Islas was probably best known for his two novels, The Rain God, which won the best fiction prize from the Border Regional Library Conference in 1985 and was selected as one of the three best novels of 1984 by the Bay Area Reviewers Association, and Migrant Souls, published in 1990. The novels were part of a planned trilogy. Islas was working on the third volume at the time of his death.
Migrant Souls was the first novel by a Chicano author to be published out of a New York publishing house -- William Morrow and Co. In a 1990 campus interview, Islas said his reaction to that was not pride, but outrage. He said the reluctance of established East Coast companies to publish Chicano literature is
a willful ignorance on the part of the machines that produce the books that we read.Giving the 1990 Galarza Lecture, an annual event in memory of the Mexican American scholar/activist Ernesto Galarza, Islas said,
I consider myself, still, a child of the border, a border some believe extends all the way to Seattle and includes the northern provinces of Mexico. In my experience, the 2,000-mile-long Mexican-United States border has a cultural identity that is unique. That condition, that landscape and its people, are what I write about.
Arturo Islas' novels were a new and strong voice for the Mexican American experience,said Robert Trujillo, curator for the Mexican American collections at the Stanford Libraries.
His works challenged the reader and critic and have certainly earned Islas an important niche in Chicano literature. Both of his works were often required reading for students of the Chicano novel.Islas' English Department colleague Nancy Packer, director of the Creative Writing Program, said,
No one was more loved than Arturo, or more valuable to the department in his wonderful teaching.Cecilia Burciaga, associate dean in the office of the vice president for student resources, and resident fellow at Casa Zapata, the Chicano theme dormitory, said,
Arturo's life was one of service as friend, mentor and writer. We've lost someone who taught us the richness of friendship.Islas was a very popular teacher who in 1976 received the Dinkelspiel Award for his contribution to undergraduate education at Stanford. He was invited three times by the graduating seniors to be a speaker at the Class Day ceremonies that are part of commencement.
Islas, a native of El Paso, Texas, first came to Stanford as an undergraduate in 1956, and remained as a student and then teacher. He received three degrees from Stanford: a B.A. in 1960, a master's in 1963 and a Ph.D. in English in 1971, when he joined the Stanford faculty.
He had arrived at Stanford, on an Alfred P. Sloan scholarship, as a premed student, planning to become a neurosurgeon.
In a 1979 campus interview, he explained that, once at Stanford, he became dissatisfied with his grades, particularly in chemistry and biology. The former straight-A student was receiving B¹s for the first time in his life.
I went to the dean and told him I would switch to the humanities, where I was doing well," he recalled. "He tried to talk me out of it, but my drive to excel made me concentrate on the best of opportunities. So it was that the poor Chicano boy came to teach the Anglos their literature.An initial attraction to medicine was understandable, since Islas suffered from poor health most of his life. He had polio when he was 8 years old and was in and out of hospitals for long sessions of physical therapy. The polio left him with a permanent limp.
He underwent major surgery in 1969, and had to turn down a teaching position at San Jose State University. While he was recovering, he began teaching part time at Stanford.
In an unpublished interview with Jose Antonio Burciaga, artist and resident fellow at Casa Zapata, Islas recalled that although he had taken all his high school's science courses with the intention of becoming a doctor, his first love was always writing.
I'd write things that were also part of my fantasy world. I could create characters who were like me or who I wanted to be like, male and female.In the same interview, Islas recalled that when he began teaching freshman English at Stanford in the fall of 1969, he called his class "Chicano Themes,"
My cousins and I were always reading, he said. There was no television then. I'm forever grateful for all that.
It always makes me so angry when people assume that anyone who calls himself or herself a Chicano or a Chicana is automatically someone who doesn't like to read. . . . I knew how to read before I went to the first grade because of my grandmother. All of my cousins were under her tutelage. She taught us to read and to respect learning.
I feel sorry for anybody, not just Chicanos, who grew up in families where the parents don't read so the children don't have any examples.
the first time anybody had taught such a class in the English Department. There they were, 24 Chicanos and Chicanas. They were the pioneers and they were terrific students.Islas died on February 15, 1991 from complications related to AIDS.
Rain God by Arturo Islas
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 1, 1991)
Amazon: Rain God
Already a Southwestern classic as beautiful, subtle and profound as the desert itself Arturo Islas's The Rain God is a breathtaking masterwork of contemporary literature. Set in a fictional small town on the Texas-Mexico border, it tells the funny, sad and quietly outrageous saga of the children and grandchildren of Mama Chona the indomitable matriarch of the Angel clan who fled the bullets and blood of the 1911 revolution for a gringo land of promise. In bold creative strokes, Islas paints on unforgettable family portrait of souls haunted by ghosts and madness--sinners torn by loves, lusts and dangerous desires. From gentle hearts plagued by violence and epic delusions to a child who con foretell the coming of rain in the sweet scent of angels, here is a rich and poignant tale of outcasts struggling to live and die with dignity ... and to hold onto their past while embracing an unsteady future.
