You Gotta Know These Latin American Authors
- Gabriel García Marquez (1928–2014, Colombia; Nobel Prize for Literature 1982): The master of magic realism, his birthplace, Aracataca was the model for the fictional town Macondo. The town played a prominent role in many of García Marquez’s works, such as Leaf Storm and his seminal novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which details the decline of the Buendía family over seven generations. A newspaper journalist in the 1950s, García Marquez exposed a naval scandal (chronicled in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor). Other prominent novels include In Evil Hour, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The General in His Labyrinth, a depiction of Simón Bolívar’s final years.
- Pablo Neruda (1904–1973, Chile; Nobel 1971): Born Neftali Reyes, he adopted the surname of the 19th-century Czech poet Jan Neruda. Gabriela Mistral was the head of his school in the small city Temuco. In 1923 his best-known work, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, was published, which led to diplomatic appointments. As a penniless consul in Burma in the 1930s, he wrote the surrealist collection Residence on Earth. He served in the Chilean senate in the 1940s, though government opponents forced him into exile over his Communist views. Crossing the Andes on horseback inspired his epic Canto general (1950). He died of cancer days after his friend Salvador Allende was deposed.
- Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986, Argentina): One-quarter English, Borges learned that language before he learned Spanish. Educated in Europe during World War I, he met a circle of avant-garde poets in Spain, which inspired him to found the ultraismo movement and publish the collection Fervor of Buenos Aires (1923) when he returned to Argentina. While working in a library, Borges developed his greatest short stories, collected in A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Ficciones (1944), and The Aleph (1949). By his fifties, a disorder inherited from his father had taken Borges’s eyesight, but in 1962 he completed the influential story collection Labyrinths.
- Isabel Allende (1942–present, Chile): Actually born in Peru, at age three she moved to her mother’s native Chile. A successful news reporter in her twenties, she and her family fled to Venezuela after General Augusto Pinochet deposed her uncle Salvador Allende, setting up a dictatorship. Her formal literary career began at age 40, when she published The House of the Spirits, a magical-realist work that chronicles several generations of the Trueba family. Other works of fiction include the short-story collection Eva Luna (1989) and Paula (1995), which detailed Allende’s care for her terminally ill daughter.
- Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957, Chile; Nobel 1945): The first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mistral was actually named Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, but took her pen name from the Italian and French poets Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral respectively. At first a prominent educator, she wrote “Sonnets of Death” (1914) after the suicide of her fiancé. Those sonnets later appeared in her most famous collection, Desolation (1922). A native Chilean, she served as a diplomat both in the United States and Europe. Langston Hughes translated a portion of Mistral’s poetry into English just after she died.
- Octavio Paz (1914–1998, Mexico; Nobel 1990): A prominent poet and essayist, Paz supported leftist causes in Mexico; he fought briefly for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. He published the poetry collection Luna silvestre at age 19, and his 584-line poem The Sun Stone deals with the planet Venus, an important symbol to the Aztecs. While studying in Los Angeles, Paz observed flamboyantly-dressed Mexican-American pachucos (“zoot-suiters”), who inspired him to write about Mexico and its Native American/mestizo heritage in his pivotal essay collection The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Another prose work, In the Light of India (1997), reflected Paz’s part-(East) Indian heritage.
- José Martí (1853–1895, Cuba): Best known as a poet and a revolutionary, Martí fought tirelessly for Cuban independence. Imprisoned at age sixteen and exiled from the island several times, he settled in New York for the last fifteen years of his life, where he wrote essays on Walt Whitman, Jesse James, and the threat of Latin American economic dependence on the United States. His Ill-Omened Friendship (1885) is considered the first Spanish modernist novel, and his poetry collections include Our America and Simple Verses, which contains the poem “Guantanamera,” the inspiration for several songs. Martí was killed in a skirmish at Dos Ríos while participating in an invasion with other Cuban exiles.
- Mario Vargas Llosa (1936–present, Peru): While attending military school in Lima, Vargas Llosa wrote the play The Escape of the Inca (1952), but the harsh treatment he received there was the basis for his novel The Time of the Hero. Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) was Vargas Llosa’s serious take on living under the dictatorship of Manuel Odría, while in 1977 he published the lighter, autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, about soap operas. Other important works include The War of the End of the World and A Fish in the Water, which discusses his political career; Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru in 1990 but was defeated by Alberto Fujimori.
- Miguel Asturias (1899–1974, Guatemala; Nobel 1967): Asturias left his native Guatemala in 1923 to study in Paris. There he discovered Mayan mythology, and translated the Popol Vuh into Spanish; the theme would pervade his work, such as 1963’s Mulata de tal. He most famous novel, El señor presidente (1946), was a satire against the oppressive Guatalemalan dictatorship. Asturias also completed a trilogy that blasted exploitation by the American-led United Fruit Company, and the short-story collection Weekend in Guatemala (1956), based on the CIA-led overthrow of president Jacobo Arbenz’s liberal government.
- Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012, Mexico): Though born into a well-to-do family, Fuentes often dealt with the betrayed ideals from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the subject of both his first novel, Where the Air is Clear (1958), and his most successful book, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). Other notable novels include Terra nostra, set during the reign of King Philip II of Spain, and The Old Gringo, which portrays Ambrose Bierce’s last days in Mexico. Fuentes also wrote absurdist plays and essay collections on Mexican and American art and literature.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.