Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, ‘dean of Chicano authors,’ dies at 93

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Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, 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, died April 19 at an assisted-living center in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park. He was 93.

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

A longtime English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Hinojosa-Smith split his time between teaching and writing, publishing some 20 works of fiction and nonfiction in English and Spanish. His books by him were released by small presses and seldom reviewed in mainstream American publications but were translated into multiple languages, earned top literary honors and acquired a devoted following.

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

Along with novelists such as Rudolfo Anaya and Tomás Rivera, Dr. Hinojosa-Smith was considered a foundational figure in Chicano literature, writing books that addressed Mexican American history, culture and daily life without pandering to a White, English-speaking audience. To many readers, including some who had never set foot in the Rio Grande Valley — the bilingual border region where he was raised and set most of his fiction by him — his books by him served as a kind of literary mirror, reflecting experiences that were often caricatured or ignored.

“What I saw in his land wasn’t like mine whatsoever, except it was the closest I’d encountered to what was. And I’d never seen it anywhere else,” wrote Dagoberto Gilb, a Mexican American author from Los Angeles, in a 2014 essay for Texas Monthly. “His neighborhood, rural Belken County, wasn’t much like the city streets I grew up on, but, especially as a writer, it was the first time I’d ever seen people where I was then (and now) and where I ‘d 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 on fictional Klail City, an arid patch of land that served as a stand-in for the Rio Grande Valley. Often compared to Yoknapatawpha County, the “little postage stamp of native soil” that William Faulkner invented for his novels by him, Klail City was home to hundreds of characters who fell in and out of love or struggled to make a living. The series was a patchwork of literary forms and genres, with sections written as letters, poems, interviews, monologues, dialogues, legal depositions, vignettes and diary entries.

The first installment, “Estampas del valle y otros obras” (“Sketches of the Valley and Other Works”), won the 1973 Premio Quinto Sol, given to the best work of fiction by a Chicano author. Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s follow-up, “Klail City y sutornos” (“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 honours.

“He is stylistically — and kind of intellectually — at that complex intersection of the Americas, the crossroads of the Americas,” said his University of Texas colleague John Morán González, a professor of American and English literature. “He wouldn’t deny that he’s a Chicano writer. But in some ways I think he would more profoundly identify as a border writer, a borderlands writer.”

In a phone interview, González added that Dr. Hinojosa-Smith straddled English- and Spanish-language literary traditions, meeting and befriending Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez even as he worked in “an almost satiric, novel-of-manners tradition ,” distinct from the magical realism that was then in vogue. Many of his books by him examined the fraught relationship between White power brokers and Latinos in the Valley, including in “Dear Rafe” (1985).

Reviewing the novel for the New York Times, author Robert Houston praised Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s sense of humor and humanity: “If ‘originality, in Klail City, is a sin,’ as the narrator claims, then rank Mr. Hinojosa among the most joyful of sinners. … Although his sharp eye and accurate ear capture a place, its people and a time in a masterly 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 Jan. 21, 1929. He later adopted the full name Romeo Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, changing his middle name because he apparently liked the way Rolando sounded, according to his daughter, and adding his mother’s maiden name with a hyphen in honor of her legacy. (Many of his books were published under the shortened 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 declared, according to an account in the Dallas Morning News, “that all his part of the state needed was a little water and a few good people” — an assertion that prompted Dr. Hinojosa-Smith’s grandfather to reply, “Well, that’s all hell needs, too.”

His mother was an Anglo homemaker and schoolteacher, and his father was a Hispanic sheriff who fought in the Mexican Revolution. The family spoke Spanish and English at home, and Dr. Hinojosa-Smith later toggled between the two languages, sometimes using both in a single novel. (I have translated several of his Spanish books into English.)

He joined the Army at 17, later drawing on his military experience for books including “Korean Love Songs” (1978), a novel in verse, and studied on the GI Bill at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating in 1953, he worked for a decade, teaching high school and landing jobs as a chemical-plant laborer and civil servant before going to graduate school for literature.

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

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

Although he rarely strayed from the Rio Grande Valley in his fiction, Dr. Hinojosa-Smith said he felt liberated by focusing on a single place, especially one he knew so well. Before he was 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 set down in fiction the history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” he told the reference work Contemporary Authors, noting that in chronicling the region in literature, he effectively had to re-create it on the page. “A German scholar, Wolfgang Karrer, from Osnabrück University, has a census of my characters; they number some one thousand,” he said. “That makes me an Abraham of some sort.”

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