In the English-speaking world, the Latin American literary “Boom” that began in the 1960s was understood as a sudden upsurge in literary creativity in Latin America, as if suddenly, Latin Americans were finding a literary voice. But if there was really ever a sudden “boom” in Latin American literature, it probably occurred in the early twentieth century, with the emergence of literary giants like Rubén Darío (1867-1916), Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), Alfonso Reyes (1889-1959) and Cesar Vallejo (1892-1938). Sadly, most of the English-speaking world missed out on these authors because at the time they were writing, very little Latin American literature was being translated into English. What really changed in the 1960s was not that Latin Americans suddenly began to write, but that the English-speaking world suddenly began wanting to read what they were writing.
That the sudden North American interest in Latin American literature arose in the 1960s, in the context of the Cold War, is probably not accidental. In particular, it would be hard to overlook a probable connection between the Cuban Revolution of January 1959 and the sudden flurry of translations of Latin American literature that almost immediately followed it. When Washington’s negative response to Castro’s rise to power provoked outrage among Latin American intellectuals, who “envisioned the Cuban Revolution as a positive alternative for Latin America” (Rostagno, p. 102), political and business leaders in the US began to fear that if they didn’t win over the hearts and minds of their alienated neighbours to the south they might lose their hegemony in the region to Soviet influence (ibid, p. 103).
Thus, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy established the Alliance for Progress, a program aimed at promoting social, educational and cultural programs in Latin America that effectively mimicked programs already being promoted by the Castro government in Cuba, but on a larger scale (Luis, p.8). Meanwhile, the Rockefeller family (which, coincidentally, had extensive economic interests in Latin America), with the support of the Kennedy administration, set up a translation subsidy program to promote Latin American literature in the US, administrated by the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), which operated from 1960 to 1966 (D. Cohn, p. 141). Another, similar institution, the Inter-American Committee (IAC), was established in 1962 “to bring together Latin American and US intellectuals, scholars, journalists and publishers, giving the Latin Americans opportunities to obtain both contacts and contracts in the United States” (ibid. p. 146); in 1964, the IAC was renamed the Inter-American Foundation for the Arts (IAFA) and established a project not only to fund translations, but also “to set up commercial representation for the authors […] and encourage US publishers to become more proactive in seeking out and publishing Latin American literature” (ibid. p. 146). This program was expanded in 1967 when the IAFA merged with the Center for Inter-American Relations (CIAR, now the Americas Society) (ibid. p. 147; 155). These initiatives could all be viewed as part of the US government’s “anti-Castro containment policy” (Welch, p. 94), as their purpose was to “counter Cuba’s influence on Latin American intellectuals by making US cultural activity attractive to them and creating alternative centres of creative activity” (Cohn, p. 140) Throughout the 1960s, the AAUP and CIAR programs were instrumental in “creating and promoting Latin American bestsellers in the United States both by convincing publishers to sign new authors and by establishing an infrastructure that brought their work to the public’s attention” (ibid. p.160). In this respect, they contributed significantly to the so-called “Boom”.
Maria Elena Mudrovic argues that the CIAR operated an effective monopoly on the selection, translation and promotion of Latin American literature in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, and that without its intervention and patronage “the Latin American literary canon would likely be a more heterogeneous, diverse and open body of texts (and authors)” (qtd. in Cohn, p. 160). It might be an overstatement to suggest that the CIAR effectively controlled the content of the Boom, as commercial publishers (such as Grove Press in the case of Mexican literature) also promoted Latin American literature without direct support from the CIAR, and the role of independent literary journals (such as El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn) in giving visibility in the US to Latin American authors was also important. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that one of the most notable features of the Boom is its restriction to a very limited number of (mostly male) authors who were willing and able to contend with the US literary industry.
In light of the above, it is probably unsurprising that a uniquely English word with no Spanish equivalent should have come to be used to refer to the explosion of Latin American literature onto the world stage in the 1960s. Indeed, in Latin America itself the word “boom” has been borrowed directly from English to refer to this phenomenon, which was, after all, a phenomenon that occurred in the English-speaking world, not in Latin America. Latin Americans had found their literary voice long before the 1960s, but it wasn’t until that decade that North Americans found the ears to hear it.
In my next article on translating Latin America I hope to explore this question further, looking at the literary style most closely associated with the boom – magical realism – and how this style affected the texts chosen for translation, how they were promoted to English-speaking readers and even how they were translated.