Puerto Rican Literature in the Mainland

Edna Acosta-Belén

in Latino Studies

ISBN: 9780199913701
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Puerto Rican Literature in the Mainland


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).

Article.  7247 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; US Cultural History

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