The beginnings of Puerto Rican literature occurred during the early decades of the 19th century as a form of expression by a people who became aware of their own existence. In other words, at that time, several writers that considered themselves Puerto Ricans or criollos arose, and what they wrote about was a literature about that specific geographic space they identified with and that they called their homeland. The arrival of the printing press in 1806 led to the appearance of newspapers such as La Gaceta that became spaces where these initial texts became part of the body of Puerto Rican literature. Mariana Bibiana Benítez, for example, published “La ninfa de Puerto Rico” (“The Nymph of Puerto Rico”) in that newspaper in 1833. In the same year, Celedonio Luis Nebot de Padilla brought to the theater stage Mucén o el triunfo del patriotismo (Mucén, or the Triumph of Patriotism), a work that is seen as an allegory of the political situation in Puerto Rico and its relationship with Spain.
The best-known work of this time, however, is El aguinaldo puertorriqueño (1843), which brought together romantic criollo texts. This shows that in Puerto Rico writers identified themselves with their homeland, which motivated them to write and publish texts draped in regional and local sentiments, such as Álbum puertorriqueño (1844) and El cancionero de Borinquen (1846). Among the outstanding writers of these anthologized texts were Francisco Vasallo, Santiago Vidarte (with his poems “Insomnio,” “El sueño” and “La jibarita”) and Manuel Alonso (1822-1889). A notable work by Alonso is Gíbaro, a portrait of folklore customs. “La fiesta del Utuao,” “Un casamiento jíbaro” and “Una pelea de gallos” show scenes that are transcribed in the rural way of speaking (and have been used in important linguistic studies). Manuel Fernández Juncos regularly wrote for the newspapers of the era, and one of his poems was “Sursum corda.”
From this era arose a symbol that defined the Puerto Rican as an archetype: the jíbaro, the iconic campesino or peasant (and, eventually, the Puerto Rican). Ramón Méndez Quiñones wrote two dramatic pieces that created a profile of this subject that became widespread even at the beginning of the 20th century: Un jíbaro and Los jíbaros progresistas. These works portrayed the jíbaro as a volatile and superstitious being with a great sense of honor and generosity. As a literary character, however, he served as a spokesman for the enlightened ideas of the era, and for that reason the portrait is seen as a literary construct and not an anthropological one.
Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (1826-1882) is another symbolic author of Puerto Rican literature. He was a very prolific and versatile writer. The play La cuarterona, the novel Póstumo el envirginiado and the poem La sataniada are essential works in the canon of Puerto Rico. His topics and his treatments of racial, feminist and political issues put him well ahead of his time.
After Tapia y Rivera, and also in this tradition of love for the homeland and the search for liberation, José Gautier Benítez (1851-1880) is an outstanding poet. His poem “Canto a Puerto Rico,” “A Puerto Rico (Ausencia)” and “A Puerto Rico (Regreso)” are essential poems in the literary historiography. They display his favored topics: women, heritage, love and social criticism. Another outstanding figure was the patriot Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903), a romantic committed to the separation of Puerto Rico from Spain. He was a feminist, a revolutionary, an educator and a literary critic. His novels La peregrinación de Bayoán (Bayoan’s Pilgrimage) and Mi viaje al sur (My trip to the South) have a privileged spot in Puerto Rican letters. It is also important to mention Lola Rodríguez de Tió, an exiled revolutionary and poet who wrote one of the most famous poems linking Puerto Rico and Cuba, titled “A Cuba” (“To Cuba”).
In the modernist current, an essential poet was José de Jesús Domínguez, who preceded Rubén Darío (a Nicaraguan who led modernism in the Americas) with a modernist piece titled Las huríes blancas. Preciosity, exoticism, the creation of a world of fantasy and sensuality are modernist characteristics present in this precursor poem.
