20 Essential Works Of Latin-American Literature

This post originally appeared on the Bachelors Degree Online site.

Latin-American literature, in spite of its prolificacy and influence, sadly enjoys less academic recognition than its European-American counterparts in the "Western" canon. Though authors hailing from a diverse selection of countries with a diverse selection of opinions, insights and experiences earn plenty of national and international awards, they remain largely overlooked when it comes to slapping together syllabi.


While familiar names such as Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez enjoy "household name" status amongst literary types, plenty of readers are missing out on lesser-known authors with some amazing things to say and share. Though not a comprehensive list, the following selections provide a decent introduction to the eclectic literature of Hispanic North, Central and South America. Use them as a starting point to explore a wide range of cultures, histories, politics and plenty more.

  1. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924) by Pablo Neruda: Pretty much any of Pablo Neruda’s poetry collections could have ended up on this list, but this one in particular stands out as the one that finally piqued critical attention. Considered one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language, his push into the literary consciousness was published when he was only 19. At the time, mainstream audiences considered the overt, unapologetic sexuality contained within the collection something scandalous.

  2. The Aleph and Other Stories (1949) by Jorge Luis Borges: This short story collection by one of Argentina’s literary gems takes readers on a fantastic voyage through space, time and some of the most hauntingly beautiful surrealist landscapes. Fantasy fans with a love of magic realism and mind-bending takes on parallel universes, the supernatural, immortality, theology, identity and other rich themes would do well to pick up Borges’ masterpiece. It will certainly stimulate the imagination in numerous exciting ways.

  3. The Burning Plain and Other Stories (1953) by Juan Rulfo: Fifteen short stories offer readers an incredibly human glimpse into the lives of rural Mexican families and individuals. Reviewers enjoy how the tales shift from traditional structures to something a little more anecdotal to the more experimental homages to pop art. No matter how he chooses to convey the message, though, all of Rulfo’s tales illustrate the harsh reality and extreme poverty that many of Mexico’s inhabitants face.

  4. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) by Jorge Amado: Sweet, poverty-stricken Gabriela falls for a Syrian barkeep named Nacib Saad while Brazil divides over its cacao exports. The nation’s tense struggle between tradition and modernization provide an interesting — if not outright satirical — backdrop for their odd little love story. For readers not terribly interest in matters of romance, the book provides an interesting insight into the social, political and economic history of a massive, sometimes volatile, region of the world.

  5. Hopscotch (1963) by Julio Cortazar: The title of the novel refers to Cortazar’s brilliant use of structure. It boasts 155 chapters, which readers can either take chronologically or skipping between them, resulting in a few different endings. Narrator Horacio Oliveiera meanders through Paris nightlife, engaging in philosophical, bohemian discussions with his lover and friends, contemplating the nature and value of existence itself.

  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Easily one of the most recognized, beloved and studied works of Latin-American literature, the lush One Hundred Years of Solitude blends the tenets of the modernist, magic realist and Vanguardia movements into one memorable novel. Drawing from Colombian history — especially as it pertains to the city of Macondo — he weaves the intricate tale of seven generations. All of them experience some form of bizarre hardship in a way that mirrors the city’s real-life struggles.

  7. Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) by Mario Vargas Llosa: As Odria’s dictatorship plagues Peru, characters hailing from vastly different sociopolitical backgrounds intertwine. Through discussions at a bar known as the Cathedral, two men express their own experiences and opinions regarding the volatile political climate. Along the way, they also attempt to untangle the complex issues surrounding the role one’s father played in the death of a major underworld instigator.

  8. The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) by Jose Donoso: Slowly, deftly, this novel explores questions of time and its intimate, essential relationship with life. Magic realism, a staple component of many notable Latin-American works, relays the traditional Chilote tale of the Imbunche — driving home its eerily supernatural theme. Existential crises, it seems, can bring out the ravaging monster in many people.

  9. I, the Supreme (1974) by Augusto Roa Bastos: Like many highly regarded Latin-American authors, Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos found narrative inspiration in his nation’s tempestuous history and layered culture. His exceptionally experimental, frequently lauded novel questions the validity and stability of a dictatorship, pulling elements directly from then-current politics. Although he understandably took some liberties with reality, the result eventually defined an entire genre.

  10. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) by Manuel Puig: This tense stream-of-consciousness novel is also an essential read for those who enjoy or want to learn more about LGBTQIA literature as well. Taking place almost completely in dialogue, the narrative focuses on a gay window-dresser and a political revolutionary sharing a Buenos Aires prison cell. Deep philosophical discussions help the pair pass the time and learn more about the world around them, which eventually leads to both romance and tragedy.


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