Photo by Philip Channing
At 96, Don Luis’ mind is still an encyclopedia. Speaking with him is like flipping through the pages of time.
He has lived through the Mexican Revolution, Great Depression and World War II. Each memory is crisp in his mind: the year, the images, what was said. His sister used to tease him that surviving a bout with typhoid fever during the Mexican Revolution made him that way.
He’s also known and studied a who’s who of great Latin American authors: Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Gabriel García Márquez.
The consummate student, Luis Leal (SCS40) promoted the study of Mexican, Latin American and Chicano literature and authors at U.S. universities at a time when literature from Spain was the gold standard. Early in his career he focused on the work of Mexican writers; once he retired he brought attention to Mexican American authors. Leal’s support for such authors and training of more than 44 doctoral graduates who study such literature has raised the profile of authors of Latin American, Mexican and Chicano descent in American universities. He also is the premier scholar of the Mexican short story and continues work in that field even today.
For Luis Leal, thin and fit, with combed-back white hair, glasses and a sparkle in his eyes, retirement is an option never entertained. There are still too many ideas in the world yet to be conquered by the professor emeritus, who still teaches Chicano studies courses at the University of California, Santa Barbara. And through all he’s seen, what is appealing about him is his passion for the ideas and people he’s studied; he’s as passionate as a young person uncovering something new for the first time.
He often laughs at his own jokes. His energy is enough to wear out a 20-year-old.
Inevitably, in speaking with him, every 10 minutes or so he jumps up and exclaims, “I want to show you something.”
He rushes to another room in his Goleta, Calif., home to retrieve a treasure or two: his family tree dating to 1636 in Linares, Mexico; one of his many books (he’s written 20, edited 29); his National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton; his Aguila Azteca (Aztec Eagle) Award from Mexican president Carlos Salinas; the poems he wrote to accompany the beautiful sketches of an artist friend of his.
In his library, each book is carefully cataloged. He is meticulous about this. His house is neat, too, with not a paper out of place.
His life’s mission, through literature, has been to erase ignorance, and to bridge the gap that exists between two neighbors so inexorably tied together in history and culture: the United States and Mexico.
He often jokes that the only historical event he’s missed between the two is the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, when Mexico ceded 525,000 square miles (now Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah) to the United States.
In Leal’s mind, the fact that he may not have many years left to work is what bothers him. So he doesn’t stop, as he puts together yet another book on the Mexican short story. In 2002 he published Mitos y Leyendas de Mexico: Myths and Legends of Mexico (University of California, Santa Barbara, Center for Chicano Studies, 2002), in which he retells 21 stories from Mexico’s indigenous and colonial past.
Hundreds of students have gleaned Leal’s knowledge, enjoying walks or a morning coffee session with him, listening as he empties the contents of his mind. Students call him “Don Luis,” a title of honor, rather than professor.
“He’s a walking bibliography,” says Rolando Romero, professor and former director of the Latina/Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois.
“He knows an awful lot,” says Juan Bruce-Novoa, a Spanish
professor at the University of California, Irvine, and prominent Latino
GROWING UP AS NORTEÑO
Leal lived a privileged childhood. He was born into an influential northern, or norteño, Mexican ranching family on Sept. 17, 1907, in Linares, Nuevo León, an agricultural town rich with orange groves.
His family predated the city, moving in from Mexico City. Linares “didn’t exist,” he says, until his ancestor, Antonio Leal, arrived in 1636 and established himself as a cattle rancher.
“The Leals came,” says Leal, whose family name literally means “loyal” in Spanish. “Then Linares came” in the 18th century.
In town the Leals owned a Spanish-style home an entire block long, next to the marketplace. He lived there with his parents, four brothers and sisters and an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. The oldest child, he was always “reading, reading, reading.” He recalls reading excerpts from Don Quixote aloud to the younger children.
In the center of town, at the zócalo or plaza, he remembers serenatas, when boys would walk in a circle clockwise, and girls counterclockwise, as a way for them to socialize. He remembers dances at the casino, a social hall.
When he was about 8 years old, in 1915, the violence of the revolution reached his town. His father was in favor of the revolution and aided the revolutionary Lucio Blanco, one of the first to give land to the peasants. While many Mexican families fled to the United States, his father decided to move the family to Mexico City.
