American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

LATINO/A LITERATURE OF THE SEA. The body of work that is referred to as Latino/a literature of the United States includes writing produced by Mexican Americans or Chicano/as, Cuban Americans, Dominican Americans, Puerto Ricans on the mainland, and other people of Central and South American heritage living in the United States. The centrality of the sea in such Latino/a literature varies widely, depending on which of these groups is in question.

The sea is most prominent in the writing of Cuban Americans, not just because Cuba is an island but also because of the large number of Cubans who have reached the United States by sea, rather than by land or air. In Mexican American or Chicano/a literature, on the other hand, the sea tends to be less predominant as setting or metaphor, given that Mexican immigrants generally reach the United States by land routes and across the Rio Grande River. Some Mexican American families, further, have lived in the United States for generations, becoming American not through immigration but because the boundaries between the United States and Mexico shifted south with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, leaving many former Mexicans within the new boundaries of the United States. In general, literature by peoples descended from, or connected to, island cultures of the Caribbean* tends to refer more often to the sea than does the literature produced by peoples of Central or South America who have reached the United States primarily by traveling over land.

Historically, Cubans attempting to leave Fidel Castro’s regime since 1959 have reached the United States in large numbers by traveling across the ninety miles from Cuba to Florida, either with Castro’s permission in large- scale “boat lifts” such as the Mariel boat lift of 1980 or illegally in very small boats or homemade rafts, hence the name “balseros,” or “rafters.” It is estimated that at least one of every four rafters who undertake the passage dies in the attempt. Cuban American literature in which the sea is prominent often depicts these perilous journeys. For example, Achy Obejas’ novel Memory Mambo (1996), as well as her short story “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like This?” (1994), from her collection by the same title, both open with the protagonists’ childhood memories of such crossings.

The sea, as both the physical barrier and the potential bridge between Cuba and the United States paradoxically represents both the possibility of escape and freedom and the danger of death along the way in novels such as J. Joaquin Fraxedas’ The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera (1993), Virgil Suarez’s Latin Jazz (1989), and Margarita Engle’s Skywriting (1995). Fraxedas’ The Lonely Crossing of Juan Cabrera tells the story of three men who venture the difficult journey on a raft constructed of inner tubes; the political struggle of the would-be exiles is displaced onto a struggle with nature, as the characters face a hurricane, a shark attack, and near starvation. But the sea also represents the only chance of salvation, as the men catch and eat fish for food, and the currents of the Gulf Stream carry the raft closer to the United States. The immensity and power of the sea are also conveyed through the novel’s description of rescuers’ efforts to scan the ocean’s surface for would-be refugees.

The subject of Suarez’s Latin Jazz is the 1980 Mariel boat lift; powerful scenes describe a sea literally obscured by the number of boats on its surface as they arrive at Mariel Port from Key West* and leave full of escaping Cubans. Once again, the sea is a paradoxical site, threatening the survival of those on the small, overcrowded boats while simultaneously offering the only possibility of reuniting Cuban families. Engle’s Skywriting envisions the lone balsero’s journey from the perspective of the family members he leaves behind. The balsero's mother and half-sister pace Cuba’s beaches waiting for news as they imagine the various possible scenarios: hurricanes, sharks, capture by Cuban patrol boats, rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard or by rescue teams of Cuban exiles.

In much literature by Caribbean U.S. Latino/as, references to the sea are part of a larger thematic strand concerning memories of a tropical island homeland that is often set against the urban backdrop of immigrants existence on mainland U.S. In “Aguantando,” from Dominican American writer Junot Diaz’s short-story collection Drown (1996), the ocean becomes associated with the narrator s childhood memories of rejection and loneliness after his father leaves the family for the United States; other stories in the collection offer a foil for these memories through scenes of gritty New Jersey neighborhoods inhabited by alienated and disoriented immigrant adolescent males. In Puerto Rican writer Judith Ortiz Cofer’ s collection of essays, poems, and short stories, The Latin Deli (1993), and poems such as “Exile” from Terms of Survival (1987), the sea is invoked with nostalgia by adult exiles who long to return home and/or with resentment and hostility by children who have grown up in the mainland United States and consider it their “home.”

