Growing up in the Land of Gringos

Growing Up Latino: Memoirs and Stories edited by Harold Augenbraum and llan Stavans Houghton Mifflin Company. $22.95

Latino literature is a relatively recent phenomenon; the first works were published only in the late fifties and early sixties. Since this time, however, Latino writers have produced a great quantity of prose that has eagerly been published by those seeking to capitalize on new ethnic literature and by independent publishing houses such as Open Hand Press, Arte Publico Press and Quinto Sol International.

Growing Up Latino: Memoirs and Stories fits into the first category. Appealing to a broad, mainstream audience, it represents one of the first endeavors by a major publishing house to tap into this tradition. It includes the most renowned naturalized or U.S. born Latino writers and some alluring tales, but ultimately only leaves the reader with a hunger for more--it's like being taunted by the smells of Hispanic cooking at a food fest without getting to sit down and enjoy a full satisfying meal.

Anyone familiar with Latino writing will be impressed by the distinguished authors included; the all-star cast includes such notables as Oscar Hijuelos, Gloria Anzaldua, Jesus Colon and Rudolfo Anaya. But this book is only an introduction to the prose of these talented writers and often omits some of their best and most representative work.

For example, Sandra Cisnero's" The Monkey Garden" deals with the discovery of a sexuality--an unusual choice for an author who more consistently deals with issues of race and ethnicity. Growing Up Latino also leaves out some influential writers. Gloria Anzaldua is the only established lesbian writer included here, the very out and outspoken Cherrie Moraga and Sheila Ortiz-Taylor are omitted. This glaring oversight neglects one of the most significant strains in contemporary Latino literature.

Despite these sins of omission, the anthology does manage to give readers a clear introduction to the main themes that Latino writers grapple with in their writings and their lives. The editors have divided the book into three sections--Imaging the Family, Gringolandia and Songs of Self-Discovery.


The first section includes some enjoyable and disturbing stories about family relation ships. Judith Ortiz-Cofer's "Silent Dancing, for example, address the Americanization of young Puerto Rican women. Ortiz-Cofer creates a compelling, shocking vision of how these newly liberated women handle their traditional families rooted in the old ways. The familial tensions resulting from assimilation into American society forms the binding theme for these selections. "That is insubordinate. It is improper. It is disrespecting her teachers!!!" a father screams at one Alvarez characters after she reads him a speech she wrote for a school assembly; the student would not celebrate herself, the father insists in a fury.

The Gringolandia ("Land of the Gringo") section contains some of the most entertaining and touching stories. Piri Thomas recounts how he earned respect growing up where "sometimes you don't fit in. Like if you're Puerto Rican on an Italian block." Thomas gritty memoir recalls a childhood in the Bronx streets looking out for a "bunch of hungry alley cats that could get to their mouse anytime they wanted," "Mr. Mendelsohn" by Nicholasa Mohr recounts the story of the Suarez family through the eyes of a Jewish man watching his neighborhood turn into a Puerto Rican enclave. Nash Candelaria recounts of how he taught his "Okie" friend to scream "Kill the gringos" in Spanish at the cheap movie theater he and his gang of "Indios" sneaked into seven-for-the-price-of-one.

"Songs of Self-Discovery" contains the most introspective pieces. These selections recount discoveries of identity, sexuality, language and emotions. "Aria," Richard Rodriguez' introductory chapter to his book Hunger of Memory is perhaps the best offering in this section; the piece grapples lyrically with the two cultures that separate his public and private spheres. Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya's selections explore adolescent sensual awareness in markedly different ways. Anaya's nearly magical story is infused with innocent curiosity, while Cisneros' darker story deals with the traumatizing effects of leaving childhood games to play adult roles.

One of the most notable features of this anthology is its broad agenda; unlike many previous collections. Growing Up Latino does not limit itself to one Latino sub-group. And whole it doesn't represent the final word on this thriving genre, the book can lead readers in the right direction to follow the trail Latino writers are blazing.