For novelist Elias Miguel Munoz of Mission Viejo, it's not a question of whether he should devote his life to writing. "I have no choice but to write," says Munoz, 37. "I love language. I love words. I love telling stories."
But the Cuban-born author has another, equally compelling reason he gave up his career as a university professor of literature to spend an average of 10 hours a day holed up in his condominium writing.
"In my own case, there's a collective experience of Cubans in the United States that needs to be told," says Munoz, who left Cuba at 14. "Very little has been written about this experience. I don't write to make lots of money or to entertain only. As a Latino writer, I feel like I have an important responsibility to help change the way Latinos are seen in the United States."
Short-story writer Helena Maria Viramontes of Irvine shares that feeling. So does novelist Alejandro Morales of Tustin.
Munoz, Viramontes and Morales are part of a growing chorus of Latino writers in the United States whose voices are beginning to be heard by an increasingly wider audience. And the stories they are telling provide welcome insight into the diverse experiences of Latinos in this country:
In his 1988 novel "The Brick People," Morales tapped his own family's history to create a fictionalized account of Mexican immigrants who worked in the Simons Brick Factory in Montebello and struggled to find acceptance in their adopted land during the first half of the 20th Century.
In her 1985 short-story collection "The Moths and Other Stories," Viramontes focused on East Los Angeles women of various ages as they struggle against the restraints placed on them by a patriarchal Latino society.
And in his new novel "The Greatest Performance," Munoz traces the lives of best friends Rosa and Mario from their childhood in Cuba through their immigration to the United States. The novel, which explores such themes as friendship, gender roles and cultural displacement, is gaining recognition as the first U.S. Latino work to deal with AIDS.
The three authors--leading members of Orange County's small but productive Latino writing community--acknowledge that Latino writers in the United States are beginning to enjoy their place in the sun.
"It's like all of a sudden we've been discovered," said Munoz, citing the high-visibility successes of U.S. Latino authors such as Oscar Hijuelos ("The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love") and Sandra Cisneros ("Woman Hollering Creek").
"Every minority in the United States has had a moment of arrival and then they become mainstream. It happened to black writers like Alice Walker, and now, with Amy Tan, the Oriental mythology is becoming accessible through the eyes of a Chinese-American."
Although the translated works of such Latin American authors as Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa have been best-sellers in this country, Munoz said, "the problem is when U.S. Latinos are compared to them and are expected to produce similar literature. We do have access to that tradition, but what people forget is the conditions of U.S. Latinos are very different from Latin Americans. We're basically caught between two cultures."
And it is precisely that, Munoz said, "that is our strength.
"That gives us the edge in the sense that we're not afraid to subvert the status quo. Basically, when you're marginal you have a position of power to, I don't want to say criticize, but make certain statements and not be afraid. And that power leads to very powerful and rich literature.
"What's happening with Latino writers is now we're basically forging our own history, our own tradition. In that sense, we're the new kid in town."
Orange County's Latino writing community also includes poets such as Cuban-American Isa de Quesada, 31, of Huntington Beach. Says de Quesada, who has been writing poetry since she was 11: "I'm real Americanized, so most of my stuff deals with my growing up in America."
Local Latino writers are also involved in other literary activities. De Quesada is associate editor of Onthebus, a literary quarterly; Viramontes co-founded a Los Angeles group called Latino Writers and Filmmakers; and Morales co-founded Pacific Writers Press, a small publishing house whose first book in 1988 was "The New Neighbor and Other Stories" by David Nava Monreal of El Toro.
Morales, a UC Irvine professor of U.S. Latino and Latin American literature, served on a steering committee that this year established the Orange County chapter of PEN, the international writers organization. The chapter's first president is Argentine-born poet and critic Florinda Mintz of Santa Ana.
Morales also is involved with the annual Chicano/Latino Literary Contest, a prestigious national competition that was started 18 years ago and is sponsored by UCI's Department of Spanish and Portuguese,
But writing remains the highest priority of Orange County's Latino authors.