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date: 20 November 2017

Women and Writing in Spanish America from Colonial Times through the 20th Century

Summary and Keywords

As in the case of other Western literary traditions, women’s relationship to writing in Spanish America has been problematic since early modernity. From colonial times onward, women’s emergence on the writing scene as authors went hand in hand with a redescription of the feminine that allowed them to become producers of written culture and to find a respectable entry into the public sphere from which they were excluded. Spanish-American feminine tradition from the 16th through the 20th centuries may be read as a gradual, heterogeneous, and difficult but nonetheless sustained and very productive occupation of new ground. Legitimation of their voice passed through the reading of the male tradition, the establishment of a female tradition, and the redescription of a subjectivity that would make it possible for them to take up the pen and eventually to imagine themselves being read by others. Establishing the contents of these women’s libraries, reconstructed through their testimonies of reading both in a colonial society in which illiteracy was very high—especially among women—and in 19th-century society in general, and in which access to the written word remained restricted, are key elements for understanding their writing. Most female authorship during the colonial period took the form of religious writing and was dependent upon the male figure of the confessor, as was the possibility of publishing their life stories and writings. But women authors were not only nuns, and it is also possible to find examples of women who left their mark on writing due to special circumstances (travelers and so-called witches). Male tutelage tended to remain in force throughout the 19th century, and newspapers would provide vitally important new spaces for publication in the young independent republics. Women’s relationship to newspapers, both as readers and authors, was essential to this writing tradition, and it would allow them to build reading and editorial networks—both within the Americas and across the Atlantic—a context that must be understood to properly understand their writing projects. Women writers in the early 20th century would travel, not without difficulty, along the roads paved by the pioneers. The year 1959, a provisional closing date marked by the end of the Cuban Revolution, helps position 20th-century literature as one of the forms of the crisis of modernity: that which reveals and celebrates heterogeneity and could no longer openly continue excluding women from the authorized spaces for the production of meaning.

Keywords: colonial Spanish America, 19th-century nation building, Latin American Boom, autobiography, travel writing, feminism, indigenous women writers, black women writers, Hispanic women writers

Women Writers in the Spanish-American Colonies: From the 16th to the 18th Centuries

Colonial Spanish America developed from two interconnected strands, monarchy and religion: Spanish exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World were carried out in the name of God and of the king and queen of Spain. Any study of the cultural production of Spanish-American women of this period must consider the transformation of Christianity over the centuries.

Since very early times, women had actively participated in the building of the Church as martyrs and saints and also as organizers, but from the 12th century onward, their role within the Church weakened as the powerful Anglo-Saxon abbesses lost their autonomy and fell under the tutelage of bishops and clergymen.1 Later on, at the beginning of the 16th century, a profound change took place: the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, broke down the Vatican’s hegemony. In response, the Spanish monarchy led the Counter-Reformation, a movement committed to defending the Catholic Church. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) confronted the paradigms that had emerged as a result of the European discovery of America, the invention of the printing press, and the Copernican revolution. The sacrament of confession—institutionalized at the Fourth Lateral Council in 12152—was made mandatory to monitor conflicting consciences of individuals,3 and the monastic life was made more rigorous. Dogmatic precepts and religious institutions arrived in the New World and blended with native cultures.

In America, as well as in Europe, the Inquisition fought against heresy and tried to control every aspect of behavior and cultural production. However, despite the repressive system, diverse ways of thinking appeared, such as mysticism, the goal of which was a direct fusion of the individual with God, even before death. Even though the production of knowledge was predominantly in the hands of men, nuns in Spanish and Spanish-American convents produced an extensive corpus of mystic writings in which their inner lives came to the fore. Furthermore, as Asunción Lavrin has noted, though most of the women writers during the colonial period were nuns,4 some of the women poets, travelers, and even witches who were tried by the Holy Office also left oral and written traces of their struggles.

The beatification of the Spanish nun Teresa of Ávila in 1614, followed by her canonization in 1622, was greatly influenced by the publication, in 1583, of the Book of Her Life. With this work, a new feminine model of writing emerged and was later imitated by hundreds of nuns in Europe and Spanish America, whereby a nun’s confessor would urge her to write about her mystic experiences to determine the orthodoxy of her inner life.5 Most of the Hispanic nuns embraced mysticism in order to seek holiness; and as women who were determined to demonstrate that their emotional world came from God, they punished their bodies in horrific ways to resist temptation.

The founding of monasteries became essential to ensuring the spiritual well-being of colonial society. According to Martínez Cuesta, numerous convents of contemplative orders appeared during the 16th and 17th centuries, and congregations that were more involved with education were established throughout the following centuries.6 The first convent, that of the Conception order of nuns, was founded by Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga in Mexico City in 1540.7 During the 16th century, approximately forty convents of Poor Clares, Conceptionists, and Saint Jerome’s nuns were also founded, as well as some Dominican and Discalced Carmelites,8 although this trend diminished toward the 19th century.9 Life in these cloisters was permissive in the beginning, but the bishops and clergy tightened their rules later on. Entering a convent was not a possibility for all women, however, because a nun was supposed to be white and had to be able to afford a costly dowry. Indigenous and mestizo young women had to overcome difficult barriers, while the daughters of poor conquistadors were frequently sponsored.10

The viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru were the most important centers of administrative and economic power,11 and from them a refined courtesan culture emerged. However, literary and artistic expression also appeared in other areas of Spanish America, which must be taken into account in gaining a deeper understanding of these processes. Luisa Campuzano and Catharina Vallejo note that from the very beginning, women in almost every city in the colonies wrote poems, letters, wills, legal testimonies, and autobiographies.12 Dominican nuns founded the Regina Angelorum Convent, in 1560, in Santo Domingo. There professed Doña Leonor de Ovando, the first nun in Spanish America to write poetry. The Spanish Franciscan Cipriano de Utrera wrote an opuscule entitled Sister Leonor de Ovando. The document is the main source of her biography as abbess.13 The oidor Eugenio de Salazar published five of her sonnets and some white verses (verses that have no rhyme) in his Silva of Poetry, all of them of religious topics. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo included them in his Anthology of Spanish-American poets (1892) and later in his History of Hispanic-American Poetry (1911).14 According to some letters signed by the abbess and preserved in the Archivo General de Indias, Leonor de Ovando complained to Felipe III about the abuses committed by governor Antonio de Osorio and was severely reprimanded and even threatened with excommunication for interfering in matters that were not her concern as woman and nun.15

María del Castillo, also known as La Empedradora, was renowned as an entrepreneur and manager of theaters in Lima from 1602 to 1652, as well as for her scandalous personal life, having been married three times.16 Catalina de Erauso (1585–1650?) was a Spanish woman who evaded male custody and traveled to Chile disguised as a man, where she joined the military and fought in the Arauco War. She was eventually forced to reveal her true identity to avoid being put on trial for a murder she committed defending herself from being raped. Her work, titled La vida i sucesos de la monja alférez (Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World), gave voice to a brave woman who was besieged by the turbulent life in the barracks and taverns of the overseas colonies.17 In Cuba, Beatriz Justiz de Zayas (1733–1803), an enlightened woman, also assumed a masculine role and wrote both a memorial and a poem to Carlos III to denounce the Spanish army’s ineffectiveness in defending Havana when it was taken by the English in 1762.18

Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru

According to Jean Franco, the writings of two nuns in particular must be considered to understand the responses to the Tridentine requirements in the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru: María de Jesús Tomelín (1574–1637, Convent of the Conception of the Virgin Mary of Puebla), whose mystical experiences were written down by Sister Agustina of the same congregation, and María of St. Joseph (1656–1736, Convent of Santa Mónica of Puebla), who wrote an autobiography. Both texts express a conflicted world guarded by their confessors. Their hallucinated visions were typical of mystical imaginary, and their agonizing and tortured bodies became overwhelming testimony of the tormented souls that their confessors controlled and directed toward God.19