With the unrest, Leal did not attend school for about two years. He recalls witnessing fusilamientos, or executions, in the streets of Mexico City.
He remembers soldiers pushing around peasants and the poverty of the
Mexican people: “That’s what affects you,” he recalls.
“The suffering of the people.”
However, his experience as a child of the revolution would forever shape how he viewed Mexico and his appreciation for Mexican authors later in life.
ARRIVING AT NORTHWESTERN
The day he stepped off the train at Union Station in Chicago, the young man knew he was far from Mexico. He couldn’t speak English, but he could read it. The culture shock overtook him.
It was cold that day in May 1927, the same day Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Leal was wearing a light summer coat and a straw hat much like the one usually worn by Maurice Chevalier, the French singer and actor.
“Everybody was looking at me!” Leal remembers with a laugh.
He had been accepted only provisionally by Northwestern because of his limited English. It took him seven years to master the language and begin classes. Friends from his hometown attending the University had encouraged him to apply.
Leal began as a mathematics major, but after he met Spanish professor
Roberto Brenes Mesén, a poet and the former Costa Rican ambassador
to the United States, he switched to Spanish. Brenes Mesén taught
him to critique Latin American literature from a Latin American perspective
— not a European one.
He became active with the transplanted Mexican community, serving in the Mexican American Council, an organization with an office at Hull House in Chicago. He tried to find scholarships for Mexican students, hosted speakers at the Mexican consulate and aided migrant workers caught in hard times.
During the 1930s the Spanish department at Northwestern became split between supporters of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain and supporters of a democracy. Some students joined brigades against Franco, and Leal says he had to be careful in revealing his politics.
“There was a big problem for the students, you see,” says Leal, who opposed Franco. “Because you didn’t know whom your professor was in favor of.”
While at Northwestern he met his wife, Gladys Clemens, at a dance. They married in 1936 and would later have two sons.
After graduation he began writing for small bilingual and Spanish newspapers in Chicago. In 1942 he published his first article, called “La leyenda guadalupana,” about Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the Spanish newspaper ABC.
Leal was planning to go back to Mexico. “But I was studying, studying, studying. Then I got married. Then I became a citizen in 1939. Then I went to the war. Then I became a teacher.
“But I was always remembering Mexico.”
THE WORLD WAR II YEARS
Every day there were bombs. They fell all around the soldiers. Leal ferried men to the Filipino shore, their faces filled with the terror of what lay before them: almost certain death. They vomited in the boat. It was World War II, and he was a member of an amphibious unit responsible for escorting men to shore during the invasion of the Philippines.
He had been teaching Spanish when he was drafted in 1943. Despite a letter from the University of Chicago, where he was working toward his PhD, he was told to enlist. Up until the night before he left, he worked on a bibliography for an anthology on Mexican literature, recalls friend Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, an author and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“He left for the army on a Monday, but he was still working that Sunday night,” says Hinojosa-Smith. “That’s Luis Leal. He said, ‘I have to finish it.’”
Some days during the war, he thought, “I’ll never come back.” But negative thinking has never been his approach to life. “You can’t lose faith,” Leal says. “You can’t say, ‘They’re gonna kill me tomorrow.’”
After U.S. forces took control of the Philippines he waited for the go-ahead to invade Japan. The dropping of the atomic bomb saved his life. But he knows it took many others.
“I would never have come back,” he says.
He calls himself lucky.
DON LUIS ENTERS THE ACADEMIC WORLD
Following the war he completed his dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1950 on the chronicles, or crónicas, written by the Spanish between the 16th and 18th centuries following the conquest of the Aztec empire. He viewed the fictional elements of the stories as the forerunner of the Mexican short story. Facts had been melded with stories about Aztec deities and other fiction. His fascination with this topic continues today and forms the basis of his most recent book.
On the eve of the Civil Rights movement, Leal packed up his family and his books in 1952 and moved to a place even more foreign than Chicago had been: Mississippi. There he taught Spanish at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. He was the only Latino teaching in the department.
