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Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, award-winning Hispanic novelist, dies at 93
A Texan raised in two cultures in the Rio Grande Valley border county, he wrote 15 novels about the area and became a major figure in Chicano literature.

by Richard Sandomir



NEW YORK, NY.- Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, a charismatic, award-winning writer who created a fictional version of the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where he was raised by Anglo and Hispanic parents, as the backdrop for 15 novels set in a border land like his own, died on April 19 in Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb of Austin. He was 93.

His daughter Clarissa Hinojosa said the cause of his death, in a memory care center, was complications of dementia.

A major figure in Chicano literature along with Tomás Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, Rudolfo Anaya and others, Hinojosa-Smith wrote stories in Spanish and English about race, power, class, money and war in Belken County, creating a vivid world that mirrored his own life.

In 2014, he received the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Landrof award for lifetime achievement. The award called him the “dean of Chicano authors.”

Characters recurred in stories that he told through conventional narratives and in letters, poems, short character sketches, legal documents, logs and diaries.

“That’s the beauty of the novel,” Hinojosa-Smith was quoted as saying about his literary experimentation in a profile in Kirkus Reviews in 2014. “Novel means something new, and I’ve taken advantage of that.”

His books reflected his awareness of the differences and similarities among Hispanic and white people. They also reflected his enduring respect for the parents who had encouraged him to read widely.

“I was not ashamed of my parents after I received my education, for I was not ashamed of them before I acquired one,” he said in a 1982 speech to the Texas Library Association. “In short,” he added, “they were my parents, and I their son, and I was not going to write about them or about our mutual culture as if they were pieces of some half-baked mosaic.”

Hinojosa-Smith, a professor of literature at the University of Texas at Austin for 35 years, began his “Klail City Death Trip” series in 1972 with “Estampas del Valle y Otras Obras” (published in English in 1983 as “The Valley”), which won the Premio Quinto Sol in 1973 for the best work of fiction by a Chicano writer.

Three years later, he earned the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize, which honors Latin American writers, for the novel “Klail City y Sus Alrededores,” which would be titled “Klail City” when it was published years later in English.

“He captured people in realistic ways that reflected their humanity,” Jaime Mejia, a professor of Chicano literature at Texas State University in San Marcos, said by phone. “He could convey their humor and tragedy whether they were working class, middle class, petty, loyal, honest or pretentious.”




In “Dear Rafe” (1985), Hinojosa-Smith chronicled a white power broker’s machinations to control the politics and economics of Klail City.

Reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review, Robert Houston noted the comparisons between Klail City and other fictional locales like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon and Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo. But, he added: “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.”

In an appreciation in Texas Monthly, novelist Richard Z. Santos wrote, “Hinojosa-Smith left behind a body of work that stands apart from anything else produced in American letters, both in terms of output and his ability to shine a light on a corner of the country — the Hispanic, Anglo and mixed inhabitants of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley — ignored by most readers, most Americans, and probably most Texans as well.”

Romeo Daniel Hinojosa was born on Jan. 21, 1929, in Mercedes, Texas. His father, Manuel, was a sheriff who was involved in local Democratic politics and could trace his family’s history in the Valley to 1749. His mother, Carrie (Smith) Hinojosa, was a schoolteacher who could date her family's arrival in the area to 1887.

Hinojosa-Smith later changed his middle name to Rolando and added “Smith” to his surname to honor his mother. Some of his books are credited to Rolando Hinojosa, others to Rolando Hinojosa-Smith.

He served three years in the U.S. Army before being discharged in 1949. Following a year at Southmost College in Brownsville, Texas, he transferred to the University of Texas and graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

He worked as a laborer at a chemical plant, a high school teacher, an office manager and a civil servant before earning a master’s degree at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1962 and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1969. His dissertation compared Spanish and Portuguese literature.

In addition to English, Spanish and Portuguese, Hinojosa-Smith spoke German, which he taught himself before he traveled to Germany to deliver lectures.

Before he joined the faculty at the University of Texas, he taught at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas A&I University in Kingsville and the University of Minnesota.

In addition to his daughter Clarissa, Hinojosa-Smith is survived by another daughter, Karen Hinojosa (both daughters are from his second marriage, to Patricia Sorensen, who died in 1999); a son, Bob Huddleston, from his first marriage, to Lilia Saenz, which ended in divorce; and two grandsons.

Hinojosa-Smith, who was also a prolific essayist and wrote police procedurals, was published by small presses like Arte Público, whose director, Nicolás Kanellos, said in a statement after Hinojosa-Smith’s death that he was “a surveyor of the human scene, always keen to recognize the humor, irony and just plain outrageousness of people, especially as political animals.”

Referring to himself as a man of two cultures who had no desire to deny either one, Hinojosa-Smith told the Texas Library Association that his hundreds of characters — fools, knaves, heroes and cowards among them — reside “in a place called Belken County, of which I’m the sole owner and proprietor, as Faulkner once said, when he spoke of his county.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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