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Luis Leal: 1907-2010

January 26, 2010
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Eminent Mexicanist scholar don Luis Leal passed away yesterday, 25 January, a the age of 102. While I never had the opportunity to meet him personally, I have been instructed by his writing and his students. In tribute, I share an encyclopedia article that I wrote about don Luis for María Sobek-Herrera’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of Latino Folklore.

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Luis Leal is a prolific literary scholar and academic whose work in disseminating Mexican, Latin American, and Chicano literature has paved the way for generations of scholars.

Leal was born on September 17, 1907, in Linares, Nuevo León, México, to a ranching family that supported the Mexican Revolution. Upon completing high school in his hometown, and realizing that Linares offered no further educational opportunities, he applied to Northwestern University, was accepted, and studied math for two years before switching to Spanish. While at Northwestern he met and married Gladys Clemens in 1936. In 1939, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He later pursued a Master’s degree in Spanish at the University of Chicago, and would have proceeded directly to doctoral work had he not been drafted into military service. Due to his colorblindness, Leal was placed in an Army infantry regiment and fought in the Philippines. When the war concluded, he returned to the United States and to his studies, earning his doctoral degree in 1950.

Leal’s first academic position was at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Disenchanted with the administration’s resistance to racial integration, Leal accepted a position with Emory University where he taught for three years. His next stop was the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he taught two graduate seminars a semester from 1959 to 1975. During this time he directed 44 dissertation students and published a host of articles and books on Mexican, Latin American, and Chicano literature. In 1975, at the age of 68 he became eligible for mandatory retirement, taught one final year at Urbana, and moved to Santa Barbara, California. There he accepted a visiting professor post and began the second of two full academic careers. At UCSB Leal held a research fellowship, taught graduate literature courses, and directed the Center for Chicano Studies. Leal continued working as a visiting professor at UCSB into his nineties.

Among his many accomplishments, Leal was a key figure in formalizing the study of Latin American, Mexican, and Chicano literature and culture in United States at all levels. While other critics focused on traditional curriculums that emphasized peninsular texts, Leal forged into the exciting new literature produced in Central and South America. He was one of the first scholars to incorporate the Boom writers (Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar) into college curriculums. He also championed the study of Mexican authors like Amado Nervo, Mariano Azuela, Rafael F. Muñoz, and Martín Luis Guzmán.  And Chicano literature was never far from his mind; he has actively promoted Chicano literature and culture through the study of authors like Tomás Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa, Sandra Cisneros, Alurista, and Rudolfo Anaya.

Leal has been a tireless scholar and writer. In fifty years of academic activity, he has published more than 250 articles and 30 books. In many ways, Leal’s early concern for the transmission of culture through literature set the pattern for later research. His doctoral dissertation studied the colonial chronicle as the foundation of the Mexican short story (García 42-44). Some of his most well-known volumes include the modestly titled Breve historia de la literatura hispanoamericana (1971), El cuento hispanoamericano (1967), Corridos y canciones de Aztlán (1980), as well as anthologies which include Antología del cuento mexicano (1957), El cuento mexicano (1966), El cuento veracruzano (1966), and Cuentos de la Revolución (1971). These volumes represent one aspect of Leal’s work: sweeping, encyclopedic analyses that demonstrate a broad field of knowledge coupled with a historian’s appreciation for detail while simultaneously recognizing the critic’s duty to highlight exemplary texts (Breve historia de la literatura hispanoamericana ix). Other works, like Mariano Azuela (1971) and Juan Rulfo (1983) underline Leal’s ability to dig deeply and insightfully into an author’s oeuvre.

This sensitivity to the historical developments of genre and aesthetics also informs his work with Chicano literature and culture. Mexican American literature, he argues, cannot distance itself from its inherently Mexican and Spanish roots, but must be understood as a product of them (Stavans 14-27). He was, in point of fact, one of the first senior scholars to draw parallels these parallels.  Ilan Stavans correctly points out that, for Leal, “criticism is almost exclusively preoccupied with community” and that “the critic in the Spanish-speaking world is a heroic debater of ideas” (xi). As a naturalized citizen of the United States, he has never lost touch with Hispanic communities in the U.S. During his graduate studies in Chicago, for example, he was a member of the educational committee of the Mexican American Council and worked to obtain scholarships for Hispanic students (García 45-47). In recognition for his community involvement, Leal has received the Distinguished Scholarly Award from the National Association of Chicano Studies, the National Humanities Medal. Additionally, the Mexican government awarded him the Aztec Eagle, its highest award for foreign citizens (Stavans x).

In addition to his academic publications, Leal’s legacy is the generation of academics who recognize in his humility, intelligence, and dedication a model of scholarship. The edited volume El cuento mexicano: Homenaje a Luis Leal attests to this influence by bringing together 26 literary critics and 17 short story writers to celebrate Leal’s work. Known by friends, students, and readers as “don Luis”, Leal has created a spirit of collegiality that is relatively unparalleled. He is, to quote Sara Poot Herrera, a man who, despite his success, “gets along with everyone because of his respect for those to whom he speaks and listens” and has become, both in Mexico and the United States, “a fundamental presence among scholars of Mexican literature” (Poot Herrera 17-19).

Works cited:

  • García, Mario T. Luis Leal: An Auto/Biography. Austin: U of Texas P, 2000.
  • Poot Herrera, Sara, ed. El cuento mexicano: Homenaje a Luis Leal. Mexico: UNAM, 1996.
  • Stavans, Ilan, ed. A Luis Leal Reader. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2007.

Recommended reading:

  • Leal, Luis. Breve historia de la literatura hispanoamericana. New York: Knopf, 1971.
  • —. Breve historia del cuento mexicano. Mexico: Ediciones Andrea, 1956.
  • —. Don Luis Leal: una vida y dos culturas. Conversaciones con Víctor Fuentes. Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1998.
  • —. Juan Rulfo. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
  • —. Mariano Azuela. New York: Twayne, 1971.
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Recommended reading:

Leal, Luis. Breve historia de la literatura hispanoamericana. New York: Knopf, 1971.

—. Breve historia del cuento mexicano. Mexico: Ediciones Andrea, 1956.

—. Don Luis Leal: una vida y dos culturas. Conversaciones con Víctor Fuentes. Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1998.

—. Juan Rulfo. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

—. Mariano Azuela. New York: Twayne, 1971.

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