During his time at Ole Miss, Leal caught glimpses of William Faulkner shopping at the local drugstore and fishing. He remembers having coffee with several black students from Cuba and Puerto Rico. “Nobody said anything” about them, he recalls, although he thinks the university assumed they were white when they were accepted.
At Mississippi Leal published his first major work, Mexico, civilizaciones y culturas (Houghton Mifflin, 1955), about Mexican culture.
It was his first tenured job, but he would not stay long. In 1956 he left to teach at Emory University in Atlanta. Leal didn’t like the segregation of the South, and he balked at the Emory University president’s request not to discuss the “racial problem.”
“That was bad,” he recalls. “How could you teach Latin American literature without talking about race?”
From 1959 until 1976 Leal taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There he mentored dozens of doctoral students in the study of Latin American and Mexican literature. When he arrived he found, as at most universities, Spanish literature was emphasized.
In 1961 he published his book on Mariano Azuela, author of Los de abajo, often considered the novel of the Mexican Revolution. He interviewed Azuela’s family and wrote about his sincerity in criticizing the revolution.
Many of the students remember “Don Luis” discussions. “He’s probably the only person that I still speak to with the usted,” says Romero, referring to the formal use of “you” in Spanish. “I don’t do it with anyone else. It’s just a sign of respect.”
Sandra Messinger Cypess, a student of Leal’s who is now director of the Spanish department at the University of Maryland, says Leal had a gentle approach in the classroom and taught her how to read literature. His relationship with his wife, Gladys, served as a positive example for her own marriage.
Before leaving the University of Illinois, in 1973 Leal published “Mexican American Literature: A Historical Perspective,” an article in the Revista Chicano-Riqueña. In it he argued that Chicano literature did not just come from modern times but can be traced back to the Spanish colonization of the Southwest. (In referring to Chicanos, he meant people often referred to as Mexican Americans.)
The writing sprang from people living in territories that had passed through Spanish, Mexican and, finally, U.S. hands. Therefore, he established the literature as autonomous — no culture has full claim to it, not even American literature, because of its mixed heritage.
LEGITIMIZING MEXICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE
On the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Don Luis has taught since he “retired” to this scenic seaside playground in 1976, there is a mural. It is a mix of faces and buildings, and one image is Don Luis’ face. He pauses in front of it, then laughs.
Here, he accomplished his second wave of work. Only after he arrived did he begin to promote Mexican American literature. He chronicled the genre with the publication of the book No Longer Voiceless (Marin, 1995). Now, the university is planning to launch the first Chicano studies PhD in the nation. This makes him proud.
He continues to teach in the classroom. His friend Hinojosa-Smith, who has delivered two retirement speeches for his friend and expects more, calls him a warhorse: “Come September, he just begins to sniff the chalk on the chalkboard.”
Leal hopes his life has helped two countries he loves understand each other better. His life’s mission has been to foster “better relations” through literature.
“If you know Chicano literature, then you will have a better attitude toward the Chicano people,” he says.
“Mexico and the United States are very close neighbors — but they don’t know each other,” Leal says. “I think it’s very important for American people to know how rich the Mexican mythology is. In the United States everything is science, but there is another perspective, which is the mythical, which complements the science.”
As a scholar, Leal has always had a reputation for being open-minded. “Some famous or important people tend to look down on other people, and he has this tremendous sense of generosity and compassion,” says Victor Fuentes, a retired professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “He has a great love for people and humanity.”
“To me,” says Fuentes, who hails from Spain, “he personifies all the best values of Mexican culture and history in one person.”
Respect for Mexico is something Leal has always demanded. “He taught us to take Mexico seriously,” says Romero. “When someone else was condescending, he said not to be. When you see him, you see him as a beacon.”
So Leal continues on his quest. Each day he tackles the work at hand: another book on the Mexican short story, an article for an encyclopedia yet to come out or the latest edition of a literary journal he founded, Ventana Abierta: Revista Latina de Literatura, Arte y Cultura.
“I did the work in Mexican literature, then it began to be taught,”
he says. Then he realized Mexican American authors needed help, too.
That task has not ended.
But, he says, “I’m still doing it.” And he doesn’t intend to stop any time soon.
Katherine Leal Unmuth (J03), a former Northwestern magazine intern,
is pursuing a newspaper career. She is not related to Luis Leal.