Migrant Souls by Arturo Islas
Publisher: Avon Books (P) (September 1991)
Amazon: Migrant Souls
In this second installment of a projected trilogy begun by The Rain God , iron-willed Josie Salazar abandons California for her Texas hometown after her husband walks out on her and her two daughters. According to PW , this "beautifully delineated, down-to-earth, affecting saga . . . vigorously portrays three generations of Mexican-Americans fighting prejudice while struggling to achieve self-definition."
Dancing with Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas by Frederick Luis Aldama
Paperback: 218 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (December 13, 2004)
Amazon: Dancing with Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas
This first critical biography of Arturo Islas (19381991) brings to life the complex and overlapping worlds inhabited by the gay Chicano poet, novelist, scholar, and professor. Gracefully written and deeply researched, Dancing with Ghosts considers both the larger questions of Islas's life--his sexuality, racial identification, and political personality--and the events of his everyday existence, from his childhood in the borderlands of El Paso to his adulthood in San Francisco and at Stanford University. Frederick Aldama portrays the many facets of Islas's engaging and often contradictory personality. He also explores Islas's coming into the craft of poetry and fiction--his extraordinary struggle to publish his novels, The Rain God, La Mollie and the King of Tears, and Migrant Souls--as well as his pivotal role in paving the way for a new generation of Chicano/a scholars and writers. Through a skillful interweaving of life history, criticism, and literary theory, Aldama paints an unusually rich and wide-ranging portrait of both the man and the eventful times in which he lived. He describes Islas's struggle with polio as a child, his near-death experience and ileostomy as a thirty-year-old beginning to explore his queer sexuality in San Francisco in the 1970s, and his fatal struggle with AIDS in the late 1980s. Drawing from hundreds of unpublished letters, lecture notes, drafts of essays, novels, and poetry archived at Stanford University, Aldama also deals frankly with the controversies that swirled around Islas's impassioned love life, his drug addictions, and his scholarly and professional career as one of the first Chicano/a professors in the United States. He discusses the importance of Islas's pioneering role in bridging Anglo, Latin American, Chicano/a, and European storytelling styles and voices. Dancing with Ghosts succeeds brilliantly both as an account of a fascinating life that embraced many different worlds and as a chronicle of the grand historical shifts that transformed the late-twentieth-century American cultural landscape.
Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics by Richard T. Rodriguez
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press Books (July 2009)
Amazon: Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics
As both an idea and an institution, the family has been at the heart of Chicano/a cultural politics since the Mexican American civil rights movement emerged in the late 1960s. In Next of Kin, Richard T. Rodríguez explores the competing notions of la familia found in movement-inspired literature, film, video, music, painting, and other forms of cultural expression created by Chicano men. Drawing on cultural studies and feminist and queer theory, he examines representations of the family that reflect and support a patriarchal, heteronormative nationalism as well as those that reconfigure kinship to encompass alternative forms of belonging. Describing how la familia came to be adopted as an organizing strategy for communitarian politics, Rodríguez looks at foundational texts including Rodolfo Gonzales’s well-known poem “I Am Joaquín,” the Chicano Liberation Youth Conference’s manifesto El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, and José Armas’s La Familia de La Raza. Rodríguez analyzes representations of the family in the films I Am Joaquín, Yo Soy Chicano, and Chicana; the Los Angeles public affairs television series ¡Ahora!; the experimental videos of the artist-activist Harry Gamboa Jr.; and the work of hip-hop artists such as Kid Frost and Chicano Brotherhood. He reflects on homophobia in Chicano nationalist thought, and examines how Chicano gay men have responded to it in works including Al Lujan’s video S&M in the Hood, the paintings of Eugene Rodríguez, and a poem by the late activist Rodrigo Reyes. Next of Kin is both a wide-ranging assessment of la familia’s symbolic power and a hopeful call for a more inclusive cultural politics.
Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader by Michael Hames-García & Ernesto Javier Martínez
Paperback: 376 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press Books (April 13, 2011)
Amazon: Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader
The authors of the essays in this unique collection explore the lives and cultural contributions of gay Latino men in the United States, while also analyzing the political and theoretical stakes of gay Latino studies. In new essays and influential previously published pieces, Latino scholars based in American studies, ethnic studies, history, performance studies, and sociology consider gay Latino scholarly and cultural work in relation to mainstream gay, lesbian, and queer academic discourses and the broader field of Chicano and Latino studies. They also critique cultural explanations of gay Latino sexual identity and behavior, examine artistic representations of queer Latinidad, and celebrate the place of dance in gay Latino culture. Designed to stimulate dialogue, the collection pairs each essay with a critical response by a prominent Latino/a or Chicana/o scholar. Terms such as gay, identity, queer, and visibility are contested throughout the volume; the significance of these debates is often brought to the fore in the commentaries. The essays in Gay Latino Studies complement and overlap with the groundbreaking work of lesbians of color and critical race theorists, as well as queer theorists and gay and lesbian studies scholars. Taken together, they offer much-needed insight into the lives and perspectives of gay, bisexual, and queer Latinos, and they renew attention to the politics of identity and coalition.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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