The memory of the sea is at times recuperative, as in Ortiz Cofer s short story “Letter from the Caribbean,” in The Latin Deli, in which a sighting of dolphins by a woman vacationing on a Puerto Rican beach becomes a magical metaphor for healing. In Cuban American Dolores Prida s play Beautiful Sehoritas (first perf. 1977; pub. 1991), the memory of the limitless ocean has the power to endure in the face of a grim urban present; more darkly, the ocean seems to represent childhood innocence turned sour when one character ends her life by setting herself on fire and running into the sea.

In several poems from Dominican American Julia Alvarez ’ s collection The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995), the sea is again connected metaphorically to a culture and a language that have been lost and to the cultural transition from the Dominican Republic to the United States. The use of the sea as a metaphor for a sort of cultural “in-between” place, in which immigrants belong fully neither to their home culture nor to their adopted culture and country, is echoed, although not explicitly invoked, in Mexican American Lorna Dee Cervantes’ poem “Refugee Ship” (1982). Similarly, in Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban* (1992), the sea figures prominently as a metaphor for the cultural and geographical chasms that divide a Cuban family separated by the aftermath of the 1959 revolution; crossing the ocean, as characters do physically and spiritually, in life and after death, represents their attempts to bridge that gulf in culture and understanding. In A Place Where the Sea Remembers* (1993), by Sandra Benitez, who is of Puerto Rican descent but was raised partially in Mexico and El Salvador, the sea takes on the resonance of a cultural and communal memory, as it witnesses the triumphs and disasters of life in a seaside Mexican town.

The sea in U.S. Latino/a literature is sometimes associated with Spanish colonization, since the first conquistadores arrived by sea. This theme is at work, for example, in Rudolfo Anaya’s short novel The Legend of La Llorona (1984), which is a retelling of the story of “la Malinche,” the indigenous woman who translated the Mayan and Aztec languages for Hernan Cortes and thus participated in his conquest of Mexico. The connection of the sea with Spanish conquest is also present, to a lesser degree, in Anaya’s better-known work Bless Me, Ultima* (1972), in which the protagonist’s father’s family, named “Marez” (the Spanish word for ocean is “mar”), are descended from conquistadores. Interestingly, in the latter novel, the conquis- tadores, as well as the sea that brought them, are associated most overtly with an appealing restlessness and limitless freedom; in contrast, the metaphorical role of the sea is more negative in Puerto Rican Gloria Vando’s poem “Legend of the Flamboyan” (1993) about the Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico.

In Chicana Gloria Anzaldua’s landmark, genre-crossing volume Border-lands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), the sea figures as metaphor for the dissolution of, and escape from, borders and boundaries of a geographical, social, and spiritual nature. In the opening poem, the natural power of the sea to eat away at the shore points out the unnaturalness of political borders. In “A Sea of Cabbages,” the metaphorical use of the sea suggests a boundlessness and freedom that contrast sharply with the manual labor performed incessantly by migrant workers. In “Compaoera, cuando am-bamos,” the sea represents the dissolution of bodily boundaries and perhaps also of cultural constraints against lesbian sexuality. References to the ocean have a similar function in Chicana Emma Perez’s novel Gulf Dreams (1996), set in a coastal Texas town; images of the sea at night or sunset serve as a counterpoint to the narrator’s childhood memories of picking cotton in the fields during scorching heat and also suggest the potential for liberation from socially imposed restrictions on lesbian desire. [See also CARIBBEAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA]

FURTHER READING: Masud-Piloto, Felix. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959-1995. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996; Magill, Frank N., ed. Masterpieces of Latino Literature. New York: HarperCollins, 1994; Martinez, Julio A., and Francisco A. Lomeli, eds. Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985; McKenna, Teresa. Migrant Song: Politics and Process in Contemporary Chicano Literature. Austin: U of Texas P, 1997.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo