Long before Junot Diaz, Julia Alvarez, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros, or Oscar Hijuelos published their first books, before even the notion of Latino literature existed, there were already many writers—both men and women—producing the works which constitute the foundations of that literature. These are some of their names:
MARÍA AMPARO RUIZ DE BURTON (1832-1895) was born in Baja California, Mexico, to a rich land-owning family. After the Mexican-American War (1846-48) she married a U.S. Army officer and settled with him in San Diego, by then a military outpost and former Mission. After the death of her husband, Ruiz de Burton published the historical romance Who Would Have Thought It?, the first fiction book written in English by a Mexican-American author, and the novel The Squatter and the Don, a denunciation of the abuses suffered by the californio population, the Mexican inhabitants of the territories incorporated to the U.S. after the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, at the hands of the Anglo newcomers.
JOSÉ MARTÍ (1853 – 1895) is one of the towering figures of Spanish-language literature and Cuba’s national hero. A poet, journalist, orator, and leader of the revolutionary movement for the independence of his native island from Spain, he spent most of his adult life as an exile in New York City. His Escenas Norteamericanas (North American Chronicles) , a collection of dispatches Martí wrote over many years for several newspapers in Latin America, is one of the most thorough and insightful descriptions of 19th-century United States ever written by a foreign observer. An excellent selection of his writings, translated by Esther Allen, was published by Penguin.
LEONOR VILLEGAS DE MAGNÓN (1876 – 1955) was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and grew up in the Mexico/Texas border. During the Mexican Revolution she founded La Cruz Blanca, a relief service for victims of the war. The Rebel is a slightly fictionalized memoir of her own experience during that period, as an affluent woman who was willing to sacrifice her comfortable social position for the sake of her revolutionary ideals. Marginalized for decades, the book got published more than half a century after the author’s death.
PEDRO JUAN SOTO (1928 – 2002) moved at 18 from his native Puerto Rico to New York City, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Placed between the first generation of Boricua writers such as Bernardo Vega or Pachín Marín and the Nuyorican generation of the 1960s, Soto is the author of several novels, plays, and short story collections, among them Spiks , a powerful depiction of the immigrant experience. A supporter of Puerto Rico’s independence, one of his sons was killed in the 1978 Cerro Maravilla incident.
JOSÉ ANTONIO VILLARREAL (1924 – 2010) was born in Los Angeles but moved to Mexico City after serving in WWII graduating from Berkeley on the G.I. Bill. His first book, Pocho (a derogative term for Mexican immigrants assimilated to the U.S.) is considered the first Chicano novel. Published in 1959, it was hugely influential in the emergence of Latino literature during the 1970s.
JULIA DE BURGOS (1914 – 1953) is widely regarded as Puerto Rico’s most important poet. She was also a staunch supporter of Puerto Rican independence and Afro-Caribbean writers. Her tragic death—she died of pneumonia after collapsing on a New York street, and her unidentified corpse was placed in the City’s paupers burial until friends were able to locate it a few days later—also contributed to the myth surrounding her figure. Her complete poetry has been translated into English by writer and social activist Jack Agüeros.
Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. Translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture. Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).