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The Latin American Short Story: A Cultural Tradition

Harriet J. Bauman

Contents of Curriculum Unit 87.01.08:

To Guide Entry

The short story, and especially the Latin American short story, is one of the most important literary manifestations of the Twentieth Century. It embodies the literary and cultural traditions, both European and native, which make Latin American literature unique.

This unit situates the Latin American short story in its literary, historical, and cultural contexts. It also presents four short stories, which, along with suggestions for classroom activities, will give students a good understanding of the place of Latin American traditions in modern literature.

The unit can be used in a Spanish I, Spanish II, Spanish III, or Spanish IV class. It can be used in a World Literature or a Comparative Literature class. It can be used in conjunction with a World History or American History class as well.

The four short stories selected for this ten-week unit are by outstanding authors who are considered masters of the Latin American short story. These stories were chosen for a particular audience—students in Spanish I. The majority of the students are ninth graders who have not had too much instruction in Spanish. Therefore, the stories they will read will be English translations. For upper levels of Spanish or for native speakers, the stories can be in the original language.

As ninth graders are immature and inexperienced readers, the stories chosen for this unit needed to be relatively simple to follow. The authors and their stories are: Jorge Luis Borges “The South”, Alejo Carpentier “Journey Back to the Source”, Julio Cortázar “The Southern Thruway”, and Gabriel Garc’a Márquez “Big Mama’s Funeral.”

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The evolution of the modern short story is easily traced. It has its roots in legends and myths, as well as the oral tradition. The short story was known among the indigenous peoples of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus as a popular tradition, not a literary one.

When the Spanish conquerors began colonizing the New World, they forbade the reading and publishing of fiction or profane works as a sacrilege to the Catholic faith that they were promoting. In spite of the ban, books of fiction such as picaresque novels, stories of shepherds and shepherdesses, and stories of knights were being read throughout the New World.

The first Spanish settlers brought popular stories, legends, and Spanish folklore with them to the Americas. They joined with the Portuguese, Catalans, Castillians, and Basques in forming the new settlements. This new society was a result of the fusion of the different cultures.

The Hispanic civilization of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries gave birth to chronicles, histories, and novelistic narrations which were classified as supernatural, humoristic, historical, and popular. The chroniclers who functioned as story tellers in the colonial period used Spanish themes and native reality in their works which made their writing quite original and unique.

The Eighteenth Century was not as rich in literature as the previous centuries because writing chronicles was out of style. During this century, history, philosophy, and criticism became the literature of Spanish America. The newspaper and journalism flourished.

During the Revolutionary era, and certainly after 1812, when freedom of the press became a reality, the sketches of manners and customs (cuadros de costumbres) became a means of criticizing the social conditions of colonies, and a way to teach a lesson to the readers.

The stories of José Joaqu’n Fernandez Lizardi, for example, were designed to correct the manners of his contemporaries, not to amuse them. In his book El Periquillo Sarmiento there are three real short stories. The first short story of the New World is considered to be “El negrito”. It has all the elements of a modern short story, as well as a major theme, racial prejudice.

Journalism had a great influence on the criticism of manners and customs (el costumbrismo). During the later colonial period there was much evidence of Spanish “costumbrismo” in the Spanish-American sketches. Spanish themes, such as popular types of characters and customs proliferated. But the new sketches went further. From a simple representation, the sketches were bitterly critical of governments, social backwardness, and the misery of the people.

The importance of these Spanish-American sketches in Latin American literature is that they formed the basis of the Latin American short story. At the very moment when a sketch became a discussion with a dramatic element, the short story was born.

It can be said that “el costumbrismo” was a romantic movement, in spite of its apparent realism. The critic, looking for originality in his society, gave life to the individual. Characteristics of romanticism found in these works are: scenic descriptions, local color, and the uniqueness of one’s surroundings, and characters.

Romanticism gave way to realism or modernism. The writers were now interested in social problems, and chose their protagoniste by the intensity of their societal woes. Descriptions of the surroundings or of individuals were objective. Most of the influences for this movement came from France and Spain.

