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 largescale “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
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. Joaquı´n 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 Sen ˜oritas (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
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 Benı`tez, 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 Herna ´n Corte ´s
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 betterknown work Bless Me, Ultima* (1972), in which the protagonist’s father’s
family, named “Ma ´rez” (the Spanish word for ocean is “mar”), are descended from conquistadores. Interestingly, in the latter novel, the conquistadores, 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 Flamboya ´n” (1993) about the Spanish colonization
of Puerto Rico.
In Chicana Gloria Anzaldu ´a’s landmark, genre-crossing volume Borderlands/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 “Compao `era, 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 Pe ´rez’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 als