Marlene Hansen Esplin


On Language, Literature, and Life: A Conversation with Rolando Hinojosa

July 23, 2012, Schloss Seggau

Rolando Hinojosa is a foundational voice within Chicano, U.S., and inter-American literary studies. From Mercedes, Texas, he provides an inimitable portrait of the culture and peoples of the lower Rio Grande Valley in his elaborate Belken County. His manifold narrators weave an evolving, inter-textual narrative that engages readers through layers of vivid language and verisimilitude. He has undertaken both Spanish and English versions of his works and has been honored with the Premio Quinto Sol for his Estampas del Valle in 1972 and the Casa de la Américas prize for his Klail City y sus alrededores in 1976. He was also the Ellen Clayton Garwood Professor in the English Department at UT-Austin and the 2013 recipient of the National Book Critics Lifetime Achievement Award. Recent works include A Voice of My Own: Essays and Stories, a re-edition of Partners in Crime, and a bilingual edition of The Valley/ Estampas del Valle.


Marlene Hansen Esplin is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Brigham Young University with a PhD in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Michigan State. Her research interests include translation studies and contemporary literatures of the U.S and Latin America.  

Her current book project concerns U.S. and Latin American “self-translators” and how problems of translation create intersections between U.S. and Latin American literatures. She also is the mother to four wonderful children and she enjoys

In a lounge of the unbelievably picturesque Schloss Seggau, outside of Leibnitz, Austria, as a part of an international summer school on American Studies, I spoke with Rolando about his experiences as a writer, translator, and self-translator. Our exchange capped several days of conversation about topics from U.S. literature, the Mexican Revolution, and teaching creative writing to food, travel, and family life. His responses not only demonstrate his thoughts on translation and the calculations surrounding language choices in Chicano and/or Latino literature, but they also provide a window into the Chicano publishing industry in the early 1970s, reveal the close friendship between Hinojosa and Tomás Rivera, and give some of the thoughts behind the creation and evolution of the Klail City Death Trip Series. Moreover, his words illustrate his tremendous graciousness and acuity as a writer, teacher, and cultural ambassador within and without U.S. literary circles. 



MHE: Partly because of the lack of distance from the first version of their text, multilingual authors who translate or rewrite their own works, like yourself, are much more apt to make substantive changes to their literature when rewriting. As Gustavo Pérez-Firmat has said in his Tongue Ties, “No writer wants to play second banana to another writer, least of all to himself” (108). Do you think bilingual, multilingual, and/or bi-scriptive writers can be “good” translators of their own texts? Also, what circumstances in the past have prompted you to write in both or either English or Spanish?

Rolando Hinojosa: I’ll begin with the last one, what circumstances prompted me to write in Spanish and English. Back in the very early 70s, I was a chairman at Texas A & I University in Kingsville. A student from the Valley came in and showed me a copy of El grito, one of the literary magazines published by Quinto Sol, and I had not heard of it. My PhD was about two or three years old, and here I was the chair of a department already. I said, “Who is Tomás Rivera?” He said, “Well, he’s the author of this thing, and there is an interview with him in another number.” I said, “Well, bring it over and I’ll read it.” I was very much impressed by the writing, how he had captured that segment of the Mexican-American or the Chicano population, the working class and those who travel back and forth. And I said, “Well, we’re in the States, and someone’s published something in Spanish out of a university.” That’s when I decided that I was going to write in Spanish. So, I wrote Estampas del valle and it won the Quinto Sol prize for that year.

I was working at the same time on Klail City y sus alrededores. I went to a conference that I’d been invited to—Tomás was a graduate of Oklahoma, and so we went to Norman and we talked and met and all of that—and while there, someone handed me a flier from Havana. There was a prize called Premio Novela Casa de las Américas. That gave me an idea. I said, “I’m working on something in Spanish right now. I’m going to submit it, and what are the chances of this ever getting to Havana?” Nil, just about. But there was another address, a post office drop in Switzerland. I said, “It must be the embassy.” So, I sent it to them, and I forgot all about it. I was then talking to Nick Kanellos. Nick and I have known each other for a long time. I said, “Are you going to continue publishing things in Spanish?” He said, “I don’t know. The market seems to be going English, and we’re finding out that a lot of the young men and women, college types, don’t read that much Spanish.” I said, “Well, está bueno.” And that’s when I wrote Korean Love Songs, which is in verse. I keep telling people, “It’s not poetry, I wish I were a poet, but it’s in verse.”

