11 Books By Latinos to Read for Hispanic Heritage Month
Reflections on brownness, stories about migrant workers and queer immigrants, postcolonial poems — and more.
National Hispanic Heritage Month, a celebration that runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, captures a period covering seven different independence days across Latin America. In recent years, however, the celebration has prompted Latinos in the United States to look inward, grappling with issues of representation, colorism and sexuality. To better understand these perspectives, here are 11 recent books that provide a glimpse into distinct corners of contemporary Latino life in the United States:
‘Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture,’ by Ed Morales (Verso, 2019)
The recent debate over the term “Latinx,” which has grabbed the attention of countless op-ed pages and Twitter threads, is just the latest iteration of a long reckoning over this single, shared identity. So argues Morales, a lecturer at Columbia and CUNY, whose book of politics and social history explains how our current understanding of the Latino identity is rooted in the Latin American concept of mestizaje, or “hybridity,” and how that troubled history is shaping American politics today.
‘The Undocumented Americans,’ by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (One World, 2020)
This collection falls somewhere between reportage, fiction and memoir in its storytelling, rendering an intimate portrait of the undocumented condition in the United States. Villavicencio chronicles the lives of ground zero cleanup workers, a Haitian priestess in Miami and a former housekeeper battling breast cancer in Flint, Mich., richly describing a population that, as Caitlin Dickerson notes in her review, remains “largely absent from modern journalism and literature.”
‘The Poet X,’ by Elizabeth Acevedo (Quill Tree, 2018)
In this National Book Award-winning verse novel, 15-year-old Xiomara Batista’s life in Harlem has changed seemingly overnight: Her body, now larger and curvier, is newly subject to catcalls and insults; her Dominican mother has become a stern disciplinarian; and her church no longer feels like the haven it once was. As Xiomara contends with these changes, she turns to slam poetry, where she finds freedom and discovers a distinctive voice.
‘Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas,’ by Roberto Lovato (Harper, 2020)
Lovato unearths the family secrets his father kept guarded to tell a story of trauma and violence from El Salvador to San Francisco’s Mission District. As he reckons with this multigenerational history, Lovato blends this memoir with exhaustive reporting that sheds light on a cycle of bloodshed that spans El Salvador’s civil war, the birth of MS-13 in California and the exportation of gangs to Central America.
‘Tentacle,’ by Rita Indiana (And Other Stories, 2018)
This novel is a linguistic triumph, tackling climate change, queerness, racism and folk spirituality with rich irreverence through the story of a young maid who becomes entangled in a doomsday prophecy. Indiana, a Dominican author, nimbly captures the specificity and interiority of Caribbean life, with all of its sci-fi contours.
‘The Sense of Brown,’ by Jose Esteban Munoz (Duke University Press, 2020)
In this posthumous collection, Munoz, a celebrated queer theorist, meditates on “brownness,” a broad feeling of kinship rooted in struggle and community that transcends any single ethnicity. In 13 essays, written between 1998 and his death in 2013, Munoz writes about Chicano history and draconian immigration laws as well as art and performance to understand how this feeling of brownness can help us make sense of the world.
‘Ordinary Girls,’ by Jaquira Diaz (Algonquin, 2019)
In this memoir, Diaz writes devastatingly about surviving sexual abuse and growing up in a broken household plagued by violence and drug addiction in Miami Beach and Puerto Rico. She is slowly able to find herself despite these horrors, learning about her island’s colonial history, discovering her family’s African ancestry and finding love against all odds.
‘Las Biuty Queens,’ by Ivan Monalisa Ojeda (Astra House, 2021)
This book offers an ode to New York City’s queer and trans immigrant community in the form of short stories. Ojeda, a Chilean American writer, brings sincerity and dark humor to tales of drug addiction, prison life at Rikers Island and a five-time beauty pageant winner, drawing from personal experience as a trans performer, sex worker and undocumented immigrant.
‘Gordo,’ by Jaime Cortez (Black Cat, 2021)
In Cortez’s California, a young girl delivers the eucharist via doughnut pieces; a Chicano boy fights in a luchador mask to live up to his father’s idea of masculinity; and a hairstylist is asked to work on a wig for his dead middle school bully, who was shot in the head. The hardships and small joys of this migrant worker community are rendered with profound care in this debut collection.
‘Postcolonial Love Poem,’ by Natalie Diaz (Graywolf, 2020)
Throughout her second collection, Diaz highlights the ways an occupying power absorbs and erases the cultures it meets — and, in keeping with her efforts to preserve Indigenous languages, she refuses to submit to that process. That’s the “postcolonial” part of the book. The “love poem” part comes in frank celebrations of queer romance and lush carnal pleasure, which suggest physical abandon as one way to resist oppression. The book won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, making Diaz the first Latina author to earn that honor.
‘Cruel Fiction,’ by Wendy Trevino (Commune Editions, 2018)
Trevino’s 2018 debut poetry collection is also a manifesto of sorts, and her thesis is simple: “A border, like race, is a cruel fiction.” In sharp and provocative poems, she critiques capitalism, Chicano identity and Gloria Anzaldua — the influential Mexican American author — in a voice that is unapologetic and fierce.
Other titles of interest:
“When We Make It,” by Elisabet Velasquez
“Eat the Mouth That Feeds You,” by Carribean Fragoza
“Lost Children Archive,” by Valeria Luiselli
“In the Dream House,” by Carmen Maria Machado
“Undocumented,” by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
“Hola Papi,” by JP Brammer
“Citizen Illegal,” by Jose Olivarez
“Unaccompanied,” by Javier Zamora
“The Crazy Bunch,” by Willie Perdomo