“El criollismo” in Latin America was a reaction to modernism. The “criollietas” abandoned refined atmospheres and exotic themes to return to the land, nativism, and daily life. They were not imitators of Spanish or French writers, but inventors of new American themes and events. They made use of the countryside, customs, native characters and language as integral parts of the narrative. The development of the story was what interested them.

The “criollistas” wanted to reveal all the facets of American life within a work of art. Social protest was not a conscious element of their works.

After 1910 two groups of post modern short story writers emerged. One group redefined the technical elements of Creole stories, but retained American themes and atmosphere. The other group created a cosmopolitan ambiance, and concentrated on universal themes and events. For both of these groups the focus was the form of the story. The conflicts in these stories were personal, not social or political. The psychological problems of the characters were a principal trait of this literary period. At times a poetic element became noticeable. The European influences were English and French, among others.

The end of the Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth Century saw a new movement, vanguardism, emerge. Vanguardism was tied to social changes and new tendencies in philosophy and the sciences. It was a reaction to natural realism and modernism in which the writer tried to express his inner being. Frequently the real world was incoherent to the writers, which led them to explore the inner self to find reality. This search led to movements such as cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, creationism, and ultraism, all European in origin.

The Vanguard writers wanted to create a new style of writing which would express their new vision of the world that differed greatly from the modernists and realists. Their stories reflected a poetic reality, and were also poetic in structure. Men became poetic symbols seen outside of the natural laws that regulated the external world. The narrative which had been the heart of the short story, was displaced by the poetry of the content and the form of the short story.

A new type of story arose at the same time as Vanguardism. It treated themes such as social problems that affected Americans, the misery of the urban masses, the peasant fighting for a piece of land, the indians not integrated into the cultural life of the country, the Blacks trapped by their superstitions and traditions, and the fight against tyranny.

For the authors of the “social” story, style and technical questions were not of major importance. The content of their stories was of prime interest. The presentation of a vital experience was essential to their art.

The fantastic story, before Borges, appeared sporadically. The unreal themes and the development of the action were the major characteristics of this movement.

In the psychological story subjectiveness dominates objectiveness, thought dominates action, and the intellectual dominates the sentimental. The conflicts of the characters are personal. The surroundings are hardly mentioned. The themes are universal. The author’s all-knowing point of view directs the readers’ thoughts about the story. Sometimes the above technique is mixed with an indirect interior monologue. Stream-of-consciousness is an important element of the psychological story.

Both the fantastic and the psychological stories form the expressionist movement. Magical realism, however, avoids the supernatural, and man’s behavior is not explained through psychological analysis as in expressionism.

The expressionist wants to avoid reality by creating unreal worlds. The writer of magical realism, on the other hand, faces reality and tries to untangle its mysteries. Arturo Uslar-Pietri described magical realism as that which predominates in the story and leaves its traces in the consideration of man as a mystery in the middle of realistic information.

‘Lo que vino a predominar en el cuento y a marcar su huella de una manera perdurable fue la consideración del hombre como misterio en medio de los datos realistas. Una adivinación poética o una negación poética de la realidad. Lo que a falta de otra palabra podr’a llamarse un realismo mágico.’ (p. 130 Leal)

In magical realism key events have no apparent logical or psychological explanation. The magical realist tries to capture the mystery behind things. He extends his sensibilities as far as possible so as to pierce the inner core of existence for his reality.

The detective story was not successful with Latin American writers except for Borges. Some Argentinian, Chilean and Mexican writers have worked in this genre. The most successful detective stories are translations of Conan Doyle and Poe.

There are very few Latin American writers who write with humor for the sake of enjoyment. Latin American life does not permit the luxury of laughter, according to Leal. However, there are humoristic short story techniques, such as a brief introduction used after a humor-filled dialogue between characters, which is almost always based on the incongruencies of their lives. These characters are stereotypes, either of a social class or of a nation.

Since World War II a new realism (Neorealism) has emerged as a reaction to the subjectivism that preceded it. The neorealists rejected the fantastic, the magical, the symbolic, the abstract, etc. At the same time, they went farther than traditional realism. They included all reality no matter how repugnant, and were completely objective. They wrote without moral precepts. They wanted only to present human beings reactions to complex social situations.