By the early 20th century, Jesús María Lago published modernist poems; Luis Llorens Torres and Virgilio Dávila addressed criollo topics and jíbaros in this current. “La canción de las Antillas” (“Song of the Antilles”) by Llorens displays typical Antillean characteristics and “El patito feo” (“The Ugly Duckling”) looks at the conflictive relationship with the United States through a reflection on history. Modernist essays were written by Nemesio Canales in “Paliques” and Miguel Guerra Mondragón.
Later, Salvador Brau, a playwright, essayist, and poet, cultivated naturalism and realism masterfully. His novel La pecadora (The sinner) was noted for its social and psychological approach. Manuel Zeno Gandía emphasized naturalism in his collection Crónicas de un mundo enfermo (Chronicles of a Sick World), which included La charca, Garduña and El negocio and leaves an immortal legacy in Puerto Rican prose that questions the society and social fashions of the time. He later wrote Redentores, which is a testimony to the change of sovereignty with the arrival of the United States.
José I. de Diego Padró was an important writer who along with Luis Palés Matos founded diepalismo, a movement that brought avant-garde to Puerto Rico. Diepalism explored the sounds of onomatopoeia. De Diego Padró published the book of poems La última lámpara de los dioses (The Last Lamp of the Gods) (1921). Realism, customs, social concerns and a poetic re-evaluation of that which is Puerto Rican were the prevailing and defining characteristics of the literature of these centuries. The 1930s generation was a group that did powerful work and framed a moment in the literary development of Puerto Rico and that arose during a dichotomy: Spain and the United States. This polarity led writers to stake out positions that continue to have repercussions today on the concept of that which is Puerto Rican.
The 1930s generation reacted to the problems that faced Puerto Rico in that decade: the threat of assimilation to the U.S. model and the social and economic crisis. Serious questions arose at this time about Puerto Rican identity, and about which historical and social elements had contributed (for better or worse) to the formation of that identity. For them, the symbols of the jíbaro, the symbols of Puerto Rican identity, the social and natural environment, and the economic model, including coffee and tobacco, all had value. Outstanding examples of essays from this generation are Insularismo (1934) by Antonio S. Pedreira, Prontuario histórico de Puerto Rico (1935) by Tomás Blanco, Problemas de la cultura puertorriqueña (1934) by Emilio S. Belaval and the studies by María Cadilla de Martínez in Costumbres y tradicionalismos de mi tierra (1938), among others. Notable in the field of short stories are Miguel Meléndez Muñoz, with Cuentos de la carretera central (1941), and Abelardo Díaz Alfaro, an author who served as a bridge to the next generation and who, in Terrazo (1947), narrated the interior and social world of the peasant. In the field of novels, Enrique Laguerre stands out he was a monumental author who numerous academics recommended for a Nobel Prize on one occasion. Among his most renowned (and read, as part of the Puerto Rico Department of Education) novels are La llamarada (1935), Solar Montoya (1941) and La resaca (1949), among others. Distinctive works from the theater include Manuel Méndez Ballester with El clamor de los surcos (1930) and Tiempo muerto (1940). This celebrated playwright also published a novel, Isla cerrera (1937). His theatrical works have deep social concerns and address labor issues in the face of the U.S. model.
The poetry of the 1930s generation was very important in the literary development of the island. Julia de Burgos (1916-1953) is the representative poet of the generation. She published three books of poems: Poema en veinte surcos (1938), Canción de la verdad sencilla (1939) and El mar y tú (1954, posthumous). She is known for poetry that was existentialist, feminist, political and loving. Palés Matos (1899-1959) is known for addressing black issues in Tuntún de pasa y grifería (Drumbeats of Kink and Blackness) (1937). Palés’s poems, such as “Puerta al tiempo en tres voces,” “Asteriscos para lo intacto,” “El llamado” and others, are preferred by critics for the many topics and themes they address. The poetry of Juan Antonio Corretjer (1908-1985), collected in the books of poetry Agüeybaná (1932), Amor de Puerto Rico (1937) and Cánticos de guerra (1937), became an example of the aesthetic and nationalistic values of Puerto Rico; the poet’s central topics were a historical revision and an affiliation with the homeland as a duty. Meanwhile, Evaristo Ribera Chevremont (1896-1976) used free verse to express metaphysical and patriotic concerns in La hora del orifice (1929) and Tú, mar, yo, ella (1946). Clara Lair (1895-1973) published Arras de cristal (1937) with feminist poetics.
