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English professor, novelist Arturo Islas dies
Arturo Islas, 52, professor of English and author of two novels that explore the Chicano experience of cultural duality, died Friday, Feb. 15, at his campus home from complications of AIDS.
Islas was probably best known for his two novels, The Rain God, which won the best fiction prize from the Border Regional Library Conference in 1985 and was selected as one of the three best novels of 1984 by the Bay Area Reviewers Association, and Migrant Souls, published in 1990. The novels were part of a planned trilogy. Islas was working on the third volume at the time of his death.
Migrant Souls was the first novel by a Chicano author to be published out of a New York publishing house -- William Morrow and Co. In a 1990 campus interview, Islas said his reaction to that was not pride, but outrage. He said the reluctance of established East Coast companies to publish Chicano literature is "a willful ignorance on the part of the machines that produce the books that we read."
Giving the 1990 Galarza Lecture, an annual event in memory of the Mexican American scholar/activist Ernesto Galarza, Islas said, "I consider myself, still, a child of the border, a border some believe extends all the way to Seattle and includes the northern provinces of Mexico. In my experience, the 2,000-mile-long Mexican-United States border has a cultural identity that is unique. That condition, that landscape and its people, are what I write about."
"Arturo Islas' novels were a new and strong voice for the Mexican American experience," said Robert Trujillo, curator for the Mexican American collections at the Stanford Libraries. "His works challenged the reader and critic and have certainly earned Islas an important niche in Chicano literature. Both of his works were often required reading for students of the Chicano novel."
Islas' English Department colleague Nancy Packer, director of the Creative Writing Program, said, "No one was more loved than Arturo, or more valuable to the department in his wonderful teaching."
Cecilia Burciaga, associate dean in the office of the vice president for student resources, and resident fellow at Casa Zapata, the Chicano theme dormitory, said, "Arturo's life was one of service as friend, mentor and writer. We've lost someone who taught us the richness of friendship."
Islas was a very popular teacher who in 1976 received the Dinkelspiel Award for his contribution to undergraduate education at Stanford. He was invited three times by the graduating seniors to be a speaker at the Class Day ceremonies that are part of commencement.
Islas, a native of El Paso, Texas, first came to Stanford as an undergraduate in 1956, and remained as a student and then teacher. He received three degrees from Stanford: a B.A. in 1960, a master's in 1963 and a Ph.D. in English in 1971, when he joined the Stanford faculty.
He had arrived at Stanford, on an Alfred P. Sloan scholarship, as a premed student, planning to become a neurosurgeon.
In a 1979 campus interview, he explained that, once at Stanford, he became dissatisfied with his grades, particularly in chemistry and biology. The former straight-A student was receiving B¹s for the first time in his life.
"I went to the dean and told him I would switch to the humanities, where I was doing well," he recalled. "He tried to talk me out of it, but my drive to excel made me concentrate on the best of opportunities. So it was that the poor Chicano boy came to teach the Anglos their literature."
An initial attraction to medicine was understandable, since Islas suffered from poor health most of his life. He had polio when he was 8 years old and was in and out of hospitals for long sessions of physical therapy. The polio left him with a permanent limp.
He underwent major surgery in 1969, and had to turn down a teaching position at San Jose State University. While he was recovering, he began teaching part time at Stanford.
In an unpublished interview with Jose Antonio Burciaga, artist and resident fellow at Casa Zapata, Islas recalled that although he had taken all his high school's science courses with the intention of becoming a doctor, his first love was always writing. "I'd write things that were also part of my fantasy world. I could create characters who were like me or who I wanted to be like, male and female.
"My cousins and I were always reading," he said. "There was no television then. I'm forever grateful for all that.
"It always makes me so angry when people assume that anyone who calls himself or herself a Chicano or a Chicana is automatically someone who doesn't like to read. . . . I knew how to read before I went to the first grade because of my grandmother. All of my cousins were under her tutelage. She taught us to read and to respect learning.
"I feel sorry for anybody, not just Chicanos, who grew up in families where the parents don't read so the children don't have any examples."
In the same interview, Islas recalled that when he began teaching freshman English at Stanford in the fall of 1969, he called his class "Chicano Themes," "the first time anybody had taught such a class in the English Department. There they were, 24 Chicanos and Chicanas. They were the pioneers and they were terrific students."
Islas is survived by his parents, Arturo and Jovita Islas of El Paso; two brothers, Father Mario Islas of Liberal, Kan., and Luis Islas, an attorney in El Paso; and a niece and nephew.
Private family services will be held. Plans for a public memorial service will be announced soon.
The English Department plans to establish a scholarship in Islas' name. The family prefers memorial contributions to the fund, care of the Office of Development, 301 Encina Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-6076.
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