Remembering a Premier Chicano Writer: Rolando Hinojosa-Smith by Dr. Ricardo Romo
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, a long-time professor of Spanish, English, and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, passed away on April 19 in Austin, Texas. He was 93 years old. The Washington Post referred to Hinojosa-Smith as a “prizewinning Texas author whose wry, understated novels turned the Lower Rio Grande Valley into an almost mythic setting for explorations of family, history, and cultural identity, helping to propel a burgeoning Chicano literary movement in the 1970s and beyond.”
I met Rolando Hinojosa in 1976 when he came to give a lecture at the University of California San Diego [UCSD] sponsored by the Spanish Department, Third World College, and Chicano Studies. Hinojosa wrote his first novel under the name Rolando Hinojosa. He later changed his last name to Hinojosa-Smith to honor his mother’s maiden name. We were long-time friends and colleagues and I have chosen to write about him using his given surname, Hinojosa.
Many of the Chicano faculty and students on the UCSD campus were familiar with Hinojosa’s writing. His novel Estampas del Valle y otra obras won him the Quinto Sol Prize for best novel in 1973. When he arrived on the UCSD campus he had been awarded the Casa de las Americas prize for best novel in Latin America for his second book, Klail City y sus alrededores. He was the first Chicano to be recognized in Latin America.
Prior to the mid-1980s, Hinojosa was writing principally in Spanish, thus his invitation to UCSD came with support from Spanish and Third World College professors Carlos Blanco, Rosaura Sanchez, and Juan Rodríguez. As a member of the History Department and faculty member of Third World College, I volunteered to pick up our distinguished guest lecturer and bring him to the campus.
Rolando Hinojosa and I hit it off easily perhaps because we were both from Texas and both undergraduate alumni of the University of Texas at Austin. Hinojosa made those he met feel as if they had been friends for years. He was muy caballero–a true gentleman. He was fully bilingual and wrote equally brilliantly in Spanish and English.
Rolando Hinojosa grew up in Mercedes, Texas, just a short distance from the Rio Grande referred to as Rio Bravo in Mexico. He went to school in both Mercedes and in Northern Mexico, which promoted his fluency in English and Spanish. He joined the U.S. Army at age 17 and served in Korea. Upon his discharge, Hinojosa enrolled at UT Austin with support from the GI Bill. He taught high school and worked in several industry jobs before enrolling in the Ph.D.program at the University of Illinois. Hinojosa returned to Texas in 1969 and filled several academic positions, including teaching Spanish at the Texas A&I campus in Kingsville where he also served as a college dean and vice president. Hinojosa left the Valley for a post in the Spanish Department at the University of Minnesota where he teamed with Arturo Madrid. He left Minnesota for an English professorship at UT Austin in the fall of 1981.
From 1973, when Hinojosa’s first novel was published by Quinto Sol Publications, to 2011, when his last book was published by Arte Público Press, Hinojosa’s literary career spanned nearly four decades. When Rolando Hinojosa published his third book in 1978, Korean Love Songs, a work of narrative poems, he christened his works The Klail City Death Trip Series, with the novels published thereafter being part of this series.
Hinojosa was principally a novelist and while he also wrote essays, most essays were in Spanish. I had the privilege to co-author an essay in English with Rolando Hinojosa in 1986 titled “Texas Mexican Heritage” for a special issue of the UT Austin campus Discovery Magazine. In 1986 Texans across the state were celebrating a Sesquicentennial–150 years since the founding of Texas as a republic and officially noting a separation from Mexico. We wrote about the legendary Brownsville Judge J.T. Canales, a state legislator at the turn of the 20th century, and about LULAC and the American G.I. Forum founded by Mercedes native Dr. Hector Garcia. We highlighted the contributions of three outstanding University of Texas scholars and teachers: historian Dr. Carlos Castaneda, educator George I. Sanchez, and English and anthropology professor Américo Paredes.
Rolando Hinojosa loved to write, and most of his 20 novels were published by Arte Público Press under its founder, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos. Kanellos wrote that Hinojosa experimented in many of his books “not only with various forms of narration–derived from Spanish, Mexican, English, and American literary histories–but also with English-Spanish bilingualism.” Kanellos added, “Hinojosa’s characters who, despite or because of their apparent isolation from a larger world, were stubborn and unashamed in the affirmation of place, tradition, dialect, and worldview.”
In response to Austrian literary scholar Josef Raab’s question about what he wanted his readers to take away from his books, Hinojosa responded: “Mainly I want my readers to see and recognize themselves in those novels…My characters are as diverse as people are diverse. They are good people and bad people, some are in high offices, and some are out in the streets endangering their fellow citizens. And also, whatever the Texas Anglos thought of the Texas Mexicans in the last century, they can get some answers here from someone who has no bones to pick.”
Texas State University Dean Jaime Chahin, Hinjojosa’s close friend and former Hinojosa student at the Kingsville campus, introduced me to his colleague, English Professor Jaime Mejia, one of the first of many graduate students to write a doctoral dissertation on Rolando Hinojosa. Mejias noted that Hinojosa had “a sarcastic, cutting Texas Mexican wit.”
Rolando Hinojosa was honored in 2013 by the National Book Critics Circle with a Lifetime Achievement Award, a tribute to his standing as a major American writer. To many Latinos, Hinojosa represented the best of Texas. Hinojosa wrote about the people he knew in the Texas Valley. He was a beloved teacher, well-versed, articulate, educated in English and Spanish, and highly ethical and moral in his support of social justice for Texas Mexicans. Mejia concludes that Rolando Hinojosa, a Valley man, will forever serve as a testament to what a good writer does with his creative imagination.
Copyright 2022 by Dr. Ricardo Romo. All photo credits as listed above.