Ernest Hemingway once famously declared that all American literature traces its origins to one book by Mark Twain. But if Huckleberry Finn is the origin of modern American writing, all modern literature comes from one book by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote. Lest we forget: the novel was invented in Spanish. We entered modern times through the spirit of a novel written in that language.

Cervantes lived at the heart of a trans-Atlantic empire that took the Spanish language to the farthest corners of the Earth. It was built upon the ideals and the dreams of the Renaissance, and among them none was greater than that of the Americas. One could realise there what one had imagined but failed to accomplish here. Even Cervantes’ literary rival Lope de Vega wished to go to Panama. Don Quixote’s apparent failure at the end of the novel can be interpreted in this way, as a cipher of the dream of redemption in the tropics. La Mancha is where the American dream first took place.

Any exploration of today’s hispanicization of America should begin in seventeenth-century La Mancha. After all, discoverers and conquistadors were guided by a vision of El Dorado that was also a messianic project. Not unlike contemporary Americans. In that sense, perhaps today’s Tea Party rebels embody not so much the spirit of the American Revolution as that of conquest and colonization.

The worldview inaugurated by Cervantes’ original use of the Spanish language, has as its real enemy the protagonist of the seventeenth-century: the adventurer-entrepreneur, the navigator, the conquistador. It may be that modern literature has been haunted from the very outset by the remains of theology and science’s insurrection against the Catholic Church, but its true concern is the madness of seeking redemption in blood and gold.

If not the adventurer-entrepreneur, who then is the protagonist of the novel? Who is trans-Atlantic in the new literary space inaugurated by Cervantes’ Spanish?

 

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As we smoked cigarettes and drank hot coffee to fend off the cold at a concert venue in London recently, my friend Ramón Chao told me that he was writing a novel. Back in the 1970s Ramón was a journalist for Radio France International in Latin America. During that time he befriended some of the most important writers of the Latin American ‘Boom’ – Juan Carlos Onetti asked him to write his epitaph before his death in 1994. He became one of the most passionate advocates of the Latin American novel in Europe, establishing the Prix Juan Rulfo in 1984. Behind us, the band led by his son, the world-famous musician Manu Chao, was getting on with its sound check.

‘What is it about?’ I asked.

‘Well, it’s the story of Juan de Betanzos, known as la lengua of Francisco Pizarro’, replied Ramón.

During the conquest, those able to navigate between the languages of the first inhabitants of the Americas and the newly arrived Europeans were called lenguas, meaning ‘tongue’ as well as ‘language’. More often than not they were Amerindian women: first of all Malinche in Mexico, but also India Catalina in South America and Pocahontas up north. They were no mere translators: they were traitor translators.

Moving between their native language and that of the uninvited guests, they came to be seen as foreign to their original culture as well as the one they seemingly embraced. Neither here nor there, they remained in between: on the border. They are the other vis-à-vis all others, mainly white others, defined as competitors wanting to obtain the same object –our jobs, our culture – envious of what ‘we’ obtained first, and therefore also as identical and interchangeable. As such, they’re an object of fascination and universal hatred at the same time.

 

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There are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than there are speakers of Chinese, French and all Native American languages combined. Forty-six million already speak Spanish as a first or second language and some 8 million more are currently studying it in America. For over 35 million of them use it as their primary language at home. This means there are more Spanish speakers right now in the United States than there are in Spain (population: 46 million), and many more than in countries traditionally labelled ‘Latin American’ such as Colombia and Argentina. Since the Latino population of the United States is likely to double in the next three decades and Spanish is being used not just at the level of everyday life but also as a medium of cultural production, this trend is likely to increase sharply in the near future.

 
In principle, this seems good news for the publishing industry, for which Latinidad – the good feeling created by Latino’s joie de vivre and deep sense of historical memory – has become a highly marketable commodity. The Latino book market, for instance, is estimated at $1 billion and 40 per cent of those sales are in Spanish-language books. Back in 2000, the respected US trade magazine Publishers Weekly predicted that Spanish-language publishing in the US would be the next major influence. The leading houses responded by setting up tailor-made initiatives such as Rayo (Harper Collins) or Críticas, a Library Journal publication in English directed to help librarians and book buyers. Publishers’ expectations, compounded by statistics predicting that by 2040 close to 30 per cent of the American population would be of Latino origin, were high. However, after the 2008 financial debacle, the whole publishing industry came crushing back down to earth and with it the hope of finding a large number of Spanish-language readers. Were they never there to begin with? Was the continent empty, as Europeans had dreamed the Americas to be back in the seventeenth century?

Actually, those who have survived the cataclysm continue to find readers, publishers like Santillana USA or Random House’s Vintage Español. A crucial part of the battle against invisibility is to tell the stories of Latinos not just as victims but also as thinkers and masters of their own destinies. When such stories are told, Latinos are revealed as confronting the labels that are imposed on them from without and, in that process of liberation, as decisively transforming their surrounding environment.

The best medium to achieve this is writing both in English and in Spanish. Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is perhaps the most celebrated and well-known example of what this may mean. Written in ‘Spanglish’, full of long academic-style footnotes that tell the reader the epic history of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean while at the same time referencing the mainly English-language domain of genre literature, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. Diaz’s book built a bridge between Anglo and Spanish-language readers pushing both to enter each others’ mental, geographical and historical spaces. It made the barrio a universal place.

This is modern literature as a sort of bridge concept – challenging mainstream ideas of culture as limited and exclusive. Crucially, it isn’t an exception: there are in the US great essayists such as Linda Martin-Alcoff or Eduardo Mendieta, thinking and writing in English and Spanish and using a multiplicity of legacies, Latin as well as Anglo, north as well as south. Modern theologians such as Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and of course the brilliant new generation of South American narrators, including Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Santiago Roncagliolo, who cross over and invite many on all sides to enter into the borderland once inaugurated by Cervantes in Spanish.

They are our latter-day lenguas, but unlike those of times past they should be celebrated and encouraged. Whatever the coming ‘New World’ turns out to look like, they shall inherit it. It won’t be easy. Look at the grapes of wrath being sowed in Arizona and elsewhere in Middle America by fringe groups profiting from the anxieties born of the difficult economic situation and turning it into an issue about Latino immigrants and threats to ‘our’ culture. We cannot know what the final result may be, but we recognize that retreating behind walled notions of language, culture and values looks neither desirable nor even possible. The space imagined first by Cervantes in the Spanish language looks now more real than ever.

 

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The concert I went to with Ramón Chao was the first time in many years he had seen his son on stage. Manu Chao had induced love that evening in the hearts of some three thousand people. The majority of them were English speakers. He managed this piece of real magic with passionate words sang mainly in Spanish.

‘I’m not sure I can write the same novel I had in mind,’ said Ramón. ‘It’s not about Juan de Betanzos’ redemption in the tropics, as I first thought. It turns out I’m also writing about my son crossing from Europe to the Americas. He’s also una lengua. But then again, aren’t we all?’

 

Photograph by leiris202

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