Before our eyes, US Latinx writers are inventing a new form of the novel. The classic bildungsroman, or novel of education and development, typically shows how a protagonist grows up and adapts to her world. Today, Latinx writers are writing their own versions of the bildungsroman, but with a twist. In novels like Angie Cruz’s Dominicana and Ernesto Quiñonez’s Taína, protagonists are educated not once, but twice: first, in mostly Spanish-speaking families and neighborhoods; and later, in the English-speaking society outside the home.
These two bildungsromans take place mostly in New York City, with Cruz’s Dominicana set in Washington Heights in the 1960s, and Quiñonez’s Taína set in Spanish Harlem in the 2000s. In addition to coming of age in two languages and two cultures, the teenage characters of both novels must also come to terms with the traumatic histories and weighty expectations of their impoverished families and marginalized communities. As if that weren’t enough, both sets of parents let their own frustrated desires trap their children.
Though each protagonist ends up finding their own creative outlet—whether by enrolling in English classes or by spending time with a talented artist—their families do not support these pursuits. Still, the protagonists in Cruz’s and Quiñonez’s books try to satisfy family expectations, as well as their own yearnings to live more creative lives. Each succeeds and fails in different ways, and with quite different outcomes.
What can such novels teach us about the Latinx experience? And what can they reveal about how children learn from, and grow beyond, their parents?
Set mostly in 1960s New York, Dominicana is the fictionalized story of the author’s mother, Dania. This inclusion of autobiographical detail makes the novel as much a roman à clef as it is a bildungsroman.
When Dania was 15, and still living in the Dominican Republic, her family married her to a man more than twice her age. In a moving essay in last August’s Paris Review, Cruz connected the recent suffering of child detainees at the hands of ICE with her mother’s fate as an immigrant child bride. Cruz noted that her mother felt she had no choice but to marry the much older man who would become Cruz’s father.
Dania’s family barely eked out a living in Los Guayacanes, in the Dominican Republic countryside. And so, in order to lessen their financial burden, the family allowed the 11-year-old Dania to be courted by a man who was old enough to be her father. Ultimately, Dania married the man at 15.
She later worked in a factory, studied accounting, and learned English. Eventually, Dania managed to bring her parents and siblings to the US, sacrificing her own inclinations for the sake of her family’s survival.
In Cruz’s novel, the fictional counterpart to her mother Dania is a character named Ana. And although Ana is no singer, her last name, Canción—meaning “song”—underlines her creative yearning.
Dominicana starts off in 1960s Los Guayacanes, with Ana as a first-person narrator, who makes canny observations in her head about the behavior of her family and their guests. In particular, we learn about her tyrannical mother, as well as her loutish future husband, Juan, and his entourage of brothers.
One of the first things we see Juan do is get drunk after courting Ana, then bark like a dog at her. This is skillful foreshadowing: Juan’s later behavior in New York is more brutal than any beast’s. He beats and rapes Ana, and is unfaithful to her. He works two jobs so Ana is alone much of the time (though of course she prefers this to being with him).
Latinx writers are writing their own versions of the bildungsroman, but with a twist.
Eventually, Ana grows aware of her powerful creative yearnings, which neither Juan nor her authoritarian mother has nurtured. In New York, Ana finds three outlets for these yearnings.
The outlet that is most important for the plot is Ana’s extramarital love affair with César, Juan’s youngest brother. Although he behaves chaotically in his romances and job searches, he is kind to Ana, closer to her in age, and undeniably whimsical and handsome. When her husband, Juan, goes on an extended trip to the Dominican Republic, Ana’s affair blossoms, even though she is pregnant. We are later made to understand that Ana ultimately will give birth to the fictional counterpart of the book’s real-life author. César, unlike Juan, takes Ana all over New York and delights in nurturing her growing curiosity about the city.
While not the first person to tell Ana that her cooking is marvelous, César is the first to let her know that he thinks it’s not just a way of making money, but also a creative pursuit. César gets Ana to cook a variety of Dominican dishes to sell to the workers at his factory. Ana’s self-confidence soars.
One of the most interesting episodes in the book is also Ana’s most creative cooking moment. In her loneliness, Ana has grown fond of the scrappy pigeons cooing outside her kitchen window, so she gives them the names of family members and feeds them dried rice. Juan prohibits her from feeding them, lying to the naive girl that pigeons are poisonous. After one of Juan’s beatings, Ana kills a pigeon she had named Betty and prepares it in a stew for Juan, hoping he will get sick. Instead, Juan raves about the food. It’s a darkly funny moment, where Ana is subversive and inventive. But, of course, only Ana, the reader, and the unfortunate pigeons know about it.
