The Voice That Is Great within Us, Hayden Carruth, ed., published in 1979 by Bantam Books, is a classic anthology of American poetry that gathered more than 130 poets published during the first 60 years of the twentieth century. The point was to celebrate the multiplicity of voices that make up American verse. It should be noted that the multiplicity of voices gathered are all—except for three or four—white. While much of the poetry collected came from major publishing houses, many of these poets first came to print through the auspices of small, independent presses. Indeed, without small, independent presses it is hard to imagine new writers finding publishers. Not only that, but it is also hard to imagine the accessibility, perhaps even the existence, of high quality regional literature and high quality literature from non-dominant ethnic or racial groups. Thankfully, we have small presses run by tireless people committed to the discovery of new voices—voices of the people—and to bringing good literature to the reading public.
As to la voz del pueblo, or the voice of the people, though there were a smattering of poems and novels published in English, Spanish, and Spanglish during the early part of the twentieth century, it is not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that we get a concentrated flourishing of Chicano literature. Central to this flourishing is the short-lived, small, independent press Quinto Sol Publications, the first Mexican American publishing house in the United States, founded in Berkley, California, with the efforts of UC Berkley students and faculty. The press began in 1967, principally as a means of publishing a Social Science oriented journal on Chicano matters. In 1970, it branched out and organized a literary prize. By 1974, tensions in the press were such that it split. Only four prizes were awarded by Quinto Sol Publications, and the text that won the 1974 prize was published by Tonatiuh Publications. During those first four years, the Premio Quinto Sol went to Tomás Rivera in 1970, Rudolfo Anaya in 1971, Rolando Hinojosa in 1973, and Estela Portillo Trambley in 1974.
Both Rivera’s …y no se lo tragó la tierra (published in 1971) and Hinojosa’s Estampas del valle y otras obras (1973) are fragmented novels comprised of short stories, vignettes, and brief sketches. Both were also originally written in Spanish, translated by other Chicanos into English, and first published as bilingual texts. Rivera’s book is a stream-of-consciousness narrative told from the point of view of a migrant worker; Hinojosa’s, is the study of a fictional Texas county on the Mexican border. Anaya’s Bless Me, Última (1972) is a more conventional coming of age novel originally written in English and Spanish and is about the Hispanos of New Mexico. Portillo’s Rain of Scorpions and other writings (1975) is the first published collection of stories written by a Chicana and the first to win a prize. Quinto Sol had previously published both poetry and plays written by Portillo. All of her writings, her stories, her plays, and her poetry, are in English. In fact, early on she was heavily criticized by some Chicano writers for not being Chicana enough. Without Quinto Sol, it is highly unlikely that these classics would even have been published. Both Rivera and Anaya sent their manuscripts out to multiple places with no success.
While all the surnames are of Spanish origin and three are of Mexican American heritage from Texas, this group is still quite diverse—though Rivera, Hinojosa, and Portillo are all from Texas. Hinojosa, who only spoke Spanish until middle school, was the child of an Anglo mother and Mexican American father whose family had lived in the Lower Rio Grande Valley since the eighteenth century. Rivera and Portillo, on the other hand, were children of Mexican immigrants. Anaya, like Hinojosa, has deep ties to the US soil, but he is New Mexican. Rivera’s family were itinerant migrant farmworkers who traveled between Texas and the Midwest; Portillo, from an urban, working-class El Paso family; Hinojosa, from a family of educators; Anaya, family of New Mexican vaqueros. Thus, there are differences, and noticeable ones, among these writers. There are differences those of us from Appalachian states can easily see and appreciate. While Eastern Kentuckians, Northwest Georgians, or Western Pennsylvanians might all be from the Appalachian Mountains and speak English, this does not mean they or their cultures are identical.
These seemingly minor biographical differences (that Anaya and Hinojosa are not children of immigrants, that Portillo’s experience was urban and not agricultural, even that Portillo was criticized for not being Chicana enough) let us see that we cannot assume similarity of experience, even in the Southwest, even in the first years of the Chicano literary movement. Imagine, then, when we consider the whole nation, not just the Southwest.
For people wanting to know more about the complexity of the Latinx experience in the United States, I recommend Juan González’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America and Ed Morales’s Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture. Both González and Morales are Puerto Ricans raised in New York.
Without the daring of a small, independent press dedicated to promoting Chicano literature, it is quite possible that the flourishing of the late 1960s and early 1970s would not have continued, and we would not have had the wonderful poetry of our former US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, who began publishing in the early 1970s in small independent presses, or the novels and poems of Sandra Cisneros or Julia Álvarez. Instead, because of Quinto Sol’s vision, Rivera, Anaya, Hinojosa, Portillo, and others were able to speak to a moment and help create a literary movement that grew alongside the political one.
And still today, small, independent presses are publishing high quality Latinx literature. For example:
Coffee House Press, in 2017, published Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Luiselli is a Mexican writer who lives in New York. This essay plumbs the border crisis by examining the current and real problems faced by child immigrants and the failures of our system.
3: A Taos Press published in 2015 Karen S. Córdova’s Farolito, a collection of poems that examine elder abuse. Córdova, like Anaya, has deep roots in the mountains of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
Kentucky’s own Shadelandhouse Modern Press published in 2019 Marta Miranda-Straub’s Cradled by Skeletons/Mecida por esqueletos, a verse and prose memoir on immigration, social justice, and woman power written by one who calls herself a Cubalachian.
Sarabande, another Kentucky press, published David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle and Post-Traumatic Hood Disorder. Martinez, born and raised in San Diego, examines masculinity in lyrically searing poems.
These are just four contemporary Latinx writers publishing in four small, independent presses. There are plenty more.