In general, the 1930s generation, as participants in a defining economic process, established a long debate (that still continues) about Puerto Rican identity and the relationship with the United States. From that arose debates about the defense of Spanish heritage, the basis of which was a laborer and rural perspective. In another sense, it established a clear awareness of being a literature separate from the Spanish Americas and Spain, something that was very important for the following generation of 1945 or 1950.
New writers in the 1940s introduced new topics to Puerto Rican literature: The Korean War (1949), the migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States, nationalism, industrial development (and the controversial integration of women into the workforce) and urbanism. Just as the writers of the 1930s generation questioned the reality they experienced, so did the Generation of 1945 or 1950, especially in what became known as a renewal of the short story form. Led by Abelardo Díaz Alfaro, outstanding writers of this generation include René Marqués, with Otro día nuestro (1955), the novel La víspera del hombre (1959) and the theatrical work La carreta (1962). Marqués also renewed the theater with his symbolism and scenery. In his work, he analyzes, from a patriarchal point of view, the roles of people in the family setting after the invasion by the United States, the life of poverty lived by workers, and the defense of cultural heritage and the Spanish language. José Luis González published En la sombra (1943), Cinco cuentos de sangre (1945) and El hombre en la calle (1948), clearly addressing urbanism on the island and in New York, and focusing on characters at the social margins. He later did a historical analysis of El país de los cuatro pisos (The Four-Storeyed Country) (1980), which established a debate about the configuration of Puerto Rican identity. The legacy of Pedro Juan Soto includes the book Spiks (1957), which tells of Puerto Rican life in New York, and the novel Usmail, which uses Vieques as the setting for a class conflict that emphasizes the occupation of Puerto Rico by the United States. Emilio Díaz Valcárcel tells about the worries in the Puerto Rican psyche over the Korean War in La sangre inútil (1955) and El asedio (1958).
Although he focused on prose, Francisco Matos Paoli also brought his important voice to poetry with Canto a Puerto Rico (1952), Luz de los héroes (1954) and Canto a la locura (1962). Matos Paoli followed Corretjer’s nationalist tendencies but deepened them with an awareness of poetry as an artistic and metaphysical genre.
This historic time (with Operation Bootstrap, the establishment of the Commonwealth, the exodus of Puerto Ricans to New York and from the country to the city, the crowding in the slums and the terrible consequences of the war, among other problems) forged a non-conformist mentality and social commitment that only increased with the 1960s generation. Social, racial and gender prejudice, the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and the anti-war movement were the banners of this group.
In the 1960s, magazines such as Guajana (1962), Mester (1967) and Palestra (1967) emerged and published writers such as Vicente Rodríguez Nietzsche (the main force behind the Puerto Rico International Poetry Festival and whose works include Domingo, lunes, martes; Mural; Amor como una flauta; Vuelvo a enhebrar la musical costura; A lo mejor es doble nuestro sueño; and Voces del silencio), Hugo Margenat (Primeros poemas /Vislumbres; Breves palabras de las horas prietas; Vibraciones de aire y tierra; Ventana hacia lo último; Lámpara apagada; Mundo abierto; Erosavia; among others), Andrés Castro Ríos (Muerte fundada; Estos poemas; Don de la poesía, among others), Wenceslao Serra Deliz (Memoria; El trabajo diario; and Abra palabra; also children’s stories Fabián; Poemas y colores; Mi música; and Yucayeque), Jorge María Ruscalleda Bercedóniz (the book of poetry El corazón fuera del pecho, and the novel Saramambiches), and ángela María Dávila (Animal fiero y tierno), among many others. Some of these poets published their books in the 1970s. Militancy was one of the characteristics that defined them. They demanded a literature of commitment. A poet of great importance, but thematically and artistically separate from this group, was José María Lima. One of his books of poetry was Homenaje al ombligo (1966). It is important to note that in this time writers worked together on publications, anthologies, workshops and shared spaces (civic and university). Some of the important publications of the 1970s are linked to the writers of the 1950s, for example.
