Romero, Leo 1950–
Romero, Leo 1950–
PERSONAL: Born September 25, 1950, in Chacon, NM; son of Ortencia Romero; married Elizabeth Cook (a journalist). Ethnicity: "Hispanic." Education: University of New Mexico, B.A., 1973; New Mexico State University, M.A., 1982.
ADDRESSES: Home—34 Calle el Gancho, Santa Fe, NM 87507.
CAREER: Social Security Administration, Clovis, NM, employee, 1975–78; Bernalillo County Mental Health Center, Bernalillo County, NM, employee, 1979–81; Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM, worked as technical writer in computing division and in science outreach program, 1983–88; Books and More Books, Santa Fe, NM, co-owner, until 2000; Leo's Books, owner and operator, 2002–. Conducted poetry workshops in northern New Mexico.
AWARDS, HONORS: Resident artist fellow, Wurlitzer Foundation, 1979; creative writing fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 1981; national Hispanic scholarship, 1981; Pushcart Prize, 1982, for poem "What the Gossips Saw."
During the Growing Season, Maguey (Tucson, AZ), 1978.
Celso, Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International (Berkeley, CA), 1980, revised edition, Arte Publico (Houston, TX), 1985.
Agua Negra, Ahsahta (Boise, ID), 1981.
Desert Nights, Fish Drum (Santa Fe, NM), 1989.
Going Home Away Indian, Ahsahta (Boise, ID), 1990.
San Fernandez Beat, Alexander Street Press (Alexandria, VA), 2005.
Celso: Voices of New Mexico (play), produced in Las Cruces, NM, at Readers Theater, 1982.
(With Jorge A. Huerta and Ruben Sierra) I Am Celso (play), produced in Seattle, WA, by Group Theatre Company, 1985.
Rita and Los Angeles (short stories), Bilingual Press (Tempe, AZ), 1995.
Work represented in anthologies, including After Aztlán: Latino Poets of the Nineties, David R. Godine, 1992; Celebrate America in Poetry and Art, National Museum of American Art (Washington, DC), 1994; The Ahsahta Anthology: Poetry of the American West, Ahsahta (Boise, ID), 1996; Seeing the Big Picture: Exploring American Cultures on Film, Intercultural Press, 2001; and In Company: An Anthology of New Mexico Poets after 1960, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 2004. Contributor to periodicals, including Fish Drum, Frank: International Journal of Writing and Art, L'Ozio, Northwest Review, Americas Review, South Dakota Review, Floating Island, Sonora Review, Bilingual Review, and Revista Chicano-Requeña. Poetry editor, Puerto del Sol.
SIDELIGHTS: Leo Romero has been identified as one of the most prolific poets of New Mexico. Romero was born in Chacon, a village in the northern part of the state, but he grew up in West Las Vegas, New Mexico, raised by a single mother in a largely Spanish-speaking community, though he grew up speaking English. It was a return to Chacon in 1975 that inspired the poetic depictions of village people for which he is best known.
In Chacon, Enrique R. Lamadrid reported in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Time passed in conversation with his grandmother and in simple activities like sitting on the portal and chopping wood…. Back in Chacon, Romero came to terms with his past: the uprooting from the rich village culture at such an early age, the deprivation of a paternal history, and the alienation from Spanish, his childhood tongue." There he uncovered his roots within a traditional culture that had eluded him for many years. Lamadrid observed: "What appear in Romero's poetry are the familiar themes, motifs, and voices from the oral traditions of New Mexican folklore, not reported in the manner of a folklorist, but lyrically recounted in new poetic creations."
One of Romero's most popular and well developed characters is the picaro known as Celso. "As a social and literary type," Lamadrid reported, "Celso is part of a millennial tradition of tricksters, outcasts, and rogues that dates back to the picaresque animal fables of both Europe and America." Romero commented in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "To some people Celso would be just a drunk and a bum, but there's a little bit of Celso in everyone…. He's free of all the meaningless things we take so seriously. He jokes. He tells stories. He doesn't care about getting a car or getting a house. He doesn't care what people think of him. It takes great courage to live that way. It's a hard life."
Through Celso, Romero explores some themes that are common to picaresque poetry: alienation, magic, and ecstasy. Lamadrid explained: "A basic characteristic of picaros is their social alienation: some begin life as orphans," as Celso did, and "the alienation and bitterness Celso experiences in his youth follow him into old age…. But alienation from society is the most important prerequisite for unfettered criticism of it, for the picaresque genre has been the main vehicle for social criticism (in print) for centuries in the Hispanic world." A counterbalance for the bitterness is represented by the magic Celso experiences in the poem "Dancing with Moonlight" and the ecstasy he derives from red wine in "The Sermon of the Grape." Lamadrid observed: "Celso's delirium gives Romero access to lyrical moments of surrealism, and access to the folk realm of legend or supernatural belief."