The neorealistic short story is particularly interesting for the total absence of the author. It is totally impartial and objective in its format. Descriptions are cold and barren. The characters are not explained psychologically nor by the effect of their environment on them.

Today’s Latin American writers are building on the foundations left to them by all of the trends cited above. Some are using new techniques to go beyond their predecessors. Their stories focus on the unreal, the absurd, and the irrational world in which we live. Other stories reflect the new Latin American social reality. Social themes predominate today.

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The modern short story is a work of art, relatively short, with an elaborate structure, an interest in time and space, having an emotional impact, and a consciousness of style. The traditional elements of short stories, like the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and epilogue are not always observed by modern authors. Their works are more flexible in structure, more expansive in their content and theme, and more expressive in style.

Edgar Allen Poe’s works, forerunners of today’s short stories, set the formal characteristics of this genre: the story was to be short, able to be read in a single sitting so as to give a unity of impression by focusing on one isolated incident in the life of a character, or in one character’s relationship with another. An atmosphere is created in which the characters live, breathe, and function, which, in turn, creates an emotion.

The unity of impression is the most important characteristic of a modern short story. It builds an intense emotional climate in which all the elements of the story converge to create the climax, and finally, the falling action and conclusion.

The action is another important element of the short story. Something must happen, no matter how small. The story must bring the reader from Point A to Point B to insure its value as an art form.

The short story’s internal structure determines the significance of the different elements, both technical and artistic (themes, symbols, images), which distinguish its genre from other narrative forms. Point of view is instrumental in the unfolding of the narrative as it determines the climate in which the story takes place.

Due to the brevity of a short story, the writer must make every word count. The introduction creates the interest for the reader and the emotional tone of the narrative. The author sets the scene, describes the atmosphere, determines the time, and gets the characters moving.

The exposition presents the conflict around which the story takes place. This conflict could be between characters, between characters and society, between characters and nature, or within the soul of the main character.

The exposition’s tension leads to the climax. The change that occurs determines the falling action. The falling action is given great intensity by the converging of all the elements of the short story toward it. Occasionally, in a short story where the atmosphere is the most important element, the falling action is relatively weak.

The modern short story’s strength rests on its effectiveness as a microcosm of society with well-defined limits, along with its great intensity and completeness. The success of a short story depends upon the ability of the narrator to manipulate the technical elements of the short story.

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The objectives of this unit are the following:

1. To help students understand the short story as a literary genre.
2. To help students recognize the elements of a short story.
3. To situate the Latin American short story in the genre of short stories.
4. To situate the Latin American short story in the history of Latin America.
5. To situate the Latin American short story in the cultural traditions of Latin America.
6. To help students recognize the European and native influences on the Latin American short story.
In order to attain the above objectives, the teacher and students must become actively involved in the short stories taught in this unit. These stories by Borges, Cortázar, Carpentier, and Garc’a Márquez are distinctively modern and avant-garde.

The Latin American avant-garde’s roots are European in nature.

Whereas romanticism, realism, naturalism, and symbolism traveled slowly to the New World, and in some cases took decades to reach it, the European avant-garde movement of the first thirty years of this century almost immediately found an echo in the growing urban centers of Latin America. (p. 495 Monegal)

All the writers considered here along with many of their contemporaries, traveled to and throughout Europe. The movements such as those mentioned above, and those such as Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism helped to build a modern literary and artistic movement toward a new culture. This culture would free “. . . arts and letters from the dead weight of academic tradition, a freedom that would allow them to participate imaginatively in the second great technological revolution then beginning.” (p. 495 Monegal)

World War II stopped the European avant-garde movement but not that of Latin America. Jorge Luis Borges, on a long visit in Spain (1916-1921) developed ultraism, a kind of futurism concerned with “the magical effects of imagery and metaphor.” (p. 496 Monegal) When Borges returned to Argentina, he helped other authors develop an Argentinian form of ultraism which looked for the poetry of ordinary things.

Borges had a great influence on his contemporaries as well as the writers of the next generation. His work spans poetry, essays, and short stories. He preferred the short story because everything is connected and has meaning. His art focuses on his concentration on certain unanswerable philosophical questions like man’s ignorance of his world, man’s unconscious will, life and death, etc.

