Luis Leal

Professor Emeritus


Chicana/o Literature, Latin American and indigenous mythologies


A Personal Portrait of Don Luis Leal (1907-2010): Entre Copas y Coplas

Francisco A. Lomelí
University of California
Santa Barbara

Many of us quietly gasped “Don Luis has left us” at the moment his son Antonio announced his death on January 25, 2010.  A colleague from Mexico, Alvaro Ochoa Serrano, captured the moment in his e-mail: “My heart is crushed.”  Others did not find the words, like Antonio Azuela who could barely say, with a broken voice: “He was a magnificent person.”  Undoubtedly, we waited many years to receive this news because it was murmured that he was eternal.  We always considered him our elder, but nobody dared to say that he was old, because he was tireless, with the health of a mighty oak.  This is confirmed in photographs over the last 34 years, for only the glasses and clothes changed; physically he remained immutable, as though time had stopped around him.  At conferences he was the first to arrive and the last to leave.  We all recognized his incredible and prolific career from his 45 books and more than 400 articles, but few know that he directed at least 44 dissertations, assisted in another 65, and gave, at minimum, 600 presentations.  And when he wasn’t the director of a thesis, he was frequently an advisor, mentor or godfather of many theses, articles and books about a wide range of subjects among students and scholars from all over the world.  He did not find it inconvenient sharing ideas; on the contrary, he believed that ideas for projects were infinite, and that everyone could contribute something.  We give him credit for promoting criticism on Mexican literature in the United States, above all for his unsurpassed studies of the Mexican and Latin American short story, in particular his Breve historia del cuento mexicano (Short History of the Mexican Short Story, and seminal monographic studies about Juan Rulfo, Mariano Azuela, the corridor (Mexican ballad), the Mexican Revolution, and his compilations of popular traditions (for example, Mitos y leyendas de México [Myths and Legends of Mexico]).  Someone once asked him, “Where did you find as many as 734 short story authors for your book?” and he answered with his customary calm: “In the library.”  He was also a leader and pioneer in the field of Chicano Studies, having documented its literary history as a phenomenon with a long-standing history that dates back to the mid-16th century.  In this field of study, the works that stand out are Aztlán y México: perfiles literarios e históricos (Aztlán and Mexico: Literary and Historical Profiles) and No Longer Voiceless, in addition to an endless list of articles.  His interests were vast and extensive thanks to the clinical eye of a renaissance man admired for his vocation, his intellect and his democratic manners.

            He has said of himself that he had various careers and that he never retired—though he retired officially from the University of Illinois in 1976 when he and his wife Gladys moved to Goleta, California—because he continued writing until his 102nd year.  Because of this, he used to say, with a certain grace, that he was a “permanent visiting professor” at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  For him, writing was as basic as breathing and eating.  Additionally, he had an infinite curiosity, carrying a little notebook in the pocket of his shirt where he would jot down new ideas or revelations that occurred to him.  He loved to discover something new about the origins of things, as when he demystified the true history of Joaquín Murrieta, culled short story narrations from the chronicles of the Latin American Conquest, found the poetic source of the popular song “La cucaracha”, proposed the authorship of the first historical novel written in Spanish in the United States, Jicoténcal, which appeared in Philadelphia in 1826, defined Magic Realism once and for all, and traced the revalorization of the concept of Aztlán among Chicanos. Nothing escaped his touch, so much so that both Genaro Padilla and Emanuel Carballo pointed out—independently of one another—that they frequently came upon Don Luis’s fingerprints when they initiated new studies. His critical presence was simply amazing, thanks in part to his polished and agile writing style for he handled facts with the exemplary scientific objectivity of a literary detective.

            Despite these impressive credentials, Don Luis was a simple and modest person without major complications, whose modus operandi he humorously synthesized with the saying in Spanglish, “No preocup, no sofoc” (Don’t worry, don’t hassle). His equanimity, like his deference, was almost legendary toward everyone whether undergraduate or graduate students, leaders, presidents, dishwashers, deans, directors, gardeners, writers, or colleagues. He was known for his affability, his smile and his mental sharpness. He had a well-rooted personal philosophy to make the most of knowledge for the advancement and development of his Mexican-Chicano community. On one spontaneous occasion, upon reflecting on his long trajectory, he confessed, “Luck always follows me,” such as when he survived the Second World War without a scratch, between bombings, kamikazes, and dead bodies all around him.  Taking hold of his glasses in order to weigh his words carefully, he later remembered that he was part of the military platoon that was meant to attack Japan in 1945, but the ship had to divert its course when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Once, he pointed out between tacos, “The Second World War not only changed the map; it changed the world completely.”

