In March, the National Book Critics Circle honored Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, author, professor in the Departments of English and Spanish and Portuguese at The University of Texas at Austin, and former Humanities Texas board member, with the 2013 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born in 1929, Hinojosa-Smith grew up in Mercedes, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. He attended The University of Texas and received his PhD from the University of Illinois before returning to UT Austin in 1981 as a professor. A writer from a young age, Hinojosa-Smith drew inspiration from his childhood experiences growing up on the Mexican-American border. His highly acclaimed Klail City Death Trip series comprises fifteen novels to date. The first, Sketches of the Valley and Other Works, won the 1973 Premio Quinto Sol, an award for the best fictional work by a Chicano author. In 1976, its sequel, Klail City, won the Premio Casa de las Américas, another prestigious award for Latin American authors.
In recognition of his recent Lifetime Achievement Award, this month's oral history article features an interview with Hinojosa-Smith conducted by Gary Kent for the 2005 book Conversations with Texas Writers.
Gary Kent: Share with us some of your early writing experiences while growing up in South Texas.
Rolando Hinojosa-Smith: We have a lovely program called "Creative Bits," which allows juniors and seniors to write and then, if selected, their work is bound and placed in the library. I discovered not too long ago that I had five pieces during my junior and senior year. They're still there in the library. I imagine that I sat in the same chairs that my two brothers and sisters did, it was that small a school. Being the youngest, unfortunately, the teachers already knew who I was, so I always had to be on my very best behavior and do the best I possibly could. But Mercedes was a nice town, agricultural, with a fine public library and outstanding high school library. Our board of education and city fathers provided good reading material for everyone.
Kent: Did you know you were going to continue on with writing in your life? Was this something you wanted to do or was this just a passing interest?
Hinojosa-Smith: Oh, no, I was very interested in writing. When one of the pieces won honorable mention, I think that clinched it. My grandmother and my mother were both teachers, so that put me on the teaching road as well—genetics, I imagine. I figured I could wed teaching and writing, which is what I've done all my life.
Kent: What happened after Mercedes? Where did you go from there?
Hinojosa-Smith: I went into the service, and then after that I attended The University of Texas. After I graduated from UT, I worked for ten years before I returned to graduate school. And I read a lot, more than I ever wrote, and for those ten years I worked as a laborer for a chemical plant. I also taught high school a couple of times. I worked as an office manager and a sales manager. I think a liberal arts major can do anything. Eventually I became a civil servant, and that allowed me to earn more money than being a high school teacher, and I was on my way to graduate school. At the age of thirty-two, thirty-three, kind of late, but I went back.
Kent: You received your PhD from the University of Illinois?
Hinojosa-Smith: University of Illinois in 1969, and some of the best times we've ever had, my wife and I, were when I was there.
Kent: What took you to Illinois?
Hinojosa-Smith: My baccalaureate is from UT, but my master's is from a very small New Mexican school called Highlands University, and the chair there was a U of I graduate, and he recommended me highly. He recommended good schools, but Illinois is where I wanted to go because I had studied the faculty and it was outstanding. Great time!
Kent: The Rio Grande Valley—it appears constantly in your work, and you must have a great love for it. What has changed about it, and why do you have this love for the Valley?
Hinojosa-Smith: Maybe because I was born there and our people came there with the first settlers around 1748 and 1749. Our names appear in the 1750 census, so I'm very close to it. I travel there a lot. I fly there and just have a good time. My relatives live there. And my friends are still in the Valley, up and down; they married and either moved away or stayed in Mercedes.
It has changed—the Valley has—as everything has changed. After the Depression, World War II came and that changed it, even changed the face of the little town. And of course our proximity to the border also involves many legal and undocumented workers who come there, so that has changed the face in some way. But around 1970, after I was already in the throes of writing the first two novels, I began to notice an economic change in the Valley. By 1980 it had accelerated. The Valley, which has a seaport in Brownsville, was mainly agricultural and small business and small manufacturing. A lot of money began to come in, but it was drug money, unfortunately. And it also involved some of the old families, as well as some of the new ones. That did not destroy my love for it, because I love the culture, the anthropology, the great folklore that the Valley has, and the great history.
