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Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

Ramón Saldívar

“From downtown Brownsville,” says Ramón Saldívar, “you can literally look across the river and, a hundred yards away or so, there’s Mexico. To me, growing up, that was always normal life, that was the way the world worked: bilingual, bi-national, transcultural in all sorts of ways.” A Texas border town in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville, in the 1950s and ’60s, was a particularly fertile zone of American-Mexican contact, of difference and assimilation, mergence and conflict—the perfect stomping ground for the bright young man who would become one of the nation’s foremost scholars of Chicano literature and the hybrid culture that it sprang from.

A professor in the departments of English and comparative literature at Stanford University since 1991, and the Hoagland Family Professor of Humanities and Sciences since 1999, Saldívar was raised in a working-class, Spanish-speaking household. He didn’t learn English until he entered the Brownsville public school system. But he was a quick study and adapted easily to what he refers to as his “bicultural life at the border.” “Thinking back on it,” he says, “that seems to me the major formative element of my childhood: From a very early age, being able to speak two languages, to live in two cultural worlds, to enjoy and feel a part of both.”

He didn’t think his upbringing was at all unusual until 1969, when he moved north to attend college at University of Texas, Austin. “Austin,” he says, “at that time, was—and to a certain degree still is—more majority white culture. There were still segregated restaurants downtown where blacks and Mexicans couldn’t enter.” But 1969 also marked the height of the civil rights era, and it was as an undergraduate that Saldívar first encountered and began to think critically about El Movimiento and the word that those involved used to describe themselves: Chicano. Saldívar came to understand the assumption of that label, traditionally a pejorative term for Americans of Mexican descent, as a political act. “One wasn’t born a Chicano,” he says. “One became Chicano. One chose to be Chicano by virtue of a desire for political reform. Becoming Chicano was a way of asking American culture to live up to its ideals.”

He counted himself among those for whom the Chicano movement’s leaders spoke. He attended rallies and other events, but his outlook, even then, was at least as scholarly as it was political. “I was a book person,” he says, “so I was interested in what they were writing. Who were these Chicanos? What were they thinking? What were they saying about history and music and film and the arts? And what kind of literary creation were they doing?”

The opportunity to tackle those questions came a few years later, at Yale, where, motivated by his “desire to think across a variety of cultures,” Saldívar decided to pursue graduate studies in comparative literature. Chicano studies programs had already cropped up in American universities—most in California and Texas—but not at Yale. There was some resistance, says Saldívar, to his chosen course of study—though not, he stresses, of the benighted variety. “At Yale, if one could make a cogent argument in favor of something like Chicano literature,” he says, “one could always find interlocutors who were at least willing to entertain the possibility and debate you about it. It was the ideal place for intellectual exploration.”

And explore he did. His first book, published in 1984, Figural Language in the Novel: The Flowers of Speech from Cervantes to Joyce, grew out of his PhD dissertation, and his second, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference, out of the unpublished final chapter of Figural Language. Reviewers called his perspective “new,” “challenging,” even “provocative.” Shifting his focus and considerable critical talents from the tried-and-true giants of Anglophone literature to the voices of Chicano culture—the anonymous poets of the corrido tradition, for example, or Tomás Rivera, or the extraordinary Rolando Hinojosa—Saldívar pushed at the boundaries of the American literary canon.

But it is his most recent work, The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary, that stands out as a masterpiece. He calls it a “case study” of his friend and former UT Austin colleague, the late Américo Paredes, whose efforts as a folklorist, ethnographer, poet, and novelist, carried out a generation before Saldívar’s time, helped lay the groundwork for Chicano studies. A blend of literary analysis, cultural theory, history, and biography, it is also, says Saldívar, a personal book, taking him back to his—and Paredes’s own—hometown and to his childhood on the United States–Mexico border.

Saldívar’s scholarship is motived by a question that, though simple enough to articulate, has profound consequences for its intellectual reach. As he puts it: “How does narrative, and a particular narrative in the form of a novel, shape one’s understanding of the world?” Asking, and endeavoring to answer, this question, Saldívar carefully coaxes words and ideas well beyond their realm of fiction, allowing them to resonate in the cultural, political, and social fabric of Americans’ daily lives, wherever they reside.

By James Williford
James Williford is a writer based in Dallas, Texas.