CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO CULTURES

A fresh generation of Latino writers is creating a new and distinctive literary landscape

It all started with a visit Cristina Garcia paid to her native Cuba in 1984. The 33-year-old author hadn’t been back since her family moved to New York when she was 2. Meeting her relatives says Garcia, “was like finding the missing link in my own identity.” For five years she couldn’t get the trip out of her mind. When she finally sat down to write Dreaming in Cuban (245 pages. Knopf. $20), “I just had this very strong image of a woman sitting on her porch by the sea, scanning the Cuban coast for invaders.”

Thus Garcia begins her tale. Shifting effortlessly between Cuba and Brooklyn, the story centers on three generations of a family torn apart by Fidel Castro’s revolution. Celia del Pino is the matriarch whose passions alternate between a long-list Spanish lover and service to El Lider. In Brooklyn, Celia’s daughter Lourdes runs the Yankee Doodle Bakery. Haunted by the memory of being raped by a revolutionary soldier back home, she is obsessed by her hatred for Castro and communism and her mother’s devotion to both. Lourde’s daughter, Pilar, scoffs at her mother’s belief that she can “fight Communism from behind her bakery counter” and plots a return to the island. “Most days Cuba is kind of dead to me,” says Pilar. “But every once in a while a wave of longing will hit me and it’s all I can do not to hijack a plane to Havana.”

With this magical first novel, Garcia joins a growing chorus of talented Latino writers whose voices are suddenly reaching a far wider, more diverse audience. Unlike Latin American writers such as Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa – whose translated works became popular here in the 1970s – these authors are writing in English and drawing their themes from two cultures. Their stories, from “Dreaming in Cuban” to Julia Alvarez’s “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” (290 pages. Algonquin. $16.95) and Victor Villasenor’s “Rain of Gold” (551 pages. Arte Publico. $19.95), offer insight into the mixture of economic opportunity and discrimination that Latinos encounter in the United States. “Garcia Girls,” for example, is the story of four sisters weathering their transition from wealthy Dominicans to ragtag immigrants. “We didn’t feel we had the best the United States had to offer,” one of the girls says. “We had only second-hand stuff, rental houses in one redneck Catholic neighborhood after another, clothes at Round Robin, a black and white TV afflicted with wavy lines.” Alvarez, a Middlebury College professor who emigrated from Santo Domingo when she was 10, says being an immigrant has given her a special vantage point” “We travel on that border between two worlds and we can see both points of view.”

With few exceptions, such as Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya, many Hispanic-Americans have been writing in virtual obscurity for years, nurtured only by small presses like Houston’s Arte Publico or the Bilingual Press in Tempe, Ariz. Only with the recent success of Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek” and Oscar Hijuelos’s prize-winning novel, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love”, have mainstream publishers begun opening doors to other Latinos. Julie Grau, Cisneros’s editor at Turtle Bay, says “Editors may now be looking more carefully at a book that before they would have deemed too exotic for the general readership.”

But if Villasenor’s experience is any indication, some editors are still wary. In 1989, Putnam gave Villasenor a $75,000 advance for the hardcover rights to “Rain of Gold,” the compelling saga of his family’s migration from Mexico to California. But the editors, says Villasenor, wanted major changes: “They were going to destroy the book. It’s nonfiction; they wanted to publish it as a novel. And they wanted to change the title to `Rio Grande,’ which sounded like some old John Wayne movie.” After a year of strained relations, he mortgaged his house, borrowed his mother’s life savings and bought back the rights to the book that had taken 10 years to write.

In frustration, Villasenor turned to Arte Publico. In the eight months since its release, “Rain of Gold” has done extremely well, considering its limited distribution; 20,000 copies have been sold. “If we were a mainstream publisher, this book would have been on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks,” says Arte Publico’s Nicolas Kanellos. The author may still have a shot: he has sold the paperback rights to Dell. And he was just named a keynote speaker (with Molly Ivins and Norman Schwarzkopf) for the American Booksellers Association convention in May.

Long before they gained this sort of attention, however, Villasenor, Cisneros and other Latino writers were quietly building devoted followings. Crossing the country, they read in local bookstores, libraries and schools. Their stories, they found, appeal not only to Latinos – who identify with them – but to a surprising number of Anglos, who find in them a refreshingly different perspective on American life.

Diversity – and demographics – are another reason Latino writers are becoming more visible. By the year 2010, it is estimated, Hispanic-Americans will have become the largest minority in the nation. “As Latino immigrants make their way in the United States and their children become better educated, there is going to be more and more good writing surfacing,” says Garcia, who grew up speaking and reading Spanish at home but English at school. “Now this is our language and this is our place, and we writers are inhabiting a new literary landscape. Yet we’re still close enough to our culture – and to the migration – to be both scarred and enriched by it.”

SUSAN MILLER

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