“The South” is partially about what it is to be Argentinian, or Latin American. It is also autobiographical, in that the main character is half German and half Argentinian. Borges is of mixed origin. The main character is in a mental hospital at the beginning of the story. Borges spent some time in one as well. This is where the autobiography ends and the story begins.

The main character in “The South” is Juan Dahlmann, a very patriotic man. He is in a sanitorium. It isn’t clear why he is there, but he feels that he is in hell. He has some surgery, and when he recovers he is allowed to go south, to his ranch to convalesce. On his way, he savors all the experiences such as eating at a train stop, and watching the scenery outside his window.

Dahlmann is told that he must get off the train at an earlier stop, he is concerned at first but then enjoys the change. He stops to eat in a general store. He has a confrontation with some peasants, and is challenged to a fight. He accepts the challenge and goes out to his fate.

After reading this story, students could be asked to reconstruct the plot. They would define certain vocabulary words such as: daguerreotype, strophe, nationalism, hackney coach, ausculate, septicemia, symmetry, anachronism, vertigo, illusion, reality, dissipate, superfluous, impetus, intolerable, transfigure, elemental, intimate, means of conveyance, solitude, sumptuous joy, temper, lout, poncho, chiripá, colt boots, gaucho, pampas, turbid, suppress, peón, extravagance, mockery, ecstatic, cipher, summary, torpid, poniard, wield.

The students might be asked to reread the story looking for all references to colors, buildings, means of transportation, the country versus the city, day versus night, Argentina and its way of life, etc. The students could be assigned to different groups to do the assignment. They would share the information with the rest of the class. These notes would be used for further discussion of the story.

In other groups the students might be asked to do research on Borges, Argentina’s geography, Argentina’s people, daily life in the north and in the south of Argentina, gauchos and their lifestyle. They could do this research before reading the story. This information would again be shared with the rest of the class. The students’ notes would become part of the cultural section of their notebooks.

Students could be asked to write a character sketch of Dahlmann, of a peón, of the owner of the general store, or of the old gaucho. They could rewrite the plot from one of the other characters’ point of view.

Essays on several topics germane to Borges’ philosophy could be a culminating activity. The topics might include dreams, reality versus imagination, time, the Pampas, gaucho life, the national myth of Argentina, a literary critique or literary criticism, the process of making the familiar unfamiliar.

Alejo Carpentier was bicultural (Cuban and French). He traveled to Europe and studied music in France. In Cuba he studied architecture. He became a newspaperman and got involved in politics. He spent time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. All of these experiences had an influence on his writing.

Carpentier, a Latin American intellectual, found a nationalist cause for which to fight while he was in France. He determined “to integrate the different national cultures into a truly continental unity; to recapture the fabulous past and update it; to preserve whatever was still meaningful and valuable in the collapsing cultures of the West.” (p. 518 Monegal)

Carpentier’s literary style is a mixture of many influences like Afro-Cuban folklore, music, architecture and structure, and language. He used devices such as playing with time and personal identity, questioning what is dream and reality, numbers, metaphors, symbolism, and defamiliarizing the familiar.

The story selected to be studied is “Journey Back to the Source”. The plot is “to present a man’s life in reverse order, from the unbirth which is death to the undeath which is birth.” (p. 518 Monegal) The most interesting part of this story is not the plot but the juxtaposition of language and time. The language of the story is going forward while time is going backward. Language is the means by which we go toward death in this story.

The students will be asked to define certain vocabulary words: monologue, mosaic, masonry, crenellation, cornice, garland, dentil, astragal, peplum, entablature, balustrade, faCcade, propensity, capital, acanthus, scapulary, beetle-browed, cravat, pier glass, to mention a few.

Many of the activities mentioned above for “The South” can be adapted for this story. The research will, this time, be based on life in the Antilles, especially on plantations for major crops, and on Carpentier.

The students may be asked to reread the story tracing time, details of the house’s architecture, metaphors, etc. Some students might want to reconstruct the house either by drawing it on paper or by making a three-dimensional model.