            He also commented with true surprise that he did nothing special in order to place himself in key moments of the social and literary history of the twentieth century. For example, he came to witness the Mexican Revolution and its violence from its onset to its end, having seen gangs of revolutionaries on horseback, citizens murdered or hanged in the streets, people running desperately, the leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata entering Mexico in 1914, churches serving as stables, and observing the maneuvers of the federal troops. In that tumultuous period he lived for some years one block from the main square in downtown Mexico City on top of the very Aztec center where afterward in 1978 they discovered the greatest temple under the foundation of his house. Once he reflected in amazement: “I was always close to the heart of the indigenous Aztec world without knowing it.” Later he moved to Chicago in 1926, where shortly thereafter he came to experience the tense urban atmosphere caused by the gangsters, followed by the Great Depression and its human misery. In the Second World War the army recruited him for the military front lines in the Pacific, and he fended off death in the Philippines and New Guinea and distracted himself with the reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. He laughed at the thought that he began his first full-time post with tenure at the University of Mississippi, and it was there he had the fortune of rubbing elbows with William Faulkner on the streets of Oxford and when he fished on the edge of the Mississippi River. In his many visits to carry out his research in Mexico, he came to know people like Juan Rulfo, Alfonso Reyes, Agustín Yánez, Gabriel García Marquez, Elena Poniatowska, Emanuel Carballo, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Rodolfo Usigli, Miguel León-Portilla, Cantinflas, Andrea Frank, Hernán Lara and many more, that is, quite a constellation of literati and cultural figures. Mexicans on both sides of the border fascinated him and brought him profound pride and intellectual engagement.

            As if this were not enough, he also witnessed and contributed to the 1960s during the era of struggle for civil rights for minorities in both society and academia. To do this, he participated in several committees of national foundations to distribute grants with the aim to increase the representations of Chicanos in doctoral programs. During the summers in Guadalajara, he formed part of a team of professors specializing in training Latino teachers and students in Mexican culture and literature; figuring among them were Tomás Rivera, Octavio Romano y Gustavo Segade.  That is, he contributed to the beginning and formation of the Quinto Sol Generation, whose key role was to legitimate an emerging Chicano literature.  So too he opened up significant pathways in accordance with the Chicano Movement’s principles, so that aspiring young people could increase their opportunities as professionals, professors, and critics.  Boldly, he was the first to give a paper on Chicano literature at the distinguished Modern Language Association.  In 2003, he witnessed the first doctorate program in Chicano Studies at UCSB, and the first endowed chair in the discipline (the Luis Leal Endowed Chair) that still bears his name.  Once, he confessed with amazement, “I don’t know why I usually find myself in the middle of important historic events where I can see them up close.”  Better yet, he had been in the eye of several storms; one such was the Chicano literary movement, as he has maintained close relationships with Alurista, Ricardo Sánchez, Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chávez, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Miguel Méndez, José Antonio Villarreal, Tino Villanueva, Américo Paredes, Nicolás Kanellos, Gary Keller, María Herrera-Sobek, Alejandro Morales, Sabine Ulibarrí, Tey Diana Rebolledo and many more.  Because of his aura, others followed him as if he were a magnet or the axis in a creative machine.  Rightly, he has been called a pioneer, originator, forerunner, founder, godfather and father of Chicano literary studies, because around him have revolved several satellites that have left indelible marks. In other words, Chicano literary criticism might not have reached its expressive height without his research interventions, thanks in great part to the attractive force of his personality and charisma.

