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arturo islas jr.

“Still on the border, I run towards my fictions”- Arturo Islas

Arturo Islas led a life of firsts. Poet, novelist, scholar, Islas was the first Chicano valedictorian at El Paso High school, the first Mexican American to earn a Ph.D. in the US, Stanford’s first Mexican American tenured professor, and the first Chicano author printed by an East Coast publishing house. Yet despite these firsts, Arturo Islas’ life was challenging and regrettably cut short, but not before securing his place as one of the most prominent voices in Chicane literature. 

Born in El Paso in 1938, Arturo Islas Jr. learned to read and write from his paternal grandmother Crecenciana who had fled to El Paso in 1910 because of the Mexican Revolution. As a child, polio attacked his young body leaving him with a shortened leg and a permanent limp. Because of the strong educational foundation laid by his grandmother and father, Islas flourished academically and moved out of El Paso to study pre-med at Stanford University--no doubt motivated by illness and a childhood  spent in hospitals.  A perfectionist, he switched to humanities, after earning two B’s in Chemistry and Biology and graduated with a BA in English. It was here where the beginnings of his semi-autobiographical work The Rain God took root. 

Arturo Islas’ academic work & writings explored the duality of Chicane identity with the Border as an unspoken character. Islas straddled so many identities himself—gay, first-generation Mexican American, Catholic, a person with disabilities—facets of his identities that he explored in his poetry and novels. His works challenged what it meant to be gay and Chicane in a time where Mexican American scholars, outside of feminist circles, failed to recognize the queer spectrum present within the larger Chicane identity. 

In 1990, Islas published Migrant Souls, a sequel to Rain God. It was the first novel written by a Chicano to be published by a major East Coast publishing house. Tragically, Islas died from complications related to AIDS in 1991 but not before he established avenues for Chicane writers to tell their stories both at Stanford and UTEP as a visiting professor. Before his death, UTEP elected Islas to its Writers Hall of Fame, where a collection of his journals and writings can be found. Stanford University, alongside Islas’ parents,  established the Islas Prize for academic excellence to celebrate this beloved educator and brilliant creative writer. 

Works

  • The Rain God

  • Migrant Souls

  • La Mollie and the King of Tears

  • Arturo Islas: The Uncollected Works