But that change is why I wrote two of the detective stories. One was Partners in Crime in '85, and the other one was Ask a Policeman, which came out in '98. Partners involves drugs, and Ask a Policeman involves wholesale drugs and even fighting between the families for control of the drugs. All those changes gave me the idea to present that side as dark as it is, because it holds with the reality of the place.
Kent: You surely get the feeling, or at least I do in reading Ask a Policeman, that there is this tremendous web or thread between families, between cultures, between enterprises that sort of holds that entire region in its own special gauze.
Hinojosa-Smith: Oh, that's very well said, I couldn't improve on it. What the Valley shares—all the way up to, say, El Paso, which is nine hundred miles up river from Brownsville—is that we are tied to the border. We are tied psychologically, certainly historically—we share a lot of that. We are tied culturally and in many ways linguistically. Now the Mexican American population is in the majority, so that the political face has also changed. The intercourse between the northern and southern bank is where it always has been, very closely tied to the economy, which we also share.
Kent: When you write, is there a special place you write, or a special time?
Hinojosa-Smith: Special place? I can write just about anywhere. If the airplanes aren't jumping up and down, I can write. I can also write in airports; I've written in almost any venue. If I'm at home of course I have a special place. As for the time, because I'm a full-time teacher and writer—and, of course, there's committee work—I write early in the morning. This morning I got up at four-thirty, and I wrote until six a.m., but ordinarily I'll get up at five, write for a couple of hours. If I have nothing to write, I don't feel nervous. I just pick up a book that I've been reading. Usually, like most writers, I read two or three books at the same time. Sometimes if I have time in the afternoon or the evenings, I will write then. If I'm really on a good drive, if I've got something to say in the work that I'm on—whether it is an essay or a short story or a novel—then I can just write any time. I take notes once in a while. I would sometimes speak into a little recorder which I have, but I don't want to rely on it that much. I want to rely on memory and then maybe on handwritten notes.
Kent: Why is Klail City so important to you?
Hinojosa-Smith: First of all, I didn't want to use my hometown because that ties down the writer. That ties down any writer, unless it's a large city, Madrid, New York, Paris. Then you can just situate it in the city and go into neighborhoods. But Klail City to me is very important because it allows me the freedom to write about a town in the Valley, any event, any historical moment as well, and the different ethnicities there. Very few Texas blacks appear—that is also a representation of the Valley, where they are not only a distinct minority, they're almost non-existent. It is very important because it's given me my life's work, which is writing. I need a place. I need a base. I've always insisted on being true to the place, having a sense of the place, to convince the reader that whatever they're reading, this man who is writing knows what he's talking about. It's easy for me to write about home.
Kent: I certainly got that feeling when I read Ask a Policeman; it became very real to me, and I didn't consider it fiction from then on. The modus operandi of the policemen and their daily routine and how they interacted was so real that I thought, "Gee, this is taken right from the police blotter. Somehow he finagled his way into the back room and knows how they talk." But it was more than that. It was what they ate. I never got so hungry in my life! It was just a really pleasurable book to read. Back to this police authenticity, was your father a policeman?
Hinojosa-Smith: Yes, he was. It was a very small town, the town of Mercedes; I think there were two or three policemen in the entire town. And he worked nights; he preferred to work nights. But my experience regarding police and police routine and procedure has come through reading and some common sense. People say to do research; my research is reading and talking and listening to people. I've always found that to be very instructive for me. If it convinces the reader—and you were just very kind with all the things you just said; goodness, it was so affirmative! But that's what I want to do, convince the reader that the writer knows what he is talking about or presenting or showing, whether it's food or dress or motive, expression, just make it as realistic as possible. Not real but realistic.
Kent: Well, you certainly do that. I want to ask about gente dura, the tough guys.
Hinojosa-Smith: Yeah, those are the really tough guys! That's a term that I thought I invented, until I heard someone use it. So I said, well, it's one of those coincidences that writers are always coming up against. In fact, I think I not only heard it, but I think I read it somewhere too, later on, after I'd finished writing and publishing A Policeman. I said, by gum, there it is again. Reality invading fiction or fiction invading reality.
Kent: In Ask a Policeman, the bad guys are referred to as gente dura.