Then, I received a forty-five-day-old letter when I was down in Kingsville saying, “Complázcome en avisarle que se le otorga el Premio Casa de las Américas.” Forty-five days for the letter to come to the U.S. “Good thing I sent it off to Switzerland,” I thought. So, I’m in my office and my secretary says, “You have a phone call from Western Union.” And I said, “Are they still alive?” So I called them back and said, “I’m so-and-so,” and they said, “Oh, yes, a telegram came in this morning from Havana.” That’s too much of a coincidence. You know, as the Marxists say, it’s probably a scheme. I said, “Well, read it.” And they said that they were awarding me Premio Casa de las Américas. That thing was also very old. But, coincidence or not they came together. I answered them right back and said, “Thank you very much.” And then they invited me, and I asked them to also invite Tomás, a premier writer.

I told Nick that I had won this prize, and he was very happy with it. But it was in Spanish. Nick said, “I’m not interested in it right now because the market is going to English.” Then Gary Keller heard something from somewhere, booksellers and distributors and all this, and he said, “I would like to publish Klail City in English,” and I said, “No, I’ve already promised it to Nick.” And he said, “Well, do something for me in Spanish or in English, it doesn’t matter.” I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And, Kanellos and I are in Mexico City walking down Reforma on the way to the Anthropological Museum, and I said, “Nick, would you be interested in Estampas if I wrote it in English? He said, “No, I don’t think I’d be interested.” I said, “Ah, ok.” Then, I saw Keller at a world premiere of one of the movies that Jesús Salvador Treviño made in San Antonio. Gary said, “Well, you have anything for me?” “I think I’m going to work on The Valley in English.” “I’ll publish it.” But, as a good editor, he also attached another novel that I had to write for him. And, The Valley came out, I think in ‘83, out of Michigan, when he had gone from York to Binghamton to Ypsilanti. Then, later on Nick said, “Well, yeah, I think we can start writing in Spanish.” So, language to me really doesn’t matter, whatever came to mind, one language or the other. That was it.

By the way, I do know Gustavo well. I really like his work, and I like him as a person as well as a good writer. But, I could never translate anyone else, I thought, except that Tomás Rivera and I were so close, as if we were kids who were 10-years-old and had just come up with a friendship—and we worked hard, New York, New Orleans, all over Texas, California, Colorado, Arizona, all over. When he died at such a young age, he was 49, that was quite a shock to everyone. It hurt me very much.

He and I had discovered things in the translation of his Spanish in the English that didn’t jibe at all. I’ll just give one example, “b-u-l-e-g-a.” “Bulega” was the Rio Grande Valley, South Texas name for a bootlegger. I think it came out as “rascal” or something like that. It was way off the mark. I told Tomás, I said, “No, no, this is going to have to change.” Then, when he died, I said, “I’m going to write a rendition of Tomás Rivera, and that’s when This Migrant Earth came about.

So, I just go back and forth from one language to the other. It really doesn’t matter, as I come from a truly bicultural and bilingual atmosphere. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, work against my own writing, when I did that for Tomás. It was a gesture to a good friend, and I thought that he deserved a little better translation than the first one. By the way, I think we still don’t know who did that translation. I suspect it was Herminio Ríos. But we don’t know. People thought it was Tomás, and I said, “No, that’s not possible. Tomás would have known exactly what a ‘bulega’ is.” That’s the only translation I’ve worked on by somebody else, and only because of the close friendship and love that we had for each other, families and everything. It was a nice challenge. I looked at it like, “Alright, buddy. What are you going to do with this? Can you do it?” And, I decided that I would. 

MHE: So, you feel more comfortable translating your own work, obviously, instead of working with someone else’s?

