Spanish American literature

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Spanish American literature, the writings of both the European explorers of Spanish America and its later inhabitants.

See also Spanish literature; Portuguese literature; Brazilian literature.

The Colonial Era

The history of Spanish American literature begins with the writings of the explorers, soldiers, and missionaries who participated in the conquest of the New World. Their writings, eyewitness accounts of the discovery, the conquest, the existing civilizations, and the natural wonders of the flora and fauna, form the literature of the early colonial period. These chronicles, letters, histories, religious pieces, and epic poems are the vibrant and fascinating expression of those who fought for church, crown, and gold.

The letters of Christopher Columbus to Ferdinand V and Isabella I and those of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, to Charles V are among the classics of this period. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the soldiers of Cortés, wrote a remarkable history of the conquest of Mexico, and the history by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas of the destruction of the Indies made him the "apostle of the Indians" and the author of the "black legend" of Spain.

Early poetry includes Chile's epic poem, La Araucana (1569–89; tr. 1945) by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, a soldier who described the conflict between the Spaniards and the Araucanians of Chile. The epic tradition was continued by Diego de Hajeda and Bernardo de Balbuena. Among the first of those born in the New World to write about it, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega described the history of the Incas and of Peru.

With the growth of Spanish colonial society in America came the concomitant growth of literary circles, especially in the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima. The writings of the time were imitative of 17th-century Spanish literature. Several notable figures were Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, the Mexican-born playwright, generally considered one of the great Spanish dramatists; Juana Inés de la Cruz, Mexican nun, feminist, and intellectual, known for her lyric poetry, plays, and prose; and the Peruvian Juan del Valle y Caviedes, known for his satiric poetry and sharp wit.

The Nineteenth Century: Nationalism and Romanticism

The colonial period in Spanish American history and letters came to an end with the wars for independence in the early 19th cent. Prose writers and poets, imbued with the ideals of revolution and the nationalism of independence, expressed their thoughts in fiery prose and heroic verse. Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, is known for his analyses of the political scene as well as for his military exploits.

The Mexican José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi became famous as an ardent propagandist and pamphleteer. Basically a journalist, he is remembered as the author of the first Spanish American novel, The Itching Parrot (1816; tr. 1942), a work in the picaresque genre. José Joaquín Olmedo celebrated the victories of Bolívar in a heroic poem in the classical style entitled La victoria de Junín: Canto a Bolívar (1825). Andrés Bello, the Venezuelan humanist, educator, and poet, also sang of America in his serene A Georgic of the Tropics (1826; tr. 1954).

With political independence from Spain achieved, except in the island countries of the Caribbean, cultural independence swept the region, aided by the romantic tenets of freedom, emotional intensity, and individualism. For a while, classic forms coexisted with romanticism as in the poetry of José María Heredia of Cuba. His En el teocalli de Cholula [in the temple-pyramid of Cholula] (1820) is the first Spanish American romantic poem.

Among the early romanticists were the young intellectuals who fled from the tyranny of Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina. Esteban Echeverría expressed himself in the poetic narrative La cautiva [the captive] (1827). Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, also of Argentina, was not only the leading exponent of romanticism but also a prolific writer and educator. His Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants (1845; tr. 1960), a study of personalism in politics, is among the classics of Spanish American letters.

The emphasis on the national scene, so characteristic of romanticism, gave rise to the gaucho literature of Argentina and Uruguay, an indigenous literary genre. The gaucho, long the hero of popular tales and ballads, became the subject of some of the most original verse of the century in the poetry of Rafael Obligado, Estanislao del Campo, and in the classic Martín Fierro (1872–79; tr. 1948) of José Hernández. The romanticist's interest in the search for his native roots can be seen in the epic poem Tabaré (1886; tr. 1956) of Juan Zorrilla de San Martín, and in the historical anecdotes and sketches, the Knights of the Cape and 37 Other Selections from Tradiciones peruanas (1872–1910; tr. 1945), of Ricardo Palma.

Several novels of the period reflect the various trends in letters. Amalia (1851–55; tr. 1919), by José Mármol, deals with life in Argentina under Juan Manuel de Rosas; Martín Rivas (1862; tr. 1918), by Alberto Blest Gana of Chile, depicts the life and customs of Chile; María (1867; tr. 1890) is the tragic idyll of Jorge Isaacs of Colombia; and Cumandá (1871), by Ecuador's Juan León Mera, is a romantic portrayal of native life.

This same period produced some of Spanish America's most notable essayists. Juan Montalvo of Ecuador wielded his pen against the tyranny of García Moreno; Eugenio María de Hostos of Puerto Rico championed the cause of the independence and union of the islands of the Antilles; and Manuel González Prada of Peru attacked the entire social and economic system of his country and spoke out in defense of the indigenous peoples.


The writers of Spanish America in the last quarter of the 19th cent. broke with the nationalistic expression of the previous generation and immersed themselves in a world of artifice. These were the modernistas, who believed in "art for art's sake" and were influenced by the French Parnassian and symbolist schools. They wrote on rare and exotic themes and experimented with language and meter.

Those who initiated this literary movement, known as modernismo, were the Mexican Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, the Colombian José Asunción Silva, and the Cubans Julián del Casal and José Martí, the latter known also for his struggle to gain Cuba's independence from Spain. The movement reached its peak with the publication of the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío's Selected Poems (tr. 1965), which influenced writers throughout Spanish America and many in Spain. Among others there were Amado Nervo of Mexico, José Santos Chocano of Peru, Ricardo Jaimes Freyre of Bolivia, Guillermo Valencia of Colombia, Julio Herrera y Reissig and José Enrique Rodó of Uruguay, and Leopoldo Lugones of Argentina.

