I grew up in Laredo, where the population is more than 96 percent Latinx. Once, as a teenager, I looked through the phone book to see how many other Gutierrezes were in town: I found pages and pages of residents with my last name. In Laredo, Latinx people were everywhere, but in popular culture writ large—particularly books, TV shows, and movies—we were nowhere, as I realized when I left for college. The only book by a Latinx author I read in twelve years of public school was The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, in seventh grade. It would be another six years before I read more Latinx literature.
In a time when anti-Latinx rhetoric is painful and unavoidable, and anti-Latinx violence hits close to home, it’s unacceptable that Latinx literature occupies such a small space in the U.S. literary canon. If the language of white supremacy attempts to dehumanize us, to erase our value and the richness of our contributions to this world, it’s more critical than ever to celebrate our voices. Consider the following list a necessary (though hardly exhaustive) corrective to the white male canon that has dominated literature for so long—and an insistence that we take up the space we deserve.
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Américo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958)
Américo Paredes was born in Brownsville in 1915 — at the height of border tensions and violence that followed the Mexican Revolution. He was the first Mexican American to earn a doctorate from the University of Texas, and his dissertation, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, became his most famous work. It tells the story of Gregorio Cortez Lira, a Tejano ranch hand who was accused of murdering a sheriff and evaded capture by the Texas Rangers for more than a week. At the time, Texas Rangers often “protected the land” by killing Mexicans — without consequence. Cortez became a symbol of resistance and the subject of a corrido—which Parades studies in With His Pistol in His Hand. Paredes died in 1999 and is considered one of the seminal Mexican American scholars of the twentieth century.
Tomás Rivera, …y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971)
Born in Crystal City in 1935 to migrant farm workers, Tomás Rivera was a novelist, poet, and educator who is best known for …y no se lo tragó la tierra, which won the first Premio Quinto Sol literary award in 1971. Set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the book is composed of fourteen chapters and thirteen vignettes telling the stories of Mexican migrant farm workers in South Texas. In the first story, “The Lost Year,” the unnamed young son of migrant farm workers can’t seem to remember the last year of his life. What follows is a kind of fever dream: a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness collection of dialogue, prayer, and memory. Rivera’s stories often highlight the cruel realities of migrant farm workers, but in the end, as the identity of the protagonist becomes clear, so does a sense of empowerment born in the act of recollecting.
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Klail City Death Trip Series (1973-2006)
Dr. Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s acclaimed Klail City Death Trip Series includes fifteen novels written in English and Spanish between 1973 and 2006 that take place in the fictional Rio Grande Valley town of Klail City. Hinojosa-Smith, a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award with family roots in the Valley that can be traced to the 1750 census, draws from his love of the region’s history, folklore, and people, as well as its generational and economic changes. From vignettes of border life in the mid-twentieth century to grappling with police corruption and drug violence, the Klail City Death Trip Series features a dynamic cast of characters, and it placed the Rio Grande Valley on the literary landscape.
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1984)
The House on Mango Street is on so many lists for a reason: with it, Sandra Cisneros—who lived and worked in San Antonio for more than two decades—gave voice to young Latinas coming of age in the United States. Esperanza, the book’s thirteen-year-old narrator, has acute and unflinching powers of observation. Through her, we see a world of poverty and discrimination, yes, but also an indomitable will even in the face of brutal sexual violence. The language is familiar, intimate, and poetic. If you, like I, read this book as a young teenager, it’s well worth returning to as an adult.
Sergio Troncoso, From This Wicked Patch of Dust (2011)
Born and raised in El Paso, Sergio Troncoso is a prolific short story writer, novelist, and essayist. In From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez are raising their four children in Ysleta, a border town. The novel unspools over four decades, and spans from Ysleta to New York City to Tehran in the aftermath of September 11, as the physical, ideological, and religious borders between the family members threaten to separate them for good.
Natalia Sylvester, Everyone Knows You Go Home (2018)
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester grew up in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley; she’s now based in Austin. In Sylvester’s second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, Isabel first meets her father-in-law, Omar, on her wedding day—but Omar is already dead, appearing as an apparition on Día de los Muertos. Isabel’s husband, Martin, has no interest in talking to his dead father, who left the family when Martin was seven, but Isabel agrees to help Omar try to make amends with his family. The novel moves through the couple’s wedding night to Omar’s yearly reappearances. It also goes back in time to 1981, tracing Omar’s journey to Texas from Mexico just as Isabel and Martin contend with the arrival of Martin’s undocumented seventeen-year-old cousin. Everyone Knows You Go Home is a spellbinding story of the cost of leaving, the legacy of grief, and the power of redemption.
