Sometime in the mid 20th century, a series of novels in translation about the Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner’s microcosm of the South, found its way into the hands of Gabriel García Márquez. At the time, the reporter would have been colloquially referred to as El Gabo. In Yoknapatawpha County, El Gabo saw a window into Latin America. Faulkner had painted an American South with fears of incest, the veneration of disgraced commanders, spirituality, and grotesque inequality that Márquez found in rural Latin American towns like his own in Colombia. He would create his own microcosm called Macondo in his book One Hundred Years of Solitude. The opus now has sold over 50 million copies in 37 languages (it’s said that when the book was translated to Russian, their publishers had to cut down a whole forest in order to keep up with the demand for the book).
Currently, there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States and 11 million bilingual speakers; according to Spanish Language Domains (SLD), the US falls just under Mexico, with 104 million speakers. The language has traveled into the US through many pathways and for various reasons. The presence of Spanish speakers, most hailing from Latin America or with ancestors from Latin America, is unquestionably significant in US demographics. Currently 17.6 percent of the population is Hispanic; according to a 2017 Pew research study, by 2050 that figure is estimated to grow to 30 percent. In contrast to the shrinking youth population (ages 0-18) in the United States, the Hispanic youth population remains vibrant with a predicted 22 percent increase in the Hispanic youth population. The growing youth population is bound to spark new energy into an evolving Latino identity and into the Spanish language. There are historical precedents to these movements: this population’s linguistic inheritance within the volatile context of contemporary United States in an age of greater interconnectivity has the potential for an unbinding experimentation, one that could mirror that of the Latin Boom, which arose in the 1960s.
During that time, the world was observing a deep unrest taking place in Latin America: Fidel Castro led a communist Cuba that would eventually send the United States into a panic; Pinochet overthrew the democratic elected leader in Chile to mark the beginning of many human rights violations; authoritarian governments backed by their militaries took over in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and other countries in Latin America; the United States fueled the dirty war that would devastate Argentina; and the student protests that took place 10 days before the Mexico City Olympics would conclude with the Tlatelolco massacre. As more people sought to make sense of the events occuring in the Global South, many looked to the authors of the region for guidance.
Working on the foundations of a previous generation of Latin American writers, this new generation of authors of the Boom found inspiration in the work of English and American modernists who were experimenting with new narratives and styles. Through language, these Latin American writers continued to experiment with subtleties and ambiguities in order to comment on megalomaniacal dictatorships and deflect suffocating US interventions. During a time when the world's eyes were on Latin America, Juilo Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Marquéz found international commercial success and exploded to global stardom. With the advent of television broadcasts throughout most of Latin America in the mid-50’s, both its citizens and the rest of the world were able to see the ailments of the region in sound, image, and real-time. The events were occuring seemingly without rhyme or reason, a sentiment that had to be matched with a radical, specifically Latin American narrative and linguistic style in order to convey a truth in a time of spin—one that the Boom authors presented.
Whether as journalists, politicians, activists or exiles of their countries, the big four of the Latin Boom were entrenched in the political sphere of the time. The worldwide publicization of the events coupled with the writers’ more intimate critical relationships with them allowed for the creation of the style typically felt throughout Latin Boom novels: non-linear timelines, cross-cutting narratives, and rotating characters produce a state of mind one might inhabit while flipping through various different channels. In turn, they creating a narrative of Latin America that is complete in its disjointedness. In one particularly famous novel of that time, Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar begins with: “In its own way, this book consists of many books.” Hopscotch uses an arbitrary sequencing of chapters that may inspire each reader to choose their own narrative order. And while the inundation of new information about Latin America entered the newscycle everyday, the specific emphasis placed on the relationship between time and narration from the Boom authors also mirrored the complex digestion of history and its repetitions.
The unrest of the 70s seems to follow the current Latin American diaspora. Undocumented migrant workers are often blamed for stealing jobs reserved for the “untouchables,” a group of people that are not given legal protection for their labor. Industries— agriculture, meat packing, supermarkets— often rely on this labor to turn a profit and keep prices low for Americans. The political narrative plays Latino men as macho rapists and drug dealers, and saves space to essentialize and exotify Latina women. A hurricane can hit Puerto Rico, a part of the United States, and they will not be helped because the majority speaks Spanish, furthering the President’s suspicion of the language and its speakers. Latinos navigate a web tense with thousands of contradictory strands; at the core are attacks on identity and personhood. Latinos in the US are always a stone’s throw from living their lives unbothered: a familiar phone conversation might involve being informed that one’s aunt was brought to a detention center after being tracked and left waiting in the desert, or that their father was stopped by Immigration on his way back from the landscaping a lawn because the neighbors heard him talking in Spanish. Being a Latino born in the US means being constantly met with an onslaught of devastating information that is combated with a straight countenance at the dinner table in an attempt to spare our parent’s sanity and optimism towards the American dream. On top of these forces, Latin-Americans face judgement from native Latinos for not knowing Spanish perfectly or not fitting into hegemonic gender and sexual identities. These realities can make Latin-Americans feel both split between and excluded from two worlds. And yet Latin-Americans have to traverse and translate these worlds everyday, between tradition and progressiveness, between being the protected and the protector—a placelessness with no destination.
