20 Essential Works of Latin-American Literature

Latin-American literature, in spite of its prolificacy and influence, sadly enjoys less academic recognition than its European-American counterparts in the “Western” canon. Though authors hailing from a diverse selection of countries with a diverse selection of opinions, insights and experiences earn plenty of national and international awards, they remain largely overlooked when it comes to slapping together syllabi. While familiar names such as Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez enjoy “household name” status amongst literary types, plenty of readers are missing out on lesser-known authors with some amazing things to say and share. Though not a comprehensive list, the following selections provide a decent introduction to the eclectic literature of Hispanic North, Central and South America. Use them as a starting point to explore a wide range of cultures, histories, politics and plenty more.

  1. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924) by Pablo Neruda: Pretty much any of Pablo Neruda’s poetry collections could have ended up on this list, but this one in particular stands out as the one that finally piqued critical attention. Considered one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language, his push into the literary consciousness was published when he was only 19. At the time, mainstream audiences considered the overt, unapologetic sexuality contained within the collection something scandalous.
  2. The Aleph and Other Stories (1949) by Jorge Luis Borges: This short story collection by one of Argentina’s literary gems takes readers on a fantastic voyage through space, time and some of the most hauntingly beautiful surrealist landscapes. Fantasy fans with a love of magic realism and mind-bending takes on parallel universes, the supernatural, immortality, theology, identity and other rich themes would do well to pick up Borges’ masterpiece. It will certainly stimulate the imagination in numerous exciting ways.
  3. The Burning Plain and Other Stories (1953) by Juan Rulfo: Fifteen short stories offer readers an incredibly human glimpse into the lives of rural Mexican families and individuals. Reviewers enjoy how the tales shift from traditional structures to something a little more anecdotal to the more experimental homages to pop art. No matter how he chooses to convey the message, though, all of Rulfo’s tales illustrate the harsh reality and extreme poverty that many of Mexico’s inhabitants face.
  4. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) by Jorge Amado: Sweet, poverty-stricken Gabriela falls for a Syrian barkeep named Nacib Saad while Brazil divides over its cacao exports. The nation’s tense struggle between tradition and modernization provide an interesting — if not outright satirical — backdrop for their odd little love story. For readers not terribly interest in matters of romance, the book provides an interesting insight into the social, political and economic history of a massive, sometimes volatile, region of the world.
  5. Hopscotch (1963) by Julio Cortazar: The title of the novel refers to Cortazar’s brilliant use of structure. It boasts 155 chapters, which readers can either take chronologically or skipping between them, resulting in a few different endings. Narrator Horacio Oliveiera meanders through Paris nightlife, engaging in philosophical, bohemian discussions with his lover and friends, contemplating the nature and value of existence itself.
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Easily one of the most recognized, beloved and studied works of Latin-American literature, the lush One Hundred Years of Solitude blends the tenets of the modernist, magic realist and Vanguardia movements into one memorable novel. Drawing from Colombian history — especially as it pertains to the city of Macondo — he weaves the intricate tale of seven generations. All of them experience some form of bizarre hardship in a way that mirrors the city’s real-life struggles.
  7. Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) by Mario Vargas Llosa: As Odria’s dictatorship plagues Peru, characters hailing from vastly different sociopolitical backgrounds intertwine. Through discussions at a bar known as the Cathedral, two men express their own experiences and opinions regarding the volatile political climate. Along the way, they also attempt to untangle the complex issues surrounding the role one’s father played in the death of a major underworld instigator.
  8. The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) by Jose Donoso: Slowly, deftly, this novel explores questions of time and its intimate, essential relationship with life. Magic realism, a staple component of many notable Latin-American works, relays the traditional Chilote tale of the Imbunche — driving home its eerily supernatural theme. Existential crises, it seems, can bring out the ravaging monster in many people.
  9. I, the Supreme (1974) by Augusto Roa Bastos: Like many highly regarded Latin-American authors, Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos found narrative inspiration in his nation’s tempestuous history and layered culture. His exceptionally experimental, frequently lauded novel questions the validity and stability of a dictatorship, pulling elements directly from then-current politics. Although he understandably took some liberties with reality, the result eventually defined an entire genre.