Gabino Iglesias, Coyote Songs (2018)
In his fourth novel, Coyote Songs, Austin-based writer Gabino Iglesias continues to grow his vision of barrio noir. Coyote Songs focuses on La Frontera, that “third country” that Rio Grande Valley author Gloria Anzaldúa describes as “the lifeblood of two worlds” merging. The novel combines crime and horror, fusing characters—Pedrito, a young boy fishing for alligator gar with his father before things go terribly wrong, and Alma, a broke performance artist hoping to go viral—with vengeful ghosts and old gods and monsters, creating a world where, as Iglesias has said, “poetry and blood can dance on the same page.”
Fernando A. Flores, Tears of the Trufflepig (2019)
Dystopian fiction only feels chilling, scathing, and comical when its world resembles our own, and it isn’t hard to see echoes of our times in Fernando A. Flores’s Tears of the Trufflepig. In Flores’s first novel after his story collection, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, one border wall isn’t enough: there are two, and Americans seeking entertainment and a tax break lurk near the first, with guns ready to kill crossing immigrants and cameras ready to capture the result. The story revolves around Esteban Bellacosa, who makes a living selling what he finds as he crosses between the fictional MacArthur, Texas, and Mexico, and journalist Paco Herbert, who offers to pay Esteban to accompany him to a dinner for the megarich, who consume once-extinct animals brought back to life by cloning—and who desire, above all, to possess the shrunken heads of those with indigenous blood. Mesmerizing and hallucinogenic, it’s a border story that doesn’t have to look too far beyond our own world for its greatest horrors.
Maribel Garcia, Profound and Perfect Things (2019)
In Profound and Perfect Things, Isa is the “smart sister” of the family, a law school student concealing her queerness from her conservative Mexican American parents. Cristina is the beauty, the one praised for her fair skin and green eyes, who has lost multiple pregnancies to miscarriage. When Isa becomes pregnant from one night of experimental sex with a man, she gives the baby to Cristina. Twelve years later, Isa wants to reveal both of their secrets. Maribel Garcia, born in Mexico and raised in the Valley, captures the spirit of the region in a story that becomes a meditation on what we owe to the people we love.
Oscar Cásares, Where We Come From (2019)
Where We Come From is the latest novel from Oscar Cásares, a Texas Monthly contributor who also wrote the wonderful Brownsville: Stories (2003) and Amigoland (2009). With Where We Come From, Cásares returns to his hometown of Brownsville to tell the story of Nina, a 70-something-year-old woman who becomes embroiled in human smuggling, and her twelve-year-old godson Orly, who comes to stay with her at the same time she’s hiding a Mexican boy his age. Cásares deftly weaves in and out of all three of their perspectives, and offers short vignettes illuminating the lives of those usually on the margins—the gardener, the hotel maid, the woman who once held the gallon of water blowing across the highway. Where We Come From brings Brownsville to life with impeccable details and linguistic creativity that reminds me of home. This is a necessary story for our times, but the novel also transcends its own timeliness with its focus on the peculiarities of being human, ultimately emerging as an unforgettable story of family.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)
Gloria Anzaldúa was the first person in six generations of her family to depart from the Rio Grande Valley, she tells us in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. She had to leave in order to find herself. As the title suggests, the book is not just one thing—it’s multilingual, memoiristic, scholarly, and poetic. The borderlands Anzaldúa traverses are not just physical but psychological, sexual, and spiritual; and the self Anzaldúa had to find as a Chicana lesbian activist was already her “own intrinsic nature.” This was the second book by a Chicana author I ever read, and it made me see home — and myself — with new eyes. It also blazed a trail in Chicanx feminist literature.
John Phillip Santos, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation (1999)
The first Mexican American Rhodes scholar, John Phillip Santos is an author, filmmaker, and producer who was born and raised in San Antonio. In his National Book Award finalist Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, Santos, who also contributes to Texas Monthly, channels ghosts and family remembrances, Chicanx mythology, and his own personal journeys to understand his place in his family—and the place of every Mexican whose tangled roots extend to both sides of the border. His familial cast of characters includes a clairvoyant aunt, a kidnapped great-grandfather, and a grandfather whose mysterious death haunts Santos. This is a beautiful, genre-bending dream of a book.
Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas (2012)
In his memoir, the National Book Award finalist The Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez set out to write the book he wanted to read but that didn’t yet exist. The coming-of-age memoir, which Martinez has said took him fifteen years to write, chronicles his difficult upbringing in Brownsville amidst a culture of machismo and violence, alcoholism, and family lore. In it, Martinez’s voice is lyrical, unsparing, witty, and compassionate.
Monica Muñoz Martinez, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (2018)
Monica Muñoz Martinez received her PhD in American Studies from Yale University. Her research focuses on histories of violence, policing on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Latinx history. Her first book, The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas, reconstructs a shameful and little-known part of Texas history in which law enforcement and vigilantes killed Mexican residents of the U.S.-Mexico border without consequence. The book seeks both to analyze these atrocities and—just as importantly in these times—ensure they are never forgotten.