Monthly Archives: April 2012

Happy Birthday Roberto Bolaño!

Chilean Roberto Bolaño was born on this day in 1953 and died in 2003. His works, with their dark, sometimes twisted themes, have become more popular after his death.

He first won mass recognition for The Savage Detectives, and won the 2008 National Book Critics Award. His 2008 book, 2666, was named one of the best books of that year by Time magazine, which has a great overview of his life.

Here’s The Hispanic Reader’s review of his book, The Third Reich, released last year. The Secret of Evil, a book of short stories, was published earlier this month.

The New Yorker has a guide to reading Bolaño. Newsweek/The Daily Beast has a fantastic article about him, as well as a look at some other prominent Latino writers. And check out this blog devoted to his works (which to quote the blogger is “now a blog dedicated to, uhm, books.”)


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Happy Birthday, Vicente Aleixandre!

Vicente Aleixandre was born on this day in 1898 in Seville, Spain, and died in 1984. The poet won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1977, becoming one of only a dozen Latinos to win that honor.

His poetry is known for its surrealism and touches on topics such as nature and kindness – attributes he appreciated since he was invalid for most of his life.

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Book review: Julia Alvarez’s “A Wedding in Haiti”

After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti took more than 300,000 lives, many people felt compelled to help that country. Julia Alvarez wanted to go there.

She describes her experiences in her book, A Wedding in Haiti (Algonquin Books).

Her journey first began in 2009, when Alvarez and her husband, Bill, attended the wedding of Piti, a Haitian boy they had seen flying a kite near their coffee farm in her native Dominican Republic and they later hired to work on the farm.

But even before the earthquake, going to Haiti proves to be an ardurous journey, as Haiti’s infrastructure seems to be stuck in 1909.

A year later, Alvarez feels compelled to visit the country again after the earthquake.

“I didn’t have any answers for Haiti or fix-it advice or even a high road to take a moral stance for others to emulate. I just wanted to be with Haiti, and the line that kept echoing in my heart was the one from stations of the cross on Good Friday: Walk with me as I walk with you and never leave my side.

She makes the journey again  – compounded by bureaucracy and the devastation from the earthquake.

Alvarez doesn’t waste any words or get too fancy, making her writing so enjoyable to read. She is great at describing things – from a child’s schoolbook to a time when they had to drive through a river with the help of some Haitians, who then demand money. But the trips are worth the trouble as Alvarez describes the joy of the celebration – such as a scene in which the party-goers start to dance spontaneously.

Despite the devastation, she leaves the country with hope.

“So what is it that the eye is seeking and the heart is aching for? A flicker of wings, a thing that whispers hope. From a sidewalk wall hangs a red evening gown for sale. Incredible to think: there will be partying again! A boy in his school uniform walks by, holding the straps of his backpack. The very ordinariness of the moment seems a blessing.”

A Wedding in Haiti is a great book that gives readers a personal look at its people.

More about Julia Alvarez:

Julia Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States at age 10. She’s written numerous poems and books, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Book review: Gustavo Arellano’s “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner) is a literary feast.

Arellano covers the history of Mexican food, from its origins with the Aztecs to its present-day incarnations at Chipotle. In meticulous detail, Arellano writes about the selling of tamales on street corners, the emergence of the tortilla and salsa, and the creation of the margarita machine, among other topics.

Interestingly, some of the most prominent Mexican food – such as Taco Bell, Fritos and Paso picante sauce –was built up by Anglos. But all of the stories reveal great entrepreneurial spirit and ingenious inventions. (Sadly, his book went to press before the introduction of Doritos Locos Tacos.)

Arellano’s enthusiastic, descriptive and humorous writing makes this book so much fun to read. Check out this passage about a meal at Manuel’s El Tepeyac Café:

“There is a burrito sold in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights that’s beyond cosmic, that’s as close to touching God while eating Mexican food as finding Jesus on a tortilla. … Manuel’s Special: five pounds, beans and rice and guacamole and sour cream and your choice of meat – juicy nubs of grilled chicken, carne asada burned into succulent charcoal, or best with machaca, shredded beef that sticks between molars for hours afterward, heavily spiced and just grand, wrapped in a flour tortilla that, if laid flat, can serve as swaddling cloth for a puppy.”

A few quibbles: As a Texan, the book seemed a bit California-centric to me. How does the Rio Grande Valley get only one paragraph in a book about Mexican food? Although it doesn’t have the mass appeal of burritos and margaritas, I would have liked to read more about the history of pan dulce and menudo. I also would have liked to see some sociological and cultural analysis of the Americans’ seemingly contradictory anti-immigrant fervor and love for Mexican food.

