The Latino Boom: The Felipe de Ortego y Gasca Lecture

In early October 2019 I gave the inaugural Felipe de Ortego y Gasca lecture in honor of my great friend and Chicano legend, who passed away in December 2018.

I spoke about Latin American literature, more specifically the Latino Boom. The Boom was the period of about ten years, from the early nineteen-sixties, in which several Latin American novelists achieved worldwide fame and fortune. Their works made the bestseller lists, were translated into dozens of languages, and were awarded numerous awards. Two of the authors – Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa – won Nobel Prizes in Literature. Along with Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar and others, García Márquez (Gabo) and Vargas Llosa established a modern Latin American canon and wrote some of the greatest works of the century.

There’s so much to say about the Boom I could write a book about it and maybe one day I will, but here I’ll just discuss the name and some of the “movement’s” legacies.

“El Boom” was always a controversial term. Cortázar disliked it. He objected to its use of an English word. Why on earth would a group of writers whose project was putting Latin American literature on the map and who wanted to get out of the shadows of their European and North American “masters” choose an English word for a moniker? They didn’t. The Argentine journal Primera Plana did.

Secondly, as Cortázar said, their work was written in isolation. He never felt part of a movement. True, Carlos Fuentes once suggested to this group of authors that they all write a story about a dictator of their choice and put it into a collection, but it never happened. They were too busy working on their own books. In any case, stylistically these authors are pretty diverse even within their own oeuvres. It’s hard to argue they developed any form of literary style together even though they were friends.

Thirdly, “boom” is an economic term. It belongs on the financial pages. But The Latino Boom was about art. Money only played a part once these authors had done the hard work of turning themselves into great writers. In fact, some say the term was just a marketing ploy, one the authors didn’t particularly support. Gabo famously refused to help his publishers market his books, saying they never helped him to write them.

But if the term is controversial, the legacy is undeniable. The Boom meant that these great writers got the recognition they deserved no matter where they came from, be it small Peruvian towns or Colombian backwaters. This had rarely been the case with writers from Latin America. Apart from a few exceptions – the poets Ruben Darío (Nicaragua), Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda (Chile), and the fiction writers Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina) and Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala) – Latin American writers were unknown in Europe and North America, the powerhouses of the literary world.

The Boom also helped to resuscitate some almost forgotten authors – Juan Rulfo, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Alejo Carpentier, to name three – while at the same time paving the way for a new generation which included Isabel Allende, Roberto Bolaño, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

Finally, there was the inevitable revolt and repudiation by younger Latin American writers. They found themselves getting rejected by publishers because their work didn’t fit into the template of inter-generational Magical Realist fables involving dictators and political coups. So they published their own collection called McOndo (a pun on Gabo’s Macondo, the setting for One Hundred Years of Solitude). In their McOndo, there were Macdonald’s restaurants. There were condos. There were Apple Mac computers. And unlike in Gabo’s work, the only time a character might fly is if he were high on drugs or in an airplane.

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