"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Desert Rain: Remembering Arturo Islas

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Bueno gente, I write from Burque tonight. We continue our look at the "zero" years by beginning our look at 1990s. We will still look back at 1980 and 1970, and we'll have special look at a 1940 publications this fall. One of the books published in 1990 was Arturo Islas' Migrant Souls, so we will feature some commentary from various writers on that book. Until then, I'm posting an article that Felipe Ortego published some time ago on Arturo Islas. Enjoy.


By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence/Chair, Department of Chicana/o and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University

Arturo Islas died on February 15, 1991, at age 52 at his campus home in Stanford University. 

The news was unexpected but not a surprise since he had been ailing for some time from complications induced by AIDS. That he was gay was never an issue, that I’m aware of, in Chicano literary circles.

The last time I saw Arturo Islas was at Ardovino’s deli in Kern Place, El Paso, Texas, where we sauntered for lunch during the TACHE (Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education) conference being held at the University of Texas at El Paso in May of 1985. 

He looked fit, was jovial and the bon vivant, as always, during our meal, punctuated by emphatic moments of reminiscences and commentary about Chicano(a) literature and its struggle for recognition. Invariably when we met our conversations drifted toward the lack of Mexican American representation in the American literary canon.

What we shared in common as professors of English was the discipline. We both delighted in the fact that we were teaching Anglos their own literature. We also shared “French.” Arturo had minored in French at Stanford as I had at Pitt when I was an undergraduate there from 1948 to 1952. Unlike Arturo, however, I spent three years in France honing my French language skills so much so that I taught French at Jefferson High School in El Paso, Texas until 1964 when I moved to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. We were both fans of Proust and Gide.

We talked about his novel The Rain God (1984), first titled Day of the Dead which languished for ten years as he tried to place the manuscript with a publisher. He revealed that he was working on a companion novel entitled Migrant Souls (1990). His manuscript of La Molly and the King of Tears was published posthumously in 2001 edited by Kay Cattarulla (Southern Methodist University Press). 

We also talked about Richard Rodriguez’ Hunger of Memory and obstacles Rodriguez’ work posed in our efforts to advance Chicano(a) literature in the American literary main-stream. We were both assaulting the normative canon of American literature which was anathema to Chicano(a) literature.

Our lunch at Ardovino’s carried us well past mid-afternoon. Arturo was in fine form – at the top of his game, one could say. It was always a heady experience to be in Arturo’s company, more so one-on-one. His literary range was extensive. Though I was 12 years older than Arturo, I always thought of him as a peer since we were both in the same doctoral cohort though at different institutions.

Arturo was not the first Chicano to earn the Ph.D. in English, though he was the first Chicano to receive the Ph.D. in English at Stanford in May of 1971; I was the first Chicano to receive the Ph.D. in English from the University of New Mexico in August of 1971. By 1971 only three other Mexican Americans had received Ph.D.’s in English before us: Americo Paredes at the University of Texas was the first, Charles Ramos at Midwestern University in Texas, second; Roberto Gonzalez at San Jose State University, third; Arturo Islas at Stanford was fourth on that list; and I from the University of New Mexico was fifth.

Abandoning a dissertation on Chaucer, I wrote my dissertation on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, first study in the field. Arturo did not write a dissertation on a Chicano topic or theme, though he had toyed with the idea. His dissertation was on the Jewish American novelist Hortense Calisher, in the field of ethnic-American literature.

In the Fall of 1969, according to the Stanford News Release, Arturo labeled his Freshman English class “Chicano Themes, the first time anybody had taught such a class in the English Department.” In the Fall of 1969, I taught an upper-division course at the University of New Mexico labeled “Mexican American Literature” the first such course with that label in the country -– or so I have believed.

In 1984, Arturo’s novel The Rain God: A Desert Tale (first titled Day of the Dead) was first published by Alexandrian Press, a Palo Alto home-publishing effort by Patrick and Christine Suppes. The novel was later picked up by Harper Collins. His second novel Migrant Souls was accepted by William Morrow and touted as “the first novel by a Chicano author to be published out of a New York publishing house” (News Release: Stanford University New Service 04/18/91).

In 1959, Doubleday published the novel Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal, long touted as the first Chicano novel. This emendation in no way diminishes Arturo Islas’ eminence as a Chicano(a) novelist. In fact, in my Chicano literature classes, I use both Pocho and The Rain God to illustrate the early efforts of Chicano writers and the art of the novel, judiciously avoiding use of the term “the Chicano novel,” a term fraught with ideological obstacles.

I first met Arturo Islas at the Cabinet Committee Hearings in El Paso, Texas in October of 1967. Later, in the Summer of 1970, our paths crossed again at an education conference being held at the University of Texas at El Paso. That Spring, I had been selected to be Founding Director of the Chicano Studies Program at UT El Paso and was working on the Chicano Studies proposal. I was also finishing up my dissertation at the time. From 1964 to 1970, I was an Instructor of English at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and was on leave during the academic year 1969-1970 to complete the residency requirements for the Ph.D. in English (British Renaissance Studies and Philology) at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

More often than not, Arturo spent parts of his summers in El Paso with his family. In the summer of 1970, he was still recuperating from an intestinal flare-up which plagued him for the rest of his life. Despite the annoyance of his recovery, he was upbeat and buoyed by the prospect of a Chicano Studies Program at UT El Paso, first such program in the state. At Stanford he was also working on a Chicano Studies Program. Both programs thrived and survived.

Over the next twenty-some years, Arturo and I met at various conferences of the Modern Language Association and Chicano events. By 1990, his illness had progressed to the point of debilitation and embarrassment, no doubt, at having to carry around a colostomy bag. Still, his good-humor was not deterred. In conversations during that time, Arturo mentioned that he went to Sanford with hopes of becoming a medical doctor.

I learned that a bout with polio at an early age left him with a slight hardly noticeable limp. In El Paso, he was one of the few Mexican Americans who attended El Paso High School (valedictorian 1956) rather than “la Jeff” (Jefferson High School where I had taught French until 1964) or “la Bowie” (Bowie High School), the two South El Paso high schools for predominantly Mexican American students. Fortuitously, Arturo made it to Stanford where he graduated in 1960, majoring in English (minor in Religion) and tapped into Phi Beta Kappa.

I mourned the passing of Arturo Islas who despite a paucity of literary production enriched the canon of Chicano(a) literature with The Rain God. Some critics have compared Arturo Islas to Gustave Flaubert, though I would classify him with Andre Gide. At Stanford, Arturo had the good fortune to study with Ian Watt, Wallace Stegner, and Ivor Winters. Good company.

(c) Felipe Ortego


Bueno, I'll be back in EPT tomorrow and give you some El Paso writer updates and maybe I'll have that review of Salinas book reader as I've been talking about it for weeks now.

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