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Luis Leal

[ Biography/Memoir ]

Luis Leal

An Auto/Biography

By Mario T. García

An oral history of a prominent Mexican American scholar.

2000

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 230 pp. | 22 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-72829-5

Professor Luis Leal is one of the most outstanding scholars of Mexican, Latin American, and Chicano literatures and the dean of Mexican American intellectuals in the United States. He was one of the first senior scholars to recognize the viability and importance of Chicano literature, and, through his perceptive literary criticism, helped to legitimize it as a worthy field of study. His contributions to humanistic learning have brought him many honors, including Mexico's Aquila Azteca and the United States' National Humanities Medal.

In this testimonio or oral history, Luis Leal reflects upon his early life in Mexico, his intellectual formation at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, and his work and publications as a scholar at the Universities of Illinois and California, Santa Barbara. Through insightful questions, Mario García draws out the connections between literature and history that have been a primary focus of Leal's work. He also elicits Leal's assessment of many of the prominent writers he has known and studied, including Mariano Azuela, William Faulkner, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Tomás Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa, Rudolfo Anaya, Elena Poniatowska, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodríguez, and Ana Castillo.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Linares
  • Chapter Two: Chicago
  • Chapter Three: Mississippi and Emory
  • Chapter Four: Illinois
  • Chapter Five: Aztlán--Part One
  • Chapter Six: Aztlán--Part Two
  • Chapter Seven: Santa Barbara
  • Chapter Eight: Work and Reflections at Ninety
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography of Luis Leal's Works
  • Index

Professor Luis Leal is one of the most outstanding scholars of Mexican, Latin American, and Chicano literature--he is the dean of Mexican American intellectuals in the United States. Don Luis, as he is affectionately called by those who know him well, is now in his early nineties and has devoted his long life to scholarship, teaching, and to helping others with his unassuming but effective leadership.

Born in Linares, Nuevo León, in northern Mexico on September 17,1907--the eve of the Mexican Revolution of 1910--Don Luis spent his early years with his family surviving and adjusting to the turmoil and hostilities of Mexico's most profound political crisis. The temporary dislocations of the civil war and, more importantly, the Revolution itself, represented a defining period for the young Luis. As well-to-do ranchers, his family emerged from the conflict in better shape than most other Mexicans. The Leals supported the uprising against the longtime dictator Porfirio Díaz and embraced the progressive liberalism espoused by particular factions of the alliance against him. This implanted in Don Luis a humanistic world view and a sympathy for social justice. In addition, the Revolution would come to be an important research theme for Leal.

As a norteño--a man of Mexico's northern region-Don Luis was influenced by the proximity of the United States. Following the Revolution, he desired to pursue his post-high school education north of the border. He applied and was accepted in 1934 as an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Coming to the American Midwest was an important juncture for him. It would mean that his future life would be spent mostly in the United States, with a good portion of it in the Midwest. Although it took him longer than average to graduate due to his need to master English, Don Luis did so in 1940. By then he had settled on the goal of pursuing a Ph.D. in Spanish and of becoming a college professor. To achieve this objective, he entered the graduate program at the prestigious University of Chicago. Staying in the Midwest was also important to him, since as an undergraduate he had met and married Gladys Clemens of Chicago, a marriage that has endured for some sixty years. Don Luis received his M.A. in Spanish in 1941 but had to postpone his doctoral studies due to the outbreak of World War II; as a naturalized American citizen, he was subject to the draft. Don Luis loyally served his new country and saw active duty with the U.S. Army in the Pacific, including the retaking of the Philippines from the Japanese. Fortunately, he returned home unharmed.

Reunited with his wife and two young sons, Don Luis devoted the next few years to completing his Ph.D., which he achieved in 1950. He expressed his interest in Latin American history and literature by writing a dissertation on the colonial chronicles of New Spain as fiction and as the origin of the Mexican short story.

In 1952, two years after completing his graduate work, Don Luis began his career as a university professor in the Romance languages department of the University of Mississippi. He recalls often seeing the famous American writer William Faulkner on the streets of Oxford. Not completely happy there in the mid-1950s, a time of increasing racial tensions, he accepted a position at Emory University in Atlanta in 1956. In this period Don Luis, already a published scholar, accelerated his research to focus on studies and anthologies of the Mexican and Latin American short story. Indeed, he became the premier scholar of the Mexican short story as highlighted by his books Breve historia del cuento mexicano (1957), Antología del cuento mexicano (1957), and Bibliografía del cuento mexicano (1958).

As his career progressed, Don Luis received opportunities to teach and conduct research at larger and more research-oriented institutions. In 1959 he accepted a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he would work until his retirement in 1976. There, Don Luis matured and flourished as a scholar and teacher. He published numerous books and articles and read at countless scholarly conferences papers encompassing his interests in both Mexican and Latin American literature. In addition to his work on the short story, Don Luis began to write on a variety of major Mexican and Latin American writers, such as Mariano Azuela, Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Juan José Arreola. He knew many of these writers personally, some of whom achieved international recognition in the 1960s as part of the so-called Latin American Boom in literature. As a significant part of his Illinois years and as a testimony to his own growing reputation as a scholar, Don Luis mentored to completion some forty-four Ph.D. students of Latin American literature.

