Chancellor's Friday Letters

A Literary Giant Passes

A Literary Giant Passes

May 18, 2012

Dear Friends,

A few days ago I received an email from Distinguished Professor Ray Williams: “Dear Tim, The major Mexican writer of the twentieth century, Carlos Fuentes, died today in Mexico City. National Public Radio will be airing a piece… Fuentes lectured on the UCR campus… and UCR students have been reading his work since the 1960s. [Former Chancellor] Tomás Rivera was a great admirer of Fuentes… Our loss of Carlos Fuentes [is] a huge loss for the Hispanic community and readers worldwide…”

I could stop writing here, but rather choose to share a few more insights to help understand the magnitude of the man, and the loss.

Carlos Fuentes was a giant of Latin American literature, perhaps the greatest contemporary Latino intellectual and writer to emerge in the Americas. He published more than 30 works.

In addition to his literary career, he was a Mexican diplomat who was sharply critical of his government and authoritarian regimes throughout the world.

His novel The Old Gringo was the first book by a Mexican novelist to become a best seller in the U.S., and was made into a movie with Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. The novel was inspired by the real-life disappearance of American journalist Ambrose Bierce during the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution.

In the late 1980s, the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS), which operates out of UCR’s Olmsted Hall, brought him to speak at the University Theatre. He read from his newest novel, Christopher Unborn (an indictment of the corrupt, polluted Mexico City).

Poet and author Rigoberto González, now an associate professor of English at Rutgers, was a freshman at UCR at the time. Professor González blogged earlier this week about that encounter: “I simply sat there mesmerized . . . His forehead glistened, and the spittle leaping off his lips was made visible in the stage lights. He held a copy of the book in one hand and chopped the air with the other, accentuating his delivery of a lengthy, winding road of sentences.”

González was so taken by the man that he bought paperback editions of two of Fuentes’ novels to be signed. “When I finally had my chance in front of Mr. Fuentes, whatever I had rehearsed to say had flown right out of my head. He appeared broken down, fatigued, but he smiled back anyway… I said to him before I was turned away, ‘Yo soy de Michoacán. Yo también voy a ser escritor (I’m from Michoacan and I’m going to be a writer too).’ He humored me and answered, quite gently, ‘Pues, suerte, muchacho. Nada más cuídate los dedos (Well good luck kid. Just take care of your fingers).’ He raised his hands up to show me and I was stunned: he had crooked index fingers.”

And it was our Professor Williams that many in the media turned to Tuesday for comment and perspective. Professor Williams knew Fuentes well, having hosted him on campus, written about him (The Writings of Carlos Fuentes, University of Texas Press, 1996), and taught his work extensively throughout his career.

Professor Williams remembers Fuentes as an extremely generous person both to Williams personally and to the students who flocked to hear him speak. After one lecture, Fuentes, exhausted from a long day of travel and lecturing, spent hours late in the evening talking with students and signing books. Williams recalls, “He really made a special effort because there were undergraduates and working people at the event.”

Juan Felipe Herrera, California Poet Laureate and UCR professor of creative writing, said that Fuentes was an essential component of the literary environment when he was a student at Stanford and afterwards. He recalls a man both deeply intense and yet playful, and attributes to Fuentes a broadening of his vision of the Latino experience.

Professor Herrera also incorporated into his writing, especially his poems, Fuentes’s diversity of voices, and his monologues reflecting multiple points of view with their richness of detail and texture and place. Fuentes inspired Herrera to reach for the big picture in his work, and now as California’s Poet Laureate, the gift is now being passed on to others.

My condolences to the Fuentes family, and his friends and colleagues. He was truly a gift.



Tim White, Chancellor

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