The life and work of the eminent Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz contrasts starkly with the experiences of mysticism. Born Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez (San Miguel Nepantla ca. 1648 or 1651–Mexico City, 1695), she was the illegitimate daughter of a Creole woman named Isabel Ramírez and the Spaniard Pedro de Asbaje. In 1659, Juana moved to the viceroyalty court in New Spain, where she stood out for her intelligence and was protected by Leonor Carreto, the wife of the viceroy, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. However, being illegitimate, she could not aspire to a marriage of convenience. She chose a religious life in which she would be able to continue cultivating her mind. In 1667, she entered the order of the Barefoot Carmelites of Mexico, but later withdrew because she could not cope with the austerity and strict rules. In 1669, she was admitted to the order of Saint Jerome, where she continued her study and deepened her knowledge under the protection of Viceroy Tomás Antonio de la Cerda and his wife, Luisa Manrique de Lara, with whom she developed a close friendship. When the viceroys returned to Spain after administrative office expired a few years later, the Countess published the manuscripts of Sor Juana under the title Inundación Castálida (Castalida fountain).20 Her work includes examples of various genres: poems, plays, and religious writings. One of her most elaborate pieces is the poem Primero sueño (First dream), the central topic of which is the structure of knowledge. Sor Juana used the coded language of mythology to create her own baroque labyrinth.21 Her most famous work is the Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Reply to Sister Philotea), written in 1691 and published posthumously in 1700, in which she challenged the archbishop of Mexico—the well-known misogynist Francisco Aguiar y Seijas—and the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz. Sor Juana argued that her love of knowledge came from God, and she defended women’s right to educate themselves, ideas for which she came close to being tried by the Holy Inquisition.22 Because disease and floods struck Mexico in 1692, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, her former confessor, advised her to repent. Sor Juana consequently renewed her vows, agreed to end her intellectual quest—signing her formal her resignation papers in blood—and was forced to give away her library. Another plague broke out in 1695, during which Sor Juana took care of her sick fellow nuns until she eventually fell ill herself and died, on April 17. New research has revealed that despite her agreement end her studies and give away her books, after her death “170 books and 180 bundles of papers” were found in Sor Juana’s cell, indicating that she continued to pursue knowledge in the final years of her life.23

Three councils were held in Lima during the 16th century to implement the decisions of the Council of Trent. The founding of monasteries was prohibited in the early years of the colony.24 Houses of seclusion and the first sanctorums were established instead to isolate Spanish and Creole single women from the process of colonization. The first Poor Clares monastery, Santa Clara del Cusco, which had originated as a house of seclusion for the mixed-race daughters of the conquistadors, was founded in 1564. The Poor Clares monastery of Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia, was founded in 1606. The nuns in these spaces were allowed to carry on cultural activities that would have been censored outside the convent walls. For example, Catalina Roca, the abbess of the Convent of the Poor Clares, in Lima, was accused of celebrating forbidden festivities in 1674. In 1690, ecclesiastical authorities reprimanded the abbess of the same convent for violations of the cloister.25

Fray Diego de Cordoba and Salinas wrote, in 1651, La crónica Franciscana de las Provincias del Perú (Franciscan chronicle of the provinces of Peru), in which he narrates the processes of holiness of the nuns and recounts their spiritual experiences. Among them is the story of the widow Luisa Díaz de Rojas, which recounts how she entered the convent, where she remained in constant prayer; she also subjected herself to severe punishment, wearing a barbed- wire belt embedded into her skin. According to the story, Luisa lost her speech eight months before her death, a fact that was interpreted as an indication of her ineffable union with God.26 The same chronicle describes the divine favors given to other religious women. God gives Ana del Espíritu Santo the ability to discover sins, which allows her to reveal the relationship between the female body and the devil that mandates that women be monitored and punished. Similarly, Sor Estefanía de Salazar, of the Huamanga monastery, “punished her body rigorously, in order to protect the soul from the temptations of the flesh.”27 The writings of Sor Jerónima de San Dionisio, of the Convent of Santa Clara de Lima, who wrote following the orders of Jerónima, another nun, are devoted to the souls in purgatory. To purify herself and in penance, she shared her everyday life with black people as a sign of sacrifice, a punishment that was seen as comparable to self-flagellation.28 Another remarkable story is that of Sister Antonia Lucía del Espíritu Santo, previously Lucía Maldonado Quintanilla (1646–1709). Episodes from her life and spiritual processes are included in the narrative written by Josefa de la Providencia, which recounts the founding of the Nazarene monastery in Lima and the life of its founder. The text relates the works of Lucía Maldonado, a Spanish woman who maintained her virginity during her marriage to a poor, old merchant. With the help of her husband, and even after becoming a widow, she used her management skills to promote her convent. Her deep commitment allowed her to move freely among the aristocratic circles of Peru.29

Religious Writers on the Periphery: New Kingdom of Granada and Chile

In the New Kingdom of Granada, the most renowned literary works are the autobiographies by Francisca Josefa of the Concepción Castillo (1671–1742) and Jerónima Nava y Saavedra (1669–1727). Castillo entered the Convent of Santa Clara, in Tunja, and Nava entered the Convent of Santa Clara, in Bogotá, but both narratives take place at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century.

Because of her family, Sister Castillo was a member of the elites of the New Kingdom of Granada. She served as the abbess of the convent for three times, a position of power that enabled her to influence local politics and economics. Her book Su vida (Her life) was written between 1690 and 1695, though it was not published until 1843, in Philadelphia, in the United States. Another well-known text is her collection of poems Los afectos espirituales (Spiritual affections). These poems express the intense spirituality of a body absorbed by God’s love. Castillo wrote her autobiography following the orders of her Jesuit confessors.30 Her prose is based on the Teresian model, in which ecstasies and visions are part of irrational states of mind, and she expresses her search for recognition through the recurrent topic of illness as it pertains to approaching God. Her last confessor, Diego de Moya, certified the authenticity of her writings and testified that a year after she died, her body had not decomposed. Jerónima Nava spent 20 years writing her autobiography, which was signed by her confessor, Juan de Olmos y Zapata. Sister Nava explores her own inner life, and her writings are a testimony to her fluctuating mind, full of contradictions. Ángela Robledo notes that her loving narrative expresses an ineffable world.31

Úrsula Suárez (1666–1749), of the Convent of the Poor Clares, in Santiago, wrote constantly over a period of 28 years, also following the orders of her confessors. Her story reveals the nun’s complex relationship with the endevotados (men devoted to a nun), respectable men who contributed to her maintenance in exchange for her prayers. She also criticized the subordinate status of women and claimed that her greatest sin in avenging women’s grievances toward men.32 However, her rich metaphorical system comes from mystical symbolism, as she struggles to express her experience of ecstasy. The baroque form of religious discourse is that of suffering and anguish, but Ursula is also able to laugh,33 and this joyfulness gives her prose a unique tone.

The participation of women in the cultural life of the Spanish colonies in America was clearly facilitated by the convents, which allowed many women from different social and economic strata to transform themselves into legitimate and productive writers. The documents they produced, dissimilar though they are because the specific circumstances of each author are different, show recurring validation strategies and very sophisticated poetics. According to Kathryn McKnight, their writing style is related to medieval biographies of saints and martyrs. Another important precedent is found in the spiritual lives written by well-known figures of Catholic historiography, such as Saint Augustin and Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), the central topic of which is also their journey in search of God.34

Black and Mulatto Women

From a very different perspective, the records of the Holy Inquisition witchcraft trials provide a window through which to glimpse the lives of the black and mulatto women who participated actively but clandestinely in shaping a hybrid colonial society. Some of these documents show how so-called witches rendered their services in Cartagena, Colombia. The accused were independent women who had found a much-needed profession in a society in which love affairs were radically censured. Paula de Eguiluzis, a Cuban slave accused of witchcraft, was tried by the Inquisition of Cartagena in 1624 and then again in 1632. She, like many other women cited in the inquisitorial papers, were accused of using magical arts to manipulate sexuality. According to Maya Restrepo, white women and free mulatto women in Cartagena were paid well for their advice and remedies.35 Another example, which appears in the Auto de Fe of June 25, 1628, is the trial of three witches carried out by the Inquisition in Cartagena: María Cacheo, Isabel Hernández—both free black women—and Ana de Mena—a mulatto woman, who were accused of participating in sodomite rituals in which they allegedly had carnal relations with the devil.36 Some of the documents emphasized their knowledge of abortion practices and of how to prepare contraceptive herbal potions to control the reproductive functions of women and men. Another very early example is the case of Juana García, narrated in chapter 9 of El carnero (1638), the famous chronicle of the New Kingdom of Granada written by Juan Rodríguez Freyle. In 1550, Juana and her two daughters were thriving in Santa Fe de Bogotá, where any offended husband could legally kill his wife on the mere suspicion of adultery. The three black women helped the white wives of conquistadors circumvent their husband’s sexual desire with herbal preparations and thus gain some control over their own reproductive cycles. All of these cases show how African women kept and then transmitted an interpretation of reality in which the spiritual and sexual realms were blended. Surprisingly, none of the accused was burned at the stake: they were instead sentenced to jail, exile, floggings, and subjected to public scorn; this suggests a tolerant attitude toward them that may have been related to the prominence of their clients, who were also involved.37 Thus, practical knowledge and spiritual concepts entered Spanish America from Africa and became part of the intimate private life of colonial society, fostering unequal alliances between white housewives and their black women servants. Their stories represent the other side of the mystical phenomenon experienced in colonial convents by nuns who were trying to sublimate their sexuality in a way that was consistent with Catholic precepts.