Outstanding prose writers from the 1970s generation include Luis Rafael Sánchez (En cuerpo de camisa, La guaracha del Macho Camacho), Manuel Ramos Otero (Página en blanco y stacatto), Manuel Abreu Adorno (Llegaron los hippies y otros cuentos, No todas las suecas son rubias), Mayra Montero (Tú, la oscuridad, Púrpura profundo, La última noche que pasé contigo, Del rojo de su sombra, etc.), Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá (La renuncia del héroe Baltasar, La noche oscura del niño Avilés, Sol de medianoche), Rosario Ferré, Ana Lydia Vega, Magali García Ramis, and Carmen Lugo Filipi, among others. These four women authors led a breakthrough in representing women in literature with themes and concerns of interest to women. In poetry, both erotic and daily topics were addressed by poets Rosario Ferré (Fábulas de la garza desangrada), Olga Nolla (De lo familiar, El ojo de la tormenta, El sombrero de plata, Clave de sol, Dafne en el mes de marzo, among others), Magaly Quiñones (Entre mi voz y el tiempo; Era que el mundo era; Cantándole a la noche misma, among others) and Yvonne Ochart (El libro del agua, Rantamplán, Este es nuestro paraíso, Poemas de Nueva Cork, among others). They represent impressive poetics in that dialogue that arose (and continues) among generations of Puerto Rican writers. Meanwhile, the anthology of essays El tramo ancla (1985) collected texts from the 1970s writers Ana Lydia Vega, Juan Antonio Ramos, Kalman Barsy, Edgardo Sanabria Santaliz, among others, that discussed issues of feminism, vegetarianism, AIDS, etc. During the 1970s, Zona de Carga y Descarga, a magazine started by Rosario Ferré, brought together writers who carried on some trends that came from the surrealism of the 1930s, from the fantastical literature of the Southern Cone, from the realism of marginalized characters, fromMarxism and from feminism.
The theater also made great contributions with the Traveling Theater of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus (originated in the 1940s), the New Poor Theater of America founded by Pedro Santaliz and El Tajo del Alacrán founded by Lydia Milagros González, among others. Luis Rafael Sánchez became one of the most important playwrights of the group with works such as La farsa del amor compradito (1960), La hiel nuestra de cada día (1961), La pasión según Antígona Pérez (1968) and Parábola de andarín (1979). Also notable were Myrna Casas with Cristal roto en el tiempo, Jaime Carrero with Pipo Subway no sabe reír, Lydia Milagros González with Gloria, la bolitera, and others. Notable in the field of essays were ángel Quintero Rivera with his book Lucha obrera (1971), the revision by Juan ángel Silén in Historia de la nación puertorriqueña (1973), or by Manuel Maldonado Denis in Semblanza de cuatro revolucionarios; Albizu, Martí, Che Guevara y Camilo Torres (1973), among others.