  10. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) by Manuel Puig: This tense stream-of-consciousness novel is also an essential read for those who enjoy or want to learn more about LGBTQIA literature as well. Taking place almost completely in dialogue, the narrative focuses on a gay window-dresser and a political revolutionary sharing a Buenos Aires prison cell. Deep philosophical discussions help the pair pass the time and learn more about the world around them, which eventually leads to both romance and tragedy.
  11. The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabel Allende: Over the course of four generations, the Trueba Family’s lives intertwine with art and politics in Chile. An air of the supernatural hangs about the story, as spirits pass in and out with prophecies on their ethereal tongues. It’s haunting, it’s beautiful and its bestseller status launched Allende’s highly respectable career.
  12. The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros: Young Esperanza Cordero comes of age in one of Chicago’s Puerto Rican and Chicano ghettos. Her lyrical vignettes highlight the socioeconomic plight of the urban impoverished, the importance of family, sexual awakening and gender roles. All of Esperanza’s stories intentionally connect in the thinnest possible fashion, but do an excellent job of highlighting her growth as a person.
  13. The Old Gringo (1985) by Carlos Fuentes: The renowned author found inspiration in the story of American satirist Ambrose Bierce, who utterly disappeared during the Mexican Revolution. In this adaptation, an elderly man flees from his disappointing life with the hopes of either dying or discovering a renewed purpose. What follows is a heavy tale of cultural exchange and politics against a backdrop of a devastated nation.
  14. Like Water for Chocolate (1989) by Laura Esquivel: Fans of magic realism and amazing food would do well to pick up this acclaimed tale of forbidden romance. Heroine Tita de la Garza and ranch hand Pedro want to wed one another very much, but family traditions that the youngest daughter must remain unmarried in order to care for her mother. In her grief, the heartbroken young woman turns to the culinary arts for comfort and personal expression.
  15. The Line of the Sun (1989) by Judith Ortiz Cofer: Guzman, considered a plague in his native Puerto Rico, runs away to the United States with a dream of wealth and acclaim propelling him forward. But fleeing the country leaves unresolved matters behind, and he must eventually confront everything that led to his emigration in the first place. As with many Latin-American authors, Cofer sprinkles her work with elements of magic realism to imbue it with a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere.
  16. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) by Oscar Hijuelos: A pair of Cuban brothers forge a new home for themselves in New York City, NY, where they rise to prominence as celebrated mambo musicians. But the fame, as always, comes packaged with its own set of unique problems. In spite of their successes and meetings with some of the most notable names in Latin-American music, the central figures in this Pulitzer winner inevitably falter and fade.
  17. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) by Julia Alvarez: Julia Alvarez utilizes a reverse chronology to delve into the experiences of four sisters who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. As both a bildungsroman and a reflection upon Americanization, it brings to light some of the most marginalized pockets of society in a manner that embraces near-universal adolescent emotions. Rather than a traditional novel, Alvarez instead decided to tell their story through short stories with alternating narrators.
  18. Dreaming in Cuban (1992) by Cristina Garcia: Narrators, epistles and timelines shift throughout three generations of women before, during and after immigration to the United States. It portrays life in Cuba during the nation’s most critical years of political upheaval, juxtaposing it with the struggles of descendants in the adopted homeland. Readers yearning to learn more about the immigrant experience as it pertains to Latin and Caribbean Americans would do well to explore what this book has to offer.
  19. Yo-Yo Boing! (1998) by Giannina Braschi: This experimental novel was the first to ever be published in Spanglish, offering up a literary testimony to the perpetual blurring between languages and cultures on the American continents. Not only does the language “yo-yo,” but the topics at hand do as well. Braschi blows through everything from sex to philosophy to pop culture to current events to literature to art. Though such a structure occasionally dizzies the mind, it certainly punctuates the overarching theme.
  20. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz: Curses and comics define the life of the doomed eponymous protagonist, who manages to persist through his brutal existence with surprising grace and tenacity. Through the narration of his former roommate and sister’s lover, the dramatic history of the de Leon family before, during and after the Trujillo Regime gradually comes to life. Readers who pay close attention to the myriad footnotes will get a detailed, thoroughly intriguing lesson in the history of the Dominican Republic.

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