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Rolando Hinojosa-Smith intends each of his works, regardless of genre, to form a part of a lifelong novel that he calls Klail City Death Trip. He has created the fictional world of Klail City, Belken County, Texas— located somewhere in the lower Rio Grande Valley and filled with memorable characters whose ordinary lives take on tragicomic proportions as they go about their daily tasks and deal with conflicts arising out of generations of racial strife and cultural misunderstanding.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood in Mercedes
Born in Mercedes, Texas, Hinojosa-Smith is the son of Manuel Guzman Hinojosa, a Mexican American, and Carrie Effie Smith, an Anglo-American. His paternal grandparents were born in the United States; their ancestors arrived in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1749 as part of the expedition of Jose Escandon when the area was part of Nuevo Santander, Spain’s northern frontier.
The youngest of his family, Hinojosa-Smith had a peaceful childhood and adolescence in Mercedes. He first attended private schools taught by Mexican exiles and funded by the town’s Spanish-speaking parents. This schooling reinforced his Mexican cultural legacy. For example, in these schools the day began with the singing of the ”Himno Nacional,” the Mexican national anthem. Then, at age six, Hinojosa-Smith began attending public schools where the vast majority of the children were Mexican-Americans, but where the teachers were exclusively Anglo. He did not come to know Anglo children until junior high school, where adolescents from all neighborhoods came together.
The years he spent living in the Rio Grande Valley form the substance of most of Hinojosa-Smith’s later works. He heard the old people telling stories about their early lives, the difficulties of survival, the conflicts and tension between Hispanics and Anglos, and their joys and disappointments. In an essay reprinted in The Rolando Hinojosa Reader, Essays Historical and Critical (1985), he observes that the Valley was a place characterized by
—– the sharing of names, of places, of a common history, and of belonging to the place; one attended funerals, was taken to cemeteries, and one saw names that corresponded to one’s own or to one’s friends and neighbors, and relatives.
After graduating from high school in 1946, Hinojosa-Smith left the valley, but he returned there hundreds of times in the ensuing years. He joined the army at seventeen and served two years, spent a short time attending the University of Texas, and was reactivated in the military in 1950 when the Korean conflict erupted. Besides serving in Korea—an experience about which he is reluctant to talk—he was stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, where he edited a camp publication. Sent to the Caribbean, he became a radio announcer and the editor of the Caribbean Army Defense Command newspaper, which enjoyed wide distribution throughout the region. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1954 with a degree in Spanish, having been a student employee in the reserve section of the university library. This work provided him the opportunity to read widely and avidly.
After graduation, Hinojosa-Smith taught government, Spanish, history, Latin, and typing for a short time at Brownsville High School, located at the southern tip of the Rio Grande Valley. He soon quit to earn more money as a common laborer in a chemical-processing plant. During this period (1954—1958), he wrote little but continued to read voraciously, especially the works of Russian novelists and Spanish literature. In 1959 he went to work for a clothing manufacturer in Brownsville, then spent two more years as a high-school teacher. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1969.
In 1970, while serving as chairman of the modern language department at Texas A & M University in Kingsville, Texas, Hinojosa-Smith began to write Sketches of the Valley and Other Works (1973). In 1971 he began a close friendship with Tomas Rivera, the highly regarded Chicano writer, academic, and university administrator. Rivera sent parts of a manuscript Hinojosa-Smith was working on to Quinto Sol Publications, who printed excerpts from it in El Grito, an important early Chicano journal of the humanities and the social sciences, marking the beginning of Hinojosa-Smith’s success as a published writer.
In 1976 Hinojosa-Smith was promoted to vice-president for academic affairs at Texas A & M University and received the prestigious Premio Casa de las Americas for his second novel, Klail City: A Novel (1976; first English publication 1987). Hinojosa-Smith said in a 1986 interview that he wrote Klail City in order to keep alive the memory of his youth in light of a new and changing world that removes him further and further from his past.
In 1976 Hinojosa-Smith resigned his administrative position at Texas A & M to accept an appointment as professor of English and chair of the program in Chicano studies at the University of Minnesota. He was responding in part to his wife’s decision to enter law school. During the early part of his stay in Minnesota, he immersed himself in reading the great war novelists and poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, and Robert Graves in preparation for the drafting of Korean Love Songs (1980), a book of poems. Hinojosa-Smith left the University of Minnesota in 1981 to accept a position in the department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is currently located. His work written after Korean Love Songs traces the changes that have occurred in the Rio Grande Valley since the 1950s. Dear Rafe (1981) received the Southwestern Conference on Latin American Studies prize for best writing in the humanities in 1982. He continues to write and work on the Klail City series, the most recent book of which is We Happy Few (2006).
Although Hinojosa-Smith is among the best-known and most celebrated Chicano writers in the United States, he is much better known in Europe and Latin America than in his own country. His Klail City Death Trip series presents a vast panorama of Chicano and Anglo life in South Texas, depicted with sensitivity and skill.