The students might be asked to illustrate the most vivid description in the story, or the part they liked the best. Some students might want to construct a time line of events in the story. Another activity might be for students to write a description of what happens when Dahlmann goes outside at the end of the story. Any of these activities might serve as a culminating activity for “The South.”

Julio Cortázar was Argentinian with a French background. He was born in Brussels, Belgium and spent the first three years of his life there. He was a disciple of Borges and experimented with some of Borges’ techniques and theories like the fantastic, the double, the labyrinth, and others. He expected the reader to participate in his works.

In “The Southern Thruway” Cortázar takes a common everyday occurrence, tilts it slightly, and things happen differently. He defamiliarizes the familiar.

It is the end of vacation and everyone is heading back to Paris. Near Fontainebleau, a traffic jam occurs. No one moves. Soon hours pass, then days, until we’re not sure how long this event lasts. As time goes on, people in the neighboring cars gather to share food, water, medicine, and gossip. Soon they have fabricated communities with certain people selected to do certain jobs.

Everything outside of the traffic jam seems unreal. Farmers and villagers help with supplies, for a price. A type of “black market” arises. Sometimes the farmers and villagers refuse to help. The car radios are a connection to the “real world”, but their news has no meaning for the people trapped in the traffic jam. The other connection to “reality” is cars of opportunists offering supplies and information for a fee.

It seems that this bizarre occurrence will never end. No real help comes to untangle the mess. One day, without warning, the cars begin to move back to reality. All the ties which were formed among the sufferers are broken. “. . . And you moved at fifty-five miles an hour toward the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.” (p. 29 “The Southern Thruway”, All Fires the Fire)

Any of the activities already mentioned could be adapted for this story. In addition, the students might write a newspaper article about the enormous traffic jam, or an editorial about the traffic jam and the indifference to it by those not involved in it. The students might also write an essay on modern man and modern society as Cortázar sees them.

Students might draw a detailed plan of the traffic jam using color codes or symbols to indicate the different cars, people, and scenes depicting the story. They might also make a three-dimensional model using toy cars and dolls.

Group activities help get the students involved. There could be a debate on a large topic such as what reality is according to Cortázar, or the place of man in modern society. In small groups students could write and perform a skit using a television or radio report format in which they tell about the events that occur, or interview the people involved in the traffic jam.

Gabriel Garc’a Márquez was born and educated in Colombia. He studied law and then became a journalist. He spent time in Venezuela, Paris, Cuba, and New York.

Garc’a Márquez was a disciple of Carpentier, Faulkner, and Hemingway. He learned how to describe action, and the economy of words from Hemingway.

“Big Mama’s Funeral” is an excellent example of Garc’a Márquez’ style. Big Mama owned the Kingdom of Macondo, its land, crops, houses, festivals, emotions, people, wealth, everything it is possible to own, and more. When she died the entire populace was affected.

No one was indifferent to this death. During this century, Big Mama had been Macondo’s center of gravity, as had her brothers, her parents, and the parents of her parents in the past, in a dominance which covered two centuries. (p. 155 “Big Mama’s Funeral”)

Before she died, Big Mama made her peace with God and disposed of her property. Toward the end of her recital she died. She could not be buried until some political questions were answered, particularly if the President of the Republic could go to her funeral. Finally the debates ended, and the funeral took place.

The funeral rites were finished and now began the hardest task-getting life put back in order. Cleaning up will be a major production because not only do they have to clean up the garbage that was left by the crowds during the funeral, but the debris from Big Mama’s dictatorship.