From the last three decades of the 18th century onward, the importance of women's education was slowly recognized and schools run by nuns were founded.

The Sisters of the Company of Mary, Our Lady was the first feminine religious order approved by the Church for the education of women; it was founded by Jeanne de Lestonnac (1556–1640) in France in 1607. In Hispanic America, the first of these schools was established by this order in Mexico City, in 1753, followed by a second one in Mendoza, in 1760, and a third one in Bogotá, in 1770. Although the typical curriculum focused on teaching women how to manage the household, this was nevertheless an important achievement, and it continued to gain acceptance. Unfortunately, this trend toward openness was interrupted by the wars of independence (between 1810 and 1826), but it resumed in 1830.38

The 19th Century: Occupying the Cultural Field

An Invisibilized Tradition

In Spanish America, the close of the 18th century saw a convergence of the desire for independence along with Creole appropriation of liberal and romantic discourses. Both processes were led by a small, overwhelmingly male, literate elite. As Ángel Rama suggested in his influential essay, La ciudad letrada (The lettered city, 1984), knowing how to read and write in the Spanish-American colonies meant having a power: the literacy rate among the population was very low, and the ability to read and write was concentrated among the male Spanish and Creole elites of the colonial system. The highest-ranking elites were Spanish, and they managed Spain’s colonial policy; wrote its literature; educated the Creole male elites; and evangelized the subaltern indigenous, slave, and female populations.

Nonetheless, that literate population was not completely homogeneous, and some women knew how to take advantage of the albeit limited access to knowledge that the patriarchal colonial order allowed them. We find that at the end of the 18th century, elite Creole women were actively participating in the tertulias (intellectual gatherings) at which the liberal discourse circulated and where the projects of independence were designed. Still, in 1830—after ten years of independence in the countries where this struggle had succeeded—it remained possible that an elite woman may know how to read (only printed texts) but not how to write. This was a control device that limited her access to culture and to its production and exchange. But the change in the first decades following independence was fast and forceful: the liberal discourse, romantic in relation to the arts, as Victor Hugo pointed out, made it possible for the first generation of Spanish-American women writers to emerge. By 1860, they were highly interconnected in transnational forms of sociability and profoundly committed to the projects of nation building taking place in former colonies throughout the 19th century. The European republican feminine ideal—domestic and infantilized—had been adapted and promoted by Spanish-American men, but ultimately, they could hardly do without women as producers of culture, not merely as reproducers. Nation-building projects needed women, and women also worked to ensure it became increasingly difficult to defend their exclusion. The discourse of sensibility and of the republican family was the platform, full of contradictions but nonetheless real, that allowed many women to take advantage of the public nature of a domesticity, which was clearly not a private or minor matter for the nation.

When Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695), the eminent Mexican nun, had to defend her intellectual vocation in “Respuesta a Sor Filotea,” she did so in part by invoking examples of wise and learned women in history, both sacred and profane. “I see so many and such illustrious women,” she affirms; and her affirmation is preceded and followed by a number of important feminine names. Two centuries later, Colombian author Soledad Acosta de Samper made a similar gesture. She put together a catalog, mainly lists, of the names of a multitude of women from the sciences, the arts, from politics and philanthropic organizations, in the two Americas and in Europe, who had contributed to the building of their societies. Such catalogs were not unusual at the time. Although women were capable of arguing the case for their abilities and asserting their need to act, which they actually did, they also resorted to creating written records of their achievements, catalogs of unquestionable facts, conscious that their discourse was infantilized and disqualified. Acosta de Samper and other women of her generation had a considerable number of female contemporaries, in all latitudes. Sor Juana had been alone in her time and her immediate environment. She appeals to women of other times, and she complains of her lack of teachers and fellow students. But the new republican generation of women writers was sustained by a sizeable and fruitful network of their fellow women writers, knowledge of which is essential to the proper understanding of their moment and their production. The education of women, which was still very elementary in the educational system of at the time, continued in the press, where women often published their work and promoted and disseminated their writing. This generation of women writers created a sort of sorority,39 albeit not without its internal differences, that enabled them to become leading actors in an important publishing market, even if their contributions were rendered invisible in the literary histories that came after.

The decade of the 1980s was crucial in the recovery of these histories, in part because Spanish-American universities were hiring the first women with doctoral degrees in literature in faculty positions. Thus, after a long and difficult struggle to obtain access to university education, women were entering universities not only as students, but also as professors. They arrived in academia with new questions about, for example, whether there had been any women writers in the 19th century at all. Their first look at the archives and catalogs showed them that the answer was yes, there had been, great numbers of them in fact, and their production was prolific. Outstanding among them were Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda of Cuba and Spain (1814–1873), Juana Manuela Gorriti in Argentina (1816–1892), Vicenta Laparra de la Cerda in Guatemala, (1831–1905), Soledad Acosta de Samper in Colombia (1833–1913), Maipina de la Barra (Chile, 1834–1904), Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera from Peru (1842–1909), Salomé Ureña de Henríquez of the Dominican Republic (1850–1897), Clorinda Matto de Turner, also of Peru (1852–1909), Laura Méndez de Cuenca in Mexico (1853–1928), and Lucila Gamero de Medina of Honduras (1873–1964), to mention just a few of the most visible ones. They were poets, playwrights, storytellers, travelers, and the founders and editors of newspapers. They wrote about history, hygiene, education, religion, and morality and produced gender essays and works of popular science. And they wrote narrative works in the genres of the sentimental and local-customs novel, historical novels, travel stories and memoirs, diaries and autobiographies, and fantasy literature.

From Muses to Writers

That first generation of women writers was a romantic generation. Nonetheless, we know that feminine romanticism was an anomalous romanticism that was barely comprehensible to the romantic and liberal masculine elites. This anomaly was the product of the unforeseen place that women writers would occupy within the contradictory liberal and romantic discourse. Liberalism speaks of equality, liberty, and fraternity, but—as has so often been shown—to the exclusion of various groups, including women, who were classified as “developing” subjects, eternally immature and in need of tutelage, and thus deprived of citizenship. It was said that sensibility always carries women away, and that because of this and their sexual desire, women had to be domesticated through marriage and motherhood. The male Creole elite learned the liberal discourse through the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with its undeniable patriarchal, if not to say misogynous, component. At the end of the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft began defending the Rights of Man (1790) in England. But very soon, by 1792, her discourse had resulted in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she makes a plea for feminine autonomy through a sustained and careful critique of Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. For Wollstonecraft, as for Spanish-American women writers decades later, the patriarchal character of liberalism was clear. Like their predecessors in earlier generations, the romantic women writers of 19th century sought full citizenship, the right to develop autonomy based on strong bodies—Rousseau wanted them weak and helpless—and an education of the sensibility and the intellect that would make it possible to argue that they should be allowed to design and manage their own lives. But an ancestral patriarchal discourse was preserved in the republican liberal discourse, as could be seen at the beginning of Emile’s section on the education of women, which asserts, like Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”40 The Sophie that Rousseau wanted to create for his Emile was just that, a woman for him, who would naively and obediently follow the rules of the domestic space defined by the husband, the father of the family circle that was vital to the republic. Rousseau’s treatises circulated widely among male Creole elites during the era of independence and nation building, and then passed on to women, generally second-hand and already adapted to the needs of patriarchal Spanish-American societies.

If this is the scenario for liberal discourse, something similar occurred with respect to the romantic discourse, even though the exaltation of sensibility in romanticism opened an unexpected space, narrow but real, through which women could enter as writers. The hallmark of romanticism is sensibility, and as Susan Kirkpatrick has shown in her study on Spanish romantic women writers, Las Románticas, women, described as pure sensibility, saw romanticism as an opportunity to legitimize their discourse. If, in addition, they were expected to be good mothers to their families, they requested an education for themselves that would allow them to properly fulfill their role in the primary education of citizens, the care of the husband and the management of the conglomerate of persons gathered together in the bourgeois Spanish-American home (including a good number of domestic servants). Romanticism had foreseen women as muses and readers; they were going to find a way to become writers, and in the transition, romanticism would be transformed. Some of their female protagonists, for example, continued to fall ill and die—like any romantic heroine—but their illnesses began to be related to the problems experienced by the women of their class. No longer were they merely signs of a discrepancy between the actual world and the sensibility of the poet—that enormous liberal romantic male ego. Now illness, solitude, and reclusion could express the woman writer’s destiny, as in Soledad Acosta de Samper’s novel Dolores (1867), in which the narration of the protagonist’s life begins in a third-person masculine voice that gives way, little by little, through an epistolary exchange, to the voice of the sick young woman, and is finally turned over to the voice of her diary, up until the moment of her death. Dolores’s illness is not the romantic tuberculosis that debilitates, beautifies, and spiritualizes women. Soledad Acosta takes away her heroine’s beauty, changes her sensibility, and has her resort to writing in solitude, which simultaneously represents both possibility and damnation in a way that would not have been the case for a romantic male writer. For these romantic women writers, as in the case of Mme. de Staël’s Corinne, alienation ends in scriptural silence. In other cases, they opt for multiple protagonists and a greater plurality of voices. As Kirkpatrick41 has pointed out, voices in their novels are always plural. In her novel Sab (1841), Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda creates a tale that is at once feminist and abolitionist: the authorial feminine voice is situated in the slave, and its protagonism is shared with the infantilized, beloved woman in a traditional white couple and her orphaned, illegitimate female cousin, who lacks a dowry and therefore cannot be transacted in matrimony. In her 1889 novel Aves sin nido (Birds Without a Nest), Clorinda Matto harshly denounces the sexual abuse that indigenous women suffer at the hands of landowners and priests, and creates bonds of solidarity among classes, races, and ethnic groups with the courage of one who knows that her denunciation can put her life at risk. The feminine ideal defined by its innocence and lack of agency is thus challenged once again.