Don Luis was always asked the secret of his longevity, and, as befitted the circumstances, he sprinkled his comments with a certain humor and mischief.  Each time he invented something new.  Among students, he would say that it was because he ate rice and beans.  At a tribute to him in his birthplace of Linares, Nuevo León, he told them that an ancestral relative had found the fountain of youth and kept a small bottle of that secret water.  At his centenary in 2007, he revealed that his longevity was due to the affection given to him by his friends and admirers. He always said something witty, congenial, and entertaining.  He lacked pretentiousness and arrogance because his real world was the imaginary and his personal study was an Aleph where Funes the Memorious developed himself.  Many of us considered him a walking encyclopedia or dictionary with his vast knowledge of Mexican culture, but on more than one occasion students were left astonished when Don Luis advised them to look up a subject in the library in a certain book, and on a precise page.  What the students didn’t know was that he had consulted the same source hours earlier.  In any case, the impression of his prodigious memory left them dumb-founded.  It is also worth noting that his personal office was a haven of order where he had all his papers, notes, and well annotated books.  His copious notes still contain gems of observation from a meticulous reader who knew how to combine the historical with the literary, the philosophical with the philological, and the popular with the erudite.  Nothing escaped him, and thus he contributed original views on such diverse topics.

If Don Luis impressed on a public level, he moved one even more on a personal level, since to share a meal with him at La Carreta (where he liked to order deviled shrimp or some kind of seafood), or Mexican bread in Las Delicias bakery, was like meeting with a flesh-and-blood oracle, thanks to his insight and long historical perspective.  His lively conversations about literature, historical facts, intellectual personalities, current events, politics and the arts in general used to astonish those who listened to him without becoming the center of attention, although he admitted to having received the Medal of the Aztec Eagle or the National Medal of the Humanities, an honorary doctorate and a stream of tributes. Those of us present were used to learning something, thanks at times to the heavy questions that Victor Fuentes asked: “How do I define the self?” or “How can one explain death?” or “In your opinion, how has the passage of history changed in the last century?” Other times he used to tell funny anecdotes about people and embarrassing situations, like when he went to a conference in Oaxaca with various colleagues and upon arriving the director Alfredo Roggiano began to pair off the speakers in two in the style of a Biblical Noah in order to share a room until finally there were left only Don Luis and a nun. This is when Roggiano blurted out, “Luis, you’re always lucky, take separate rooms!” In restaurants and other places he used to provoke an impression among the employees as if he were a television star--in part for his local cultural program with Víctor Fuentes, but also for his good appetite and predisposition for conversing. Frequently in La Carreta chef Don Martín would come out with a basket of wrapped candies to request a joke, an anecdote or a story. He never disappointed; in fact, sometimes out of nowhere he used to improvise a joke or told an unexpected anecdote; other times, we used to rehearse beforehand without the cook knowing it. Without fail, Don Martín returned to his stove with a marked smile shaking his head, admiring Don Luis’s spontaneous ingenuity. For example, it is worth remembering that at an MLA meeting in 1987 when he was only 80 years old he bumped into an ex-student after several years. The latter, surprised, could only pronounce the careless or indiscreet words, “Ah, excuse me, I… thought that you were dead.” To this he responded without blinking, “If I were, there would be no denying it.”

          This was the man and friend with surprising anecdotes and a contagious smile. For example, in the summer of 2008 he confessed to me with a Bohemia beer in hand, “I think that death has forgotten me.” The profundity of these words made me choke on my tortilla chip thinking of Pedro Páramo, one of his favorite novels. He was a great conversationalist because he never wasted words, saying only enough to get to the point. He was never verbose; on the contrary, he liked to put a little salsa on his concise and plain words. He was of an amazing sociability, always positive and encouraging, and of a life extremely healthy and organized even though he lost his beloved wife Gladys in 2001, and little by little his vision and hearing deteriorated. But he was resigned to take that which life gave him, often laughing at himself, like when he announced in 2006 that he was going to change his name to “Casimiro Casi-oigo” (I almost see, I almost hear). He always won everyone over with his lively personality and attitude. And, therefore, in the end he only had one wish: to arrive at the year 2010--not to boast of having lived in 12 decades, but to celebrate the Bicentenary of Mexican Independence and the Centenary of the Mexican Revolution. His passion for Mexican cultural history never diminished, giving in the final weeks of his life bibliographies and facts when he could not even move. Don Luis, the master of teachers, achieved everything that he hoped for and more, fulfilling that which the Mexican saying says: “Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.” He taught us to value a loyalty to life and he said goodbye this way with a smile on his face. Thanks to your life, Don Luis the gentleman, you have given us so much, and we will continue thinking about the next joke.

            To all this he would say with humility, “Francisco, why so much?” Because you deserve it, and more.