Ana’s third creative outlet is the English class she attends. Like her affair and her selling of the food she cooks, the classes take Ana outside of her comfort zone. She discovers that she loves that adventure. For example, Juan warns Ana to stay away from Edgecombe Avenue, because he was mugged there. But Ana placidly strolls to and from her classes on Edgecombe, often fantasizing about Juan being hit by a car.
The theme of the English classes calls attention to an arresting aspect of Cruz’s writing style: its almost stark minimalism. In telling us about her learning English, for example, Ana describes only the English words she learns, not their Spanish analogues. The English-teaching nun shows Ana pictures of birds and teaches her the names for them. Since Ana isn’t familiar with these mostly temperate-zone birds, it makes sense that she does not think of their names in Spanish. When she does recognize a bird she’s seen in Los Guayacanes, she asks the nun to name it. The nun tells her the bird is called a hummingbird, but Ana never names the bird with the word used for it in the Dominican Republic: “colibrí,” a word of indigenous origin.
Of course, the reader who knows Spanish does think of the native-language analogues that the book omits. The repetition of Spanish and English counterparts can lend some works of Latinx literature a baroque and repetitive quality. Yet Cruz’s style here is just the opposite: she writes short sentences, extremely short chapters, and doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue (this last being a strategy popularized in Latinx literature by Junot Díaz).
But the most marked aspect of her minimalism is that there are barely any words in Spanish in Dominicana. We are led to understand that many of the Spanish-language conversations are being subsumed into the character’s English-language accounts. (Quiñonez’s Taína, by contrast, is markedly more repetitive than Cruz’s text, though far from baroque. For example, when Quiñonez’s protagonist, Julio, describes how his mother learned English, he says, “I heard her learning those early songs: “pollito, chicken / gallina, hen / lápiz, pencil / pluma, pen.”)
Ultimately, Cruz’s suppression of the home language makes sense, as part of a text where the heroine represses her most basic longings. By the book’s end, Ana has become haunted by her mostly happy memories of her siblings and friends in the Dominican Republic, and of her romantic idyll with Cesar. It’s not surprising, then, that she should also be haunted by Spanish, the suppression of which is mirrored in Cruz’s text.
In Taína, the eponymous character embodies the creativity only implicit in Ana Canción’s last name. The book is set decades later than Ana’s struggles, in the 2000s. In it, Taína’s singing evokes flights of fancy in anyone who listens.
Taína is told from the first-person perspective of a 17-year-old boy, Julio. He was also the narrator of Quiñonez’s 2000 breakout best-seller Bodega Dreams, in which he became the confidant of Willie Bodega, a gangster with poetic longings. Here, Julio is younger than in the early book, and much more naive and dreamy, even to the point of having visions that make his mother fear he might be crazy.
Julio is fixated on his beautiful project-neighbor and erstwhile schoolmate, 15-year-old Taína, partly because he has heard that his favorite teacher is entranced by her singing. When Taína becomes pregnant, but claims she has not had sex with anyone and is still a virgin, Julio believes her. Taína and her mother shut themselves up in their apartment and Julio spies on them. He experiences a vision in which he imagines that “rebellious atoms” in the girl’s body caused her pregnancy in spite of her virginity.
The obstacle to Julio’s getting to know Taína is a character who supplies much of the book’s suspense. This is a tall old man who visits Taína and her mother only at night, and whom Julio’s El Barrio neighbors call El Vejigante. The name refers to a character from Puerto Rican folklore who wears a horned mask and a cape in the festivals of Loíza Aldea, the island’s celebrated black township. It’s El Vejigante who turns the book into a roman à clef, when Julio discovers that El Vejigante is really Salvador Agrón—or Sal Negron in the book—a former Puerto Rican leader of a 1950s New York City gang called the Vampires.
In 1959 Agrón, wearing a cape, killed two teenagers in Hell’s Kitchen, because he mistakenly thought they were members of a rival gang.1 Quiñonez’s El Vejigante Sal, finally released from prison, is too shy to leave his project apartment until nightfall. Quiñonez’s Sal is ashamed of his past, but makes up for it by taking care of his sister and pregnant niece, Taína.
Sal slowly comes out of his shell in his conversations with Julio, whom by the book’s end he calls his only friend. Through Sal, Julio learns to empathize with the pain of the more unfortunate members of his community. It is also through Sal that Julio finally gains access to the beautiful Taína, who possesses the creativity that he unconsciously craves. But Sal is the character rendered with the most subtlety: he reveals the pathos of one who understands only too late that he should have protected his talents like a flame.
Quiñonez initiates readers into the spiritual beliefs of Latinxers.
