As U.S. policymakers continue the back-and-forth debate on immigration reform and, yet again, only the ills of the U.S.–Mexico border dominate the popular media, it becomes essential to read the words of Chicano writers who explore the complexities of that particular Latino landscape through story, personal narrative, and poetry.
Chicano is a politicized identity that recognizes a Mexican ancestry, that places its unique American experiences at the center of the conversation, away from the margins, and that believes, quite simply, in speaking for itself. Its literary lineage dates back to the social movements of the 1960s, when poetry, storytelling and theater participated in expressing the Chicano community’s gains and challenges as it fought for political agency and pushed back against egregious misrepresentations of its people. Indeed, the struggle, or la lucha, continues and so does the work of Chicano writers who bear witness from the inside.
Of course, not all Chicano writers direct their imaginations toward the U.S.–Mexico border, but they do examine other preoccupations (history, feminism, and queerness, which at times overlap with border politics) with the same passion and creativity. The following is a list of recent or forthcoming titles I strongly recommend.
1. The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
Martinez’s memoir about growing up in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, just across from Matamoros, Mexico, provides incredible insights into how difficult it is for a young man to shake the dominance of machismo that afflicts his psyche, household, and neighborhood. Martinez must take charge and become the protagonist of his story in order to accept his contrasting path toward masculinity.
Available from Lyons Press
2. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero
This book of poems by a young poet takes a great risk in exploring one of the most conflicted figures of Mexican history, La Malinche. Guerrero deconstructs the familiar narrative of La Malinche’s betrayal in service to the Spanish colonizers, and uncovers a startling legacy in the way gender expectations affecting women today are haunted (and empowered) by the specter of La Malinche’s alleged offenses.
Available from University of Notre Dame Press
3. The City of Palaces by Michael Nava
This engaging historical novel looks closely at the period before and during the Mexican Revolution that fueled an unprecedented exodus to the U.S. Nava, known for his Henry Ríos murder mysteries, shifts direction with this tale of the Mexican Revolution that highlights a family caught in the midst of a dramatic period of cultural and social change.
Available from University of Wisconsin Press
4. The Deportation of Wopper Barraza by Maceo Montoya
Montoya’s humorous yet moving critique of the United States’ deportation policies avoids easy depictions of good and bad. The book features a decidedly complicated anti-hero whose journey sheds light on the lives of those who are affected when a person disappears from either side of the border.
Available from University of New Mexico Press
5. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Grande’s memoir is the sobering testimony of an undocumented alien’s journey from a childhood of poverty to adulthood as a professional with a promising literary career. Grande’s story advocates for immigration reform, particularly as it affects people like the DREAMers who seek life-changing access to education.
Available from Atria Books
6. Ditch Water by Joseph Delgado
A stunning and original vision of a small town in Arizona where the working-class Mexican and Native American peoples and traditions coexist even when their existence is at odds with mainstream America, or with each other. But the true unifying culture is the desert landscape through which its inhabitants strive for survival on the weather’s brutal terms.
Available from Kórima Press
7. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Saénz
This collection of stories won the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Fiction. The stories mend bridges between El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico, the beleaguered city just across the border, as Sáenz’s characters forge relationships that overcome prejudices against class, sexuality, and immigrant status.
Available from Cinco Puntos Press
8. Give It to Me by Ana Castillo
Castillo is back in full form with this sexy, edgy novel about one woman navigating middle age by succumbing to fantasy and desire, often to unexpected and outlandish consequences. With its daring eroticism, this novel makes a bold statement about feminism and women of color.
Available from Feminist Press
9. Hustle by David Tomas Martinez
Growing up in a broken home, living in a barrio, and joining a gang did not stop Martinez from transcending the low expectations of his troubled youth. The current Ph.D. candidate nurtured those raw experiences into sophisticated material that informs his startling poems.
Available from Sarabande Books
10. Las Hociconas: Three Locas with Big Mouths and Even Bigger Brains by Adelina Anthony
Queer Xicana feminist performance artist Adelina Anthony is fearless and electrifying in this collection of stage-based sketches that take every cultural, social, and political value to task. Adelina’s theatrical wit follows in the footsteps of such comedy troupes as Latins Anonymous and Culture Clash, except that she does it solo.
Available from Kórima Press
11. Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
Employing the old bingo-like Mexican game as a literary device, Zambrano uncovers the tragic story of a preadolescent girl, one arresting memory at a time. The young girl’s sensibilities are shaped by her binational and bilingual identity, from which she draws strength in order to counter her feelings of isolation and dislocation.
Available from Harper
12. Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez
A literary response to Jack Kerouac’s short story “The Mexican Girl,” Hernandez’s novel tells the other side of the story through Bea Franco’s eyes. Franco was a California farmworker in the 1940s and her journey speaks to the plight of the woman who, despite cultural and financial limitations, dared to dream a better life for herself.
Available from University of Arizona Press
13. Mouth Filled with Night by Rodney Gomez
A newcomer to the Latino literary scene, Gomez’s poems are grounded on Texan-Mexican territory and culture, pre-Columbian mythology, and an appreciation for coming of age painfully aware of the class disparities in everyday life on the border. Arresting imagery sparkles throughout the book like gems.
Available from Northwestern University Press
14. Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid Narco-Violence edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
Cortez and Troncoso gather the most thought-provoking essays on this topical subject, many of them heartfelt testimonies by writers whose experiences and observations became unsettled by the realities of the escalating conflicts along the border. Eschewing nostalgia and romanticism, these essays are less about offering short-sighted solutions and more about imagining long-term efforts to reclaim the vibrant border culture in service to the two nations that share it.
Available from Arte Público Press
Rigoberto González is the author of 13 books of poetry and prose and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Literature. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.