RH: As I keep telling people every time they ask, I say, “I’m the author of both, I can make any changes that I want to, and if I can say it better in this language or the other. Fine. It’ll work.” And, I’m not talking just about idioms, which sometimes are not able to be translated, though you can certainly come up with the spirit of the thing. I just work on them—and, luckily, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy good health, despite all the travels, the different jobs that I’ve had, different positions within the academy. It’s been a good life, really, to be able to create as much as I have and to enjoy the hundreds of people that I’ve met, people within the academy as well as people outside. But, I go back to my hometown as often as I can. It’s completely changed, but it’s the hometown.

MHE: Here’s a related question, considering your own “translations,” or the Spanish and English versions of your texts, e.g. Estampas del valle and The Valley, do you hold to the notion of an “original” text and a “translation” when speaking of your literature? How do you view your Spanish and English texts or versions of your texts in relation to each other?

RH: I never even considered translating my own work until I got the idea after I read a couple of the excerpts from the English version before mine came out, before The Valley. I just decided to sit down and write it, and whenever I saw something that I didn’t think was quite kosher, I said, “Well, I’d better change that into this, into English.” Because you’re really writing for “the university reader.” At least that’s my audience, the university reader.

MHE: Your intended reader?

RH: Yes, university profs. And, if I’m not popular, that’s fine. I’m not a popular writer, and I didn’t set out to be that. So, I think they are both “original.” Of course, when I’m doing the English the Spanish is already there. But, if I think changes are forthcoming or, even, being forced upon me by times and things that have changed and all that, yes, I guess they are both original. I’m not adamant about that—but, I think, I consider them as much.

MHE: Would you advocate that the reader encounter both of the texts or one before the other?

RH: I think it would be interesting for me to learn, if someone reads it in Spanish but is good in Spanish and then reads the English, or reads the English first and then compares it with the Spanish. They can do whatever they wish. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve been asked that type of question in all of the, I don’t know how many, universities I’ve been to here, in Europe, and at home. I think they are both original. But, of course, the English part is taken from the Spanish.

MHE: Do you feel that you have a different literary voice in Spanish than in English? Would you maintain that you have distinguishable emotional ties to one or the other of these languages, or that there is an intrinsic difference between English and Spanish, generally? You can take any one of these questions.

RH: I am very much unlike other Mexican-American writers, because at home my mother was an excellent Spanish speaker, very important in a ranch, being outnumbered maybe ten to one. For every Anglo there were ten Mexicans when they moved there in the 1880s. So, we learned Spanish and English at home and in the playgrounds and school and all that—and English at home was one language and Spanish was the other language. It wasn’t “different from.” You could begin a sentence in one language and finish it in the other and be perfectly sure you would be understood by mom, dad, and the brothers and sisters. I don’t think I have a regional English pronunciation or intonation, nor when I speak Spanish, mine is pretty even, as if I were from Kansas, as far as English is concerned, or Iowa. I am very fortunate in that regard. But, I also come from a family of readers. My parents read to each other, as well as individually, and as the youngest of five my brothers and sisters set the mark. They read, and I figured that everyone read. But, the realization came as a teenager that not everybody read, unfortunately. So, I have no and make no distinction between one or the other language.

MHE: So, they are a part of the same?

RH: Yes, they are. That’s a good way to put it—and part of the same being, too, the same person.

MHE: In his Tender Accents of Sound, Ernst Rudin argues that most Chicano novels are about as bilingual as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls…

RH: Is that a put-down on Hemingway?

MHE: I don’t think so. I think he’s arguing that many Chicano novels that are ostensibly bilingual are not, that the authors usually end up compensating for the foreign aspects of the text through strategies of literal or non-translation.

RH: I don’t know if Hemingway had help with his Spanish. People who knew him said that he was not fluent, that he could understand some things, but he did not just sit down as we were this morning, talking in English and all of a sudden speaking Portuguese and then jumping back and going into Spanish. I don’t think that he was able to do that.

I’ve read some of Rudin, I was lecturing and reading at Penn State and somebody showed me one of his articles. I said, “Well, this man has read Chicano lit, so he knows what he’s talking about.” But, I don’t know.

MHE: He qualifies his statement saying that you can’t judge the quality of a Chicano novel by its use of bilingual techniques (23). Though, he claims that for the bilingual reader these “bilingual” texts are often more redundant and lacking in challenge and suspense, that they may be more for the monolingual reader. Do you agree with his assessment of these texts, do you think that it is more desirable to have more Spanish, more code-switching rather than less? This gets into questions of praxis.