Early-Twentieth-Century Trends

With the passing of modernismo, poetry was influenced by many trends and movements. Three women poets, Alfonsina Storni, Juana de Ibarbourou, and the Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, are known for their impassioned lyrics. Among the poets of the avant-garde movements in poetry were Vicente Huidobro of Chile, César Vallejo of Peru, Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina, and Chile's Pablo Neruda, also a Nobel laureate.

The prose writers largely turned their attention to social themes. Following a tradition perfected by Martí, González Prada, and Rodó, the 20th-century essay reached new heights of intensity in the writings of José Vasconcelos of Mexico, known for his cultural theory as well as his participation in the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and in the educational reform of his country. The essay was cultivated in a more artistic and aesthetic form by the scholarly Alfonso Reyes of Mexico and by Pedro Henríquez Ureña of the Dominican Republic. Later on Mariano Picón-Salas of Venezuela and Germán Arciniegas of Colombia made the essay the vehicle of social, historical, and political ideas in Spanish America. Those who cultivated the novel and short story in the early 20th cent. also tended mainly toward social protest and probed the roots of injustice and oppression in humanity.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 produced a subgenre—generally first-hand accounts of aspects of the revolution. The classic work of this genre is The Underdogs (1915; tr. 1963) by Mariano Azuela. Other works of this type include The Eagle and the Serpent (1928, tr. 1930) by Martín Luis Guzmán, and El indio [the indian] (1935; tr. 1937) by Gregorio López y Fuentes. The indigenous people, the poor, the underdog of any sort now entered literature as an urgent social problem and not as an element of local color. Representative of this indigenista literature are Raza de bronce [bronze race] (1919) by the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, El mundo es ancho y ajeno [broad and alien is the world] (1941) by the Peruvian Ciro Alegría, and Huasipungo (1934; tr. 1964) by the Ecuadorian Jorge Icaza.

The struggle between humanity and the forces of nature, whether on the plains, in the tropics, or in the cities, was a challenging subject for novels and short stories. The life of the gaucho on the Argentine pampas is depicted in the novel El inglés de los güesos [the Englishman with the bones] (1924) by Benito Lynch, and in Don Segundo Sombra (1926; tr. 1935) by Ricardo Güiraldes. Life on the Venezuelan plains is portrayed in Doña Bárbara (1929; tr. 1931) by Rómulo Gallegos.

The tropics, replete with struggles of man against man as well as man against nature, are dramatically described in the short stories of the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga and in the novel The Vortex (1924; tr. 1935), by Colombia's José Eustasio Rivera. Urban society with its many social problems is the theme of the novels of Federico Gamboa of Mexico and Manuel Gálvez of Argentina and the short stories of Manuel Rojas of Chile.

With the passage of time the novel and short story became more removed from the geographical and social problems of Spanish America and became more immersed in the universal currents of literature. There were the psychological novels of Chile's Eduardo Barrios and Argentina's Ernesto Sábato, the existential works of Argentina's Eduardo Mallea, and the poetic novels of Mexico's Agustín Yáñez.

Late-Twentieth-Century Literature

The state of Spanish American letters from the middle to the end of the 20th cent. was extremely rich, especially in the novel and poetry. Both genres received great critical acclaim outside the Spanish-speaking world and were widely translated into English and many other languages. Guatemala's Nobel Prize–winning Miguel Angel Asturias combined mythological and social themes in works such as The President (1946; tr. 1963) and The Bejeweled Boy (1961; tr. 1972). Cuba's Alejo Carpentier captured the world of magic and superstition in The Lost Steps (1953; tr. 1956) and The Harp and the Shadow (1979; tr. 1990), and gave the name of magic realism to the rich and influential blend of the ordinary and fantastic that characterized many Spanish American novels of the 1960s and later. Meanwhile, Mexico's Juan Rulfo recreated a poetic world of reality and fantasy in Pedro Páramo (1955; tr. 1959).

The Argentine Jorge Luis Borges' philosophical allegories (including Ficciones [1944; tr. 1962]) brilliantly combined the real with the fantastic, and his younger compatriot Julio Cortázar gained renown for Hopscotch (1963; tr. 1966), his masterpiece of experimental fiction. Carlos Fuentes of Mexico is one of the most eminent modern novelists (The Death of Artemio Cruz [1962; tr. 1964, 1991]), along with Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru (The Green House [1966; tr. 1968]), and, most of all, the 1982 Nobel Prize–winner Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia (A Hundred Years of Solitude [1967; tr. 1970]).


For anthologies in translation, see H. de Onís, ed., The Golden Land: An Anthology of Latin American Folklore in Literature (1961); W. K. Jones, ed., Spanish American Literature in Translation: A Selection of Poetry, Fiction and Drama Since 1888 (1963); A. Torres-Ríoseco, ed., Short Stories of Latin America (1963); A. Flores, ed., The Literature of Spanish America: A Critical Anthology (4 vol., 1966–69); H. Carpentier and J. Brof, ed., Doors and Mirrors: Fiction and Poetry from Spanish America, 1920–70 (1972); S. Castro-Klaren, S. Molloy, and B. Sarlo, ed., Women's Writing in Latin America: An Anthology (1991).

See also E. A. Imbert, Spanish-American Literature: A History (2 vol., 2d ed. 1963); K. Schwartz, A New History of Spanish American Fiction (1972); D. Gallagher, ed., Modern Latin American Literature (1973) M. Forster, ed., Tradition and Renewal: Essays on Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature and Culture (1975); L. Klein, ed., Latin American Literature in the 20th Century: A Guide (1986); D. W. Foster, ed., Handbook of Latin American Literature (1987); C. Sole, ed., Latin American Writers (1989).

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