Leal, Luis: 1907—: Scholar, Literary Critic

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Luis Leal: 1907: Scholar, literary critic

On the same day Charles Lindbergh completed his historic crossing of the Atlantic OceanMay 21, 1927Luis Leal stepped off the train at Union Station in Chicago. As with Lindbergh, this Mexican native would become known as a pioneer in his field. Professor Leal helped develop the study of Latin American literature and is considered one of the founders of the field of Chicano/Chicana (Mexican American) literary studies. His extensive works include books, bibliographies, anthologies, and hundreds of journal and newspaper articles and essays, published for both U.S. and Latin American audiences. Much of Leal's works put Mexican, Chicano, and Latino literature and writers in historical context. They reflect his view that research is part of a dialogue on how to advance community or social issues. Affectionately called Don Luis, Leal also helped develop scholarship by working with students who wrote the first dissertations on world-renown Mexican and Chicano writers.

Just three years before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, Leal was born into a wealthy family of cattle ranchers that lived in the town of Linares, Mexico, on September 17, 1907. He, two brothers, two sisters, five aunts, and his parents inhabited a large house taken care of by servants. His father supported the uprising against dictator Porfino Díaz, but when the fighting drew near their home in 1915, he moved his family to Mexico City for three years before returning to Linares in 1918. During the Revolution, Leal witnessed some executions and his family had cattle stolen. Mario T. García remarked in Luis Leal: An Auto/Biography, that the exposure gave "Don Luis a humanistic worldview and a sympathy for social justice." The idea of revolution would become an important research theme for Leal.

Need for Education Sparked Self-Motivation

Leal attended Catholic school as a child, where he read translations of Italian stories. The school taught no foreign languages; however, the stories sparked an interest that he pursued by minoring in Italian as a university graduate student. The options open to Leal following high school were limited because many universities in Mexico were not operating. For a few years he studied at home, reading texts selected by his mother and father. His father, who had studied engineering, introduced Leal to nineteenth century Spanish novels and discussed newspaper articles with him daily. Eventually, despite knowing little English, Leal applied to and was accepted by Northwestern University, a school many of his hometown friends had attended. He set out to study mathematics.

At a Glance . . .

Born on September 17, 1907, in Linares, NL, Mexico; married Gladys Clemens in 1936; children: Antonio and Luis Alonso. Education: Northwestern University, BS, Spanish, 1940; University of Chicago, MA, Spanish, 1941; University of Chicago, PhD, Spanish and Italian, 1950. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1943-45.

Career: University of Chicago, instructor, 1942-43, 1946-48, assistant professor, 1948-52; University of Mississippi, associate prof, 1952-56; University of Arizona, visiting prof, 1955-56; Emory University, assoc prof, 1956-59; University of Illinois, Urbana, assoc prof, 1959-62, prof, 1962-76, professor emeritus, 1976; University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), visiting prof, 1976-77, 1985-91, 1993-94, 1997; University of California, Los Angeles, visiting prof, 1977-78; UCSB Center for Chicano Studies, research scholar, 1978-80, 1984-85, acting director, 1980-83, Ventana Abierta: Revista Latina de Literatura, Arte y Cultura, editor, 1990s; Stanford University, visiting prof, 1985, 1991-93; UCSB Department of Chicano Studies, endowed chair, 1994-96.

Memberships: Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española; Academia Española; Modern Language Association of America.

Selected awards: Scholar of the Year, National Association for Chicano Studies, 1988; Aguila Aztec Award, Mexican government, 1991; University of California, Santa Barbara, Luis Leal Endowed Chair of Chicano Studies, 1994; National Humanities Medal, President Bill Clinton, 1997; honorary doctor of literature, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2000.

Addresses: Home 542 Wessex Ct., Goleta, CA 93117-1600.

After arriving in Chicago, Leal went to live with a family from Mexico in a poor west side neighborhood made up of mostly European immigrants. His lack of English skills delayed his entrance into the university for several years. He gradually improved his English with the help of Gladys Clemens, whom he married in 1936, and by watching movies and auditing classes. During this time, he also worked as a Spanish proofreader, read Spanish novels, and developed friendships with other Latin Americans, including the Spanish consul.

