The history of Spanish American literature begins with the writings of the explorers, soldiers, and missionaries who participated in the conquest of the New World. Their writings, eyewitness accounts of the discovery, the conquest, the existing civilizations, and the natural wonders of the flora and fauna, form the literature of the early colonial period. These chronicles, letters, histories, religious pieces, and epic poems are the vibrant and fascinating expression of those who fought for church, crown, and gold.
The letters of Christopher Columbus to Ferdinand V and Isabella I and those of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, to Charles V are among the classics of this period. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the soldiers of Cortés, wrote a remarkable history of the conquest of Mexico, and the history by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas of the destruction of the Indies made him the "apostle of the Indians" and the author of the "black legend" of Spain.
Early poetry includes Chile's epic poem, La Araucana (1569–89; tr. 1945) by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, a soldier who described the conflict between the Spaniards and the Araucanians of Chile. The epic tradition was continued by Diego de Hajeda and Bernardo de Balbuena. Among the first of those born in the New World to write about it, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega described the history of the Incas and of Peru.
With the growth of Spanish colonial society in America came the concomitant growth of literary circles, especially in the viceregal capitals of Mexico City and Lima. The writings of the time were imitative of 17th-century Spanish literature. Several notable figures were Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, the Mexican-born playwright, generally considered one of the great Spanish dramatists; Juana Inés de la Cruz, Mexican nun, feminist, and intellectual, known for her lyric poetry, plays, and prose; and the Peruvian Juan del Valle y Caviedes, known for his satiric poetry and sharp wit.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.