In addition to his work on the Mexican short story, some of Don Luis's major publications in the area of Mexican and Latin American literature include México, civilizaciones y culturas (1955 and 1971), Mariano Azuela, vida y obra (1961), Historia del cuento hispanoamericano (1966), El cuento hispanoamericano (1967), and Juan Rulfo (1983).

It was also at Illinois that Don Luis became interested in Chicano literature. Mexican Americans, as Don Luis would stress, could trace a literary genealogy within the borders of the United States as far back as the Spanish colonial period. However, it was not until the 1960s and the ethnic revival associated with the militant Chicano movement of that period that specific attention came to be focused on Chicano cultural and artistic contributions, including literature. Beginning with his participation in one of the first sessions on Chicano literature at a meeting of the Modern Language Association, Don Luis, as an "adopted Chicano," commenced a significant new direction in his research. He believed in the viability of Chicano literature and saw the need to turn his talents and leadership to legitimizing it and its criticism. Don Luis became not only one of the first senior scholars in the country to champion this new writing and research, but he also became one of its first scholars. His previous work in Mexican and Latin American literature contributed to helping establish the cultural linkages between Hispanic literature south of the border and Chicano literature north of it. Moreover, his stature and importance in the early days of Chicano literary criticism made it difficult for others to dismiss this research area as nothing more than political rhetoric.

Don Luis's involvement in the founding of contemporary Chicano literary criticism was further advanced by his permanent relocation to Santa Barbara in 1976. He and Gladys initially chose Santa Barbara for retirement, but the move would come to bear a whole new career of research and teaching focused primarily on Chicano literature. Within a couple of years of arriving in California, Leal began to teach courses in Chicano literature and Mexican cultural traditions for the Department of Chicano Studies at UCSB. He was named a senior research fellow in the Center for Chicano Studies and even served as its acting director for three years in the early 1980s. to this day, Don Luis teaches two courses per year for the department, plus an occasional seminar in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and maintains a research appointment. During this fresh and active period, he has written and published widely on a variety of topics in Chicano literature. In recognition of his contributions in this field, the National Association for Chicano Studies named Don Luis as its scholar of the year in 1987. At UCSB he was further honored with the establishment of an endowed chair in Chicano Studies in his name. This is the first and only such chair in the United States. The first recipient of the Luis Leal Endowed Chair in Chicano Studies is another outstanding scholar of Chicano literature, Professor María Herrera-Sobek.

Among some of his most important works in Chicano literature, in addition to his numerous articles and reviews, are Corridos y canciones de Aztlán (1986), A Decade of Chicano Literature, 1970-1979 (1982), Aztlán y México: perfiles literarios e históricos (1985), and No Longer Voiceless (1995). In all, Don Luis has published close to 250 articles and over 30 books.

But Don Luis has never been just an ivory-tower intellectual. As an undergraduate at Northwestern he became involved in Latino community-based organizations; he has always been willing to assist the community in any way he can, especially the Latino one. In recognition of this service and of his outstanding academic achievements and leadership among Latinos, the Santa Barbara Hispanic Achievement Council named Don Luis the recipient of its 1984 Hispanic Achievement Award. His leadership and record as an American scholar was recognized more recently by his adopted country when President Bill Clinton honored Don Luis by awarding him the country's most prestigious humanities award, the National Humanities Medal, in 1997. The Mexican government, still claiming him as a native son, presented Don Luis its nation's highest honor, the Aguila Azteca Award, in 1991. One more feather was placed in Don Luis's illustrious cap in 1998, when he was elected to the prestigious North American Academy of Spanish Language.

During his six decades of research and writing--a career that is still ongoing at the end of the millennium--Don Luis has exhibited certain key characteristics as a scholar that I believe serve as outstanding examples for others. First, he has always seen his research not in isolation from the community or from social issues but as very much a part of a dialogue on how to advance those interests. He has seen his research as a way of better understanding human relations and of promoting social justice (that is the humanist and the citizen in him). To this end, he has always attempted to study literature and writers within a historical context. For Don Luis, literature does not exist outside of history but is a part of history and the making of history. His interdisciplinary orientation, even in his earlier years when the term was not yet in vogue, has been indicative of his nontraditional approach. He is a scholar who understands the complexity of the world and of the intricacies of human social relationships--which are not subject to easy judgments. He was an anti-essentialist even before postmodern scholars took up the theme. Don Luis has never remained static.

