Luis Leal: Memories of Chicago IV

Marc Zimmerman and Mario T. García

Opening Note:

What follows is Part IV of Marc Zimmerman’s extended interview with Luis Leal, an iconic pioneer of Mexican and Chicano literature, and longtime Chicago resident. The earlier installments have appeared in previous issues of El BeiSMan; and the entire interview, re-edited, appears as a key text in Zimmerman’s new edited volume, The Mexican Experience in Chicago: Early Memories and Echoes in Our Time (Chicago: LACASA 2018), a volume plotting the history of Mexican Chicago and the development of Chicago Mexican and Latino studies through the research findings of Zimmerman’s students during his last years in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Essays about Chicago Latinos and Mexicans set the stage for the Leal interview evoking the city’s Mexican life from the 1920s through the 1950s. Next comes a compilation of comments made by and about early Chicago Mexicans as found in the first studies of this population. A final essay shows how the study of Chicago Mexicans from Guanajuato, can offer new insights affecting our overall view of Chicago’s Mexican population. Taken together, these materials, sum up and enrich earlier studies, but also anticipate, corroborate and at times challenge Chicago Latino research that has been bourgeoning in recent years. In this installment, Leal sets forth important information about early Chicago Mexican creative writing and literary outlets in the 1950s.

The launching of The Mexican Experience in Chicago will be the occasion for a panel discussion and book signing sponsored by El BeiSMan, Pilsen Outpost and LACASA Chicago on Chicago Mexican History: What’s Been and What’s to be Done, chaired by historian Juan Mora-Torres and with other writers on Mexican Chicago, Xochitl Bada, Carlos Heredia, Nicole Marroquín and Leonard Ramírez, to be held Saturday December 15, 2:15-4:45 at the Lozano Branch, Chicago Public Library, 1805 South Loomis Street, Chicago, IL 60608. Zimmerman’s book is available at the Community Bookstore on 18th Street and through Amazon.com.

Art: William L. Ortiz. Linocut—black and white, but here reproduced black on orange, as in the cover of Jones and Wilson, The Mexican in Chicago 1931, when the image was published for the first time.

Section IV

Early Chicago Mexican and Latino Publications and Writers

MZ: Don Luis, let’s review your participation in Chicago publications before and after the war, as well as your knowledge about some of the early Chicago Mexican writers and writings.

LL: Well, in Chicago, I wrote and edited work for several publications. First there was A.B.C., major weekly newspaper was owned by Armando Almonte, in which I published works on Mexican culture in the 40s.

I also collaborated some with La Revista Rotaria, the Spanish edition of the Rotarians’ magazine (but with its own independent Latin American content, including some Chicago materials) which was published in Chicago by another Mexicano Manuel Hinojosa Flores, who distributed his journal throughout all of Spanish America from his office on Michigan Avenue. And then there was Nueva Séptima Página, where some literary work appeared. And then came Vida Latina, a magazine that was published until the end of the 1950s, which included a few literary pieces, but lots of advertisements, announcements, photographs, and news.

MZ: Even before WWII, in any of these or other publication you can remember before 1950, do you recall seeing any literary work written by mexicanos or Latinos in Chicago?

LL: Yes, there were a few who wrote and published their work in A.B.C. and elsewhere. I can remember one of them—a Señor Miguel Uribe, who wrote poems and stories in Chicago, in the 1940s and 50s. He published a lot, but few people noticed. I found his work by chance, took an interest and helped him publish some of his things. I met him a few times. And from what I remember, he didn’t speak any English. He was Mexican, but I don’t remember where he was from. What I do remember is that he often published pure sonnets, but he seemed best in satirical things. He had not read Octavio Paz, but he drew on another, older tradition behind him. Some of his works were parodies of classic Mexican poems, like Sor Juana’s “Hombres necios”.

MZ: But you helped him publish some of his work?

LL: Yes… Here (he points to a poem from Nueva Séptima Página that he has on his table—the transcription is illegible). I think this is a funny poem about “un maestro de la escuela mexicana”.

MZ (looking at the text): Hmm, is this a poem about a teacher in Mexico, or one who teaches according to, maybe, something he considers to be the Mexican school of teaching …?

LL: To me it’s clear that it’s about somebody teaching á la mexicana but in Chicago…

MZ: Teaching the Boricuas Mexican Spanish!

LL: Yes, and teaching in parrot-like style that the poet mocks.

MZ: So it’s clear that it’s a poem written in and about Chicago—and it’s by the first Mexican creative writer we now know about in the city!