Besides being the most affecting character, Sal is also an example of how the novel fascinatingly interweaves other Latinx texts or adopts their styles and strategies.2 Quiñonez’s most relevant textual borrowing in this vein is found in his use of lyrical hyperboles, reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s style. Quiñonez invokes hyperbole to convey the otherworldliness of Taína’s singing, which is so soul-rending that when characters heard it, they “saw whom they loved and who loved them back.” Taína’s singing allows Julio to have a vision more illuminating than any he has ever had, one that can soothe the suffering he sees in his parents and his community:
In Taína’s voice I did see whom I loved and who loved me back, but it was not Taína. … I saw… my mother. I saw her dreams, I saw my father’s dreams, too. They were trampled and unfinished. Their feet and hands were calloused from the stones they had pushed and the cement sidewalks they had walked upon barefoot. Taína’s voice told me that my parents had not given up, that they had passed these dreams down …
That night when Taína sang, no one had credit card debt, no one had rents to pay … no one remembered winter … Everyone did for others what they wanted done for themselves. Everyone was in love. Everyone saw who loved them. Everyone had been forgiven.
Drawing on the idea of spiritual initiation in Afro-Caribbean religions, literary critics Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert coined the term “initiated reader,”3 to describe how readers might understand the spiritual layers in an artistic work from the point of view of “insiders” familiar with the cultural and spiritual practices described. An example in Quiñonez’s text comes when we are told that, in singing the song that transports Julio as described above, Taína is accompanied by “five women dressed in all white with tambourines,” who “sang, but Taína quickly drowned their voices and they knew their rightful place was as a backup chorus of santeras.”
On the one hand, we recognize a musical star and her backup singers. On the other hand, if we take note of Fernández Olmos’s and Paravisini-Gebert’s term, we recognize that these backup singers, and perhaps even Taína herself, are santeras, or Santería priestesses. These singers connect the community to the Afro-Caribbean saints, or orishas, through certain songs and dances meant to bring these deities down among the worshippers through the ritual of possession. Although there is a spiritualist healer character, Peta Ponce,4 who is important to the plot, the incarnation of the Afro-Caribbean saints or gods is not something that ever actually happens in the book. Yet episodes such as these show that Julio, with his visions of rebellious atoms, and Taína, with her ecstatic singing, are both steeped in the spiritual beliefs of their community. Quiñonez thus initiates readers into the spiritual beliefs of Latinxers.
What Does Assimilation Mean?
Whereas García Márquez masterfully deployed modernist perspectivism to portray a sense of the uncanniness of human perception, thereby pointing to the limits of literary realism, Quiñonez does not stray far from the bounds of realism. His focus on spiritual practices such as Santería is momentary and does not unmoor a mainly realistic focus. Rather, he forcefully shows that US Latinx characters struggle to balance the beliefs and practices of their cultures of origin with their present American identities. Ultimately, Quiñonez represents faith in the creative potential of Latinx Americans to express their layered identities.
Taína’s singing, in the end, speaks to both Quiñonez’s and Cruz’s converging goals with their remaking of the bildungsroman. Cruz’s Ana, coming of age in Washington Heights in the 1960s, cannot live and fulfill her own dream. Instead, she passes it down to the next generation: her daughter, who in real life is the author of her mother’s story. Quiñonez’s Julio, who receives inspiration from Taína’s singing, also represents this next generation.
Julio’s final realization is that both he and Taína are blessed with the chance to express their families’ dreams. They can therefore alleviate both their own frustrations and the frustrations of their families through the alchemy of art. With energy and grace, Cruz and Quiñonez convey the struggles of Latinx Americans to express not only their own dreams, but the dreams of entire generations.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames and Sharon Marcus.
- In an unlikely and difficult collaboration, Paul Simon and the Nobel Prize–winning Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott wrote the failed musical The Capeman (1998), based on Agrón. The character in the musical veered from resentful teenager Sal to a somewhat older, repentant Salvador but lacked the poignancy of Quiñonez’s El Vejigante Sal. ↩
- Another instance is when Taína decides to name her unborn baby Usmaíl, an allusion to Pedro Juan Soto’s classic 1959 Puerto Rican novel of the same name. In Soto’s book, the protagonist’s American father abandons Usmaíl’s mother in Vieques when he learns she is pregnant. The mother misunderstands the English term “US Mail” and gives it as a name to her son, an astute commentary on the transculturation of English and Spanish in contact with each other, and one of the results of Puerto Rico’s long colonial relationship with the US. ↩
- Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo (NYU Press, 2011), 243. ↩
- This is another of Quiñonez’s intertextual borrowings: Peta Ponce, the espiritista healer, is named after a shape-shifting witch in Chilean writer José Donoso’s 1970 magical-realist masterpiece, El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night). ↩