Perhaps his most exemplary characteristic as a scholar is his sense of tolerance and support for the work of others. As he told me more than once in our interviews, everyone contributes something--every scholar produces some useful knowledge that is of benefit to other scholars. Discouraging elitist and ego-driven competition among academics, through his work and his example Leal has encouraged a humanistic tolerance among the scholarly community. In this day of one-up-manship in the academy, Don Luis's kind and gentle approach is a refreshing alternative.

A word about how this book came to be and about the working relationship between Don Luis and myself is in order. I am not a literary scholar but a historian. I came to the production of this testimonio, or oral history, from several perspectives. As a practitioner of oral history, I understand and appreciate the importance of recording the history and stories of our elders. I have done many oral histories over the years, including a book-length testimonio about the life and times of Bert Corona, an outstanding labor and community leader in this country. Due to his activism, Corona would never have had the time to write his autobiography. I realized the same was true of Don Luis: his active research and teaching schedule, and undoubtedly his own modesty, would never have allowed Don Luis to produce his life story.

When I approached him about the possibility of working on a testimonio, he graciously agreed to the project. As a historian who has focused on the role of leadership in Chicano history, I recognized that Don Luis's life and career are important aspects of the leadership that has emanated from the Latino intellectual community. Finally, I have always been interested in literature and understand the significant ideological and artistic contributions that Chicano literature has made. For all these reasons and more, I chose to devote time and energy to producing this testimonio of a remarkable individual.

Don Luis and I conducted our conversations from the fall of 1993 until the winter of 1999, with various breaks in between. In all, some thirty-five hours of interviews were taped. These tapes, along with the unedited transcripts, are deposited in the Luis Leal Collection in the special collections of the Green Library at Stanford University. We worked--if work is the correct word for what were in fact delightful and stimulating conversations--in Don Luis's modest but comfortable home in the Santa Barbara suburb of Goleta. There we spent many memorable afternoons, never exceeding more than two hours and refreshingly interrupted by Gladys's thoughtful hospitality of coffee and panecitos, or baked goodies. In these afternoon conversations, Don Luis in English recalled some of the details of his own life and of the many episodes and periods of his career. We went back in time and relived the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, World War II, the Eisenhower 1950s, the turmoil of the 1960s, the challenging spirit of the Chicano movement, and Don Luis's California years. In this voyage, or pilgrimage, of memory, we visited with a bevy of writers and critics from both sides of the border. This list reads like a Who's Who of Mexican, Latin American, and Chicano literature: Martin Luis Guzmán, Mariano Azuela, Samuel Ramos, Octavio Paz, José Revueltas, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan José Arreola, Octavio Romano, Tomás Rivera, Alurista, José Montoya, José Antonio Villarreal, Rudolfo Anaya, Rolando Hinojosa, Ron Arias, Joséph Sommers, Juan Bruce-Novoa, Miguel Méndez, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Ernesto Galarza, Américo Paredes, John Rechy, Estella Portillo Trambley, Elena Poniatowska, Arturo Azuela, Gustavo Sainz, Alejandro Morales, Richard Rodríguez, Gary Soto, Arturo Islas, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, and Denise Chávez.

When most of the interviews were completed, I began to write up the text based on the transcriptions of the tapes. Very early on, I decided that the best way to write the narrative was not as a disguised monologue but in the form of a dialogue, which is what in essence a testimonio is all about. In this sense, the text is neither a traditional autobiography nor a traditional biography, but instead a synthesis of the two genres, an "auto/biography." I chose to include both our voices because this particular testimonio is actually more of an intellectual autobiography than, as in the case of Bert Corona's, a full life story. From the beginning both Don Luis and I understood that our project would be centered on his career and work as a literary scholar. Some aspects of his personal life would be covered, but in respect for Don Luis's privacy and that of Gladys and his family, the project would focus predominantly on his career. As a result, I did not believe that a first-person, singular narrative was appropriate. Don Luis's career--his comments and thoughts about his intellectual world view, about his own projects, and about the many writers and critics who have crossed his path--is best represented by maintaining the original (though edited) dialogue format of the interviews. Although I want to minimize my own voice in the dialogue, this format shows how a testimonio is produced and how it is clearly the result of dual voices. Don Luis's contributions to the text are obvious in the dominance of his voice throughout the narrative, but he also went over each draft of the text and made corrections and additions.

I want to close this introduction by reemphasizing what an exceptional and memorable experience it was to have participated in these charlas, or conversations, with Don Luis. His career is a model and an inspiration of how to be an intellectual and scholar with dignity, honor, integrity, and the highest of standards, commitment, kindness, consideration, and respect for others. The importance of Don Luis's life is not how long he has lived but simply how he has lived his life.

 

Mario T. García is Professor of History and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"I found this testimonial biography of Luis Leal informative, engaging, and intellectually stimulating.... [It] is an invaluable contribution to the fields of Chicano history and Chicano literature."

—Francisco Jiménez, Professor of Spanish, Santa Clara University

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