Hinojosa-Smith: Those that deserve it. I think there are one or two characters that are surprised when Roston tells one of them that so-and-so thinks he's gente dura, and he says, "No, no I'm not. They are." And he's not being modest. It is recognition that he's limited in some way. Because the real gente dura, the real hard guys, they are. They're very professional, really cold-bloodedly professional, as if they're insensitive to everything. But I know that they are husbands; they're probably fathers as well. That's one thing, but business is business.
One of them is being asked, "After you shot those men at the parking lot, what happened to the kid?" A brother interrupts, "Oh, we killed him too." Just like that. I've heard people talk that way, and it is chilling. It is meant to be chilling. Unfeeling, unremorseful—this is just something that I did—as if they are completely divorced from everything else. You know family is one thing, but the job is another. It's a terrible indictment of the human psyche that it works that way.
Kent: I think this book Ask a Policeman comes closer to the daily routine of the homicide detectives and the police force, and how they work. There's nothing glamorous about what these fellows have to do.
Hinojosa-Smith: They go fishing, they go to the Gulf, they go boating, they go sailing. The reason murder is so interesting is that it doesn't happen every day, but when it does, it just catches their attention and forces them to focus on this. But they have a social life. They baptize kids. I want them to be ordinary human beings and this is their profession. They're good at it, and they respect each other. But they're not big heroes either.
Kent: Right, right, they're men doing their work. Are you free from the vagaries of criticism? Does that affect you any way, up or down, with your writing?
Hinojosa-Smith: When I first started, I was very anxious to see my name on the page. I remember the great Larry King, the Texas writer, the real Larry King, said that he wanted to see his name on every page when he bought his first book; well, I did too. I read that line, and I said, "Yeah, I think he pegged me and everybody else." I don't read or try to read brief newspaper reviews; they're always on a timeline. They usually have to meet some deadline as well, and the number of words is restricted.
What I respect are long articles that take the critic, the reviewer, a year, maybe even more, to write it, hone it. Then he has to wait another year before it is published, so that that's a lot of stick-to-itiveness, and that demands respect. Added to which the literary critic signs his name, and he can't back down. Like the writer, I can't really go around saying, "Well, I really meant to say this." No, no, the book is published, that's it. So the critic is the same way.
In Spain this January, a woman is defending her thesis on my work, and a year before that another young man published his thesis on my work. Now that I am bound to read because I want to see what they said. Prior to that, Joyce Glover Lee of this country published Rolando Hinojosa-Smith and the American Dream, and that's a book. So I wanted to read that as well, because their reputation is on the line, and it deserves serious attention. I will write these critics and say thank you, or I think you saw this very well, or I appreciate your pointing this out. Long articles and theses and books are very much appreciated, and they should be read, as I do, with great respect for their work. Not only for taking interest in my work but for how prescient they can be about future works, and some of them have been.
Conversations with Texas Writers (2005), edited by Frances Leonard and Ramona Cearley for Humanities Texas, provides a representative sampling of the breadth and vitality of the state's literary production. The writers speak of their apprenticeships, literary influences, working habits, and the events that have shaped their writing. Accompanying the interviews are excerpts from the writers' work, as well as photographs, biographies, and bibliographies. Joe Holley's introductory essay—an overview of Texas writing from Cabeza de Vaca's 1542 Relación to the present—provides the necessary context to appreciate such a diverse collection of literary voices. Visit the University of Texas Press for more information.
Don Aureliano Mora has moved to a shady part of the park; he's sitting in one of the six benches that are left now. Thinking, perhaps of Amador who died in Okinawa; on Serafin who left and never returned to Belken County: Serafin gave thirty years of his life to Inland Steel; in return, the company gave him a pension, and then, at his death, the Social Security Administration threw in a coffin; on the twins, Antonio and Julio who lived and worked and died; and surely, on Ambrosio, the Flower of the Flock, on whose behalf a corrido, a ballad, was written and sung, and for whom don Aureliano decided to rid Belken County of still another piece of cold hypocrisy that served as a slap in the face of the old man.
Once in a while, the old man gets up and walks to the east corner of the park. A smile. No; no more plaques; a clothing store now. (One mustn't stand in the way of progress.) The park, named for General Rufus T. Klail, has been subdivided and sold into lots; a mini mall, they call it, and this is where the Romans sell their wares and souls on a daily basis. What's left of the park is a strip of six benches and that's where the old man spends most of his days.
(Houston: Arte Público, 1987), 39–40.