RH: This is a fine thing to consider. I don’t think it is. When I wrote Los amigos de Becky, it was in Spanish, of course, and then I waited a couple of years as I usually do—I must tell you that between Estampas and The Valley, I think I let ten years go by, because I was very busy and other things.

MHE: That’s a lot of time.

RH: I think I took only four to five years before I started working on the second novel into English. I don’t know. I really don’t have a standard answer for that.

MHE: Certainly, every writer has his/her own approach.

RH: I think so. I know I do. When I wrote Los amigos de Becky, it was just a what-if novel. You’re familiar with it, what if a 38-year-old woman—Roman Catholic, college-educated and the mother of two children, 8 and 9 or whatever they were—what would happen if she decides that her husband was not going to live with them anymore, in a small town where her family is very prominent? It came up that way, but I hit a stone wall. That was the summer when I went to establish that curriculum in Iraq. I just couldn’t go any more. I said, “What is this? I’ve been eight or nine months on this thing?” And I said, “Well, ok. Why don’t I do it in English?” Then, I started writing in English and I finished it, when I came back. I sent it off to Kanellos, and Nick said, “Yeah, we’ll publish it, you’ll just have to wait a couple months until everybody reads it.” And then, while we were on the phone, I said, “I have a Spanish version, but I haven’t finished it.” And Nick said, “Well, finish it. Send it, and we’ll read it, and if we like it, fine, and if we don’t, we’ll just get it right.” “Ta bueno.”

So, what I did in Becky and Her Friends, which is in English, once in a while one of the speakers would say something in Spanish, but it would be a Spanish that is known by everyone. Even if you haven’t taken 101 you know what that word means because of television, movies, and, you know, general education. And I would put it in English immediately, put the Spanish and then the English in Becky. I think that happens maybe five, ten times. But, normally, the ones who speak that way or who are presented that way are those who are 55 and older, 80-90 years old—because in the age, century, and the milieu in which they were taught and grew up both languages were contending one with the other. So, in Becky, in English, one of them, say an old man, says something in Spanish and the English follows immediately with a little dash or a little hyphen or something there. But, it doesn’t occur very much.

MHE: Are you familiar with Puppet by Margarita Cota-Cárdenas, or some more aggressively bilingual texts such as Giannina Braschi’s Yo-Yo Boing or, what else, Ana Lydia Vega’s “Pollito Chicken”? Do you think their approach is feasible, practical? Of course, every writer has their own style.

RH: It doesn’t work for me because I don’t think that the reader should have to stop and look up something while they are doing it. Either you stick to one and do it or, if you do use it and are capable, just a little aside for the reader, and the reader will just move on and not lose any time. But to be completely bilingual, you really have to be bicultural as well. So an American may major in Spanish, but if he isn’t bicultural, he doesn’t know music, doesn’t know history, doesn’t know what the politics have been in the past and in current times it doesn’t work, I don’t think.

Ana Castillo writes in English, and Sandra Cisneros does, too. But, Sandra’s case is very different, even though she and Ana are Chicagoans. Sandra lives in San Antonio, as you know. But, Sandra was not equipped in Spanish that much, and there was no reason to be. When people say, “Well, why doesn’t she write in Spanish?” Well, maybe she chooses not to, or maybe she doesn’t think she’s capable. Whatever it is, it’s her concern. But, you and I just agreed on this, I think, that knowing the language is nothing. That’s just learning that language and, even, talking with an intonation that approximates whatever the native speaker is. But, you have to know what the culture is, and you have to know the times, and you have to know the music, whether it’s popular or not. You have to know history, and you have to know some of the political upheavals that a speaker when just talking away brings in, as we normally do, and then comes back around. I know these writers, and I read their stuff every once in a while. But, I try not to get too involved in it because I have my own work to think about. I don’t want to be thinking of anybody else when I’m producing whatever it is that I come up with.