Celso first appeared in the collection During the Growing Season in 1978. Since then, two book-length collections have been devoted to Celso, and he appears in other books and periodicals as well. Romero has earned many awards and honors for his work. Lamadrid noted: "The critical reception of Romero's poetry has been consistently enthusiastic since the appearance of his first book." Denise Chavez wrote in the Rio Grande Writer' Newsletter: "The ongoing cyclical movements of Romero's poems are strong, blinding—as sharp knocks on the skull." Lamadrid attributed the poet's popularity to multiple factors: "In his poems Romero has successfully brought the magic of his regional culture to a national audience, not by merely describing its traditions, but rather by evoking the complex and lyrical orality which lies so close to its collective soul."
In 1995 Romero transferred the "lyrical, rhythmic quality" of his poetry, as Kathleen Hughes described it in Booklist, to the short story collection Rita and Los Angeles. The stories reveal the American West through the activities and thoughts of atypical people living out-of-the-way lives. There is a dwarf perpetually in search of sex, a strange, unkempt woman lingering at a state park in search of tourists to educate about the natural wonders of the place, and a fellow from a dusty New Mexico town with the unfortunate and misleading name of Las Vegas. Hughes particularly appreciated the title story, which is actually a young boy's memoir of two women rather than the tale of a woman and a place. Though a Publishers Weekly contributor found the volume disappointing, Hughes described Rita and Los Angeles overall as "a witty, sensitive collection of strange, sad stories."
Romero told CA: "For several years I dealt with some health issues that made it difficult for me to focus on my writing. The physical and mental strain of that experience caused me to lose touch with my motivation for writing—the joy it brought.
"It seems to me that I've been on a very long dusty road across an extremely desolate stretch of country. There was a time it seemed it would never end. But now I notice the land I'm reaching is a more fruitful one. Where there was just sand, there is some grass and occasional flowers. Where there were just rocks, there are now trees, sometimes stands of trees with birds. I'm beginning to see faint distant mountains instead of that stark horizon of a desert plain.
"With my greatly improved health I find myself getting excited again about endless possibilities. The bell within me is resonating again after its long silence. It's not a booming sound, but quiet reverberations. I see something, experience something, and connections start happening again. It is a leaping process. How do you get from here to there? It's a sort of magic—being open and raw enough for the mystery of existence to make its impressions on you."
Romero recently told CA about his writing: "When I was in the ninth grade I was inspired by Mad magazine to do some satirical writing and drawings about things going on in my school. I made my own little magazine by folding several sheets of paper in half and then sewing them together. Then I filled in the pages by hand. Much of it was silly and sometimes funny/serious. I handed the magazine out for other students to enjoy. One day the principal got hold of my magazine, and I was called into his office. I thought I was in trouble. I was greatly relieved when I saw that the principal didn't look angry. He told me that he had shown my little magazine to my English teacher and she had told him that what I was writing looked like poetry to her. Up until then I hadn't had a very high opinion of poetry. The little I had been exposed to seemed pretentious and dreary to me. After that meeting with the principal, I had a private meeting with my English teacher. She lent me some books of poetry and encouraged me to start writing poetry which she would look forward to reading. She was a first year teacher, young and sexy. She wore short dresses that revealed how shapely her legs were. I wrote furiously so I would have more opportunities to meet with her. And I have kept writing ever since. And even though thirty years have gone by, there are times I still wistfully think about the beauty (the poetry) of those legs."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda, editor, Pasó por Aquí: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542–1988, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1989.
Harris, Marie, and Kathleen Aguero, editors, A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1987.
Shirley, Carl R., and Paula W. Shirley, Understanding Chicano Literature, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1988.
American Book Review, February, 1992, review of Going Home Away Indian, p. 26; December, 1995, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 19.
Bloomsbury Review, April, 1991, review of Going Home Away Indian, p. 6.
Booklist, July, 1995, Kathleen Hughes, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 1861.
Hispania, December, 1987, review of Celso, p. 806.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1995, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 583.
Library Journal, May 15, 1995, Adam Mazmanian, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1995, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 11; September 10, 1995, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly, May 29, 1995, review of Rita and Los Angeles, p. 81.
Rio Grande Writers' Newsletter, winter, 1981.
Western American Literature, fall, 1982, review of Agua Negra, p. 291; winter, 1992, review of Going Home Away Indian, p. 373.