Sandra Rodriguez Barron

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In the early 2000s there was a surge of interest in all things Latino, followed by a sharp decline after profits failed to match expectations. It seems that now we’re stuck in a plateau of market indifference while the meager Latino presence in American literature is distressingly out of proportion with the size of the population. But it’s too easy to focus on what the publishing industry is doing wrong and it’s not particularly helpful, so I’ll turn it around and ask, what are we doing to perpetuate the situation? Plenty.

First, there’s no room for competition, we have to pull together in order to bulldoze through huge swaths of impenetrability. Secondly, Latinos can be insular as readers: Mexicans read Mexicans, Chileans read Chileans, Colombians read Colombians, and so on, which is a great place to start but we have to break down those borders if we expect the general public to do the same. Regardless of quality, writers who come from larger Latino communities have a better chance of generating interest than writers from smaller populations and/or with a less educated U.S. base, so the game is rigged to begin with. If everyone stays in their cliques, the readership from these smaller countries can’t generate the kind of sales that the big communities can, ie. Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the larger South American countries. We have to cross-pollinate and stop being such “niche” readers so that publishers will give the smaller or quieter cultures a chance to be heard. Let’s make it a point to wander beyond our own sub-culture, our gender and other comfort zones, and certainly beyond the super stars. Let’s search out fresh voices, from both large and small presses, and shout it from the rooftop whenever we discover a gem.   

Every writer has his or her own voice and style, but the deeper we puncture the genre/popular market, the more appetite there will be for literary work. Latino writers favor certain forms: memoir, family sagas, chick lit, historical, and the war-time political novels that are de rigueur.  In the meantime, editors are begging for thrillers, science fiction, creative non-fiction, and big, universal stories that are not just about Latino culture but that are about society/humanity itself, books that are both culturally transcendent and gripping on the surface. 
Stereotypes are a persistent aesthetic problem, and writers have to fight the impulse to respond to preconceived ideas from the media, publishers, and even MFA workshops.  A lot of talented writers have trouble breaking out of the pupal stage because they focus on the endgame of publishing instead of giving themselves room to learn and grow artistically. True diversity in American literature can only happen when we are bold enough to be uniquely ourselves, and sometimes that takes a lot of courage to do. It’s okay to write about growing up wealthy and educated, and yet almost nobody does it. Why? Because even writers in those circumstances believe it’s cooler to write about bodegas, santería, and poverty. My life here in the U.S. has been spent mostly in the suburbs of Connecticut, so why should I try to portray life in Bridgeport, Hartford, or the Bronx? I have nothing to say about those places or about the hardships of life in a border town. What I know, intimately, is the life of someone who slips between Latin America and the U.S. with the ease of a chameleon who changes colors so as not to get eaten. I only have my crazy, zig-zagging patchwork of a life to contribute. You could say I write from the moving train rather than from an actual town. I write from the relief of leaving bad blood behind, the sadness of disconnecting, the excitement of novelty, and the engaging work that is reinvention and starting anew.  

Short term, we need more Latino editors on the inside of the publishing industry. Long term, we have to build our readership. We’re insulted when publishers claim that “Latinos don’t read.” Of course many of us read, but if you only move in literary circles you might think every Latino keeps a pile of university press books on their nightstand.  Unfortunately, Latino bibliophiles are a minority within a minority. In 2013, the McCormick Foundation conducted a study, “The Youngest Americans: A Statistical Portrait of Infants and Toddlers in the United States,” that exposes the root of the problem: the Latino population is the least likely to read and tell stories to their youngest children. If we don’t find ways to change that, we’re never going to build up the Latino readership even as our population continues to grow. This means thinking beyond our immediate circles and supporting local organizations that distribute books to low-income Latino children. In the meantime, let’s support writers by buying more books. As writers of color we’ve long been paired with African American writers, who, in the last decade have made great strides in terms of visibility and market response in all areas of art and entertainment, so there’s hope. As things improve, let’s not forget to extend a hand to other groups. Many of us have multiple ethnicities, and that’s as good an excuse as any to help each other along the way.