In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Voices in Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Anthologies Across the Americas
  • Early Modern Indigenous Narratives
  • Translations into Indigenous Languages

Latin American Studies Indigenous Voices in Literature
Juan Carlos Grijalva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0199


The indigenous peoples of Abya Yala (Latin America)—which in the Kuna language means “Land in Its Full Maturity”—are the descendants of the first inhabitants and ancestral owners of the lands that were later conquered by European conquistadors. Indigenous peoples, indeed, have resisted centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism, which attempted to strip them of their territories, native languages, and cultural identities. Since the time of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish word indio has been used to imply the racial, cultural, linguistic, and intellectual inferiority of indigenous peoples, yet they have never accepted colonization and exploitation passively. There is a long history of indigenous rebellions and symbolic reappropriations of the “New World.” Today, there are more than eight hundred indigenous ethnic groups in Latin America, and two hundred more are estimated to be living in voluntary isolation, according to the United Nations. The cultural and linguistic heritage of indigenous peoples contributes to the world’s diversity. Indigenous literatures, in particular, are a paradigmatic example of this rich cultural heritage. Based on collective oral traditions (myths, rituals, legends, stories, songs, etc.), these literatures encompass a vast heterogeneous textual production (pre-Hispanic codices, colonial documents, letters, chronicles, autobiographies, testimonies, poems, short stories, novels, etc.) that has been written by indigenous peoples themselves, often using their own languages and reflecting their own worldviews. In this sense, indigenismo, understood as an urban-white-criollo cultural tradition of representing and speaking about and for indigenous peoples, has a radically different point of view (see the Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies article “Latino Indigenismo in a Comparative Perspective”). During the last few decades, the production of indigenous literatures has flourished, putting an end to traditional indigenismo and modifying views on national histories of literatures and conventional literary concepts. New multilingual editions and anthologies of indigenous poetry, fictional narratives, and other genres are currently being published, sometimes as the result of literary festivals and workshops, scholarships, and projects with the participation of indigenous peoples. This new literature is also part of the contemporary social struggle of indigenous communities to affirm their right to live with dignity and preserve their own cultures and languages. Quechua, Kichwa, Aymara, Nahuatl, Maya, and Mapudungun literatures, among many others, allow us to hope that a full social, political, and cultural recognition of indigenous peoples is not so far away. In this bibliographical review, key pre-Hispanic, colonial, modern, and contemporary indigenous authors and works are considered chronologically, giving special priority to indigenous primary sources, and to English translations when they are available.

General Overviews

Latin American indigenous literatures strongly feed from the cultural, social, and historical legacies of, among others, the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations (see the Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History article “Pre-Contact America”). Wauchope 1970, McEwan 2006, and Sharer 1996 provide general interdisciplinary introductions for understanding these major indigenous civilizations and their cultural complexities, covering different aspects of their everyday lives, politics, economies, religions, and societies in general. The thesis that these civilizations, separated in time and space, can be understood as a whole is developed in Fernández-Armesto 2003 and Wearne 1996. Other works, such as Hughes 2003, Dusell 1995, Todorov 1999, and Kicza 1999, focus specifically on how these ethnic populations have been eclipsed, stereotyped, and colonized as inferior “others.” Hughes and Kicza have insisted on their resistance and resilience to these conflictive relations.

  • Dusell, Enrique. The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other” and the Myth of Modernity. Translated by Michel D. Barber. New York: Continuum International, 1995.

    Dusell interprets the European colonization of the New World as the beginning of the “myth” of modernity, a new global European perspective that justified barbarity in the name of civilization.

  • Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. The Americas: A Hemispheric History. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

    This groundbreaking work tells the story of North, Central, and South America as a whole, examining the cross-cultural exchanges, conflicts, and interactions that have shaped the region. This book begins by discussing the name of the continent; it then analyzes the conquest, colonization, independence, and new forms of dependency in Latin America. A final section provides the most recent bibliography for each chapter.

  • Hughes, Lotte. The No-Nonsense Guide to Indigenous Peoples. London: Verso, 2003.

    Lotte Hughes’s work traces different indigenous peoples’ stories about their first contacts with explorers and colonizers. Indigenous voices are given priority, as they explain their understanding of land and the natural world; their struggles with becoming “white,” and their resistance to being presented as objects in museums, among other issues.

  • Kicza, John E., ed. The Indian in Latin American History: Resistance, Resilience, and Acculturation. Rev. ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

    This interdisciplinary edited book studies the conflictive relations of resistance, resilience, and acculturation between indigenous peoples and Western societies, beginning with the Spaniards’ initial contact with the Inca Empire until today’s Latin American cultural exchanges.

  • McEwan, Gordon. The Incas: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    The Incas created one of the greatest imperial states in history. Drawing on archaeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory, the author provides the most up-to-date interpretations of Incan culture, architecture, religion, medicine, politics, agriculture, economics, and daily life.

  • Sharer, Robert J. Daily Life in Maya Civilization. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

    An excellent narrative approach to Mayan everyday life discussing politics, economy, social structure, religion, writing, warfare, language, astronomical knowledge, and family roles, among other topics. This book covers Mayan civilization from its beginnings through the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

  • Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

    A classic study. Using 16th-century sources, Todorov analyzes the major role of religious beliefs and ideological concepts regarding the material conquest, which led to a justification of European racial superiority and the near extermination of Mesoamerica’s Indian population. First published in 1992.

  • Wauchope, Robert, ed. The Indian Background of Latin American History: The Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Their Predecessors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

    An American archaeologist and anthropologist, Robert Wauchope specialized in the prehistory and archaeology of Latin America, Mesoamerica, and the southwestern United States. He became noted for his extensive work on house mounds in Uaxactun, Guatemala. This book provides historical background on Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations.

  • Wearne, Phillip. Return of the Indian: Conquest and Revival in the Americas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

    For the first time, this study analyzes in one place the present circumstances of the forty million indigenous people of North, Central, and South America. This book has a foreword by Rigoberta Menchú Tum, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.