Latin American Literature

Some of the most important and influential literary works of the 20th and 21st centuries have come from Latin America, including classics such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz. For years, Latin American literature has entranced readers worldwide with its complex themes, creative mix of reality and fantasy, and unique take on form and structure. 

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    The region has produced several Nobel Prize-winning poets, novelists, and short story writers and boasts a rich and varied literary tradition.

    What is Latin American Literature?

    Latin American literature encompasses the written and oral-literary traditions of Latin America. Although it is generally thought of as Spanish-language literature, Latin American literature can include any of the region’s languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and indigenous languages.

    Latin American literature, map of Latin America, StudySmarterLatin American literature comes from the Latin American region. Wikimedia Commons.

    Before the arrival of European colonists, literary activity among Latin America’s indigenous populations consisted mostly of oral storytelling traditions. Later, the European arrivals began to produce texts describing their experiences in the region and the process of colonization.

    By the start of the 19th century, writers were beginning to generate works that are now considered the foundational literary texts of Latin America, including Facundo (1845) by Argentinian Domingo Sarmiento (1811-1888), Martin Rivas (1862) by Chilean Alberto Blest Gana (1830-1920), and María (1867) by Colombian Jorge Isaacs (1837-1895).

    Towards the end of the 19th century, Latin American poetry began to gain popularity, and the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916) headed a new literary movement called Modernismo. Often shocking readers with his erotic themes, Darío influenced poets throughout Latin America.

    By the start of the 20th century, several important writers that would set the stage for the Latin American Boom had begun publishing work. Beginning in poetry and slowly spreading to prose, Latin America was seized by an avant-guard, or vanguardia, movement.

    Writers such as the Chilean Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), Mexican Octavio Paz (1914-1998), and Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) worked primarily with poetry and short fiction. Texperimented liberally with the form, structure, and content of their writing.

    Jorge Luis Borges is known for perfecting the philosophical short story and becoming one of the most influential Latin American writers. Many of his short stories included elements of fantasy, laying the groundwork for the magical realism that would become popular during the Latin American Boom.

    When Did Latin American Literature Become Famous?

    Latin American literature began to receive international acclaim in the 1960s and 70s during a literary movement known as the Latin American Boom. This movement involved writers such as the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-present), Argentinian Julio Cortázar (1914-1984), and Mexican Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012).

    The Boom authors built on the work of the Latin American vanguardia writers before them and continued to break with stylistic conventions and explore controversial subject matter. Time was often treated as non-linear in Boom novels, and authors combined fantasy and reality to popularize the genre of magical realism.

    Latin American literature, banana farmer, StudySmarterOne Hundred Years of Solitude is written by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and is set in an unnamed country similar to Colombia. Pixabay.

    Some of the most notable works of Boom include Gabriel García Márquez’s now classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad; 1967), Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela; 1963), and Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz; 1962).

    Characteristics of Latin American Literature

    Latin American literature is a diverse body of work that can be difficult to characterize as a whole. However, there are a few characteristics that do make repeated appearances.

    One important characteristic of Latin American literature is the mixing of reality and fantasy. Gabriel García Márquez, one of the region’s best-known writers, became famous for popularizing the genre of magical realism. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, García Márquez said that European literary techniques would not suffice to depict Latin American reality; because of this, he employed magical realism. Other writers from various Latin American countries have also combined fantasy and reality in unique ways and written various theoretical papers on the matter.

    Magical realism is a literary genre that includes fantastic elements in an otherwise realistic text.

    Another important characteristic of Latin American literature is experimentation with form and structure. Modernism and the vanguardia movement of the early 20th century greatly influenced the Latin American writers of the Boom. Many important Latin American novels make use of non-linear storytelling and modernist techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing. Some even employ strategies of reader participation, such as Julio Cortázar’s classic Hopscotch and Alejandro Zambra’s more recent Multiple Choice (Facsimil; 2014).

    Latin American literature, hopscotch, StudySmarterBooks like Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch playfully explore untraditional modes of form and structure. Pixabay.

    Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar is one of the key works of the Latin American Boom. The book, which is sometimes referred to as a counter-novel, is made up of 155 chapters. The reader can start at chapter one and read the novel sequentially, in which case the novel ends at chapter 56. Alternatively, the reader can follow a set of instructions to hopscotch through the chapters. Finally, it is also possible for the reader to peruse Hopscotch’s chapters in whatever order they see fit, participating in the creation of the story.

    Major Themes in Latin American Literature

    Some reoccurring themes in Latin American literature include civilization vs. barbarism, politics and resistance, the construction of identity, and the construction of reality.

    Civilization vs. Barbarism

    A common early theme in Latin American literature was the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism. Many writers were coming from European literary traditions, and part of the colonization project involved depicting “civilized” European culture contrasted against the “barbaric” indigenous cultures.

    Everything civilized which the city contains is blockaded there, proscribed beyond its limits; and any one who should dare to appear in the rural districts in a frock-coat, for example, or mounted on an English saddle, would bring ridicule and brutal assaults upon himself." -Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (Chapter One)

    The concept of civilization and barbarism is most commonly associated with the Argentine president and writer Domingo Sarmiento (1868-1874) and his book Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie; 1845); however, it is a theme that appears in many other works and is closely related to the theme of constructing national identities.

    Politics and Resistance

    Many key Latin American writers, from Gabriel García Márquez to Carlos Fuentes to Mario Vargas Llosa, have been politically active in their personal lives and literary production. This political involvement has been referred to as “the tradition of Latin American writers.”1 Often writing out of climates of political instability, Latin American writers have long dealt with issues surrounding censorship and even exile.

    Perhaps it was true that because of the disastrous government that came afterward, many people missed Trujillo now. They had forgotten the abuses, the murders, the corruption, the spying, the isolation, the fear: horror had become myth. 'Everybody had jobs and there wasn't so much crime.'" -The Feast of the Goat (Chapter Seven)

    Many Latin American novels explicitly deal with political themes, for example, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo; 2000), which is set in the Dominican Republic and tells of the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo and what happens in the following years. Other works are not explicitly political but are sometimes given political interpretations, such as Julio Cortázar’s short story “House Taken Over” (“Casa tomada;” 1946), which tells of a brother and sister living in a large house that is gradually taken over by a mysterious presence that is often interpreted as Peronism.

    The Construction of Identity

    Much of early Latin American literature was concerned with the topic of national identity. Literature was an important tool for newly formed countries to establish and define their sense of identity, and most Latin American countries have literary works that are considered a foundational part of the respective country’s history and culture.

    Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask." -"The Argentine Writer and Tradition"

    Latin American writers have also penned essays on the importance of literature in the construction of national identity, for example, Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Argentine Writer and Tradition" (“El escritor argentino y la tradición;” 1951).

    The Construction of Reality

    While Latin American literature is perhaps best known for Gabriel García Márquez’s popularization of magical realism, other writers from the region have also combined reality and fantasy in unique ways. Julio Cortázar from Argentina was well-known for his surrealist short stories and his concept of lo fantastico, which argued that the fantastic is not unrealistic but rather a glimpse of other realities that can be seen in dreams or during play.

    The Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier, was known for his concept of lo real maravilloso, another idea similar to yet distinct from magical realism that would influence the prominence of the genre later in the Latin American Boom. Unlike Gabriel García Márquez and other magical realism writers, Carpentier stayed away from truly fantastic elements in his texts, focusing instead on the realities of Latin America that were so outlandish they seemed like fantasies.

    On the other hand, magical realism often featured elements that were truly unreal, such as García Márquez's short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" (1968).

    The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings." - "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings."

    These theories of the fantastic and the inclination to mix fantasy with reality pointed to a distinct interest in the construction and perception of reality among Latin American writers.

