The best books by writers of the Puerto Rican diaspora

The Books I Picked & Why

Down These Mean Streets

By Piri Thomas

Down These Mean Streets

Why this book?

Thomas’s memoir is a seminal text of Nuyorican Literature (a sub-genre of Diasporican Literature) and the Latinx canon. It also belongs to the urban literature genre that emerged in the 1960s. His, however, was the first Latinx version of a narrative that depicts, some would say sensationalizes and exploits, the gritty, raw life of the inner city. As such, it had a tremendous impact on developing Latinx writers who had few role models at the time. His work, along with others of that genre, still holds influence stylistically and thematically with some Latinx authors. Written in the traditional Augustinian autobiographical model, Mean Streets tracks Piri’s fall into crime and drugs and final transformation and redemption. More significantly, this memoir introduces the issue of Latinx black identity and the complication of it within the American black-white paradigm. 


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Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic

By Edward Rivera

Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic

Why this book?

Rivera’s only major work, Family Installments has influenced many Latinx writers, including Junot Diaz. Published in 1982, it was one of the earliest novels capturing the diasporican experience of the Great Migration in the 1950s. Rivera’s protagonist, Santos Malánguez, narrates his family’s journey from  Puerto Rico to New York in great detail, often with sharp insight and humor. As a young aspiring writer, I identified with Santos, especially as he found, in reading and books, solace from a dreary life of struggle. No other book depicts diasporican life so richly and comprehensively—from harsh rural life on the island to tenement living, abusive parochial school education, rip-off credit scams, exploitive working conditions, and the lingering desire to return to the homeland.


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The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women

By Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Latin Deli: Telling the Lives of Barrio Women

Why this book?

Nominated for a Pulitzer, Ortiz-Cofer’s book is an eclectic collection of poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction. She weaves these genres masterfully into a mosaic of diasporican life, especially from a woman’s perspective. Published in 1993, The Latin Deli breaks from the traditional, bleak picture of Puerto Rican urban life in the States. Growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, and then Georgia, Ortiz Cofer focuses on the more typical stories of growing up in a middle-class home and what she casts as the daily struggle “to consolidate my opposing cultural identities.” A subtextual element of the book is Ortiz Cofer’s developing identity as a Latina writer in a country that sees you as an “other.”  


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The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle

By Edgardo Vega Yunqué

The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle

Why this book?

In Vega’s third novel, the eponymous Omaha Bigelow falls for a young and gifted Puerto Rican Taina priestess, Maruquita Salsipuedes. Smitten by the “gringo whiteboy,” and driven by her desire to have a “gringorican baby,” Maruquita asks her mother to perform the bohango ceremony on Omaha to enlarge his small penis. Breaking his vow never to use this new bohango on another woman, Omaha pays the consequences for his betrayal. Full of metafictional intrusions, a subplot concerning a secret, subversive plot to liberate Puerto Rico, and rambling discursive rants, this maximalist novel is more than a parodic romantic story. Vega’s fictional world is often complex, imaginative, iconoclastic, and attuned to American culture and society as seen through the eyes of arguably the most accomplished, talented diasporican fiction writer to date. 


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The Taste of Sugar

By Marisel Vera

The Taste of Sugar

Why this book?

Vera’s novel transports the reader beyond the traditional scenarios of diasporican narrative. Beginning in early 19th century Puerto Rico, it ends in Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. The story focuses on Vicente and Valentina Vega, a couple who lose their coffee farm to Hurricane St. Ciriaco and are seduced with unkept promises of a better life in Hawaii. Vera’s unrelenting realism and faithful rendering of historical facts, melded with Valentina’s letters to her sister, give the reader an unflinching and poignant view of the hardships these hundreds of migrants to Hawaii endured. Published in 2020, The Taste of Sugar signals a continuing direction for this literature: a desire to expand the boundaries of the narratives—in content, theme, and geography—to accurately capture the complexity of the Puerto Rican diaspora.


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