MHE: This next question touches on “Spanglish.” I see two sides, where on the one hand the linguist Max Weinrich has said, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy,” and then Anzaldúa, of course, who has said that she speaks eight languages, among them “Pachuco,” “Tex-Mex”, and “Chicano Spanish”...

RH: [Smiles, shakes his head, and holds up two fingers]

MHE: And, then, on the other hand, Octavio Paz who says that Spanglish is not good not bad but “abominable.”

RH: For Spanglish, the big promoter there is Ilan. 

MHE: Ilan Stavans.

RH: He made a case for it, published a book, got credit for it, and then we haven’t heard very much about it. And, of course, some people attack La Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española. What they don’t know is they are really not a pharmacy. They don’t prescribe. I’m a member of ANLE and from the letters I get, it is, “How are these words used, where you live?” Someone in Guatemala receives one, and in Honduras, Nicaragua, etc. “Bulldozer. What do they call a bulldozer in Spanish over there?” So, in my case, I said, “Bulldozer.” Which is what it is. I have no idea what they did in the other countries. But, Academia wants to know what is the usage in your particular region, and that’s certainly not being prescriptive, that you have to say this or that. They put “Guat” or “Nic” or whatever it is in the dictionary. Some of the words I have heard and have been sent are hilarious. I can’t remember any right now, but I’ll say, “You guys are interested in that? Well, I’ll investigate.”

MHE: It sounds like you’re more curious than dismayed at the said “dissolution” of Spanish and/or English.

RH: Spanish just like English, and none of us will be alive, will also disappear. If you know anything about languages, they disappear.

MHE: They evolve.

RH: Right. I mean who speaks Demotic Greek? We do in college because that’s what they teach us. But, it died years ago. Whenever I say that English will disappear in time, people are just insulted. I say, “Grow up.” I don’t say that, I don’t want to insult them. But, I say, “No, it will. Not in our lifetime.” No, I’m not dismayed. Ilan wrote that and whether he believes in it or not, I have no idea. Maybe he’s a careerist, maybe he’s sincere. But, we have Cubans living in Florida, and we have Cubans in Jersey and New York, and Cubans in Houston and Chicago, and we have Nuyoricans living in the same places, and then we go to California. So, what are we going to do with those from twenty-one Spanish-speaking countries who may or may not be citizens but are residing in the U.S.? How can you come up with Spanglish on that? It’s a dream, I think. But, it’s not even a good patois. Haiti speaks a fine patois, and that’s their language now, it sticks. With the U.S., when you have 300 million people, it’s tough. And, many people have language loyalties. Good Lord, that’s their language. Spanglish doesn’t bother me.

Now, when I mix the two languages, when I speak, as I did as a child and as I do now as an adult, I make darned sure that the person I’m talking to, and he makes darned sure, that we are going to be understanding each other, and we think nothing of it. I have noticed this though, since I was a child, and it always brought a smile: Two mexicanos see each other: “Qué tal?” “Hey, how you doin’?” One speaks Spanish, the other speaks English. And the one who speaks English heard Spanish, and the one who spoke Spanish heard the English. So, now he’ll say something in English, “Oh, doing pretty good. How ‘bout you guys?” “Ah, vamos bien.” They go back and forth and then all of a sudden, it’s either Spanish or English, then interspersed with a little dejo.

MHE: It’s almost a kind of courting period.

RH: Yeah, I noticed that. Pretty soon, within a minute or two they get into it, English or Spanish, or they’ll keep mixing it. Sometimes, some people don’t know a word in Spanish but they do know it in English, and they’ll use that one, and vice versa, they’ll know it in Spanish but not in English and they’ll just revert to that. But, I don’t think that’s Spanglish—I think that’s a coinage that Ilan came up with, unless there is somebody else, do you know?
MHE: I don’t know the evolution of the word, but I know to even use the word Spanglish is ambiguous.

RH: Exactly. You talk to a Nuyorican or a Chicagoan and even they, with the same background, don’t coincide in what they say in Spanish. And then you have Nicaragüenses, Guatemaltecos, Costarricenses, Venezolanos, and the Colombianos who, of course, think that they speak the best Spanish in the world, and then the Mexicans arise and say, “No, we’re the ones.” As if that mattered. It’s just national pride, I think.