    Authors of Latin American Literature

    Latin American literature has produced several Nobel-Prize-winning authors as well as writers whose work has influenced literature worldwide. The following are some of the key authors of Latin American Literature:

    • Gabriela Mistral (Chile; 1889-1957)
    • Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala; 1899-1974)
    • Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina; 1899-1986)
    • Pablo Neruda (Chile; 1904-1973)
    • Alejo Carpentier (Cuba; 1904-1980)
    • Julio Cortázar (Argentina; 1914-1984)
    • Octavio Paz (Mexico; 1914-1998)
    • Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia; 1927-2014)
    • Carlos Fuentes (Mexico; 1928-2012)
    • Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru; 1936-present)
    • Roberto Bolaño (Chile; 1953-2003)
    • Mariana Enriquez (Argentina; 1973-present)
    • Alejandro Zambra (Chile; 1975-present)
    • Samanta Schweblin (Argentina; 1978-present)
    • Valeria Luiselli (Mexico; 1983-present)

    A number of Latin American authors have received the Nobel Prize in Literature. These include Gabriela Mistral, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz.

    Examples of Latin American Literature

    The following are just a few examples of key works of Latin American literature from various time periods.

    Early-Mid Latin American Literature

    • Martín Fierro (1872) by José Hernández (Argentina)
    • Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (Facundo: Civilización y barbarie; 1845) by Domingo Sarmiento (Argentina)
    • Martin Rivas (1862) by Alberto Blest Gana (Chile)
    • María (1867) by Jorge Isaacs (Colombia)
    • Azul (1888) by Rubén Darío (Nicaragua)
    • Desolation (Desolación; 1922) by Gabriela Mistral (Chile)
    • Ficciones (1944) by Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina)

    Boom Literature

    • The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz; 1962) by Carlos Fuentes (Mexico)
    • Hopscotch (Rayuela; 1963) by Julio Cortázar (Argentina)
    • The Time of the Hero (La ciudad y los perros; 1963) by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru)
    • Three Trapped Tigers (Tres tristes tigres; 1967) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Cuba)
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad; 1967) by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
    • The Obscene Bird Night by José Donoso (1970)

    Contemporary Latin American Literature

    • 2666 (2004) by Roberto Bolaño (Chile)
    • The Sound of Things Falling (El ruido de las cosas al caer; 2011) by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
    • My Documents (Mis documentos; 2013) by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
    • The Story of My Teeth (La historia de mis dientes; 2013) by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
    • The Things We Lost in the Fire (Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego; 2016) Mariana Enriquez (Argentina)
    • Fever Dream (Distancia de rescate; 2014) by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina)
    • Jawbone (Mandíbula; 2018) by Mónica Ojeda (Ecuador)

    Latin American Literature - Key takeaways

    • Latin American literature refers to the written and oral literary traditions of Latin America.
    • Latin American literature gained worldwide recognition in the 1960s and 70s during a movement called the Latin American Boom.
    • Some characteristics of Latin American literature include the mixing of fantasy and reality and experimentation with form and structure.
    • Some reoccurring themes in Latin American literature include civilization vs. barbarism, politics and resistance, the construction of identity, and the construction of reality.
    • Some of the best-known Latin American writers include Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

    1DePalma, Anthony. “Carlos Fuentes, Mexican Man of Letters, Dies at 83.” The New York Times. 2012.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Latin American Literature

    What defines Latin American literature?

    Latin American literature encompasses the written and oral literary traditions of Latin America.

    What are the four major themes of Latin American literature?

    Four key themes in Latin American literature include civilization vs. barbarism, politics and resistance, the construction of identity, and the construction of reality.

    What are the famous literary works in Latin America?

    Some of the most famous literary works from Latin America are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes, and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar.

    What is the importance of Latin American literature?

    Latin American literature forms an important part of the global literary canon, and literary works from Latin America have influenced writers worldwide.

    Who is the father of Latin American literature?

    Some key figures in Latin American literature include Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is NOT a reoccurring theme in Latin American literature?

    Which Latin American writer did NOT win the Nobel Prize in Literature?

    Which Latin American writer is NOT associated with the Latin American Boom?


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