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Breaking Through Into the Light: Junot Díaz and His Way to the Minds of the Masses

in Current Issue/Views

By Anna Rybníčková

The urge to be heard is an old struggle, especially for minorities. With the rise of the importance of cinema, contemporary TV and producers such as Netflix or HBO, a necessary space has been provided for people of various ethnicities to be heard and seen. And yet, how many classic Hollywood movies can you name which portray Black, Hispanic, Asian or a gay person as the main character? Black Panther is a notable exception. But why is that the case, when 12.4% of the US population is black (that is 39 million people) and the Hispanic community is even larger – 17.6%, (over 55 million people)? This article focuses on those 55 million and tries to explore the impact one of its literary representatives – Junot Díaz, has had on the Latino community and on the US population in general.

The Language Barrier

Junot Díaz, ChristopherpetersonWikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 3.0.

 

The Hispanic community in the US differs from the other minorities in one important aspect – language. Spanish is the second most frequently spoken language in the United States. According to the most recent survey made by the American Community Survey (ACS), over 13% of the overall US population speaks Spanish at home. It can be assumed a certain percentage of those people speak English in their everyday lives, yet they perceive Spanish as their native language. This fact can be seen over and over in real life in the USA as well. Over my university years, I have worked for numerous employers all over the US. The jobs had one thing in common, though. They were always short-term and were a part of the service sector. My first jobs were in what is possibly the most physically demanding job position in the service industry – housekeeping. What struck me most was the ratio of Hispanic people (mainly women) working at such positions for many years. And I noticed the Hispanic world in particular can be extremely secluded. The biggest problem was communication between Spanish and English speakers. Even though some of the women have had the same job at the same company for over twenty years, they had not learned English. At first, I thought that was rather odd and impractical but over the course of the following months, I started to understand why it was. Several factors needed to be taken into account when thinking about an issue such as this one. Firstly, the closely connected Hispanic community does not really need English in order to communicate and function in day-to-day situations.At these particular institutions, the managers were either of Hispanic origin as well or the daily meetings were translated into Spanish. Secondly, in many parts of the US, everything in the public sphere is bilingual – the road signs, the supermarkets, the schools. And thus, the salad bowl of America has created a curious side product – a smaller world which can be almost detached from the major, white European-based culture of the United States as it basically shares only the territory with it. And therein lies the rub. How do you get your voice out and represent yourself if you have to use a foreign language (English) in order to do so? Because language is still the most powerful tool of representation. Though this personal experience has been made on a very small fraction of the population, it corresponds with the overall trend that the statistics show throughout the United States.

The One Who Broke Through

But, there are some whose writing brought the Latino community closer to the public eye. One of them is Junot Díaz, who managed to combine the two very different worlds of the majority and minority population in quite a unique way. That is undoubtedly one of the things that has earned him a Pulitzer prize for literature for his work The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.

Díaz was born into a poor family in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1968. When he was six years old, his family emigrated to New Jersey, where they lived in a poor, mainly Hispanic neighbourhood. Díaz reflects on these years in his work and ponders about the emotions stirring in the Hispanic community (and Dominicans in particular) towards the United States. On one hand, the USA is undoubtedly a safer and richer country and provides opportunities even to the Hispanic immigrants, yet a resentment towards this proud and wealthy nation can be felt throughout the community, as the memory of US troops invading their native island and bringing terror is still fresh and very much alive in the minds of Díaz’s parents’ generation (Díaz 2).

In his books, Díaz manages to make a link mainly between the second generation of Hispanic migrants and the white population of the US. He achieves this by writing in English which is influenced by the Spanish language and Latino culture. He entwines his texts in Spanish words and whole sentences and manages to bring the closely interconnected community, which stays largely hidden to the public eye, to the spotlight. This brings understanding and connection between the majority and the minority. Furthermore, he is brutally realistic and describes in gruesome detail the perils the Latino community faces in the USA.

Pexels, Rawpixel.com, CC BY 4.0.

By choosing the language of the youth and by using slang, numerous neologisms and the mixture of Spanish and English (so called Spanglish), he creates a piece of literature unlike any other. His books are semi-autobiographical and that makes him more authentic. His stories are relatable to young Latinos and at the same time, as he mainly writes in English, he makes it possible for a much wider range of readers to enjoy his books and connect with the stories. Junot Díaz is only the second Latino writer to receive a Pulitzer prize for fiction. Altogether, only four people of Hispanic origin have been awarded this prize since its creation in 1917 (two for fiction, one for drama and one for poetry).

Yet, it is necessary at this point to address one more issue connected to Díaz and that is the sexual allegations made against him by several women in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Despite him denying all allegations, they did considerably damage his reputation not only as a man, but also as an acclaimed author. Critiques either stand behind Díaz (often quoting his essay in the New Yorker in which he wrote about his trauma from being raped as a child) or voice their deep concern. With the allegations made against Díaz, another issue arose, and that is the issue of race. The prejudices against the Latino community, fuelled also by Donald Trump, are alive and well in the American society. As Junot Díaz is an established writer in the American canon, he can be perceived as the voice of the whole community and more generalisations may arise because of this individual case. Furthermore, in cases like these, where the novels published by the author are semi-autobiographical, it is exceptionally difficult to distinguish between the ideas and opinions of the author and the narrator. Díaz’s characters (especially the main character of several books – Yunior de las Casas) are sometimes openly misogynist and objectify women according to their appearance. Yet Díaz and many of his supporters argue he is actually criticising misogyny by exposing the character’s flaws and sexist opinions about women. Nevertheless, it yet remains to be seen as to what extent this event will shape future work of this Dominican-American author.

By winning the Pulitzer prize, Junot Díaz made his way into the canon, and therefore brought his books to the attention of the public eye. This can be seen as a tremendous success as he stays true to his roots and recounts the life of an immigrant. By doing so, he represents the millions of Latinos all over the US and gives them a voice and recognition, which is finally coming not from the outside but from within. For the general public, he offers a unique insight into otherwise closed community. He normalizes and brings closer the existence of immigrants (both legal and illegal) in the US. This, however, may now be flawed by the sexual allegations made against him and may bring even more division between the majority and the minority, as by being the representative of the minority, Díaz now may have fuelled the generalising and hateful perspectives a part of the white majority holds against the Latino community in general.


 

Anna Rybníčková is the proud owner of a Master’s degree in Literature and Intercultural Communication, approximately 7,653 books, four cats and a collection of rather odd experiences. She is passionate about travel – she lived in the UK for 2.5 years, almost a year in the USA and half a year in Norway. She enjoys discovering the countries she currently finds herself in from the comfort of a van in which she travels with her boyfriend. She doesn’t know what she wants to do when she grows up yet but she is very much looking forward to finding that out. In the meantime, she keeps trying anything and everything to see what fits.

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