Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, ‘dean of writers in Chicano’, dies at the age of 93

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Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, an award-winning Texas author whose quirky, understated novels transformed the Lower Rio Grande Valley into an almost mythical setting for exploring family, history, and cultural identity that helped drive a burgeoning Chicano literary movement in the 1970s and onwards, died April 19 in a nursing home in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park. He was 93.

The cause was complications of dementia, said his daughter Clarissa Hinojosa.

A longtime English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Hinojosa-Smith divided his time between teaching and writing, publishing about 20 works of fiction and non-fiction in English and Spanish. His books were published by small press and were rarely reviewed in ordinary American publications, but were translated into several languages, achieved the greatest literary honor, and gained a devoted following.

By presenting him with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, the National Book Critics Circle called him “the dean of Chicano writers” and “a mentor and inspiration to several generations of writers.”

Along with novelists such as Rudolfo Anaya and Tomás Rivera, Dr. Hinojosa-Smith considered a fundamental figure in Chicano literature who wrote books dealing with Mexican American history, culture, and everyday life without spoiling a white, English-speaking audience. For many readers, including some who had never set foot in the Rio Grande Valley – the bilingual frontier area where he grew up and put most of his fiction – his books served as a kind of literary mirror that reflected experiences that often was caricatured or ignored. .

“What I saw in his country was not like mine at all, except that it was the closest I had come to what was. And I had never seen it anywhere else,” wrote Dagoberto Gilb, a Mexican-American author. from Los Angeles, in a 2014 essay to Texas Monthly. “His neighborhood, rural Belken County, did not look very much like the city streets I grew up on, but especially as a writer it was the first time I had ever seen people where I was then (and now) and where I wanted to come from, the same as where he was. “

Dr. Hinojosa-Smith was best known for his Klail City Death Trip series, which spanned 15 novels and was centered around the fictional Klail City, a dry area that served as a stand-in for the Rio Grande Valley. Often compared to Yoknapatawpha County, the “little stamp of native land” that William Faulkner invented for his novels, Klail City was home to hundreds of characters who fell in and out of love or struggled to earn a living. The series was a patchwork quilt of literary forms and genres, with sections written as letters, poems, interviews, monologues, dialogues, legal deposits, vignettes, and diary entries.

The first episode, “Estampas del valle y otras obras” (“Sketches of the Valley and Other Works”) won the 1973 Premio Quinto Sol, awarded to the best work of fiction by a Chicano writer. Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s sequel, “Klail City y sus alrededores” (“Klail City and Its Surroundings”, published in English simply as “Klail City”), won the 1976 Casa de las Américas Prize, one of Latin America’s most prestigious literary awards .

“He’s stylistically – and a little intellectually – at the complex intersection of America, the crossroads of America,” said his University of Texas colleague John Morán González, a professor of American and English literature. “He would not deny that he is a Chicano writer. But in some ways, I think he would identify more deeply as a frontier writer, a frontier country writer.”

In a telephone interview, González added that Dr. Hinojosa-Smith wrote English- and Spanish-language literary traditions, met and became friends with Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, even while working in “an almost satirical tradition of novels,” separated from the magical realism of fashion at the time. Many of his books examined the busy relationship between white power brokers and Latinos in the valley, including in “Dear Rafe” (1985).

In a review of the novel for the New York Times, author Robert Houston praised Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s sense of humor and compassion: “If ‘originality in Klail City is a sin’, as the narrator claims, then rank Mr Hinojosa among the happiest of sinners.… Although his sharp eye and precise ear capture a place, its “People and a time in a masterful way, his work goes far beyond regionalism. He is a writer for all readers.”

The youngest of five children, he was born Romeo Daniel Hinojosa in Mercedes, Tex., On January 21, 1929. He later adopted the full name Romeo Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and changed his middle name because he apparently liked the way Rolando did. sounded on, according to his daughter, adding his mother’s maiden name with a hyphen in honor of her inheritance. (Many of his books were published under the abbreviated name Rolando Hinojosa.)

Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s family had lived in the Rio Grande Valley since at least 1750. He liked to tell the story of a prominent Texan in the late 1800s who, according to a Dallas Morning News report, “that his entire share of the state’s need was some water and a few good people “- a claim made by Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s grandfather to reply: “Well, that’s all that hell needs, too.”

His mother was an English homemaker and schoolteacher, and his father was a Latin American sheriff who fought in the Mexican Revolution. The family spoke Spanish and English at home, and Dr. Hinojosa-Smith later switched between the two languages ​​and sometimes used both in a single novel. (He translated several of his Spanish books into English.)

He joined the Army as a 17-year-old, later drawing on his military experience for books, including “Korean Love Songs” (1978), a novel in verse, and studying at GI Bill at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating in 1953, he worked for a decade, teaching in high school and getting a job as a chemical factory worker and civil servant before going to post-secondary school for literature.

Dr. Hinojosa-Smith received a master’s degree from New Mexico Highlands University in 1962 and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1969. He taught at schools, including the University of Minnesota, before joining the faculty at the University of Texas and teaching there from 1981 until he retired in 2016.

His marriage to Lilia Saenz ended in divorce. His second wife, Patricia Sorensen, died in 1999. The survivors include a son from his first marriage, Bob Huddleston; two daughters from his second, Clarissa and Karen Hinojosa; and two grandchildren.

Although he rarely strayed from the Rio Grande Valley in his fiction, Dr. Hinojosa-Smith that he felt liberated by focusing on a single place, especially one he knew so well. Before being diagnosed with dementia, he was working on a 16th volume of his Klail City series, which drew on what he described as “the increased violence on both sides of the Rio Grande.”

“My goal is to write down the history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in fiction,” he told the reference work Contemporary Authors, noting that he actually had to recreate it on the page when he chronicled the region in the literature. “A German scholar, Wolfgang Karrer, from Osnabrück University, has a count of my grades; they count about a thousand, ”he said. “It makes me an Abraham of a kind.”

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