The book left me hungry for that information, but it also made me hungry, literally. After reading the chapter on tortillas, I had to go to Chipotle (the closest available Mexican food place) for dinner.

Savor Taco USA. It’s as delightful as the meals Arellano describes.

More about Gustavo Arellano:

Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly, is best known for his Ask a Mexican column. He also teaches at California State University, Fullerton.

Source: I purchased this book through

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Happy Birthday, José Echegaray!

José Echegaray was born on this date in 1833 in Madrid, Spain, and died in 1916. The dramatist is one of only a dozen Latinos to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won in 1904.

Echegaray was a mathematician who was working for the government when he decided to pursue a career in his first love – theater. His plays, known for their romanticism, were wildly popular in his country. His most famous play is 1881’s El gran Galeoto (The Great Galeotto) about the effects of gossip on one man.

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Classic book review: Denise Chávez’s “Loving Pedro Infante”

Denise Chávez’s 2001 Loving Pedro Infante is one of those books that becomes your friend.

Tere Avila is an “educational assistant” – teacher’s aide – in Cabritoville, near El Paso. She’s a divorced, 30-something woman who spends her time hanging out with her best friend, Irma, at Tino’s La Tempestad Lounge every Friday and Saturday night and serving as secretary in the Pedro Infante Fan Club, whose members watch the Mexican actor’s old movies from the 1940s and 1950s and analyze them as though they were in an English literature class.

Tere’s ordinary, somewhat lonely, life gets a jolt when she starts an affair with Lucio Valadez, a married man whose daughter attends the school she works at.

Sounds like an ordinary plot, right? But what makes Pedro Infante so wonderful is Chávez’s writing. Tere speaks to the reader in first person, and the conversational tone makes you sympathize with her, laugh with her and, at times, want to scold her. (Fortunately, Irma does that for us.) Think of it as a Mexican version of Bridget Jones’s Diary or a small town Sex and the City.

The minutes from the Pedro Infante Fan Club meetings are particularly hilarious, but here’s some of the better lines:

On her love for Lucio: “There’s nothing a Mejicano or Mejicana loves more than the burning, stinging pain of thwarted, frustrated, hopeless, soulful, take-it-to-the-grave love. Nothing gets us going more than what I call rabia/love of the te-juro-you’re-going-to-pay-for-all-the-suffering-you-caused-me variety.”

On visiting a curandera’s house in a poor neighborhood: “Doña Meche was one of the richest women in Cabritoville. … She loved to invest in the stock market. Oh yeah? Well, invest in your neighborhood, and your yard, girl!”

On a visit to the bathroom with Irma: “I could hear Irma’s spurty but intense urine stream. She was a fast pisser and in this session she outdid herself. I could barely keep up with her, and I flushed early to make a number of deep growly farts.”

I absolutely loved Loving Pedro Infante. Please stop what you’re doing and go read it now.

More about Denise Chávez:

• A native of New Mexico, Denise Chávez has also written A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food and Culture, Face of An Angel and The Last of the Menu Girls. She is the director of The Border Book Festival, which will take place Thursday-Sunday in Mesilla, New Mexico.

Source: I checked this book out of the library.

This book is fourth in the series of classic books by Latina authors. Next month: Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.


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In the News: A Pulitzer for Hudes and a short story from Díaz

Woo hoo! Quiara Alegría Hudes, right, won the Pultizer Prize in Drama today, becoming only the second Latino to win in that category. She won for her play Water by the Spoonful.

Junot Díaz alert:

• Speaking of the Pulitzers, past winner Junot Díaz has a short story, “Miss Lora,” in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

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Latinos and the Pulitzer Prize

Update: Quiara Alegría Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play, Water by the Spoonful. I also included information on Sonia Nazario, which I forgot about when I first wrote this post until I saw her book in my co-worker’s office and thought, “I can’t believe I forgot Enrique’s Journey!”

The Pulitzer Prizes, which award the best in journalism and literary arts, will be announced on Monday. While the Nobel Prize in Literature is an international award that honors a lifetime achievement of work, the Pulitzers are an American award that recognizes the previous year’s work in a variety of categories. Here’s a look at some of the past Latino winners:


• Only two Hispanics have won this prize: Oscar Hijuelos for 1990’s The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love and Junot Díaz, right, for 2008’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Hopefully, the committee will consider Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, Justin Torres’s We the Animals and Hector Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries this year.