Consciously or not, the youth are sponges. The words that the Latino-American youth share are unlike any other: not only do they witness the Spanish language, they have personal ties with migrationspeak, strawberrypickingnese, exploitationtalk, and on top of that, almost all of them know English. And even knowing all of these languages, US government agencies paint a fictional story to immigrant parents, telling them that their children have language gaps and have to be put through programs with no respect for their cultural linguistic acquisition. The multiple languages that young Latino-American youth are playing with will be essential for the expression of their identities.
While many Spanish-speakers look down on the Anglicisms in Puerto Rican Spanish, they reflect a change happening for many Spanish-speakers in the United States. Whereas before, it was a norm to only code-switch to English when around white, non-Latinos, Spanish-Americans have created a Spanish that creatively code-mixes to recall cultural nomenclature that might not exist in one language or another. Code-mixing is a phenomenon that allows a speaker to shift languages mid sentence or even midword, which opens new possibilities for an expression that is deeply aware of its culture. Successful code-mixing requires a deep understanding of how different languages and the cultures attached to them. Code-mixing, or “Spanglish,” do not indicate a failure of fluency in either language; rather, it is a new way of speaking for people who traipse on the linguistic and cultural tightrope—a mass exploration of a new language full of creative potential.
With the aid of the internet, a new language is being built to show the voice of a new Latino identity, without permission from any one linguistic institution. The need for voices to represent this new Latin identity and the creative force behind it is evident in the rising popularity of Spanish music in the United States. Just last year Cardi B’s embraced her Latina identity on her album with hit songs with Spanish verses, and Drake, learned Spanish for a verse on Bad Bunny’s MIA. (Bad Bunny is a musician that regularly code-mixes to keep his flows unique.) More up-and-coming artists are playing with code-mixing, and the rise in popularity of these artists shows that there is an audience and commercial viability for doing so.
The term Latinx is a North American creation, a space for non-binary Latin Americans in a completely gendered language. The word was thought of and spread through Spanish-speaking queer blogs to include a population whose identities were linguistically erased. The power of the term is that it cements an identity that can collect agency. The word is creative in the Spanish language because it dodges the conventional gendering of words, but is a creative English word because the specific construction forces the visibility of intersectionality missing in most identity discussions. While many Spanish scholars feel the ‘estadounidismo’ is disrespectful to the Spanish language, claiming a deformation of the language, a single entity could not make claims on correct Spanish or control a language imposed upon entire ethnic groups 500 years ago. Language has always been used to meet the needs of its speaker and to represent them, and the acceptance of an institution has never mattered in terms of how language progresses. While Latinx may be polarizing in the Spanish speaking community, it will be cemented into the language of a new generation as more and more people utilize it.
Code-mixing evolves initially through spoken language and in recent years, has appeared on the internet, fueling the coinage of new terms like Latinx; the dissemination of language online helps to create and propagate new innovations in narration and style where code-mixing is normalized. Only with the confident code-mixing of millions of people as a foundation, is any book with spanglish words written by Junot Díaz allowed to sell a single copy, much less millions. Only through the striving use of the term Latinx on social media and in dialogues about intersectionality at institutions can the term persist and find its way into everyday conversation.
The emerging linguistic and cultural changes occuring serve as the basis for understanding the current Latino-American narrative. Just as the modernists inspired the Latin Boom authors to write about the identity of the region, the current United States Latino artists will give a better framework for understanding the United States Latino identity. However, the true magic of the Latin Boom was not in writing a historical dictation of the region’s identity, but rather in creating styles and narrative structures that made you feel what it was like to be a part of the region at the time. The authors of the Latin Boom juxtaposed the chaos and multiple narratives found on television with both the memory of tangential stories their grandmas told and their study of other authorts to form their narrative structure. While they were tasked with describing the identity of Latin America and Latin Americans to the rest of the world, Latinos in the United States may now be learning how to do the same. The identities of Latinos in the United States are being shaped by information, opinions, and hot-takes on the internet at a million miles-per-hour, most usually by people who have no stake in those identities. A new structure for telling these narratives is required to appropriately describe how it feels to be a Latino from the United States today.
Just as with the Latin Boom, when new problems arise, new language styles have to be created in order to express a new truth. The injustices that many American Latinos face can not be neatly solved with the linguistic logic of the past. The young adopters of these languages are still experimenting in the quest to express their truth amidst attacks on identity. And while many Latinos born in the United States are not learning Spanish, most are being raised hearing and feeling Spanish and stepping out their door into an English world. Children of immigrants in the United States can relate to the constant changes they have to make in order to fit into any culture. This population spends every day living through constant translation of cultures, which translation in itself is an exercise that, to quote (or translate) the great Jorge Luis Borges, “is an endless cycle of infinite possibilities.” The next great large-scale linguistic artistic movement is brewing right here in the United States, and no one knows when it’ll blow, or even what language it will be in.
EDUARDO GUTIÉRREZ PEÑA B'21 wrote this as a love letter.