Once Leal entered Northwestern University, he found himself taking more Spanish classes than mathematics courses. When a Spanish professor suggested he change majors, he began studying literary criticism and literary history. By the time he earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1940, Leal had decided to become a professor. The following year he completed his master's degree at the University of Chicago, writing his thesis, a literary history, on Amado Nervo. Because he identified himself as a norteño, Leal also wrote a few papers while a student on the themes and other characteristics of northern Mexican writers.

Began to Study Mexican Literature

The second World War interrupted Leal's pursuit of a doctorate degree. Since he had become a naturalized citizen, the U.S. Army was able to draft him in 1943 and sent him to the Pacific theater. He served with forces that retook the Philippines from Japan. Two years later he resumed his studies upon his return to the United States. Before he had left, Professor Carlos Castillo asked Leal to collaborate with him on the first anthology of Mexican literature published in the United States. The Antología de la literatura mexicana was published in 1944. That same year, Leal also edited short stories for high school students under the title Cuentecitos: Retold and Adopted from the Spanish of Vicente Riva Palacio and condensed the first novel published in Mexico, El periquillo sarniento for educational publication.

Leal learned to do research and apply literary criticism while working on his Ph.D. dissertation. His advisor was from Argentina and emphasized Latin American literature, a departure from the Spanish peninsular literature emphasized by his undergraduate professors. For his dissertation Leal focused on the origins of the Mexican short story, and specifically, wrote Garcia in Leal's biography, the "fictional elements contained within the chronicles written by the Spanish after conquest of the Aztec empire."

While in Chicago Leal was active in Spanish cultural and Latino community-based organizations. He and his friends formed the Sociedad Española, a Spanish American literary club. He presented one of his first papers there, which he later published. However, Leal did not yet think Chicano literature deserved university study, although he read Spanish-language newspapers featuring such stories. Together with activist Frank Paz and with the support of the City of Chicago, Leal founded the Mexican American Council to assist people coming from Mexico.

Moved From University to University

The University of Chicago employed Leal as an instructor and made him an assistant professor prior to his earning his Ph.D. in 1950. In 1952, because he was already published, the University of Mississippi offered him a tenured position as an associate professor in its Romance language department. At Mississippi Leal focused on Mexican and Latin American short stories. He also produced México: civilizaciones y culturas in 1955, a book based on lectures he had given at the University of Chicago on periods in Mexican culture.

Wishing to get away from the civil unrest in the South, in 1956 Leal accepted an associate professor position at Emory University he had been offered shortly after his arrival at the University of Mississippi. At Emory he became a literary historian. His works Breve historia del cuento mexicano, Antología del cuento mexicano, and Bibliografía del cuento mexicano reflected his particular interest in Mexican short stories. Also at Emory he studied Mexican fables, or fábulas, most of which criticized the Spanish colonial administration.

In 1959 Leal joined the faculty of the University of Illinois. The move put him in the largest Spanish-language department in the Midwest and provided him access to a vast library of Spanish and Latin American materials. He concentrated his research on Mexican literature, while teaching and mentoring graduate students, including 44 who completed their doctoral degrees. He also often hosted tertulias where colleagues, friends, and students discussed life, literature, and art.

Made Significant Publications

While at the University of Illinois, Leal expanded his research focus from short stories to include novels and major Mexican and Latin American writers. He became especially interested in writers of the Mexican Revolution. Leal published extensively and read papers at scholarly conferences, often about disregarded subjects. Among the more than 200 articles he wrote for U.S. and Latin American audiences was a long piece on the first novel published in Spanish in the United States, in which he identifies the author of Jicotencal. In the 1960s he contributed essays to a Mexico City newspaper's Sunday literary supplement and to such scholarly journals as Cuadernos Americanos and Historia Mexicana. He also completed more than 30 definitive books on Latin American and Chicano literature. He expanded an essay written for Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1950s on Mariano Azuela, the creator of the novel of the Mexican Revolution, into a full-length study based on reviews of Azuela's published works, personal papers, and interviews with his widow. Leal's literature surveys included Panorama de la literature mexicana actual, an assessment of twentieth century Mexican literature, and Breve historia de la literature hispanoamericana.