• Nilo Cruz, left, is the lone Latino playwright to win this honor, for 2003’s Anna in the Tropics. Some writers have come close in recent years – Quiara Alegría Hudes was a finalist for 2007’s Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue in 2007 and, with Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2009’s In the Heights, as was Kristoffer Diaz for 2010’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.


• William Carlos Williams, right, whose mother was Puerto Rican, appears to be the lone poet with Latino roots to win in the category.

Sadly, no Latinos appear to have won in the autobiography, general non-fiction or history categories. Luis Alberto Urrea came close in 2005, when he was a finalist for general non-fiction category for The Devil’s Highway.


Latinos have won in various categories throughout the years – as part of teams covering the Los Angeles riots for The Los Angeles Times in 1992 and the Elian Gonzalez case for The Miami Herald in 2001. Here’s a look at some interesting winners of the past:

Ruben Vives, left, who came to the United States from Guatemala as an undocumented immigrant and worked his way to become a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, won the award last year for Public Service at age 32.

Liz Balmaseda of The Miami Herald was the first (and still only) Latino to win in the Commentary category in 1993.

SoniaNazarioSonia Nazario, who was raised in the United States and Argentina, wrote a series of articles for The Los Angeles Times about one boy’s travels from Honduras to the United States that won the 2003 Feature Writing prize and became the book Enrique’s Journey.

• Photographer José Galvez, right, was part of the first team of Latinos to win a Pulitzer when  The Los Angeles Times took the 1984 Public Service Prize for its series on Latino life in Southern California. His work can also be seen in Urrea’s book of poems Vatos and other books.

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A book club for Latino literature

One organization has a unique mission — combining Latino literature and fellowship.

Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club, a partnership between Las Comadres Para Las Americas and the Association of American Publishers, meets once a month to discuss a recently published book by a Hispanic author. It boosts more than a dozen chapters in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Texas.

Members read mostly novels, although they have discussed non-fiction and children’s books. (Its book archive is here.)

The club is scheduled to discuss The Madness of Mamá Carlota by Graciela Limón in April. The complete list for 2012, which includes Carolina de Robertis Perla and Joy Castro’s Hell or High Water, is here.

The book club also features Conversations with Authors, a teleconference in which members can talk with the writer. They’ve talked to Julia Amante, author of Say You’ll Be Mine; Lyn Di Iorio, Outside the Bones; Marisel Vera, If I Bring You Roses and Lelia Cobo, The Second Time We Met.

The book club began in 2008 as an offshoot of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, a national organization founded by Dr. Nora de Hoyos Comstock that connects and empowers Latinas through community building/networking, culture, learning and technology. The group features a monthly potluck called a comadrazo, as well as other activities.

But the book club remains one of its prominent activities. Many of the books have brought out interesting discussions, said Amanda Arizola, who serves as the National Project Manager for the book club.

“Book clubs are supposed to spark interest and debate,” she said. “All of our books have given us that.”

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Latino poets, from the romantic to the contemporary

April marks National Poetry Month – a genre Latinos have excelled in. Here’s a look at some prominent Hispanic poets.

• When you think poetry, many people think of Pablo Neruda, right. Known for his beautiful love poems, they inspired Antonio Skarmeta’s novel Il Postino, in which Neruda appears as a character. The book was made into the 1994 Academy Award-nominated movie, Il Postino.

• Five of the 12 Latino Nobel Prize in Literature winners, including Neruda, were poets. The others are Chilean Gabriela Mistral, left, known for her poems about children and motherhood; Octavio Paz, who wrote about his homeland of Mexico; Juan Ramon Jimenez, who described village life in his native Spain; and Spainiard Vicente Aleixandre, known for his surreal poems. William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican, appears to be the only writer with Latino roots to win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

• Two prominent Latino poets recently earned the title of Poet Laureate from their places of residence. Juan Felipe Herrera was named California’s first Latino Poet Laureate. Carmen Tafolla, right, earned that same title from the city of San Antonio.

• Some prominent novelists have written books of poetry. Check out Loose Women by Sandra Cisneros, Vatos and other books by Luis Alberto Urrea and various collections by Gary Soto and Julia Alvarez. Other contemporary poets include Martín Espada, left, and Rigoberto González. For spoken word poetry, try Carlos Andrés Gómez.

• If you’re looking for a collection of poetry, check out The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Ilan Stavans. Want current poetry? Read Huizache and other literary magazines and the Con Tinta: Chicano/Latino Writer’s Collective Facebook page. And peruse the websites of The Poetry Foundation and from the Academy of American Poets for poems and biographies.

Anyone I miss? Let me know in the comments.

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