Romanticism in Spanish America extended at least through the 1870s, along with the processes of nation building of which it was a vital part. For this reason, it was also a social romanticism, one of national poets who saw themselves as a vital part of their collectivities. The generation that inaugurated this romanticism in Spanish America was the first generation born after the wars for independence and it was committed to describing, or better yet to writing, the national territory and its population, its citizens (the men of the literate elite), and their female companions.42 The women writers of the period belonged to this Creole elite, and they did not wish to limit their commitment to the patria (fatherland) to their role as mothers. Literature opened up for them a place in (within?) the writing of the nation, helped them to step into the public space of print culture that is so vital to nationalism, according to Benedict Anderson.43 Most of them were poetisas, which does not translate simply as “women poets.” Men encouraged them to write, but only occasional poetry on topics of domestic or religious love. Some, such as Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and Dolores Veintimilla (Ecuador, 1829–1857), claimed their full right to poetry, to all its topics and forms, to its quality, and that also made them problematic. Others, such as Cuba’s Luisa Pérez de Zambrana (1837–1922) and Salomé Ureña de Henríquez in the Dominican Republic (1850–1897), interpreted the feminine role to their own advantage,44 although the Dominican writer made clearer inroads into the public realm and great poetry. Others fully entered the world of narrative, that masculinized space in which it is impossible to avoid speaking of passions and politics or history.

The quantity and quality of their production show that women took up writing as a profession, not only because writing entails sustained and rigorous activity, but also because they cared about the editorial and financial dimensions of their works, not a minor matter for any of them.

Diaries, Memoires, Travel Stories, Novels, Essays, Newspapers

The research that has been carried out since the 1980s began with exploration. At first, the names of the women writers were found, and then began to be filled with meaning. The enormous corpus that emerged was read and characterized, and it continues to be studied and broadened. It can be said, however, that the most recent of these studies have concentrated on considering that enormous production in terms of the networks which made it possible,45 especially newspapers and publishers, as well as the epistolary exchange—more difficult to reconstruct since so much has been lost or not yet located. The study of the press and of publishers’ catalogs makes it possible to reconstruct the literary field of the moment, the alliances, the obstacles, the mutual promotion of women writers, and even the promotion of writing to female readers so that they would imagine themselves as authors. The sorority created by newspapers, publishers, and the epistolary exchanges among women writers46 enabled women to generate alternative spaces to compete with the (essentially masculine) spaces that were validated within the field, as well as to take advantage of the support of some men and to withstand the constant attacks of many others, who tried to preserve their intellectual and economic monopoly on cultural production throughout the 19th century and beyond.

Many women writers began their writing in newspapers, and some even published all their work in newspapers before it appeared in books (in fact, most of their production never appeared in book form). Benedict Anderson has shown, very productively, that 19th-century national communities were imagined through newspapers and novels. Both spaces are highly political, and journalism was not initially more open to women than literature. Although journalism is a less-durable medium than books—and women writers would therefore be less guilty of arrogance by entering into it, arrogance being one of the sins they should avoid—they managed to get space in newspapers as columnists or (rarely) editors, and even founded their own: the Álbum Cubano de lo Bueno y lo Bello (Cuban album of the good and the beautiful) published in Havana, in 1860, by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda; La Alborada del Plata (The dawn of La Plata), published in Buenos Aires from 1877 to 1878 by Juana Manuela Gorriti; La Mujer (The woman), published in Bogota from 1878 to 1881 by Soledad Acosta de Samper; Violetas del Anáhuac (Violets of the Anáhuac), published in Mexico from 1887 to 1889 by Laureana Wright de Kleinhans; and El Búcaro Americano (The American Vase) published in Buenos Aires, 1896 to 1908, by Clorinda Matto de Turner, among others. There were cases in which these women were the editors of some reputable newspapers of their time, for example, Matto de Turner directed El Perú Ilustrado (The illustrated Peru) between 1889 and 1891, and examples of newspapers that show the transatlantic networks of Spanish-American and Spanish women writers, like the Correo de Ultramar (Mail from overseas) published in Paris, 1842 to 1886, then called Correo de París (Mail from Paris), 1886 to 1909. In it, Mercedes Cabello de Carbonera published her Crónica de Lima (Lima chronicle) for several years working alongside Spanish women, such as Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851–1921), who was an avid reader and promoter of Spanish-American women writers. Salons in Lima, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Paris show the importance of traveling and were vital to the formation of these networks and thus to their writing. The literary soirées in Lima held by Gorriti between 1876 and 1878, for example, brought together Peruvian and Argentinian women with Spanish women such as Emilia Serrano, Baroness of Wilson (1843–1922), establishing ties that nourished journalistic and editorial projects on both sides of the Atlantic and involved women writers from other Spanish-American countries. These networks and writing platforms were essential to their production, their experiences as travelers showed them that there were other ways and allowed them to imagine new destinies for themselves.

There was also autobiographical writing in the form of diaries, such as Acosta de Samper’s Diario íntimo (Intimate diary); letters, such as Gómez de Avellaneda’s Diario de amor (Love diary); memoirs, Gorriti’s Lo íntimo (The intimate); and travel journals, such as Matto de Turner’s Viaje de recreo (Recreational journey). In their autobiographical writings, these women authors reflected on the obstacles that stood in the way of women’s intellectual development; they write about the people and the events that had made their own intellectual projects possible; they argued for broadening those spaces and for egalitarian education, and set up platforms that increasingly authorized their cultural and educational enterprises. They defended women’s right to education. Some were even teachers and founded schools. They also addressed these topics in articles and essays, notably Gómez de Avellaneda’s La Mujer (The woman), in 1860; Cabello de Carbonera’s Influencia de la mujer en la civilización (The influence of women in civilization), in 1874; and Acosta de Samper’s Aptitud de la mujer para ejercer todas las profesiones (Women’s aptitude for practicing all professions), published in 1892.

A Feminine Literary Continent: From Early to Mid-20th Century

Suffrage and Higher Education in Turbulent Political Contexts

Despite modernization, Spanish America in the 20th century remained anchored in the traditional ways of life and social institutions of the colonial world, the same ones that were still present in the paradigms that guided the formation of the nation-states. Néstor García Canclini has pointed out that at the end of the 19th century, changes were generally promoted by the progressive oligarchy, through the spread of literacy, and by Europeanizing intellectuals.47 Until the beginning of the 20th century, enlightened women elites in their respective countries continued entering the public arena of writing and demanding access to a broader education and other spaces traditionally denied to them. They had become aware of the possibilities for women through the experience they had gained in their epistolaries and as travelers and correspondents. They very clearly understood that educating women was crucial for the building of more equitable societies. Their publications helped to strengthening the female reading public, whose interests and conflicts they increasingly reflected in their texts. As García Canclini has shown, between 1920 and 1930, the expansion of capitalism and the democratizing rise of the middle class and liberal sectors, the contribution of migrants and the massive proliferation of schools, the press, and radio steadily expanded the political, economic, and cultural horizons of Spanish-American societies.48 Beginning in the 1940s, the transformation was accelerated by industrialization, urban growth, greater access to higher education, and the new cultural industries.49 These changes enabled women to enter all areas of work, politics, and culture.

