Over the years, I have often been approached by colleagues in the many English departments I have worked, who ask variations of the following questions: “do you have any recommendations for Hispanic authors I can use?” or “What do you teach that’s ‘multi-cultural’? Any Latina authors in particular? What do you assign?”
I bristle a little at these questions which recall Roxane Gay’s famous blog post from a decade ago: “We are Many. We are Everywhere.” But in any case all those questions prompted me to share some recommendations—not mine, but those of my students.
At the end of every semester, I invite them to recommend authors and texts that I may have missed or couldn’t include as part of our course (an inevitability in ANY literature class!) For my own sake and theirs, I think it’s essential to keep texts fresh, diverse, and engaging so that we can all enjoy exploring new voices and perspectives.
Co-designing and optimizing curriculum with students in this way vests them deeper in the learning journey, ending the course as a community of discerning readers within the genre, and as thought-partners with the instructor.
And I must say that their generous responses have always improved my instruction. But more than this, they make me smile—sometimes because I meet old author-friends again, and sometimes because I’m surprised to find voices I’ve never heard of before.
So, here is this semester’s list—carefully curated by my students—of the top Mexican-American literature recommendations accompanied by their words about the content, authors, and why they’re worth considering for your next read.
Albuquerque by Rudolfo Anaya
I would simply continue to encourage the works of Rudolfo Anaya. After Bless Me, Ultima came two more novels and a series of story collections. But Anaya’s next breakthrough came with the 1992 publication of Albuquerque, set in the city Anaya has called home since 1952.
The Autobiography of Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta
Acosta was born in El Paso, Texas in 1935. He was an attorney, an activist within the Chicano Movement, a politician, and an author. His book The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, is obviously an autobiography but with a magical realism twist. It is his coming of age story in the 60s. He is not the most likable person, in my opinion, but the book does cover cultural and personal identity. Also, something interesting about him is that he disappeared and no one really knows what happened to him. According to his son, the last thing he was told by Acosta was that he was “about to board a boat full of white snow.” He is said to be the inspiration for “Dr. Gonzo” from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice by Mario T. García and Sal Castro
García is a professor of Chicano studies in UCLA. Before teaching, he received his BA and Master’s from UT at El Paso. He has written serval other books like The Chicano Generation and Testimonies of the Movement and Desert Immigrants. Castro was a military veteran, had a career in teaching from elementary to high school, and was a Chicano activist. This book gives us a biography of Castro’s life and what inspired the blowouts, and how those moments unfolded.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer talks about Indigenous customs and childhood along with the teaching of plants and Indigenous legends behind some plants, such as how strawberries were formed from the heart of Skywoman’s deceased daughter after being buried in the earth. Though not Mexican-American, Kimmerer is a scientist, professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation whose unique POV is helpful in understanding the Indigenous worldview that is also featured in Mexican-American (and Latin American) literature. She gets you to learn science from her mythical writing and also incorporates history and truly captures the essence of Indigenous livelihood. I love that even though she’s a woman of science she still claims her roots and acknowledges the significance of ancient indigenous people’s ways of identifying with life and the earth as well. She ties the worlds together beautifully and well brings people into the world of her mind which consists of the vast knowledge of both realms. The book follows her growing up with her tribe and learning from her family about plants and such things while also blending in stories of her ancestors, all to further the reader’s knowledge of plants and indigenous tales. I’ll link the preview of the book from Google so you can read the first 73 pages that are offered. It’s super cute and so peaceful to read I hope some of you try it and it would be a beautiful addition to the curriculum.
Chato’s Kitchen by Gary Soto
Soto is a Mexican-American author from Fresno, California. He was a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Award and the National Book Award. As well as a recipient of Discovery-The Nation Prize and the California Library Association’s John and Patricia Award x2. I remember reading his books since I was a little kid, the most memorable to me being “Chato’s Kitchen”. He writes for both adults and children, although his main focus is on children’s books. Here is his website.
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
Jose Olivarez is an author, poet, and educator from Calumet City, Illinois. His work has been featured in the New York Times, The Paris Review, and Poetry Magazine among other publications. Olivarez’s book of poems, titled Citizen Illegal focuses significantly on immigration, borders, home, and movement, particularly in a Mexican and Mexican-American context. His work is powerful because of his use of anecdotes and commentary about the difficulty of everyday life for immigrants and their children. According to NayaClark.com: “The poems in Citizen Illegal are illustrations of the traumas that America places on citizens and non-citizens alike. The collection serves to illuminate the specific human experience of immigration from Mexico to the United States, and places a human face, often Olivarez’s own, to a discourse that frequently relies heavily on dehumanizing language”. If you would like to read Citizen Illegal, you can buy the book of poems here.
The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo
Díaz del Castillo was born in Spain in 1492 and was a soldier under conquistador Hernán Cortés that participated in the Battle of Tenochtitlan that was responsible for taking down the Aztec Empire in 1521, and killing its ruler Montezuma II. Díaz del Castillo is said to have married an Indigenous woman and had a son named Diego and two daughters. This book gives insight into the confrontation of Spanish conquistadors and Indigenous Mexicans that inform Mexican and Mexican-American literature.
Corridos (various) by Mexican and Mexican-American authors
Corridos are an important part of Mexican American tradition that provide unique experiences of historic events. Corridos tell the stories of tragedy, war, identity, rebellion and so much more. I feel like modern corridos focus on love but traditional folk corridos would be a unique form of Mexican American literature. They say songs are like poetry and just from the corridos I’ve heard I’m sure they have a unique structure when read like poetry. Here is a compilation by Remezcla of “10 Classic Corridos & Regional Mexican Anthems that Still Slap.”
