- Don Luis Leal: Una vida y dos culturas
One of the most honored Chicano critics of his generation—recipient of the Aguila Azteca from the Mexican government and of the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton, as well as occupant of an endowed chair in his own name at the University of California, Santa Barbara—Luis Leal serves, at the sharp age of ninety-three, as a point of reference from which to understand more clearly the tensions between Mexico and the United States, the dynamics between Peninsular and Latin American intellectual circles, and the dichotomies between Spanish or English departments and the newer field of Chicano studies.
Defying the orthodox parameters of (auto)biography and refusing to become mere hagiography, Víctor Fuentes’s profile, organized in seventeen chapters, allows the reader a rare opportunity to delve into Leal’s mind. It takes the form of a tertulia, an ongoing conversation in such sites as a carnivalesque bakery-restaurant, a placid backyard, and a pristine beach. The casual surroundings capture the interviewee’s laughter, his frequent insights, and, equally important, the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His childhood origins are delineated through memories, anecdotes, and images that illustrate a sense of normalcy in Mexico at the dawn of the twentieth century. Fuentes’s account of Leal’s migration north of the border and his adaptation to a midwestern environment reveals the burgeoning of his intellect in the 1930s and 1940s. The rest of Fuentes’s study examines a wide range of philosophical points, professional opinions, and critical assessments considered and made by Leal during his sixty-year career. For instance, Leal explains with enthusiasm and conviction how magical realism became a uniquely Latin American style of writing and, in so doing, debunks critics who approach the concept erroneously or imprecisely. He also adds to the general knowledge of how William Faulkner and other American writers influenced Latin American literature and how the “new novel” of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa emerged.
Leal seems to have seen it all from within. His democratic sense of art and his open-mindedness permitted him to measure objectively the internal shifts of Latin American literature at a time when some critics held to the old regional novels like La Vorágine and Doña Bárbara. Instead, Leal embarked on paradigmatic studies of the new wave prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, in his conversations with Fuentes he contextualizes the creation and trajectory of Chicano literature. Unfortunately, Fuentes’s probing questions concentrate more on the direction in which the tradition is headed than on its phases along the way. Likewise, the section on postmodernism offers fascinating insights into this phenomenon but fails to conceptualize south-of-the-border variants in particular and how Chicano literature intersects with them. Fuentes misses the opportunity to deliver precise aesthetic statements. Furthermore, the lack of [End Page 168] transitions between questions often makes his argument hard to follow. But Leal manages to lend cohesiveness to truncated topics with his savvy, didactic approach.
In the end, Leal’s affinities with Cervantes and José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Alfonso Reyes, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and Mariano Azuela, but also with Stephen Hawking and Henry Adams, come to the fore, highlighting the richness of his quest. Fuentes’s book shows to what extent Leal’s journey has become indispensable to us.