It is essential to keep in mind the continual armed conflicts in which the elites fought against popular and marginal sectors of the population in almost every country in Spanish America. The results were different in each region due to particular logics of development. Among the key conflicts in this history were the War of the Thousand Days in Colombia and the Mexican Revolution. The former, which occurred between 1899 and 1902, produced a visceral confrontation between the Conservative and Liberal Parties. The eventual defeat of the latter led to a fragile peace that would break down in the middle of the 20th century, when the Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated on April 9, 1948, an event that plunged the country into a bloody fratricidal war whose effects continue to be felt in the early 21st century. The Mexican Revolution (1911–1920) profoundly transformed the country’s social and political system, establishing new dynamics that permitted the strong participation of peasant and indigenous societies in the politics, culture, and economics. Another key event was, of course, the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The revolution had a profound impact on the politics and cultural processes of the Spanish-American countries, and the debates and literature of an entire generation were defined in relation to it. Between the Mexican Revolution and the Cuban Revolution, the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) precipitated the return to Spanish America of numerous men and women writers who had been part of the literary avant-garde in Europe and who would now transform their own continent’s literary scene. During these periods of upheaval and turmoil, women continued to struggle to have their rights as citizens recognized and to gain authority in contexts of cultural production, a type of authority that had always eluded them.

According to Teresa Rozo-Moorhouse, the feminist movements of the first thirty years of the 20th century, which defended women’s rights to vote and to higher education in both Europe and the United States, established indispensable precedents that helped pave the way for women’s definitive entry into the intellectual, professional, and political worlds, slowly but, finally, irrepressibly.50 According to María Cristina Vera, women who had access to higher education began to demand cultural products that were of interest to them, such as books, magazines, and newspapers.51 For women, gaining the right to attend university and the right to vote were two vindications that were crucial for transforming social and intellectual life of Spanish America. The right to higher education in all the countries was obtained by struggling incessantly against the feminine paradigm, characterized by Virginia Woolf as “angel of the home,” whose one and only occupation was the family, and whose life was guided in every respect by male authority. The Catholic Church and other conservative sectors opposed this change in the status of women, perceiving it as an assault on the stability and morality of the family. In 1901, a group of Argentinian women founded the Asociación de Universitarias (Association of University Women), and in the same year, Elvira López graduated from the School of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires with a thesis about the feminist movement.52 In Peru, women entered the university for the first time in 1908 thanks to a special authorization from the Congress.53 Change came later to Mexico, where a legislative bill was approved on December 10, 1934, ensuring that women could enter the university on equal footing with men. Nevertheless, the definitive entry of Mexican women into higher education would only occur between 1940 and 1950, when women entered the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in considerable numbers.54 In Colombia, the Liberal government of President Olaya Herrera (1930–1934) granted women the right to manage their own property, and Decree 1972 of 1933 gave them the right to enroll in the university.55 Gerda Westendorp was admitted to Universidad Nacional de Colombia in 1935 to study medicine; Gabriela Peláez was admitted to the same institution to study law in 1936 and would go on to become the country’s first female lawyer.56

Winning women’s right to vote was much more difficult, despite having the women’s suffrage movements in Europe and the United States as models. According to Katherine Marino, a dynamic international feminist movement emerged in Latin America between 1915 and 1946 that helped consolidate women’s rights and laid the groundwork for the establishment of an international organization that would work for human rights.57 Latin American activists founded the Inter-American Commission of Women, in 1928, which together with similar organizations, was crucial in the development of suffragist movements in Spanish America. Marino points out the following women as the most outstanding activists: Paulina Luisi (Uruguay), Ofelia Domínguez Navarro (Cuba), Clara González (Panama), Doris Stevens (United States), Bertha Lutz (Brazil), and Marta Vergara (Chile).58

Uruguay was the first country in Spanish America to approve female suffrage, and women voted there for the first time on July 3, 1927, in the Cerro Chato plebiscite. In the 1930s, a very significant group of women concerned with women’s rights emerged in Cuba, including Mariblanca Sabas Alomá, Camila Henríquez Ureña, Ofelia Rodríguez Acosta, Graziella Garbalosa, and Dulce María Borrero de Luján. From different public spaces, these activists demanded that women be included in the cultural production of society and allowed to participate in the public sphere.59 In Argentina, because of the influence of Eva Duarte de Perón, women’s right to vote was recognized in 1947 and was again recognized in the constitutional reform of 1949, and they voted for the first time on November 11, 1951, in the national elections.60 Mexican women achieved their full rights as citizens with the reform of article 34 of the Constitution on October 17, 1953, which allowed them to vote and to run for office.61 Female suffrage was recognized in Colombia under the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in 1954 through Legislative Act No. 3 of the National Constitutional Assembly, and women had the right to vote in the next election, which had not been called. Women such as Josefina Valencia, Esmeralda Arboleda, and María Eugenia Rojas held official posts in the government, but women’s right to vote would not in fact be exercised until the plebiscite of 1957.62 Throughout the 20th century, women began to become more involved in cultural production and to affect the political framework. Against this tense and complex panorama, women became integrated into labor force, political projects, and intellectual production. Although it is possible to point to numerous women in key positions in politics and culture, everyday life for the great majority of women continued to be very limited, and subject to narrow authoritarian paradigms. This contrast permeates the written work of women poets, narrators, and playwrights who used their texts to expose the complex and contradictory threads that move back and forth between private and public life.

The Writing of the Body

In the early decades of the 20th century, women authors appear who write about themselves and explore their own interior worlds in a more direct way and with more ease than was the case in the previous century. On numerous occasions, their own body is questioned, both in their family histories and in their entry into political and intellectual life. One of the notable themes in these works is maternity. Elevated since the 19th century as the attribute par excellence of feminine being, motherhood would now be addressed in all its contradictions and fissures. These women authors use nature as the symbol of fertility in their poetic system63 and challenge the model of Virgin Mary as the myth that glorifies the submissive and selfless role of the mother. Another recurrent feature in this writing is women’s use of autobiographical material to explore the feminine emotional world, at last freed from the typical masks that had characterized it throughout the previous century. This first generation of 20th-century women writers includes those who struggled to gain entry to the masculine intellectual institution of Spanish-American modernism that, as Catharina Vallejo has shown,64 because of its eroticism and its iconoclastic nature, barely tolerated women. The Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini (1886–1914) was among the most important of these writers. She was preceded by some end-of-century writers, like Cuban Juana Borrero (1877–1896) and Eugenia Vaz Ferreira (1875–1924), also from Uruguay. This generation and the one that followed it still predominantly comprised white women, but in later decades women writers would come not only from the national elite classes, but also from the new middle classes made up of people of rural or working-class origin.65 Some would even become diplomats (e.g., Gabriela Mistral) and political activists (e.g., Magda Portal), as well. As Vicky Unruh has pointed out, they lived at a time when growing numbers of women were participating in public spaces as workers, teachers, secretaries, professionals, and consumers.66 In the Caribbean, Camila Henríquez Ureña (1894–1973) from the Dominican Republic and Cubans Lydia Cabrera (1899–1991) and Dulce María Loynaz (1902–1997) were the most visible. On the continent (in chronological order) were Gabriela Mistral in Chile (1889–1957), Teresa de la Parra in Venezuela (1889–1936), Victoria Ocampo (1890–1979) and Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938) in Argentina, Amira de la Rosa (1895–1974) in Colombia, Marta Brunet in Chile (1897–1967), Claudia Lars in El Salvador (1899–1974), Nellie Campobello in Mexico (1900–1986), Magda Portal in Peru (1903–1989), María Luisa Bombal in Chile (1910–1980), Nela Martínez in Ecuador (1912–2004), and Yolanda Oreamuno in Costa Rica (1916–1956). As Pura Fernández has pointed out, when approaching these women authors, “It is vital to convert the practices that define and determine the construction of the (cultural) field into the main axis of analysis.”67 This task that has been underway for several years now, and the results have been collected in Fernández’s own compilation and in that of Alzate and Doll, for example, and they are vital to the study of the emotional capital invested in associations, publishing networks, correspondence, financial projects, transatlantic sororities, and so on. This kind of research has revealed unexpected alliances among women, some of which can be characterized as queer in the sense that they establish and promote feminine bonds of care, even childrearing without including male subjects.68 Ileana Rodríguez and Mónica Szurmuk argue that this generation of women writers, the same generation as Jorge L. Borges and Alejo Carpentier, was erased by the next generation of male writers, those of the so-called Latin American Boom in the 1960s.69 As these scholars have pointed out, the feminine boom did not take place until the 1980s, an era of political turmoil, censorship, and unprecedented repression, exile, and forced disappearances. It was made up of a generation of women who had been educated in a continental intellectual context also marked by the Cuban Revolution: Marta Traba in Argentina and Colombia (1930–1983), Elena Poniatowska in Mexico (b. 1932), Luisa Valenzuela in Argentina (b. 1938), Rosario Ferré in Puerto Rico (1938–2016), Cristina Peri Rossi in Uruguay (b. 1941), Montserrat Ordóñez in Spain and Colombia (1941–2001), Nancy Morejón in Cuba (b. 1944), Gioconda Belli in Nicaragua (b. 1948) and Diamela Elttit in Chile (b. 1949), among others. Women writers of Hispanic descent who write border narratives of cultural crossings and tensions in English deserve separate mention here, among them Gloria Andulzúa (US, 1942–2004), Julia Álvarez (Dominican Republic, 1950), Cherrie Moraga (US, 1952) and Sandra Cisneros (US, 1954).