The God who Sees by Karen Gonzalez
An immigrant story about leaving one’s homeland for safety, and it draws biblical connections to many of the people in the Bible that have also migrated and left their homeland (Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, Ruth). I think it would be a great addition to have a biblical perspective of immigration and how tough it is to accomplish from a physical and emotional standpoint.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
A wonderful story detailing a year in the life of a young Chicana girl as she is growing and questioning her identity. Sandra Cisneros is a well-known author that has made ground-breaking progress for Chicana writers in publishing and is known for her commentary on the life of a Chicana women in Chicago. Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954 and received her education at Loyola University and the University of Iowa. She has previously been a teacher as well as a counselor. Her works revolve around issues of race, class, gender, and the struggle of belonging to multiple cultures.
“The Jacket” by Gary Soto
The jacket in the poem is a symbol of poverty and bad luck for Soto and shows how something as simple as an item of clothing can affect one’s self-esteem. Gary Soto was born in California and writes about his life using poetry and short stories. He was not encouraged to go to school and mostly worked as a farm worker alongside his siblings. Soto prefers to write poetry and found his love for it while he attended college in Fresno.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Luiselli is a Mexican author who lives in the United States. Several of Luiselli’s books are based on real-world experiences. She was a volunteer interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the United States. She has recently published a novel in 2019 titled Lost Children Archive where she writes about her work with asylum-seeking children from Latin America and relates to her earlier book, an extended essay on child refugees, titled “Tell me How it Ends.”
I am Not your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez
This is a novel about a teenager coming to terms with losing her sister and finding herself amid the pressures, expectations, and stereotypes of growing up in a Mexican American home. Fun fact this novel will also soon become a Netflix film that will be directed by America Ferrera!
Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza
Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico but grew up in the United States. Alex mostly focused his writing on the community and identity of Latinos. Alex’s novels are widely acclaimed due to their distinct characters and portrayal of the Latino community. “Still Water Saints” talks about different characters living in a fictional California town called Agua Mansa. The novel explores the changing community, such as the struggles and achievements of families and individuals. Alex also explores the identities of the residents living in Agua Mansa and the constant change they experience. You can find more of his work here.
Additional Authors to Check Out
- Oscar Cásares He is a Mexican-American writer (now a professor at UT Austin) who grew up in Brownsville. His writing focuses on the border and experiencing being torn with your identity.
- Vianney Harelly She is a Mexican-American author that speaks about how Latinos can start healing their inner child. She speaks about women’s lineages and rebuilding those bonds.
- Valeria Luiselli She was born in Mexico in 1983 and moved to the United States at the age of 2. She is the winner of several awards including the National Books Foundation “5 under 35” award and in 2019, she won the MacArthur “Genius Grant”. She is relatively young which I think makes her even more relevant and able to speak to a younger generation especially during this time where there is so much political and social unreset surrounding immagrants and women’s rights. She started a literacy program for girls in detention centers in New York, that focuses on creative writing and she is an advocate for asylum seeking children from Latin America. She also writes about mass incarceration the United States.
- Juania Rivas Vasquez I would love to nominate my friend Juania Rivas Vasquez; she is a Chicana poet from Mexico and cofounder of a literary magazine. You can find her work on her Instagram: vata_lorca and also in her literary magazine.
Authors to Read more From
- Jimmy Santiago Baca Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in 1952 and abandoned by his parents right away. His grandmother put him in an orphanage, but at 13 years old, Baca ran away from there and ended up being convicted for drug charges in 1973 and spent five years in jail. That’s where he taught himself to read and write! So hey, it looks like “Coming into Language” is semi-autobiographical after all (his whole autobiography is A Place to Stand). The point is, Baca’s story is a miracle: he was at the darkest point of his life and words became his only lifeline. He also wrote “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” which we read in this class and that’s part of a bigger selection of poems you can find here.
- Sandra Cisneros I think I’m used to school sort of showing us the “light” (for lack of better word) side of history, etc. but I was surprised we were covering such real topics in class. I really appreciate the transparency during this class. It was so refreshing to tackle problems in our culture rather than sugar coat or simply ignore them. Because of this I would love to nominate Sandra Cisneros. Sandra Cisneros is an American writer most known for “The House on Mango Street” and “Woman Hollering Creek” She also helped organize a group called The Latino MacArthur Fellows, who work together to help their communities. Audio of “Woman Hollering Creek”: https://youtu.be/bgdk_vBuzaQ
- Reyna Grande Reyna Grande is a Mexican-American author and an award-winning author, motivational speaker, and writing teacher. As a young girl, she crossed the US–Mexico border to join her family in Los Angeles, a harrowing journey chronicled in The Distance Between Us, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her other books include the novels A Ballad of Love and Glory, Across a Hundred Mountains, and Dancing with Butterflies, the memoirs The Distance Between Us: Young Readers Edition, and A Dream Called Home, and the anthology Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings. She lives in Woodland, California, with her husband and two children
- Daniel Peña With my excitement over Bang, I can only ask that this book stay as part of the coursework, and I hope others will be encouraged to learn more about the author Daniel Peña as I have. Daniel is an award-winning writer and assistant professor, he was based out of UNAM in Mexico City, graduated from Cornell University and a guest professor in Leipzig, Germany.