Latino Studies Puerto Rican Literature in the Mainland
by
Edna Acosta-Belén
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0055

Introduction

Although Puerto Ricans had been migrating to the United States for decades before the Spanish-American War (or more correctly, the Spanish-Cuban-American War) of 1898, when Puerto Rico became a colonial possession of the United States, until the late 1960s, the literary production of stateside Puerto Ricans was written predominantly in Spanish. Works written largely by first-generation Puerto Rican migrants were either published by small presses and not well publicized, or remained scattered in many of the Spanish-language newspapers of different communities. Moreover, writers from this generation rarely published in English. The Puerto Rican population in the United States in 1910 was only around two thousand people, and significant migration growth did not begin to occur until after 1917, the year when Congress decreed US citizenship for island Puerto Ricans. Thus, early literary expressions were largely ignored by the US literary establishment and were little known within the primarily working-class Puerto Rican communities—the largest one in New York, and a few other smaller ones in cities across the country. A literature primarily written in English that offered firsthand portrayals of the coming-of-age experiences and unprivileged lives endured by most US Puerto Ricans did not emerge until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Galvanized by the civil-rights movement and the militant and socially transforming outlook prevalent during these decades, Puerto Ricans and other US minorities strived for equality, inclusion, and the cultural survival and empowerment of their communities. The literature of this period also gave voice to these struggles, concerns, and experiences. Spanish Harlem, the Lower East Side (renamed by writers as Loisaida), and the Bronx stand out as the most-emblematic settings for the first wave of autobiographical narratives, poetry, prose fiction, and theater that eventually came to be identified as Nuyorican literature (see Introductory Works, Anthologies, and Genres). The label was derived from the fact that the majority of Puerto Ricans, to date, have resided in New York, and was popularized by a group of performance poets who gathered around the Nuyorican Poets Café, founded in 1973. Initially, the term Nuyorican was a derogatory label coined by island Puerto Ricans to distance themselves from the marginal conditions experienced by their migrant fellow citizens and from the negative stereotypes imposed on them by mainstream US society. It was later adopted by the Nuyorican poets as a marker of a distinctive hybrid or “borderland” cultural identity and the Spanish/English bilingual practices, mixing of languages, and code switching that occurred among US Puerto Ricans. The geographically confining nature of the term Nuyorican has led some critics and writers to try out other labels, such as Diasporican, Boricua, Chicago Rican, Orlando Rican, and others, to refer to stateside Puerto Ricans in general or from a particular geographic location other than New York. As of the early 21st century, no comprehensive literary histories of US Puerto Rican literature are available, but there have been some attempts to introduce and characterize the emerging body of literature that began to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s. Most recent critical studies and anthologies of this literary corpus have tended to focus on a particular theme or group of writers (e.g., women, gay, and lesbian) or movements (e.g., Nuyorican Poets Café, autobiographical narratives). Migration continues undeterred in the present, to the extent that the stateside Puerto Rican population of about 4.7 million in 2010 is now larger than the 3.6 million population of Puerto Rico. The strong transnational connections that Puerto Ricans maintain with the island account for reciprocal influences between both communities, which are most evident in their literature and other cultural expressions (see General Overviews). Hence, literary activity and other forms of cultural production continue to be shaped by Puerto Rican contact with mainstream US society, other ethnic and racial groups in different urban settings, and a rapidly growing Latino population that by 2010 included over fifty million people whose ancestry is linked to twenty different Spanish-speaking countries (see Anthologies and Literary Criticism).