Poetry and Narrative: Writing and New Subjectivities

During the 1920s, many women continued the crusade for women’s basic education. At the time, the predominant female literary genre was poetry, which had always been associated with the feminine, in a weak and naïve sense. Women poets used the genre to express their subjectivity and to escape from the prison of the family to which they had been confined. Many Spanish-American women poets achieved recognition and managed to break free of this scheme: Delmira Agustini (Uruguay, 1886–1914), Gabriela Mistral (Argentina, 1889–1957), Alfonsina Storni (Argentina, 1892–1938) and Juana de Ibarboru (Uruguay 1892–1979) pointed the way for later poets such as the Argentinian Alejandra Pizarnik (1936–1972), the Colombian Meira del Mar (Olga Chams Eljach, 1922–2009), Nicaraguan Claribel Alegría (Nicaragua, 1924–) and Mexican Rosario Castellanos (1925–1974), among others.

The life and work of Chile’s Gabriela Mistral illustrate the emergence of a more complex female image. Mistral was a normalista, a “state trained teacher of modest provincial background,” who became “an important school administrator who founded schools in Chile and helped set up the normal schools in Mexico.”70 Mistral’s life was the one of a “lesbian hidden within the closet of republican motherhood—not of children of her own but of the children she wrote for and whose schools she founded.”71 Her travels and the lengthy periods she spent representing her country abroad put her in contact with intellectuals and artists of her day with whom she shared intellectual and artistic work. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. She also worked as a journalist and openly denounced political oppression, earning her criticism from the conservative sectors of her society. Her concern for women’s education led her to write Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women) published in 1923, a work first published in Mexico, in which she clearly manifests the need to increase the space of women’s action.72 One of Mistral’s most attentive readers was Colombia’s María Cano Márquez (1927–1967), who wrote poetry and stories on topics like maternity and childhood in the first phase of her career but later joined the workers’ movement in her native city of Medellin.73

Although in the first decades of the 20th century women wrote above all poetry, they also explored the novel and the short story. Especially outstanding among this generation of women narrators were Teresa de la Parra (1889–1936), Lydia Cabrera (1899–1991), and María Luisa Bombal (1910–1980).

Teresa de la Parra was born in Paris to Venezuelan parents and died in Madrid. She was from a rich and aristocratic family, which enabled her to have a sophisticated education and to travel frequently between Venezuela and Europe. These experiences expanded her intellectual horizons and brought her in contact with other women writers: Gabriela Mistral and, especially, Lydia Cabrera. She began her writing career as an essayist and storyteller, but she is best-known for her two novels. The first, Ifigenia: Diario de una señorita que escribió porque se fastidiaba (Iphigenia: The diary of a young lady who wrote because she was bored), published in France in 1924, uses the diary format to explore feminine subjectivity and ironizes the traditional feminine education that annuls the female subject.74 An important part of her subject matter is derived from her personal experiences of the sharp contrasts between European culture and that of Venezuela. She published her second novel, Memorias de Mamá Blanca (Mama Blanca’s memoirs) in 1929; it appeared simultaneously in French and Spanish. She had written it in Switzerland while she was receiving treatment for the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her. Rómulo Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara was published at about the same time, and both novels are considered key reference points in Venezuelan literature. De la Parra’s novel tells the story of a feminine genealogy at a time the country was undergoing a profound change from a rural society to an urban one and its consequences for women’s lives. The memories of her childhood spent on her parents’ plantation provide the telluric atmosphere and family reference point for the novel, are told through an old woman narrator.75

Cuba’s Lydia Cabrera (1899–1991) was part of the haute bourgeoisie. She was initially self-educated, but later formally studied art in Paris. There she discovered that European artists were fascinated by the art and ethnography of African societies, a tendency attributed to the avant-garde and akin to the negrista movement in Cuba, which included the famous mulatto poet Nicolás Guillén and the novelist Alejo Carpentier. In this intellectual context, Cabrera wrote Cuentos negros de Cuba (Black stories from Cuba), published in 1940 and dedicated to Teresa de la Parra, in which she explores Afro-Cuban symbolic traditions, such as santería. These Afro-Cuban traditions became a recurring theme in her writing throughout her long literary and ethnographic career, and her work would eventually be gathered in a twelve-volume collection. Her most rigorous research was recorded in El monte (The bush), a lengthy book published in 1954, in which she transcribes and annotates the material she obtained from her black informants.76

María Luisa Bombal (1910–1980) was educated in France between the ages of ten and twenty-one. There, between 1931 and 1933, she was in close contact with the avant-garde before finally returning to Chile. She is the author of the short novels La última niebla (The house of mist), from 1934, and La amortajada (The shrouded woman), from 1938, modernist works marked by experimentation with the language and structure of the novel and based on her experiences as a woman in a highly patriarchal world. She experimented with voices and verb tenses and brought to light hitherto unrevealed experiences of the female body and of nature that challenged the place that had traditionally been assigned to female experience. Her stories present a conception of reality that is distinctly removed from positivism and elaborate on the themes of dreams and desire.77

Some male writers were supportive of the intellectual careers of this generation of women. For instance, Pablo Neruda was an important figure for Bombal. He opened up a space for her in Argentina thanks to his diplomatic post, and she began working for Sur, the magazine and publishing house founded and directed by Victoria Ocampo that published Jorge Luis Borges, Oliviero Girondo, and Federico García Lorca, among others.

Ocampo (1890–1979), in addition to being the founder of Sur (a project she led for forty years), was a prolific essayist and the author of an autobiography. Her struggle against the image of muse that undermined her intellectual project was of vital importance on the path to the gaining legitimacy for women’s writing in Spanish America, an effort in which Gabriela Mistral also played an essential role. Ocampo was an educated woman from the elite society who traveled around Europe and the United States, and through Sur she generated a space for dissemination and debate that marked the connection between the Argentinian intellectual world of her day and other Spanish-American countries, Europe, and the United States, which publicized the works of the avant-garde and promoted a dialogue among different fields of knowledge. In numerous essays, she reflects insightfully on philosophers, writers, and artists, and several contain references to the rights of women and insist on educating women as a motor for transforming society.78

Writing in the Midst of the Latin American Boom and Beyond

Even in the mid-20th-century context, so rich in literary works by women, women’s published work generally continued to be ignored by the critics and was less publicized than the work of their male counterparts. Nevertheless, women were a vital part of the generation that preceded the so-called Boom, which had also benefited from increased interest in Spanish-American culture in Europe thanks to the mystique surrounding the Cuban Revolution. Female writers experimented with themes and forms that would be of key importance in the subsequent generation, that is, that of the Boom. From the 1950s onward, Spanish-American writers produced a new corpus enriched by conceptions of reality derived from the indigenous world, mythical legacies from Africa, and popular traditions. All of this placed the aesthetic paradigm known as magic realism at the forefront—marvelous real and fantastic literature that dazzled readers on different continents. The best-known figures were men, and their works now form part of the canon. Many of them had been profoundly influenced by the Cuban Revolution, which for most of them held the utopian promise of a more just society, though others criticized its sectarian Marxist ideologies. Women writers of this new generation worked within the paradigm, but they asked questions about gender and about women in history. They explored the histories of their own societies in order to tell them from the perspective of women. In Mexico, Elena Garro (1916–1998), in her novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (Memories from the Future), published in 1963, recreated the conflicts in a mythical town called Ixtepec, whose inhabitants are caught up in the War of the Cristeros. Garro explored the lives of the women in the military and those of the prostitutes in the brothels. Elena Poniatowska (b. 1932), in her testimonial novel Hasta no verte Jesús mío (Until We Meet Again), published in 1969, tells the story of Jesusa Palancares, a woman who traveled with the armies of the Mexican Revolution. In Colombia, Elisa Mújica (1918–2003), in her first novel Los dos tiempos (Two Times), published in 1949, documented Colombian women who had abandoned the domestic world to participate in the political and intellectual life of society, working outside the home—and also being sexually harassed by their bosses. Her novel Catalina (1963) describes the lives of women in Santander during the War of the Thousand Days. In the Southern Cone, Marta Traba (1930–1983), who was also an art critic and a cultural promoter, was awarded the Casa de las Américas Prize for her novel Ceremonias del verano (Summer Ceremonies), published in 1966. In this novel and in Conversación al sur (Conversation in the South), published in 1981, she narrates the prevailing repression and system of terror, often structuring it as a journey and using such techniques as temporal fragmentation, interior monologues, and multiple viewpoints. Another Argentinian, Luisa Valenzuela (b. 1938), in Cambio de armas (Change of Weapons), her collection of short stories, from 1982, inspired by the dirty war that took place during the dictatorship, denounces the forms that terror and political repression take in relation to the female body and what this says both about that moment in history and about the ancestral patriarchal culture that has oppressed Spanish-American women in general.