For the Generation of the 1980s, the cross-generational interaction between the poets of the 1980s, the 1990s and later are more prominent than in previous years. For example, poet, storyteller and essayist Rafael Acevedo, author of Contracanto de los superdecidores (1982), El retorno del ojo prodigo (1986) and Libro de islas (1989) founded the magazine Filo de Juego, which published writers from various generations. In 2010, he created La Secta de los Perros, a press that brought together the voices of a diverse group of writers. His novel Exquisito cadáver received an honorable mention from the Casa de las Américas. Mayra Santos Febres, who is the founder of the Festival of the Word, an event that brings together local and international writers from various generations, began publishing in the 1980s and her work has received important international awards. Her books ofpoetry, Anamú y manigua (1991), El orden escapado (1991) and Tercer mundo (2000), address political and social issues from a feminist and post-modern perspective. Santos Febres is mainly known for her prose. El cuerpo correcto, Sirena Selena vestida de pena (Selena the Siren Dressed in Pain), Cualquier miércoles soy tuya, Fe en disfraz (Faith in Disguise) and Nuestra señora de la noche (Our Lady of the Night), among others, are her novels and books of short stories. Other members of this generation are Zoé Jiménez Corretjer (El cantar de la memoria), Kattia Chico (Efectos secundarios), Etnairis Rivera (Wydondequiera, María Mar Moriviví; Canto de la Pachamama, El día del polen), Mario Cancel (Estos raros orígenes, Las ruinas que se dicen mi casa), Alberto Martínez Márquez (Las formas del vértigo, Frutos subterráneos and Contigo he aprendido a conocer la noche), Edgardo Nieves Mieles (El amor es una enfermedad del hígado, Las muchas aguas no podrán apagar el amor, Este breve espacio de la dicha llamado poema, among others), Eduardo Lalo (Ciudades e islas and La inutilidad, among other works mentioned earlier), Elidio La Torre Lagares (Septiembre, Historia de un dios pequeño and Cáliz, among others), and Juan Carlos Quintero Herencia (La caja negra) and Luis López Nieve (El corazón de Voltaire, Seva). This generation did not delve into the question of Puerto Rican identity, but rather parodied the big discussions and even the major concerns. It valued technology and returned more openly to issues of marginalization, without the moralizing attitude of previous generations. The theater in this generation includes playwrights such as Abniel Marat (with works such as Dios en el Playgirl de noviembre) and Roberto Ramos-Perea (Mala sangre), whose works extended into the 1990s. Raiza Vidal brought to the stageCon los pies desnudos, Los vendados and Ojos negros niña mujer.
Beginning with the 1990s generation, writers emerged through open microphone events, performance art, blogs and online magazines (in addition to the other spaces used by earlier generations). New voices were born and existing ones became more powerful. Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro wrote about Dominican, Haitian and Cuban characters in her text Los documentados. Las negras is a collection of stories about slavery of women. Meanwhile, Marta Aponte Alsina wrote Vampiresas, which incorporated Puerto Rico into the Gothic. Other works of hers are El fantasma de las cosas, Sexto sueño, Angélica furiosa, and La casa de la loca y otros relatos. Los otros cuerpos is an important anthology of queer Puerto Rican literature that addresses issues of the homosexual community with prose and poetry by Puerto Rican writers from various generations, such as Mayra Santos Febres, Daniel Torres, Manuel Ramos Otero, Carlos Vázquez Cruz (Ares, Malacostumbrismo, Asado a las doce, Sencilla mente, etc.), and Luis Negrón (Mundo cruel), among others. Rafael Franco Steeves, in El peor de mis amigos (The Worse One of My Friends), elaborated on drug addiction without trying to be pedagogical or judgmental. Contrarily, in El killer by Josué Montijo, a psychopath tries to “clean” the city of drug addicts. Other important prose writers of the 1990s are Lourdes Vázquez (Obituarioand Salmos del cuerpo ardiente, among others), Vanessa Vilches (Crímenes domésticos, Espacios de color cerrado), Yvonne Denis (Bufé, Capá prieto) and Alexandra Pagán Vélez (El diccionario y el capitán, Relatos de domingo, Amargo, Cuando era niña hablaba como niña). The winner of the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for the novel Simone, Eduardo Lalo, creates hybrid texts in which literary and visual genres, as well as tired discourses of the 21st century, take on an ironic force. For example, Libro de textos has two monologues, fourteen stories and several poems; En el Burger King de la calle San Francisco includes drawings by the author; donde, and Los pies de San Juan (The Feet of San Juan) combine text and photography. Science fiction and fantasy are the subjects of the novels Exquisito cadáver (Exquisite Cadaver), by Rafael Acevedo and La cabeza by Pedro Cabiya. Comedy is integrated into literature by Daniel Torres and Pedro Cabiya. An important prose writer is Janette Becerra, who writes about science, fantasy, video games and other contemporary themes in her prose in Ciencia imperfecta (Imperfect Science), Antrópolis and Doce versiones de soledad (Twelve Versions of Solitude). Moisés Agosto, Daniel Torres, Ana María Fuster (Réquiem, El libro de las sombras, Bocetos de una ciudad silente, El cuerpo del delito) and Luis Negrón write about alternative sexualities and the marginalization that results. E-mail is an updated version of the epistle technique in Archivo Catalina by Eliseo Colón Zayas.
