My Journey into the Vastness of Latin American Literature | Sojourners

My Journey into the Vastness of Latin American Literature

One of the highlights of my trip to Costa Rica was visiting Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica in San José. Taking a break from the beaches and after consuming a healthy amount of papaya and platanos, I wanted to go there to see the area outside the theater, which has busts of some of the Central American country’s famous writers: Eunice Odio, Joaquín Gutierrez, and Yolanda Oreamuno. After the visit, with the help of some of my tias and primas, I even brought home a few books from these authors. They were particularly pleased I was interested in reading literature from Costa Rica.

I have a number of busts of famous authors on my bookshelf. I’m especially proud of my Dostoevsky and Dante. But what are the odds I could locate one of Oreamuno? Odio? I recently determined to know more about the literature from the country my father is from, but that has not been an easy task.

First, most of the writings of these authors are only in Spanish. I know some Spanish because of school and my family, yet I am far from speaking or reading with confidence. Even if I was lucky to find a book by Oreamuno, I notice as I madly scroll through Amazon, it is quite expensive. But even if I mastered some of these readings, how could I share them with a U.S. American audience?

There is generally an invisibility of literature by Latin Americans in the U.S. I did not realize this until I started to hear the names of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, and Gustavo Gutierrez. The problem is that it was only these names. These writers are the ones who really made it: the men of the Latin American Boom and magical realism. Gutierrez bears the distinction of being one of the pioneers of Latin American liberation theology — but there are so many more writers lost to history, not even given a chance to be part of our memory.

How do we begin to solve this dilemma, especially for those of us that have Latinx heritage? As someone who spent over a decade studying the theology of Karl Barth, it is very easy to settle in with reading the normative books. However, the easy solution is to just dump Barth and start to read Gutierrez. Authors like Borges, Neruda, and Gutierrez are now normalized and are often the poster boys for Latinx Studies or Hispanic/Latin American Theology. You have to go through Borges to get to Gabriela Mistral; you have to read Vargas Llosa if you want to read Sandra Cisneros. What about Eunice Odio or Yolanda Oreamuno? Even my family in Costa Rica knew practically nothing about them, so what are the chances you would read a poem or essay in a Latinx studies seminar in the U.S. Midwest?

Borges, Neruda, and Gutierrez are still important and need to be read by the present-future generation. However, we have to intentionally read the other Latinx authors. If we do not intentionally read these writers they will end up being just stone busts outside a building, reminding the many people passing by that they indeed once wrote great books. Once we have read these lesser-known authors, it is up to us to advocate them. Over the past couple of years, I have read a number of edited volumes of essays by mostly women authors introducing Latina writers. This was my entryway into finding which writers to whom I wanted to intentionally dedicate my time.

Outside the theater at San José, I took Instagram pictures of the three authors I mentioned above. However, it was with the severed head bust of Oreamuno that I actually hunched down to pose with. For some reason, even though her bittersweet story is still somewhat vague to me, something about this woman called out to me. Great writers produce a longing in the reader to explore more of their books. In just the few works I have intentionally read of her in both English and Spanish, I realized this was the right path for me. The very little that has been translated in English forces me to read with more care than I ever have.

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