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Undocumented US Immigrants Given a Voice in Latin American Literature

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The portrayal of undocumented migrants has become more nuanced in Latin American literature. The contemporary fiction is also presenting new perspectives on issues related to identity, belonging and life in alienation that are highly relevant in the modern immigration debate. These points are made in a new doctoral thesis in Spanish with a literary orientation from the University of Gothenburg.

‘For most of the 20th century, Mexican and US writers represented undocumented migrants as a collective of poor Mexican farmers and manual labourers. The more recent literature is much more varied in this respect. The migration to the US and the risky passing of the US border has inspired a vast literary production in Latin America in recent decades,’ says Fredrik Olsson.

Olsson has explored how the undocumented migrant is portrayed in eight novels written in Spanish by authors from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. His thesis is one of the first comprehensive studies on the theme of unauthorised migration in contemporary Latin American literature.

‘It seems like the authors want to show that the undocumented migrant can be almost anybody. In this way, the novels emphasise that this type of migration is relevant to all of us. They also use issues related to migration to explore various aspects of cultural identity. I find it a bit surprising that cultural differences are often expressed through stereotypical notions about national belonging and gender roles,’ says Olsson.

The myth about the US as the Promised Land persists, as does the depiction of the migrants’ hardships both on their way to and when living in the new country. Yet the dream about returning home is often downplayed.

‘The migrants in these stories have a to a greater extent than in the past come to stay indefinitely in the US and in so doing they contribute to spreading the use of Spanish in the country,’ says Olsson.

The novels bring attention to a generally invisible group of people and give them a voice. About 11 million undocumented immigrants, a majority of whom are from Latin America, are currently living in the US. The authors reflect on the vulnerable position of the undocumented migrants in the void between national communities. Many of the characters end up in some sort of vacuum, at the bottom of the hierarchy.

‘Despite all the suffering and misery, the novels can be surprisingly entertaining,’ says Olsson.

One example is El Corrido de Dante (2006), by Peruvian author Eduardo González Viaña. The novel, the English translation of which is titled Dante's Ballad, is a parody of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, written with a great deal of warm humour.

‘I hope more people will discover this literature and that it will lead to a better understanding of the situation of undocumented migrants. The literature can contribute other perspectives on these difficult issues than those heard in the mainstream debate.’


More information:
Fredrik Olsson, tel.: +46 (0)31 7864819, +46 (0)703 950456, email: fredrik.olsson@sprak.gu.se
Title of the doctoral thesis: ”Me voy pal Norte”. La configuración del sujeto migrante indocumentado en ocho novelas hispanoamericanas actuales (1992-2009)
The thesis has been defended and can be ordered from fredrik.olsson@sprak.gu.se
Link to the abstract: http://hdl.handle.net/2077/38638

Fredrik Olsson presented his doctoral thesis in June 2015.