In her book Chica Lit: Popular Latina Fiction and Americanization in the Twenty-First Century, Tace Hedrick draws attention to a subgenre of women’s fiction that has grown increasingly popular in the midst of recent US obsession with all things Latina/o: chica lit. Right alongside the glorification of the breakfast taco and Oscar Isaac’s newfound identity as “the internet boyfriend” (for more explanation see here), chica lit is a niche market in women’s fiction written by “self proclaimed assimilated US Latina and Mexican American authors.” The protagonists of these novels are often young Latina and Mexican American women in their twenties and thirties, either striving to climb the social ladder or learning to balance their Latina heritage with their successful middle class lives (which for some reason are inherently at odds with one another).
Branching out from traditional Latina/o literature, which conceptualizes Latindad as a political or oppositional consciousness, chica lit seeks to raise questions about Latina/o identity amidst all the “contradictory discourses about Latinos, immigration, and ‘Americanness.'» However, Hedrick also acknowledges how this attempt to distance Latina/o literature from the politically charged novels of the previous generation and to portray Latinidad in terms of a fresh vision of “Americanness” can be troubling. This is especially true when we consider how these novels use conventions of women’s fiction to create a harmful fantasy in which to be American is to hold a bachelor’s degree and wear Christian Dior, while to be Latina is to shop at Kmart and date Mario from the Barrio (i.e. drives a low-rider and will help you score some fine hierba). Chica lit utilizes a variety of genres, including chick lit, contemporary romance, and paranormal romance, contributing to the formation of a sanitized, politically unconscious, middle-class Latina who, branded with just enough ethnic markers (think Spanish last names and Frida Kahlo tote bags), can be safely marketed to the American public, ignoring the fact that most US Latina/os are still working class and cannot readily fall into step with this middle-class identity.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Hedrick’s argument is her insightful observation of how the question of assimilation for US Latina/os is still central to the Latina/o narrative, although different from what it used to be. While Latina/o characters in older novels deal with the question of assimilation in terms of immigration, questioning how he or she assimilates to the United States and showcasing the dangers of losing connection to one’s native country, chica lit portrays assimilation as something necessary to being a player in the neoliberal market and achieving success.
According to Hendrick, assimilation in these novels extends past the immigrant narrative and asks the question of how to assimilate your ethnic identity in the ‘proper’ way in order to gain material, social, and romantic benefits. Assimilated ethnic identity is the new cultural capital in a neoliberal twenty-first century. The new challenge is not how to adapt to a new country but rather how to adapt to the market. However, in this updated vision, the political activism of old can become the outdated, unhip, chancla-wielding abuela to the modern day chica’s adaptable, marketable, properly Americanized Latina identity.
While the countless formulaic plots can get lost in the mix, Hedrick skillfully articulates chica lit’s ambivalent nature, addressing the modern Latina’s struggle to maintain an authentically ethnic and believable Latina subjectivity without losing her marketability as an American, and how these authors both utilize and contest Latina/o stereotypes in order to market twenty-first century Latinidad.
A version of this review will appear in the E3W Review of Books, a project headed by graduate students and faculty of UT’s Department of English. Click here for more info.