MHE: As a bilingual writer, do you feel a moral obligation to write in Spanish, especially considering the contemporary debates about immigration and the marginalization of the Spanish language and Hispanic communities within the United States?

RH: Sure. That’s very good. In the way we started, mentioning this student, his name was Víctor Nelson-Cisneros and he was a nephew of Américo Paredes, and the Paredes and Hinojosa families married in 1848, so the Valley is kind of incestuous in that regard. When Víctor showed me that brief story—I think it was “Eva y Daniel,” it’s not included in Tierra. It was in the original listing of chapters, but that was pulled by the time it was published—I said, “Well, I write in Spanish, and I’ve always wanted to.” That was when Estampas came out, and I continued with Klail City. I felt no moral obligation as such, but since Tomás had published in Spanish in the United States, I thought, “Why I don’t I do the same for a while?” But, you have to draw from your own life and experiences and that’s how Korean Love Songs was born.

Silvia Molina, a fine poet from Mexico, was with me when she was visiting us in Austin, and she said, “You ought to translate Korean Love Songs. I’ve read it, I like it and I think you should really do it.” I spent about five months on it, until I woke up and I said, “I didn’t live this life in Spanish at all, it’s the U.S. Army.” You know, the only time I ever spoke Spanish was, “Hola, ¿Qué tal?” or something like that to someone who I knew that spoke it. I said, “I can’t write this in Spanish.” I don’t know what I even did with that manuscript. I must have just thrown it away. I wrote her back and I said, “I’m sorry. Esta vida no se vivió en español.” I was encountering trouble trying to translate all that, and then I just gave it up.  

MHE: And to this day has that been translated into Spanish?

RH: Into German.

MHE: German?

RH: Yes. Have you seen that little thing? From Osnabrück University, the English here and the German here [gesturing to each side]. German is a synthetic language, it synthesizes, and we, we’re analytical. We have “to the house” or “of the dog,” whatever it is, prepositional phrases, for one example. And so, I wrote to Wolgang Karrer and I said, “I think I like your version better that mine. It’s tighter.” Because German, you know, tends to do that. And he wrote back thanking me and, laughing, said, “No, no, no.” And I said, “No, no. I’m quite serious. I really find it compact, tight.”    

MHE: That’s interesting. But, more interesting, the notion that experience is what determines the choice of language.

RH: Well put, and I have to agree. Because what you have lived and imagine to have lived and remembered, which is not always accurate anyway and the writer doesn’t have to be that accurate as we’re not historians though we do present a lot of history, that experience influences whatever you write and whenever you write it, too.
MHE: We’ve already touched on this, but do you have an ideal reader? We talked about “the university reader.” Or, better, do you feel that in rewriting or self-translating you make “concessions” for the monolingual reader?

RH: To me, the ideal reader is the university student because he or she enrolls in that class and the teacher in charge is an expert. And, whatever they don’t get, whether it’s Anglo, Texas-Mexican, or Texas-Anglo, it doesn’t matter, the professor will be there, so I have no qualms about that.

MHE: So, as a translator, do you see yourself adopting this “professorial” role toward either the reader of only English or only Spanish?

RH: I do it, not as a professor, not because of that, but because I want this literature to be able to survive at least two generations as, it’ll change, it always changes. Some people complain to me that so-and-so only writes in English, and I’ll say, “What’s wrong with that?” “Well, but he’s a Texas-Mexican” or “He’s a whatever.” I say, “He’s a writer. Leave him alone. Let him produce something that is real.” I set out not to be a popular writer, I was not going to write about “cute” Mexicans or “cute” anything.