Journalism, diary-keeping, short stories and novels mix in works by authors such as Guillermo Rebollo Gil (Decirla en pedacitos: estrategias de cercanía), Juan Carlos Quiñones (Todos los nombres el nombre), Juanluís Ramos (Reyerta TV) and Rima Brusi (Mi tecato favorito). New biographies emerged, such as the one written by Mayra Santos Febres, Yo misma fui mi ruta, la maravillosa vida de Julia de Burgos. Themes that broke away from the nationalistic vision were Ciudadano insano y otros ensayos bestiales sobre cultura y literatura (2001) by Juan Duchesne Winter, and Nación Postmorten. Ensayos sobre los tiempos de insoportable ambigüedad by Carlos Pabón (2002). The prosaic and mythic could be seen in the poetry of Carmen R. Marín (Cosmogonías y otras sales, Salvahuidas) and Cindy Jiménez Vera (400 nuevos soles), in the transgressor non-fiction of David Caleb Acevedo (Diario de una puta humilde, El oneronauta and Empírea, among others) and the traditional but revised poetry of Karen Sevilla (Parque prospecto).
Aurea María Sotomayor in Fémina Faber: letra, música, ley (2004), Irma Rivera Nieves in Cambio de cielo, viaje, sujeto y ley (1999) and Vanessa Vilches in De(s)madres o el rastro materno de las escrituras del yo (2003) use the essay from a feminine and feminist lens. Catherine Marsh inNegociaciones culturales: los intelectuales y el proyecto pedagógico del estado muñocista (2009) addresses and analyzes the intellectual discourse while questioning it from new perspectives. The blogs of Luis Felipe Díaz, Mario R. Cancel, Guillermo Rebollo Gil, Manuel Clavell, Rima Brusi, Melanie Pérez, and Lilliana Ramos Collado became spaces where new essays addressed many topics.
An outstanding playwright is Sylvia Bofill Calero, whose Insideout and ¡Oh natura! propose a new look at the roles and scenes of contemporary theater. Specifically, the work of Aravind E. Adyanthaya and his group, Casa Cruz de la Luna, is based on this concept. The play Lecturas de la mano, and a collection of stories, Lajas, are a great contribution to a new Puerto Rican literature.
In summary, Puerto Rican literature has carried on a dialogue with history, places and people, at local, international and, recently, virtual levels. In thematic terms, it questions whether at this point the borders and the mainstream are not so clearly defined, which leads to a questioning look at the idea of literary genres and casts light on hybrid literature. The role of technology in daily life has also made new writers more accessible to readers and given them wider exposure than in the past. More online magazines emerge daily and print on demand and other printing technologies have led to the rise of numerous independent presses and art presses. Always at the center of its social setting, Puerto Rican literature is ever more integrated into international literature, with its own voice.
Author: Alexandra Pagán Vélez
Published: January 26, 2016.
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