Works in Literary Context
The Sketch Technique
Hinojosa-Smith’s first book, Sketches of the Valley and Other Works, does not fit easily within the traditional concept of a novel because it lacks a plot. There is no denouement, nor does the work provide a sense of completion or resolution. It is, rather, a series of estampas (sketches) that forms a rich tapestry of the Chicano community in and around the fictional town of Klail City—a locale clearly meant to represent the lower Rio Grande Valley, where the author grew up. Each sketch forms an integral part of the complex of lives, joys, struggles, and tragedies of the community. The author warns readers at the outset of the work that the sketches are individual strands of hair matted together with the sweat and dirt of generations of human toil. To separate them would interrupt the flow of vitality and spontaneity that surges through the work. Sketches is characterized by a wide range in tone, from terse, direct presentation to rich and subtle folk humor. The voice in the work alternates between omniscient author and a first-person narrator. The first sketch begins at an indefinite point in time and place with the marriage of Roque Malacara and Tere Tapia; in every sketch, a new character is added or a different facet of one already presented is revealed. Over twenty-five characters appear in the work’s relatively few pages.
The few central characters in Klail City give the work its continuity, but they possess little of the stuff of protagonists. They are not literary heroes or even antiheroes; on the contrary, Hinojosa-Smith makes an effort to convince readers how plain his characters are, by noting that ”these people go to the bathroom, sneeze, wipe their noses, raise their families, know how to die without a cent, to give in a little with difficulty and [like green wood] to resist giving up.” Hinojosa-Smith intentionally obscures relationships between characters, does not identify the narrator until late in the work, and blurs characterization in order to create an overall impression of the collective nature of the community of Klail City. Hinojosa-Smith’s intent seems to be to place the focus on the shared traditions, values, language, and history.
Works in Critical Context
Sketches of the Valley
Sketches of the Valley was generally well received upon its publication in 1973. The Quinto Sol prize signaled to readers that the novel merited serious consideration. Teresinha Alves Pereira, in Revista Chicano-Riquena, comments that the novel’s movement, themes, and structure indicated that the writer had learned well from his literary forerunners. She also notes that the black humor that abounds throughout goes far in providing release for the reader from the hard reality the characters suffer at the hands of both Hispanics and Anglos. Salvador Rodriguez del Pino, in his book The Chicano Novel in Spanish: Five Socially Committed Writers (1982), praises Hinojosa-Smith for having gone beyond regionalism. Jose David Saldfvar, in a critical introduction to Hinojosa-Smith’s Klail City Death Trip for The Rolando Hinojosa Reader (1985), considers it the important first work in a ”sensitive and skillful literary meta history of the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most important dialogical productions of narrative in the Southwest today.” Luis Maria Brox, however, in his review essay for Mester, is of the opinion that Sketches is flawed by the author’s choice, especially in the first part of the book, of the costumbrista form—that is, the superficial description of typical characters mouthing typical language. He saw this choice as unnecessarily limiting because it depicted a static and closed society in which change and response to exterior influences were not possible. The book’s nontraditional form created a dilemma for some critics who seemed confused about how to classify the work. This identification was to carry over to Hinojosa-Smith’s other works as well, an unfortunate development that affected critical appreciation of his subsequent publications.
Most reviewers and critics have responded favorably to Klail City. Marvin Lewis, for example, in his review appearing in Revista Chicano-Riquena, concludes: ”In this work Hinojosa sets high literary standards. . . . [T]he author has established himself as an international writer of the first order and has helped to elevate Chicano fiction … to its rightful place among world literatures.” But Yolanda Guerrero’s comments in La Palabra are representative of some of the negative criticism the novel received. Guerrero states that his treatment of Chicano life is superficial and misleading, in that it does not sufficiently highlight the conflictive nature of Chicano-Anglo relations and the contradictions inherent in Chicano culture itself.
- Lee, Joyce Glover. Rolando Hinojosa and the American Dream. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 1997.
- del Pino, Salvador Rodriguez. La novela chicana escrita en espanol: cinco autores comprometidos. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual/Editorial Bilingue, 1982, pp. 117-137.
- Saldivar, Jose David, ed. The Rolando Hinojosa Reader: Essays Historical and Critical. Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico, 1985.
- Brox, Luis Maria. ”Los Kmites del costumbrismo en Estampas del valle y otras obras.” Mester 5 (April 1974) : 101-104.
- Guerrero, Yolanda. ”Literatura y sociedad: Ancilisis de Generaciones y semblanzas.” La Palabra 1 (Fall 1979): 21-30.
- Houston, Robert. Review of Dear Rafe. New York Times Book Review (August 18, 1985): 9.
- Pereira, Teresinha Alves. ”Estampas del valle y otras obras.” Revista Chicano-Riquena 3(Winter 1975) : 57-58.
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