Introductory Works

With his poignant portrayal of growing up in the “mean streets” of Spanish Harlem and the racial conflicts he experienced as a Puerto Rican mulatto, Piri Thomas’s bestselling autobiographical novels (1967, 1975, 1972) made him the first New York Puerto Rican writer to receive critical acclaim and laid the foundation for an emerging US Puerto Rican literature (see Prose Fiction). The Bildungsroman (formation novel) autobiographical genre that became such an intrinsic part of ethnic literature during this period, which was immediately commodified by mainstream publishers, gave voice to the experiences and hardships of a generation of Puerto Ricans coming of age in the impoverished urban barrios of the United States. The literary production of this generation of Puerto Ricans was the first to expose the racism and dire conditions that engulfed their communities and to capture attention from readers and literary critics in the United States and Puerto Rico. Early attempts at characterizing this emerging body of what came to be known as Nuyorican literature are few in number and include essays (Acosta-Belén 1978, Flores 1988, Aparicio 1993) and a book-length study (Mohr 1982). The Nuyorican Poets Café was founded in New York in 1973 by poets Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero. The café was a key venue for poets, playwrights, and other performers to introduce their work to the public (see Poetry and Theater). Several anthologies have played a key role in defining this literary movement and its canon, the first being the one compiled by the café’s founders in 1978. This groundbreaking volume was followed by the publication of several poetry anthologies (see Anthologies) that offer introductory perspectives and a characterization of this poetic movement. The work of cultural-studies critics, such as Juan Flores (Flores 2000 and Flores 2008, both cited under General Overviews; Flores, et al. 1981), has examined the distinctive cultural expressions of US Puerto Ricans, most notably literature and music, as they are shaped by this group’s contact with their island counterparts and other Latinos/Latinas and African Americans in the urban barrios of New York and other US cities. However, because of the continuing growth and geographic dispersion of the stateside Puerto Rican population, most-recent scholarship is giving increased attention to the histories and cultural expressions of other communities (e.g., gay and lesbian; La Fountain-Stokes 2009) and US localities besides New York (e.g., Chicago; Zimmerman 2011).

  • Acosta-Belén, Edna. “The Literature of the Puerto Rican National Minority in the United States.” Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe 5.1–2 (1978): 107–116.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first early effort at characterizing the emerging body of literature, mostly poetry, autobiographical narratives, and prose fiction, being produced by second-generation Puerto Rican writers in the United States. Available online by subscription.

  • Aparicio, Frances R. “From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: An Historical Overview of Puerto Rican Literature in the United States.” In Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States: Literature and Art. Edited by Francisco A. Lomelí, Nicolás Kanellos, and Claudio Esteve-Fabregat, 19–39. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a comprehensive view and framework for understanding the development and characterization of US Puerto Rican literature. The author also analyzes the significance of the work of the most-prominent writers and critics, after over two decades of literary production.

  • Flores, Juan. “Puerto Rican Literature in the United States: Stages and Perspectives.” ADE Bulletin 91 (1988): 39–44.

    E-mail Citation »

    This classic essay offers a valuable general overview of the various stages of literary activity and the historical evolution of US Puerto Rican writing in relation to migration, the socioeconomic status of Puerto Ricans, and the island’s colonial relationship with the United States.

  • Flores, Juan, John Attinasi, and Pedro Pedraza Jr. “La Carreta Made a U-Turn: Puerto Rican Language and Culture in the United States.” Special Issue: American Indians, Blacks, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans. Daedalus 110.2 (1981): 193–217.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors discuss issues of identity construction, assimilation, and resistance as manifested in the cultural expressions of US Puerto Ricans. They illustrate how Puerto Rican culture and language are transformed in the US context by the offspring of Puerto Rican migrants to capture their underprivileged status and experiences as an oppressed ethnic and racial minority, and the straddling between two cultures. Available online by subscription.

  • La Fountain-Stokes, Lawrence M. Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora. Cultural Studies of the Americas 23. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first study to engage in an analysis of Puerto Rican queer culture and sexuality in relation to the migration experience. The book shows the artistic treatment of gender and sexuality in literature, film, performance, and visual art by different generations of writers and artists from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.

  • Mohr, Eugene V. The Nuyorican Experience: Literature of the Puerto Rican Minority. Contributions in American Studies 62. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first book-length attempt at analyzing the historical development of the body of literature produced by New York Puerto Rican writers. Largely descriptive, without an in-depth examination of the complex socioeconomic, political, and cultural dynamics that shape Nuyorican literature. US Puerto Rican literary production has grown significantly since the publication of this book.

  • Zimmerman, Marc. Defending Their Own in the Cold. The Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans. Latinos in Chicago and the Midwest. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

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    In this collection of essays, the author deals with a variety of topics related to US Puerto Rican cultural production, including literature, film, music, dance, and visual art. Particular attention is given to the neglected work of Puerto Rican performance poets in Chicago and the culture contacts between Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups.

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