It is only recently that Hispanic fiction has touched the mainstream American reader. Certainly there are exceptions Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa jump to mind but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. In the past few years, however, names such as Laura Esquivel, Isabel Allende and Jose Raul Bernardo have breathed new life into a genre of literature long overlooked by the American book-buying public. At this point, few publishers have stepped up to the plate to offer books by Hispanic authors, but this is bound to change, as Hispanics represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. And for the moment, at least, some of the richest fiction to come out of the Americas can be attributed to a handful of superb Hispanic authors.

Stella Pope Duarte's Let Their Spirits Dance tells the poignant story of a mother's wish to touch her son's name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., before she dies. Told from the perspective of daughter Teresa, the story begins in small-town Arizona in 1968. Teresa's brother Jesse is saying his goodbyes to friends and family as he leaves for Vietnam: Then he leans over to me and says, I don't think I'm coming back, Teresa. Take care of Mom. . . . Yes you will, I insist. But I know what he wants. This is a secret I have to keep. Fast forward to the present. Teresa's mother is very ill, and she has become fixated on the idea of the Veterans Memorial. Teresa, ever practical, tells her mother that a) the doctor will never permit it and b) they can't afford the airfare anyway: My mother stares at me, then starts laughing. Oh, no mija, we're not going by plane. We're going by car! And so begins a strange and powerful road trip of memories, healing and closure. Let Their Spirits Dance is Duarte's second book; her first, Fragile Night, won her critical acclaim and a fellowship from the Arizona Arts Commission, as well as a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in Literature.

Another appealing new book from Rayo, the Latino imprint of publisher HarperCollins, is The Republic of East L.A., a collection of barrio vignettes by master storyteller Luis J. Rodriguez. The author is well known in the Hispanic community for his autobiographical Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which won numerous awards including a New York Times Notable Book for 1993. The Republic of East L.A. continues in this tradition, offering brief entrŽe into the lives of a rapper, a trio of gangbanger girls, a homeless man, a pair of ex-cons and several other colorful characters of the East Los Angeles neighborhoods. There are no punches pulled, yet amid the rawness and brutality, glimpses of hope and beauty are found at every turn. Rodriguez has published three volumes of poetry, and his lyricism blossoms on every page. A maroon '63 Impala lowrider graces the cover, and its spirit imbues the book. Who says you can't judge a book by its cover?

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes is possessed of one of the most resonant voices in literature, Hispanic or otherwise. Through novels such as The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), The Old Gringo (1985) and The Years with Laura Diaz (2000), Fuentes has won critical acclaim and an international readership. His latest work, Inez, due out in English translation this month, tells two oddly concurrent love stories: one of an orchestra conductor and a singer in wartime Europe, the other of a pair of humans from the distant past, perhaps the first two humans to ever have contact with one another. The two narratives are joined together by the device of a magical crystal seal that allows its holder (and the reader) to traverse between these worlds. This may sound like a science fiction novel, but nothing could be further from the truth. It reads rather more like a grown-up version of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, in which a supernatural armoire provided the doorway between the real world and an alternate fantasy world (and left the reader to decide which was which). Inez is a short novel, just over 100 pages, but so rich and filling that it can only be devoured in pieces, allowing time to digest between courses; it is profound and poetic, a love story for the ages.

 

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