In fact, the very first thing I wrote was “Por estas cosas que pasan.” It’s in The Valley, and it’s in Estampas, also. I’d always been impressed by Akira Kurosawa, his movies, mostly in black-and-white and very powerful things. I’d been in Japan, and I could just see myself watching with different eyes from, say, my fellow citizens. “Por estas cosas que pasan” (“One of those Things” in English, I think, is the translation that I gave it in The Valley), begins with a newspaper clipping. They misspell the name of the victim and, probably, the one who did the stabbing. It’s a small-town newspaper, just a couple of Mexicans who got into a bar fight, you know. And then comes the first-person, the man who does the newspaper clipping, just a little enterprise, and then the first-person by the person who did the killing (Balde Cordero, 22 or 23 years old, he’s a farm worker, a handyman when they’re not working up in Michigan or wherever), and then there’s a little footnote, for verisimilitude—this is where it was recorded, in the “workhouse,” which is a jail term. Then the second [speaker] is his sister, who was not present but has history with the young man who was killed and the family how they used to bug her brother. The third speaker is the brother-in-law married to the preceding speaker. But, his is in English, of a fourth-grade English education. But, being a farm-worker he also knows certain words in English that most Americans who have ever worked on a farm know, he knows the term “lug,” which is a 26-by-24-inch crate, about that high [gesturing], for wrapping tomatoes. He says, and I’m going to use the intonation, “He pack a lug of tomatoes so fast, you don’t see it,” like that. Why? Because that’s one of the few English words that he knows, but he doesn’t know that it’s a learned word, because most Americans, most of my undergraduates, don’t know it. So, after that, another newspaper article following what happened at the trial. The reason that it’s in English is because he has to go to the courthouse and give a deposition, and they just take it word-for-word. And, for the last five lines, the only lines that I have at the end that piece—I figured that in those days there were still typesetters, one of them went out to have a cigarette and when he came back whoever took over misspelled some more words and put that old, you probably have seen this, have you ever seen e-t-a-o-i-n?—etaoin shrdlu. That’s when they run out of certain words, and the linotypist warns the other one, “Hey, we’re running out of e’s” or “we’re running out of” whatever it is, and that appears in there. So that’s more, again, for verisimilitude. In other words, this writer knows what he’s doing when he does this.

And the reason I mentioned Kurosawa is that in Rashomon, one of his early movies, the bandit speaks, the bridegroom speaks, and she speaks. It’s the same incident, but with three very different slants on what it is that happened out in the forest when the newlyweds were walking through it and they were assaulted by the bandit. I said to myself, “I like this. I think I’ll do that. I’ll try this, and this, and this.” What it is, but you all know what I’m talking about, is a framing tale. It’s the oldest thing there is in writing, going back to Scheherazade and others. It appears in The Valley as “Just One of Those Things,” because I thought that was the closest thing I could come to “Por estas cosas que pasan.” You never know, “¿Qué va a pasar?”

MHE: Well, this is my last and a semi-related question, and it touches on your narrator, though you have many narrators.

RH: [laughing] I know.

MHE: But, I’ve noted the participation of an active, intrusive, self-referential, sarcastic or sardonic narrator who both collaborates with and, sometimes, jeers at the other narrative voices in the text. How has this type of narrative voice or narrator been strategic for you as a writer? And, perhaps a more difficult question, do you see this narrator’s role as reflective of your own negotiations or internal dissensions when translating or moving between different identities, whether Mexican, Anglo, or Mexican-American?

RH: I think you’ve hit it right on the nose, in all of those statements that you just made. It does. Because the Chicanos aren’t perfect, and they have to be called on account of why they behave the way they do and what opinions they have. As wrong as they may be or as right as they may be they just hang onto for dear life, same thing with the Anglo characters when they speak. I think that they are products of a true bicultural, bilingual milieu, which does not always agree with what it is they do or say. Many are set ideas, you’re not going to change them, and many of the characters are willing to listen, perhaps even change their opinion, or whatever it may be.

If you don’t have humor, then you don’t set out to write. One of my favorite writers is George Orwell, who pardons no one, and I don’t. I use humor to show some of the ridiculous things that both sides are holding onto. I mean, I lived on both sides, very well, being raised by people who read in Spanish and English and talked about it at the dinner table or hallway or wherever we were. Instead of just holding fast to something, there has to be some flexibility. Maybe sarcastic, maybe cynical, too, maybe sardonic, but always with a good intent, to show the people, “Look, This is who we are, this is not who we think we are.” And, I’m telling you, I know same thing. But then, I’m half Anglo and half Mexican, so I don’t know.

MHE: It seems like the narrator functions on many occasions like a marker of flexibility.