Now that the nation, which was shaken to its vitals, has recovered its balance; now that the bagpipers of San Jacinto, the smugglers of Guajira, the rice planters of Sinú, the prostitutes of Caucamayal, the wizards of Sierpe, and the banana workers of Aracataca have folded up their tents to recover from the exhausting vigil and have regained their serenity, and the President of the Republic and his Ministers and all those who represented the public and supernatural powers on the most magnificent funeral occasion recorded in the annals of history have regained control of their estates; now that the Holy Pontiff has risen up to Heaven in body and soul; and now that it is impossible to walk around in Macondo because of the empty bottles, the cigarette butts, the gnawed bones, the cans and rags and excrement that the crowd which came to the burial left behind; now is the time to lean a stool against the front door and relate . . . the details of this national commotion . . . The only thing left then was for someone to lean a stool against the doorway to tell this story, lesson and example for future generations, so that not one of the world’s disbelievers would be left who did not know the story of Big Mama, because tomorrow, Wednesday, the garbage men will come and will sweep up the garbage from her funeral, forever and ever. (pp. 153, 169-170 “Big Mama’s Funeral”)

Garc’a Márquez is probably presenting a political allegory of Latin American civilization in “Big Mama’s Funeral.” The story is humorous and a biting satire of governmental dictatorships.

“Big Mama’s Funeral” opens many possibilities for class discussions and activities. Many of the activities mentioned above can be adapted to this story.

Students could research the following topics in small groups: Carnival, Lent; dictators such as Somoza, Allende, Perón, Castro; Latin American governments. The groups could present their topics in forms of skits for the rest of the class.

The students could write skits based on different scenes in the story and videotape them for showing to the whole class. Some of these skits could be done in Spanish so that the students could practice their language skills.

After reading all four of the stories, and participating in all of the activities mentioned above, the students could write their own short story based on Latin American themes. These stories could be written in Spanish or English. They could be bound together and reproduced for all the students to have. Some of the better stories could be printed in the school magazine.

In conclusion, this very active ten-week unit will encourage students to read with more insight and understanding. They will also have learned about Latin America. The vitality and originality of the stories they have read and experienced through the planned activities will have given the students a way of approaching and understanding our neighbors to the south.

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Amaral, José Vasquez. The Contemporary Latin American Narrative (New York: Las Americas Publishing Co.), 1970.

Good background on authors not including Borges. It is based on novels not short stories, but it helps in understanding the authors’ thought processes.

Foster, David William. Studies in the Contemporary Spanish American Short Story (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press), 1979.

A critical study of Borges, Carpentier, Cortázar, Garc’a Márquez, and others. Scholarly explanations of the authors’ styles and art. Very useful for background information.

Imbert, Enrique Anderson. Spanish American Literature A History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press), 1963.

A comprehensive history of Spanish-American literature from its beginnings through the 1960’s. Very useful in situating our authors in their places in this continuum. Good background information.

Leal, Luis. Historia del Cuento Hispanoamericano (Ediciones de Andrea), 1966.

An excellent source of background information!

Peden, Margaret Sayers, editor. The Latin American Short Story A Critical History (Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers), 1983.

A very useful book. It situates our authors in their literary and historical periods.

Rama, Angel. Primeros Cuentos de Diez Maestros Latinoamericanos (Barcelona: Editorial Planeta), 1975.

Stories by Carpentier, Cortázar, and Garc’a Márquez in Spanish. Good introductory backgrounds on authors.

Teachers should see the Reading List for Students for collections of stories, in particular Monegal for his background information.

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Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, Inc.), 1962.

An anthology of important stories. Excellent translations. Stories other than “The South” can be read and discussed.

Carpentier, Alejo. War of Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf). 1970.

Unfortunately this book is out of print. A copy of “Journey Back to the Source” is on file at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 53 Wall Street New Haven, Ct.

Cortázar, Julio. Blow-Up and Other Stories (New York: Pantheon Books), 1967.

A very interesting anthology of stories. Many of them can be read and discussed by students.

Cortázar, Julio. “The Southern Thruway”.

A copy of this story is also on file at the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 53 Wall Street New Haven, Ct.

Garc’a Márquez Gabriel. No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Row Publishers), 1968.

This collection of stories contains “Big Mama’s Funeral” which is used in this unit. Any of the other stories can be used with a class.

Monegal, Emir Rodr’guez, editor. The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature Vol. I (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 1977.

An anthology of Latin American Literature from the time of Columbus to the Twentieth Century. Good explanatory introductions. Excerpts of different genres and whole stories are included.

Monegal, Emir Rodr’guez, editor. The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature Vol. II (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 1986.

This volume continues the anthology from the previous volume and concentrates on modern literature. A very useful set of books.

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