6 Latin American Nobel Prize Winners in Literature
Did you know that six Latin American authors who wrote groundbreaking books ended up winning the Nobel prize in literature?
Prominent writers took over the Latin American literature scene in the mid-20th century. The international success of the Latin American genre of magical realism was part of the movement known as the Latin American Boom.
While many celebrated writers hail from this region of the planet, only six of them have earned the great honor of being Nobel prize in literature winners. Read this article to discover six Nobel prize-winning Latin American authors and their books.
A Brief History of the Nobel Prize
The Nobel prize is named after the famous chemist, writer, inventor, and engineer Alfred Nobel. He was born to a family of engineers and highly educated in the humanities and natural sciences.
Alfred spoke 5 languages, and his last wish was to institute the Nobel Prize with all of his fortune. Today, the Nobel prize is the highest award given to people or institutes that have contributed exceptionally to humanity in physics, chemistry, medicine, peacemaking, economy, mathematics, history, and—our focus today—literature.
But why is the Nobel prize so coveted and prestigious?
In the early days, it became famous as the “genius award.” A 5-member committee of academics, scientists, and artists for each prize reviews all nominations. The selection is then handed to industry-specific institutes and societies to make the final decision. Word quickly spread that the selection process was meticulous.
Latin American Nobel Prize Winners in Literature
This Nobel Prize in literature winners list includes authors who gained international fame thanks to winning this award, as well as their country of origin and the year they won in parenthesis. Their noteworthy books of poetry and prose changed the course of literature and introduced new movements and genres.
1. Gabriela Mistral – Chile (1945)
Gabriela Mistral’s real name was Lucila de María del Perpetuo Soccoro Godoy Alcayaga. Rumor has it that she chose her pen name from her favorite authors Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral.
She was an educator, humanist, poet, and diplomat—and the first Latin American author and fifth woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Gabriela’s early life was plagued by suffering, abandonment, and grief. She had to support her family financially starting at age 15. These traumatic experiences are reflected in her first book Desolación (Desolation) in 1922, for which she won the Nobel Prize. Mistral became the voice of Latin America and established an international reputation.
Desolación is a collection of poems whose main themes are nature, motherhood, morality, religion, death, loss, and love for children.
Other titles by Gabriela Mistral:
- Ternura (Tenderness)
- Sonetos de Muerte (Sonnets of Death)
- Poema de Chile (Poem of Chile)
- Lecturas Para Mujeres (Readings for Women)
2. Miguel Ángel Asturias – Guatemala (1967)
Miguel Ángel Asturias was a Guatemalan dramatist, novelist, poet, and diplomat who drew attention to indigenous cultures, especially the Maya of Guatemala. He became one of the Nobel Prize in literature winners thanks to his book El Señor Presidente (Mr. President) about living under a merciless dictator. This contribution greatly influenced the movement of magical realism.
While the book never specifies the name of the dictator or the country in which it is set, it’s clear that Astuarias is referring to Guatemala’s Manuel Estrada Cabrera and his regime of terror.
The book has been contemplated as a study of fear. It examines the pyramidal spread of evil, from dictators to citizens and how they cope to survive. Miguel’s solidarity and commitment to his political convictions and defending his culture and roots are visible in all of his work. This remarkable author is one to read.
Other titles by Miguel Ángel Asturias:
- Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala)
- Hombres de Maíz (Men of Maize)
- Trilogía Bananera (The Banana Trilogy)
3. Pablo Neruda – Chile (1971)
Pablo Neruda (born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto) was a Chilean politician, diplomat, and poet with a unique history. Pablo became known as a poet when he was 13 years old, when he published his first work. He wrote political manifestos, historical epics, and surrealist poems throughout his life.
As a politician and diplomat, he served for the Communist party until communism was outlawed and the state issued an arrest warrant against him. His friends hid him until he escaped to Argentina, where he advised socialist President Salvador Allende.
Neruda was allowed to return to Chile after accepting the Nobel Prize “for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.” He died two years later, allegedly of cancer. Chilean authorities stated in 2015 that it was likely that he was poisoned in the hospital when Salvador Allende was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet.
His father opposed him to pursue a literary interest but Gabriela Mistral, who was the head of his school, encouraged him to do it. He chose a pen name to avoid his father’s disapproval.
Other titles by Pablo Neruda:
- Crepusculario (Book of Twilights)
- Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Canción Desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song)
- Tentativa del Hombre Infinito (The Attempt of The Infinite Man)
4. Gabriel García Márquez – Colombia (1982)
Gabriel García Márquez was a Colombian journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and short-story writer. He is considered to be the most prominent Latin American writer of the 20th century and is known for the major commercial success of his novels.
García Márquez popularized magic realism, the literary style that mixes magical elements with ordinary situations. He wanted to write a book about his grandparents but was never able to find the proper tone for it. As the literary legend goes, he was driving with his family to Acapulco and it hit him, so he headed back home and spent 18 months writing the marvelous book Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).
The masterpiece won him the Nobel Prize in 1982 and sold 30 million copies. One Hundred Years of Solitude is about the fictional Buendía family living in the mystical town of Macondo. Its main themes are isolation, life and death, doom, and fatalism.
Other titles by Gabriel García Márquez:
- La Mala Hora (In Evil Hour)
- El Otoño del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch)
- El Amor en Tiempos de Cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera)
5. Octavio Paz – México (1990)
Octavio Paz was a Mexican diplomat and poet whose influences range from surrealism and existentialism to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Marxism. His later themes include love, sexuality, anthropology, politics, Aztec art, and economics.
Paz won the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his essay, El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). In it, he expresses a genuine concern for finding a true Mexican identity. He analyzes holidays and historical events such as the Day of the Dead, Independence, Revolution, Colonialism, and the 1968 student massacre. Paz concludes that solitude is responsible for of Mexican perspectives on death, ethnic identity, and celebration.
Other titles by Octavio Paz:
- Luna Silvestre (Wild Moon)
- Entre la Piedra y la Flor (Between the Stone and the Flower)
- Salamandra (Salamander)
6. Mario Vargas Llosa – Perú (2010)
Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian journalist, college professor, former politician, essayist, and writer. He is one of the most significant Latin American novelists of his generation.
Critics consider him to have a larger international audience than any other representatives of the Latin American Boom movement. Of all the Latin American authors featured on this list, Vargas Llosa is the only one alive today.
The literary genres he thrives on are comedies, political thrillers, historical novels, and murder mysteries. Resistance, societal criticism, oppression, freedom, dictatorships, defeat, riot, and power are some of the main themes he uses in his writing.
Vargas Llosa ran for president but lost to Alberto Fujimori in 1990. He’s one of the leading personalities of the Reporters Without Borders Information and Democracy Commision.
Vargas’ first novel is La Ciudad y Los Perros (literal translation: The City and the Dogs, but it’s entitled The Time of The Hero in English). He won the Nobel Prize in 2010 for it. It’s a nonlinear narrative about teen boys and their transition into manhood with a military background.
Other titles by Mario Vargas Llosa:
- Contra Viento y Marea (Making Waves)
- El Hablador (The Storyteller)
- La Casa Verde (The Green House)
Read More in Spanish!
All of the wonderful books by these Nobel Prize winners are worth reading in Spanish. Nothing compares to learning about a culture through great literature in the language it was written. Besides opening new doors of culture and fine arts, learning Spanish improves your cognition and decision-making abilities.
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