RH: I think so. You’ve read Becky and Her Friends. When I hit that wall I told you about, then I had to go to English, and whenever that was accepted, then I went back to the Spanish. I asked myself, “Who is the narrator? Who is going to talk about this what-if decision by the character? First-person?”  I said, “No, that won’t work.” “Third-person?” “No.” They both have advantages: first-person you’re very close to the action, there is a sense of immediacy and the disadvantage is you can’t tell what the people are thinking. And third-person, you don’t have that immediacy, so that’s the disadvantage, but you could tell me what’s going on two miles from where the scene has taken place. I said, “They don’t work. I’m going to let the people talk. Some are for the decision to drop that anchor called Ira Escobar. There are those who are in favor and those who look upon it critically, but usually as it affects them, as these “risers,” oh what’s their names, Bill and Tippy Ochoa, they’re coming up. Their parents or grandparents probably have always been manual workers and now all of a sudden they have high school education or a college education; they’ve opened up a little flower shop and they’re going to join the bourgeoisie. And, of course, whatever happens on the Mexican side, well, they are ashamed of it. “We shouldn’t be that way.”

Well, I’m not a judge, I’m a writer. It comes to that. But I don’t think I’m sarcastic. Sarcasm is the heaviest of all because that means—sarco, to take the body apart, it’s the sarcophagus—it’s where sarcasm comes from. You could overload yourself if you go that route. But, if you use a little irony, a little of this and a little of that, you keep the reader’s interest. To keep turning the pages, that’s the duty of any writer.

MHE: Sardonic is less weighty.

RH: Yeah, I think sardonic works, too, very well. But, I didn’t want to be a first or third person, so I let I don’t know how many people, thirty-some-odd talk for her actions/against her actions. I have that 95, 96-year-old woman, Campoy, last name Campoy, who has married three or four husbands already. And she says, “Yes, she did the right thing.” And others that say, “Well, look what’s going to happen to the family.” 

MHE: Hearing you talk about all of your different characters, you have hundreds…

RH: I think so. [laughing]

MHE: How do you keep track of them?

RH: Well, I was taught a lesson in my first novel. I don’t know what chapter it is. But, I received a lovely letter from a young woman in California, I think at Sacramento State. “On page so-and-so you state that so-and-so is related to so-and-so, and on page so-and-so…” You know. And so I went back and checked. “You’re right.” So I wrote her back—she put her name and address, a handwritten letter—and I said, “Thank you very much for pointing this out.” I rely a lot on my brain power, and I’ve got a good memory, but on this one I didn’t. I didn’t read as closely as I should have. Thanks to her, now I do check and have been very careful. I learned my lesson right away. I forget what it is, but whatever it was, she caught it.

MHE: There are enough characters that who could keep track? Even with the best of memories.

RH: I have to think of these people. Who are they? How long have I known them and how well do I know them? I don’t know how many characters there are, and I am not even counting the historical ones, that are true.

MHE: My husband recently taught Partners in Crime and his students enjoyed it quite a bit. In discussing it, we remarked that it was a much more timely than expected. He was teaching it contextually as novel of the 70s, but suddenly this drug-crime and violence crossing the border seemed like something from the past few years.

RH: Well, I have news. Nick Kanellos reread it and he said, “Rolando was presentido.” I was prescient. And I said, “But I was living there, and I was seeing this. It was only bound to increase.” So, it’s coming out in November again, with a new cover and everything. It was in 85 when I wrote that, and then I followed thirteen years later, in 98, with Ask a Policeman. There have been some slight changes, but the violence now, again, you are seeing that it is closer to home, and now it is one of the first families, one of the 1748 families that’s involucrado in the drug. It is not only the working class or the gangster class. In this case, all of a sudden, I realize that there was more to this, not just some strangers coming into this little paradise. Son fundadores, familias viejas, as we call them. Well, we are, on the Spanish side.

I was very happy that Nico said I’m going to get a brand new cover. Now, it’s esposas, handcuffs [laughing]. In fact, I think they’re in the sand someplace. The other book that’s coming out, in November as well is called In My Own Voice, it is essays and stories. I think there will be two stories in Spanish, with the translations.

MHE: I certainly look forward to those. Thank you much for your time.

RH: It was time well spent.

©The Acentos Review 2015