Testimonio includes a diverse corpus of literature prompted by periods of intense social and political upheaval throughout Latin America, including the Cuban Revolution (1959), the Bay of Pigs/ Invasión de Girón (1961), the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (1979), Indigenous human rights struggles in Guatemala and the military dictatorships that dominated the Southern cone in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Yudice 20). While the impulse to write testimonio has been triggered by an array of circumstances, most of the works share the following characteristics:
- They are based on traumatic historical and/or social episode(s).
- They are told from an individual perspective.
- The individual experience serves as an allegory for the communal experience as a whole.
- The author has been oppressed or silenced in some capacity and the work contains political statement against the perceived oppressor or suffering caused by that oppression.
- Literary elements such as dialogue, poetry and metaphors are infused throughout the writing.
- There is a sense of orality.
- The author includes selections from other texts including newspaper clippings, quotes from leaders and popular mythology.
The diversity of works classified as testimonio as well as its nontraditional structure have been the impetus for several debates within academia, including the following:
- Can a testimonio that is told by a person with limited literacy skills, such as Rigoberta Menchu or Domatila Barrios de Chungara, to an intellectual and then transcribed by that intellectual still retain the perspective of the testimonialista? If so, who is the author?
- Does the academic study and the inclusion of testimonio into the canon of literature negate its ability to voice an outside aesthetic?
- Do state-sanctioned testimonios, for instance those written after the Marial exodus in Cuba, perpetuate a hegemonically conceived perspective (Yudice 20)?
- Should testimonio be classified as literary or historical writing? If it is classified as historical, how is the question of legal liability answered?