The Chicano movement of the mid-1960s made Leal aware of the cultural and artistic contributions of Mexican Americans. He developed an interest in Chicano literature, which traced its roots from the Spanish colonial period. Garcia explained, "Don Luis became not only one of the first senior scholars in the country to champion this new writing and research, but he also became one of its first scholars. His previous work in Mexican and Latin American literature contributed to helping establish the cultural linkages between Hispanic literature south of the border and Chicano literature north of it. Moreover, his stature and importance in the early days of Chicano literary criticism made it difficult for others to dismiss this research area as nothing more than political rhetoric." Leal participated in one of the first sessions on Chicano literature at a Modern Language Association meeting; he read a paper that commented on the poets José Montoya, Alurista, and Ricardo Sánchez. He also wrote and edited numerous books and articles on the new genre. Book-length works include Corridos y canciones de Aztlá, A Decade of Chicano Literature (1970-1979), Aztlán y México: Perfiles literarios e históricos, and No Longer Voiceless. His book on Juan Rulfo put the Chicano author's works in literary, historical, and social context. In 1988, Salvador Guereña compiled Luis Leal: A Bibliography with Interpretative and Critical Essays, which covers his published works.

Continued Working After Retirement

In 1976 the University of Illinois had a mandatory retirement policy that forced Leal to end his professional career there. However, that circumstance also enabled him to further advance contemporary Chicano literary criticism. He and his wife moved to Santa Barbara, where he continued his research and taught courses in Chicano literature and Mexican cultural traditions for the Department of Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus. As senior research fellow at UCSB's Center for Chicano Studies, he served as its acting director in the early 1980s to keep it open. UCSB honored him by naming the first chair in the United States dedicated to Chicano studies after him. Leal has also been honored by being the subject of the Spanish-language books Homenaje a Luis Leal: estudios sobre literature hispanoamerica and Don Luis Leal: una vida y dos culturas/conversaciones con Victor Fuentes.

Now in his nineties, Leal continues to share his scholarship as a visiting professor at UCSB. He also edits a literary periodical sponsored by the Center for Chicano Studies called Ventana Abierta: Revista Latina de Literatura, Arte y Culrura. It is the only literary journal in the United States published in Spanish.

Selected writings

(With Carlos Castillo) Antología de la literatura mexicana, 1944.

(Editor) Cuentecitos: Retold and Adopted from the Spanish of Vicente Riva Palacio, 1944.

(Editor) El periquillo sarniento, 1946.

México: civilizaciones y culturas, 1955, rev. 1971.

Breve historia del cuento mexicano, 1957, 1990.

(Editor) Antología del cuento mexicano, 1957.

Bibliografía del cuento mexicano, 1958.

(Contributor) Cuardenos Americanos, 1960s.

(Contributor) Historia Mexicana, 1960s.

Mariano Azuela, vida y obra, 1961.

Panorama de la literature mexicana actual, 1968.

(Editor with Joseph Silverman) Siglo veinte, 1968.

Breve historia de la literature hispanoamericana, 1971.

Mariano Azuela, 1971.

Corridos y canciones de Aztlá, 1980, 1986.

(Editor with others) Día de los muertos, 1983.

Juan Rulfo, 1983.

Aztlán y México: Perfiles literarios e históricos, 1985.

No Longer Voiceless, 1995.

(Editor) Ventana Abierta: Revista Latina de Liter-atura, Arte y Cultura, 1996-.

(With Victor Fuentes) Don Luis Leal: Una vida y dos culturas. Conversaciones con Victor Fuentes, 1998.

(With Mario T. Garcia) Luis Leal: An Auto/Biography, 2000.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.

Luis Leal: An Auto/Biography, University of Texas Press, 2000.


"Don Luis Leal: One Life, Two Cultures," Latina/ Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, www.lls.uiuc.edu/newslet ter/don_luis.htm (June 12, 2003).

"Luis Leal," Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Gale's Biography Resource Center, www. galenet.galegroup.com/servelet/BioRC (June 12, 2003).

"Luis Leal," Biography Resource Center, www.gale net.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (June 12, 2003).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through a curriculum vitae provided by Dr. Luis Leal on December 13, 2002.

Doris Morris Maxfield

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Leal, Luis: 1907—: Scholar, Literary Critic

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