of Michigan professor Hugh Fox to review it. Here is the review of this important work:

The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, edited by Ilan Stavans, W.W. Norton and Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10110, $59.95.

The perfect book for right now when most Americans are totally confused about the Latin presence in the U.S. What we have here is a gigantic two thousand, six hundred and sixty-six page volume that overviews the Latino presence in the Americas going back, back back to colonial (and then some) times. It begins by going back to the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries works of the Latino (Spanish) explorers themselves, people inside the whole colonization process, part of it, like Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Hernando de Sota, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega...on and on, a real trip back into the exploratory colonial past seen through the eyes of the colonizers themselves. Then we move (“Annexations: 1811-1898) into Spanish America becoming independent, breaking with Spain, so it’s not colonial Spain any more but its own independent world. Stavans doesn’t really get into South America much here, but concentrates on the Caribbean, Texas and California. Then Stavans, just as you’re getting to feel you’re inside a totally scholarly-historical work, starts bringing in creative writers like Eusbesio Chacón from Santa Fe who turns it from objective history into personal experience. Lots of writers like that, like Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert who wrote a book called "We Fed Them Cactus" (1954), which present’s a Latina’s vision of how it was, history seen through a Latina’s eyes. Really bringing it all personally alive, alive, alive.So the book isn’t just libraryish history, but personal-artistic visionary too. And you get some idea of how the whole Latino-American problem looks through Latino eyes. As in José Dávila Semprit”s poem “The United States”: “A sublime document that proclaims/the rights of man,/a star-spangled banner,/history that begins/with roar rebelliousness/and ends up smelling of imperialism..../an ally of passions, prejudices,/and entrenched arrogance....” (p.516.) A ton of visionary creative work (like René Marqués’ play The Oxcart) that looks at the whole migrant problem through (in this case) Puerto Rican eyes.

For a while the book becomes an enormous anthology of Latin American creative work, bringing you from the colonial into present time. So you get to see the evolution of the Latino point-of-view from colonial to contemporary times. And Stavans’ commentaries are gems in themselves. Like his comments that preface the section of the book called “Into the Mainstream: 1980-Present”: “In the United States, the civil rights era generally led Anglos to display energetic good will toward both blacks and ethnic minorities...for Latinos, the racism, xenophobia, and anti-Hispanism widely evident in the United State since the mid-nineteenth century remained ingrained...Changes in Latino life were slow in coming.” (p.1461).The book eventually evolves into an anthology of Latin American writing itself, fiction, plays, poetry, contemporary writers like Abraham Rodriguez, Rafael Campo, Manuel Muõz, María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández, bringing in Latino-American writers who see the whole thing not through “foreign” but Latino-Gringo eyes: “I am the / Meta-morpho-sized/The Reborn/The living phoenix/Rising up out of the ashes/With my conquered people/Not the lost Puerto Rican soul in search of identity/Not the tragic Nuyorican in search of the land of the palm tree/Not fragmented but whole/Not colonized/But free.” (p.2423).

Then at the very end, just so you don’t forget we’re dealing with Big History and not Hip Hop, Stavans brings in a chronology of the whole historical overscene,year by year,from colonial to contemporary times. And throws in some treaties, acts and propositions out of the history book, so the overall context remains serious history.Beautifully done, the single most impressive book I’ve ever read on one of my main interests. I can see it as volume one of a series that next moves more into South America, then back into pre-history and the invasion of the Spaniards. It’s a book that makes you cry out for infinitely more, more, more.

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