The Literary Canon Is Mostly White. Here’s an Alternative Latin American Reading List

Lead Photo: Art by Alan López for Remezcla
Art by Alan López for Remezcla
Read more

If you’re a high schooler or college student, there’s a list of books and famous works you know you’re going to have to read at some point in your career. A Shakespeare play or two, some Hemingway or Faulkner, To Kill a Mockingbird so you can talk about how white people were nice enough to end racism. And these books are all great, and important to understanding the culture – white/Western/American culture that is. And while there’s some overlap between that and Latinx culture, what if you want to read the foundational texts of Latinidad? Below is a list of nine books that you can read in addition to (or, we don’t want to tell you not to do you your homework, buuuut…) the canonical texts on your curriculum.

Deciding what books are “in” and which are “out” of a canon, particularly on the basis of historical popularity can be a messy, racist, sexist endeavor, especially that historically, a lot of power (including artistic power) was given to European men. We’ve tried to counteract that here, but know there’s still a lot missing. We’ve also tried to go a little farther than the authors already on your shortlists (if you’re wondering where Gabo, or Cisneros, or Neruda are).

And remember, the best part of making your own curriculum is debating and amending it, so have at it in the comments.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to explain the curation process and to add a new author.


If you have to read: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Try: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Holden Caulfield is the classic disaffected teen, known for slouching around New York decrying phonies and having a depressive crisis. Julia, the protagonist of Erika L. Sánchez’s coming-of-age novel, wanders the streets of Chicago confronting the confines of the expectations her parents have for her life, while also confronting the mysteries of her recently deceased sister’s life. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter takes the same anger and sadness around the limitations of relationships and the world that Holden Caulfield experiences, and filters them through the experiences of a Mexican teen girl growing up in America.


If you have to read: Ulysses by James Joyce

Try: Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

James Joyce is best known for using not only stream-of-consciousness narration, but for his inventive use of language, making up words as they suited him and engaging in wordplay like puns and allusions. Cortázar uses similar structure and language to tell the story of a love affair between Horacio Oliveira and La Maga, a mysterious woman who comes in and out of the story. The book is almost structured like a choose-your-own adventure story, and the “Table of Instructions” invites you to plot your own path through the text.


If you have to read: Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Try: Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

Spooky semi-abandoned agricultural towns, the dissolution of a once-grand family, innovations in prose styling – Pedro Paramo has a lot of the things that make Sound and the Fury great, and is one of the most influential books in Latin American lit to boot. With no lesser writers than Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Valeria Luiselli describing this book as an inspiration to them, to read this work is to uncover some of the earliest roots of magical realism.


If you have to read: Beowulf

Try: Popol Vuh

Just as the Brits have their ancient epic poetry, so does Latin America have the Popol Vuh, a narrative by the K’iche’ people of (present-day) Guatemala telling their creation myths, and tales of warriors and heroes. Written down by a visiting missionary in about 1550, the Popol Vuh is one of the only remaining traces of what was once a vibrant oral tradition of storytelling in pre-Columbian America.


If you have to read: The Poetry of Robert Frost

Try: Man-Making Words by Nicolás Guillén

Just as Frost’s poetry focused on his home turf – rural New England – with a particular emphasis on the colloquial and homey, so too did Guillén take the raw materials of the people around him and transform them into poetry. Guillén’s most famous work, Motivos de Son (not translated into English in its entirety), took a traditional Cuban musical genre, and mined it for its connections to Afro-Cuban experiences and life. The works included in Man-Making Words deal with similar subjects, and take as their focal point Afro-Cuban culture – alongside Guillén’s recognizable onomatopoeia in mimicking the drums and sounds of Afro-Cuban music.
In addition, he shares a connection to someone else often included in the American canon – he and Langston Hughes were friends, and Hughes translated some of his poems into English.


If you have to read:Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Try: the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Shakespeare and Sor Juana were only divided by 100 years of history – while the Bard was writing love poems, comedies and tragedies around the late 1500s, the New Spanish nun was writing religious (and romantic!) poetry, philosophical essays, and theological tracts in the 1600s. Much like Shakespeare, she adhered to the formal structures of verse at the time – sonnets using meter and rhyme schemes. She, like Shakespeare, is also speculated to have hidden clues to her queerness in some of her writing; scholars have argued that some of her sonnets, addressed to “Lisi,” were about María Luisa Gonzaga Manrique de Lara, the wife of the Spanish Viceroy.


If you have to read: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Try: No One Will See Me Cry by Cristina Rivera Garza

The Bell Jar is a feminist classic about growing up, aimlessness, and depression, and a bulk of the book takes place with the main character in a psychiatric hospital. With No One Will See Me Cry, Rivera Garza takes us into La Castaneda, the infamous turn-of-the-century asylum in Mexico City, to follow the path of one of its inmates and the inmate photographer. Garza has been lauded as one of the best novelists working in Mexico by writers like Carlos Fuentes, and is becoming better known in the states.


If you have to read: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Try: Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez

While Evita’s corpse doesn’t come lurching back to life in Tomás Eloy Martínez’s novel, it’s not for lack of trying. This book, melding fact and fiction about Evita Perón, the wife of Argentina’s dictator, focuses not on her living biography but on the fate of her body after death. A madcap story with a zany cast of characters all trying to reclaim control of the corpse, much like Frankenstein, Santa Evita also raises deeper questions about death, legacy, and politics.


If you have to read: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Try: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

A migration across a vast, unwelcoming territory, the tensions of family, a wider arc of socio-political movement. Signs Preceding the End of The World treats migration into the United States in the same way that The Grapes of Wrath treats the Dust Bowl migrations of Oklahoma – by at once humanizing it and placing it within a greater context. Signs comes with the added benefit of being an absolutely fresh, vibrant modern novel.


If you have to read: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Try: El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias

Everything Machiavelli said to do, the title president in Asturias’ novel does. Written in the 1930s as a condemnation of Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, it’s one of the first novels written about life under a dictatorship, and the dangers everyday citizens faced. A modern classic, Asturias would later go on to win a Nobel prize in Literature, largely for this work.