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Exploring colonial literature

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By Carlos Herrera Montero

Para leer Flores y Cantos en Español, siga el enlace.

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As we previously saw, the process of conquering the lands that peoples and cultures previously inhabited in “the new world” (which would later be called the American continent) was an intense and ruthless process. It was marked, basically, by greed in search of natural resources (gold, silver). Once these territories were conquered, the Spaniards started to settle and found cities and the process of colonization began. A new generation of Criollos (“Creoles” in English: offspring of Europeans and Natives born in these latitudes) developed as a result of the intermixing of different cultures and races. Also, different and new cultural regions began to form throughout the continent (Peru, Chile, Argentina, southern Colombia, Mexico, Central America and the northern Caribbean).

During colonial times, between XVII and XVIII centuries, there were many local writers, who – influenced by the European Baroque and Neoclassicism – developed their work, in which we find a combination of European literary tradition combined with autochthonous elements. The literary works were mainly of religious character, since the Catholic friars and monks were the ones in charge of converting the natives to Catholicism. Also, because there was a ban on importing books that were not religious where the Inquisition established itself in the new territories. 

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Some of the most important authors of this period are: Alonso de Ercilla (1533–1594), with his epic poem “La Araucana” (The Araucaniad) about the conquest of Chile, highlighting its national hero Caupolicán; Pedro de Oña (1570-1643), Chilean who wrote “Arauco domado” (Araucan Conquest); Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (1581-1639), a Mexican writer of plays like “La Verdad Sospechosa” (Suspect Truth); Juan del Valle y Caviedes (1652-1697), Peruvian author of “Diente del Parnaso” (Tooth of Parnassus); and Juan Rodríguez Freyle (1566-1640), Colombian who wrote “El Carnero” (The Sheep).

However, without a doubt, the name that stands out the most from this time is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), Mexican poet and nun of exquisite and dazzling lyrical skill and dramatic production that surprises for its emotional intensity and formal perfection. She is considered the greatest poetess of the XVII century, not only of New Spain but of all territories where Spanish was the main spoken and written language. For her great poetic inspiration she was dubbed the “Divine Muse”. She wrote drama (for example, “House of Desires”, “Love is but a labyrinth”); poetry (“First dream”, “Divine Narcissus”), prose, lauds and Christmas carols.

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Let’s see some of her poetry:

“You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;

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if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.

You fight their stubbornness,
then, weightily,
you say it was their lightness
when it was your guile….”

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Another important name is Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), Mexican and a personal friend of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Besides being a poet, he was mathematician, astronomer, cosmographer, historian, cronist, biographer, memorialist and even fortification and artillery technician. 

He wrote many diverse works. His most famous is “Elogio fúnebre de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz” (Funeral Eulogy for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz).

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We can also mention the Mexican journalist Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, who has the honor of writing the first published novel in Latin America: “El Periquillo Sarniento” (The Mangy Parrot, 1816).  

Let’s take a look at other verses from Sor Juan Ines:

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“I approach, and I withdraw:
who but I could find
absence in the eyes,
presence in what’s far?

From the scorn of Phyllis,
now, alas, I must depart.
One is indeed unhappy
who misses even scorn!

So caring is my love
that my present distress
minds hard-heartedness less
than the thought of its loss….”

Definitely, the colonial era was important in the development of Latin American literature. This was the period of time when the different geographical, cultural and literary regions of the countries formed what is nowadays Latin America.

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Tags: #Carlos Herrera Montero #flores y cantos #literature #translation
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