MG: And the title—

LL: It’s called Audacias. “Audacities”—and he published some other things too. And this was at a time when there were no specifically Latino literary journals, few outlets for the few who tried to write.

MZ: And this poem was written and published before there were many Puerto Ricans in the city.

LL: Yes….

MZ: And you also published some other things by Uribe in Vida Latina

LL: Yes.

MZ: Can you remember any other writers who published in A.B.C. or other publications?

LL: I think there were. Let me see if I find another poem (He looks through an assortment of materials he has placed on the table). Look, look here! It’s another very long piece–look! A love story by Agustín Medina.

MZ: (reading/translating what Leal hands him): “I want to say goodbye to poetry, I want to erase all I have said if you are saying goodbye.”

LL: So there may be a whole body Chicago Mexican and Latino literature that still needs to be catalogued and studied. If we were younger, we could get Nick Kanellos’ list of Chicago Latino newspapers, magazines and the like and then go through the collections at the Chicago Historical Society or maybe even the Newberry Library.

MZ: Yes, that was a project I had on my “to do” list, and I even secured some modest funding from Kanellos for Carlos Cumpián when he was a student and had access to Antonio Delgado’s collection of Vida Latina issues. But Carlos found mainly poems and short pieces that were written in Latin America and then published in the magazine.

LL: Yes there was a lot of that, because our Vida Latina was a magazine focused on Chicago Latino life, but it wasn’t a literary or cultural journal like Ventana Abierta at UCSB, which I still co-edit. I seem to remember us publishing some poems by Chicagoans, but I can’t remember, and I don’t have access to Vida Latina here.

MZ. I have read several numbers of the magazine, and find it pretty revealing about the way you and others involved imagined the community you were trying to deal with.

LL: Vida Latina was published by Arturo Barbas Madero who owned the International Publishing Company Press on West Roosevelt Road, where they printed the magazine with the first issue appearing on February 1st, 1952. The general editor was Olimpo Galindo a medical doctor. …

MG: A Latino doctor in those early days…

LL: Yes, at least by the late 1940s, there were at least some Mexican and Latino doctors in the community, though most or all probably came already professionalized at least in part from Latin America…

MZ: And Dr. Luis Leal was the associate editor…

LL: Claro but not a medical doctor—not a physician.

MG: Dr. Galindo probably thought listing you as a doctor gave the magazine some added clout.

LL: Yes, but my first byline indicated my community affiliation and not “Professor Luis Leal”–to an article on “The Contributions of the Mexican People to American Culture.”

MG: Meaning U.S. culture…

LL: Yes, the United States

MZ: And where could one buy this magazine–in stores?

LL: It sold a lot on Halsted–on the street corners, where they sold newspapers. There were also grocery stores where they sold copies. Here (he turns to a photo in the Vida Latina’s first issue). Here is the Consul and here is Jaime Torres Bodet, the director of UNESCO at a party we had for him in West Chicago. … Once I got involved with Vida Latina, my own projects became more directly cultural than political as I sought to help make the magazine a vehicle for all Latino social sectors, helping to forge a multi-layered community that could then take on all kinds of agendas. And that meant that we needed a popular journal that would advertise community dances, plays, concerts and all kinds of events—even weddings, quinceañeras, whatever….

MZ: Look, “Men needed to work in Factory.”

MG (reading): “Permanent job. No experience needed. Tanning company.”

LL: For Mexicans ‘tanning’ is dangerous, difficult, and ugly work. With the laundry next to the packing houses they had the tanning houses, the acid tanning houses were among the worst jobs the Mexicans got.

MG: These advertisements are historical gems! The same for all these announcements about community dances, quinceañeras, weddings–all those events…

MZ: Yes, it certainly gives us a sense of Latino life and is clearly a valuable document for studying the period, maybe more so than other magazines I can think of. But I sense that its greatest weakness is just where you would have your greatest impact during your career—the question of literature.

LL: This is true, but remember that Vida Latina had much in English, and the fact is I devoted myself to Mexican and Latin American literature in Spanish at the University. My interest in Chicano literature came later.

MG: Well I think it’s time to talk about Chicano literature…especially from Chicago.

Marc Zimmerman has authored and edited some 30 books, including Lines on the Border and The Italian Daze (2017), and The Short of it All (forthcoming in 2018).  He is a regular contributor to El BeiSMan.

Mario T. García is a major Chicano historian, with important books tracing the key generational stages of Chicano and Latino history as well as countless books of Chicano oral history,  One of his recent books, Literature as History (U. of Arizona Press 2017), opens the door to a rich, interdisciplinary approach to Chicano and Latino studies.

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