Nonetheless, some of these writers, along with more recent ones, write novels in which they explore more quotidian dimensions of femininity. Colombian writer Marvel Moreno (1939–1995), in her novel from 1987, En diciembre llegaban las brisas (Breezes Arrived Each December) exposes the married lives of a group of women who have been friends since they were in school together. The novel presents a horrifying panorama in which the high-society women in the city of Barranquilla, which is considered a modern society, are the silent victims of husbands who have them locked up in insane asylums and drive them to suicide. Uruguayan novelist Armonía Somers (b. 1920) caused a scandal when her work La mujer desnuda (The Naked Woman) appeared in 1950 because of its treatment of women’s eroticism. Similarly, Cristina Peri Rossi (b. 1941), also from Uruguay, explores women’s sexuality to liberate the body to experience a pleasure of its own, disconnected from reproduction and maternity, in Solitario de amor (Solitaire of Love), published in 1988. The literary careers of most of these women project beyond the 1980s, when new voices that explored current topics and used the resources of mass media got stronger throughout Spanish America.

In Central America, from the 1960s through the 1990s, different genres “emerged from the depths of silence and fear for the purposes of truth telling and resistance to a repressive status quo.”79 Among them, Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala), published in 1983, an oral account of events transcribed and edited by Elizabeth Burgos, is an iconic Latin American example. As Nicole Caso shows, there are also several nonmediated testimonial accounts written by Central American women, such as Yolanda Colom’s Mujeres en la alborada: Guerrilla y participación femenina en Guatemala (1973–1978) (1998) (Women in the Reveille: Guerrilla and Female Participation in Guatemala) and Nicaraguan poet Vidaluz Meneses’s La lucha es el más alto de los cantos (Struggle is the Highest of Songs), written in 1983 and published in 2006.80

Women of African descent have made important contributions to the literary tradition of Spanish America. In addition to the limitations imposed on them simply for being women, they have had to face the racial prejudice of their societies. Their works reveal the conflicts they have experienced in both their daily and public lives. Many have also been political activists. By including African legacies and memories of the slave trade in their work, they have expanded the symbolic system to include mythologies brought to Spanish America by the slaves. Salomé Ureña (1850–1897) and Chiqui Vicioso (b. 1948) of the Dominican Republic,81 Cuba’s Georgina Herrera (b. 1936) and Nancy Morejón (b. 1944), Puerto Rico’s Julia de Burgos (1914–1953) and Mayra Santos-Febres (b. 1966), and Colombia’s Edelma Zapata (1954–2010) and María Teresa Ramírez (b. 1944) are some women poets of African descent. Their poems are studied and translated in academic contexts; and many of them perform their own work, both in official artistic scenarios and in popular contexts, as well as in the media. This poetic project has been growing in a dynamic and vibrant way, and voices that echo a multiethnic, and frequently multilingual, panorama arise in every country.82

As for indigenous women’s writing and cultural production, the publication of Rigoberta Menchú’s Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, and her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, started the process of making indigenous literature visible, in spite of the debate among some anthropologists and historians in the United States about the authenticity of her narrative.83 The poetic, narrative, and autobiographical work of native women from diverse ethnic groups in Spanish America began to be known, published, and promoted in public spaces and commented on by scholars. Some representative names are, in Bolivia, Domitila Barrios de Chungará and Ana María Condori; in Colombia, Berichá and Ester Cilia Simanca Pushaina; in Chile, Graciela Huinao, María Teresa Panchillo, and Adriana Paredes Pinda; in Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú and Rosa Cháves; in Mexico, Natalia Toledo and Marisol Ceh Moo; and in Peru, Dida Aguirre and Odi González. This vigorous process is in full swing and not only relates to local culture and language but has also built international networks for distributing works and collaborating. According to Miguel Rocha Vivas, indigenous literatures emerge from a locus of indigenous enunciation in which language, culture, and territory merge.84 This space, where native identity is shaped, has been identified by indigenous communities by the term Abya Yala, a concept that means “Earth in full maturity” that comes from the Kuna Tule culture of San Blas, Panama.85 This hybrid corpus is often nourished by ancestral texts such as the Popol-Vuh, the Rabinal Achí—Mayan and Mexican codices—and by colonial mestizo writing, such as the 16th-century Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (New Coronica and Good Government) by Felipe Guamán de Ayala,86 among others. Indigenous authors are considered intellectual leaders for their people and are often political activists; this is another key feature of their production.87 The production and dissemination of these texts, especially the contemporary ones, are inextricably linked to social movements.88

In the last two decades of the 20th century, persistent local barriers, like the colonizing relationship, have begun to be dismantled, as indigenous and black women relentlessly make their way into every artistic genre, including theater, film, and music. Many have struggled to achieve recognition, but their works have found readers in all sectors of their own countries and internationally as well, and many have been translated into other languages. In the United States, women of Hispanic origins tell of their own paradoxical experiences in a society that obliges them to play a constant game of divided identities. In such texts, the language borders between Spanish and English are dissolved to capture a subjectivity that is in a state of flux. Books by Spanish-American women have been populating the map of their own literary continent, which is both vast and varied, and constantly being renewed with new themes, approaches, and techniques.

Further Reading

Arenal, Electa, and Stacey Schlau. Untold Sisters. Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works. Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Bassnet, Susan, ed. Knives and Angels: Women Writers in Latin America. London: Zed Books, 1990.Find this resource:

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(1.) Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau, Untold Sisters. Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 2–6.

(2.) Ángel Martínez Cuesta, “Las monjas en la América colonial, 1530–1824,” Thesaurus 45 (1995): 46.

(3.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 27–30.

(4.) Asunción Lavrin, “La mujer en la sociedad colonial hispanoamericana,” in Historia de América Latina, ed. Leslie Bethell (Barcelona: Editorial Crítica, 1990), 15.

(5.) Arenal and Schlau, Untold Sisters, 2.

(6.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 575.

(7.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 575–576.

(8.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 623.

(9.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 626.

(10.) Lavrin, “La Mujer en la sociedad colonial,” 16–17.

(11.) Luisa Campuzano and Catharina Vallejo, prefacio to Yo con mi viveza: Textos de conquistadoras, monjas brujas y otras mujeres de la colonia (Havana: Casa de las Américas, 2003), 8.

(12.) Campuzano and Vallejo, prefacio to Yo con mi viveza.

(13.) Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo, “Leonor de Ovando: ‘La ingeniosa poeta y muy religiosa observante’” (2 de febrero de 2015). Acento, March 3, 2017.

(14.) Nacidit-Perdomo, “Leonor de Ovando”; and Catharina Vallejo, “Poemas de Leonor de Ovando,” in Campuzano and Vallejo, Yo con mi viveza, 24–29.

(15.) Nacidit-Perdomo, “Leonor de Ovando.”

(16.) Catharina Vallejo, “Mujeres de teatro en el Perú del siglo XVII,” in Campuzano and Vallejo, Yo con mi viveza, 78.

(17.) Maria del Costillo, Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); and Rima de Vallbona, “Catalina de Erauso: Vida y sucesos de la monja Alférez,” in Campuzano and Vallejo, Yo con mi viveza, 61.

(18.) Luisa Campuzano, “‘Memorial’ y décimas dirigidos a Carlos III en ocasión de la toma de La Habana por los ingleses,” in Campuzano and Vallejo, Yo con mi viveza, 183–194.

(19.) Jean Franco, Las conspiradoras: La representación de la mujer en México (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 1994), 29–51.

(20.) Nina M. Scott, “La inmolación intelectual de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” in Las desobedientes: Mujeres de nuestra América, eds. María Mercedes Jaramillo and Betty Osorio (Bogotá: Panamericana Editorial, 1997), 45–58.

(21.) Franco, Las conspiradoras, 52–63.

(22.) Franco, Las conspiradoras, 71–81.

(23.) Scott, “Inmolación intelectual,” in Jaramillo and Osorio, Las desobedientes, 60–63.

(24.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 33.

(25.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 40.

(26.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 42–43.

(27.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 43–44.

(28.) Martínez Cuesta, “Monjas en la América colonial,” 50–52.

(29.) Arenal and Schlau, Untold Sisters, 293–314.

(30.) Francisca Josefa de la Concepción Castillo, Su vida (Bogota: Biblioteca de Autores Colombianos, 1956), 57.

(31.) Ángela I. Robledo, ed., introduction to Jerónima Nava y Saavedra (1669–1727): Autobiografía de una monja venerable (Cali, Colombia: Ediciones Universidad del Valle, 1994), 20.

(32.) Luisa Campuzano, “Relación autobiográfica de la monja clarisa Úrsula Suárez Memorial,” in Campuzano and Vallejo, Yo con mi viveza, 137–149.

(33.) Adriana Valdés, “Escritura de monjas durante la colonia: el caso de Úrsula Suárez en Chile,” Memoria Chilena. Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, 158–159.

(34.) On Saint Augustin, see Kathryn McKnight, The Mystic of Tunja: The Writings of Madre Castillo, 1671–1742 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 354–430.

(35.) Adriana Maya Restrepo, “Paula de Eguiluz y el arte del bien querer: Apuntes para el estudio de la sensualidad y del cimarronaje femenino en el caribe, siglo xvii,” Historia Crítica 24 (2002): 103.

(36.) Betty Osorio, “Brujería y chamanismo: Duelo de símbolos en el Tribunal de la Inquisición de Cartagena de Indias (1628),” in “Chambacú, la historia la escribes tú”: Ensayos sobre cultura afrocolombiana, ed. Lucía Ortiz (Frankfurt: Iberoamericana, 2007), 313.

(37.) Juan Rodríguez Freyle, El carnero, ed. Darío Achury Valenzuela (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979), 214.

(38.) Lavrin, “Mujer en la sociedad colonial,” 16.

(39.) Ana Peluffo, “That Damned Mob of Scribbling Women”: Gendered Networks in Fin de Siècle Latin America (1898–1920),” trans. Isabel Ortiz, in The Cambridge History of Latin American Women’s Literature, ed. Ileana Rodríguez and Mónica Szurmuk (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

(40.) Émile ou de l’éducation, Livre V, “Sophie ou la femme” (p.5). Les classiques des Sciences Sociales, Université de Québec.

(41.) Susan Kirkpatrick, Las Románticas: Women Writers and Subjectivity in Spain, 1835–1850 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

(42.) Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

(43.) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

(44.) In relation to topics and forms, see Pedro Barreda Tomás and Eduardo Béjar, Poética de la nación: Poesía romántica en Hispanoamérica (Crítica y antología) (Boulder, CO: Society of Spanish and Spanish American Studies Series, 1999).

(45.) Pura Fernández, “Geografías culturales: Miradas, espacios y redes de las escritoras hispanoamericanas en el siglo XIX,” in Miradas sobre España, ed. Facundo Tomás, Isabel Justo, and Sofía Barrón. (Madrid: Anthropos, 2011), 153–170; Pura Fernández, No hay nación para este sexo: La Re(d)pública transatlántica de las Letras; escritoras españolas y latinoamericanas (1824–1936) (Madrid: Iberoamericana-Vervuert, 2015), 15. Carolina Alzate and Darcie Doll, eds., Redes, alianzas y afinidades: Mujeres y escritura en América Latina (Santiago: Universidad de Chile and Ediciones Uniandes, 2014).

(46.) Peluffo, “That Damned Mob.”

(47.) Néstor García Canclini, Culturas híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2001), 81.

(48.) García Canclini, Culturas híbridas, 81.

(49.) García Canclini, Culturas híbridas.

(50.) Teresa Rozo-Moorhouse, “Expresión, voces y protagonismo de la mujer colombiana contemporánea,” in Literatura y diferencia: Escritoras colombianas del siglo XX, ed. María Mercedes Jaramillo, Betty Osorio, and Ángela Inés Robledo (Bogotá: Ediciones Uniande, 1995), 3–27.

(52.) Vera de Flachs, “Mujeres latinoamericanas,” 55–56.

(53.) Vera de Flachs, “Mujeres latinoamericanas,” 56.

(55.) Rozo-Moorhouse, “Expresión, voces y protagonismo,” 17.

(56.) María Himelda Ramírez, “Febrero 1 de 1935. Sin discriminación.” Semana, May 30, 2004.

(57.) Katherine Marino, “The Heritage of Latin American Women’s Political Empowerment,” Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

(58.) Marino, “The Heritage of Latin American Women’s Political Empowerment.”

(59.) Catharina Vallejo, “Vasos comunicantes: Persistencia, revisión y el nuevo ensayo de mujeres cubanas, 1947–2007,” Revista Iberoamericana, 78.240 (2012): 526.

(60.) Beatriz Eugenia Vallejo Franco, “La conquista del voto femenino.”

(61.) Elsa Cervantes, “Los primeros 50 años del voto femenino en México,” Cimacnoticias, July 10, 2003.

(62.) Cervantes, “Los primeros 50 años del voto femenino en México.”

(63.) Rozo-Moorhouse, “Expresión, voces y protagonismo,” 6–7.

(64.) Catharina Vallejo, The Women in the Men’s Club: Women Modernista Poets in Cuba (1880–1910) (New Orleans, LA: University Press of the South, 2012).

(65.) Catherine Davies, “Literature by Women in the Spanish Antilles (1800–1950),” in Rodríguez and Szurmuk, Cambridge History, 189.

(66.) Vicki Unruh, “The Women of the Avant-Gardes,” in Rodríguez and Szurmuk, Cambridge History, 243–259.

(67.) Fernández, “No hay nación para este sexo,” 15.

(68.) See Claudia Cabello, “Redes queer: Escritoras, artistas y mecenas en la primera mitad del siglo XX,” Cuadernos de Literatura 42 (2017): 841–842; and Sylvia Molloy, “Disappearing Acts: Reading Lesbian in Teresa de la Parra,” in ¿Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings, eds. Emilie Bergmann and Paul J. Smith (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 230–256.

(69.) Ileana Rodríguez and Mónica Szurmuk, eds., The Cambridge History of Latin American Women’s Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 197 ff.

(70.) Rodríguez and Szurmuk, eds., The Cambridge History of Latin American Women’s Literature, 99.

(71.) Rodríguez and Szurmuk, eds., The Cambridge History of Latin American Women’s Literature.

(72.) Carmela Virgilio, “Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957) Chile,” in Escritoras de Hispanoamérica: Una guía bio-bibliográfica, ed. Diane E. Marting (Bogotá: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1991), 338–351.

(73.) Isabel Rodríguez-Vergara, “María de los Ángeles Cano Márquez: Del sindicalismo al socialismo subvirtiendo las reglas del padre,” in Jaramillo and Osoria, Las desobedientes, 230–246.

(74.) Susana Zanetti, “La escuela de las esposas: Ifigenia de Teresa de la Parra,” in Susana Zenetti, Leer en América Latina, (Mérida, Venezuela: Ediciones el Otro el Mismo, 2004), 187.

(75.) Roseanna Mueller, Teresa de la Parra: A Literary Life (Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2012), 1–20.

(76.) Ada Ortúzar-Young, “Lydia Cabrera (1900). Cuba,” in Marting, Escritoras de Hispanoamérica, 109–120.

(77.) Lucía Guerra Cunningham, “María Luisa Bombal (1910–1980) Chile,” in Marting, Escritoras de Hispanoamérica, 43.

(78.) Doris Meyer, ed., Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 396–405.

(79.) Nicole Caso, “Central American Women’s Literature,” in Rodríguez and Szurmuk, Cambridge History, 400.

(80.) Caso, “Central American Women’s Literature.”

(81.) Vicioso has claimed herself to be a mulatto descendant. See Sherezada Vicioso, “An Oral History (Testimonio),” in Breaking Boundaries, eds. Asunción Horno Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), 229–234. Vicioso also included Salomé Ureña as part of the mulatto tradition she is trying to build.

(82.) María Mercedes Jaramillo and Lucía Ortíz, eds., introduction to Hijas del Muntu: Biografías críticas de mujeres afrodescendientes de América Latina (Bogotá: Panamericana, 2011).

(83.) Emilio del Valle Escalante, “Teorizando las literaturas indígenas contemporáneas: Introducción,” A Contra Corriente 10 (2013): 9.

(84.) Miguel Rocha Vivas, “Oralituras y literaturas indígenas en Colombia: De la constitución de 1991 a la Ley de Lenguas de 2010,” A Contra Corriente: Una revista de historia social y literatura de América Latina 10 (2013): 74–107.

(85.) del Valle Escalante, “Teorizando las literaturas indígenas contemporáneas,” 11.

(86.) del Valle Escalante, “Teorizando las literaturas indígenas contemporáneas,” 6.

(87.) Rocha Vivas in Emilio del Valle Escalante, 6.

(88.) Rocha Vivas in Emilio del Valle Escalante.