Rolando Hinojosa is one of the most prolific and well-respected Hispanic novelists in the United States. Not only has he created memorable Mexican American and white characters, but he has completely populated a fictional county in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas through his continuing generational narrative that he calls the Klail City Death Trip Series.
The first Chicano author to receive a major international literary award, Rolando Hinojosa won the prestigious Premio Casa de las Américas for Klail City y sus alrededores (Klail City), part of a series of novels known to English-speaking readers as "The Klail City Death Trip." Hinojosa's fiction, often infused with satire or subtle humor, is widely praised for its multiple narratives that unite many characters' individual perspectives into the unique combined voice of the Chicano people. Hinojosa has also produced essays, poetry, and a detective novel titled Partners in Crime.
Hinojosa was born in Texas's Lower Rio Grande Valley to a family with strong Mexican and American roots: his father fought in the Mexican Revolution while his mother maintained the family north of the border. An avid reader during childhood, Hinojosa was raised speaking Spanish until he attended junior high, where English was the primary spoken language. Like his grandmother, mother, and three of his four siblings, Hinojosa became a teacher; he has held several academic posts and has also been active in administration and consulting work. Although he prefers to write in Spanish, Hinojosa has also translated his own books and written others in English.
Hinojosa entered the literary scene with the 1973 Estampas del valle y otras obras, which was translated as Sketches of the Valley and Other Works. The four-part novel consists of loosely connected sketches, narratives, monologues, and dialogues, offering a composite picture of Chicano life in the fictitious Belken County town of Klail City, Texas. The first part of Estampas introduces Jehú Malacara, a nine-year-old boy who is left to live with exploitative relatives after the deaths of his parents. Hinojosa synthesizes the portrait of Jehú's life through comic and satiric sketches and narratives of incidents and characters surrounding him. The second section is a collection of pieces about a murder, presented through newspaper accounts, court documents, and testimonials from the defendant's relatives. A third segment, narrated by an omniscient storyteller, is a selection of sketches depicting people from various social groups in Klail City, while the fourth section introduces the series' other main character, Jehú's cousin Rafa Buenrostro. Also orphaned during childhood, Rafa narrates a succession of experiences and recollections of his life. Hinojosa later rewrote Estampas del valle y otras obras in English, publishing it as The Valley in 1983.
Hinojosa's aggregate portrait of the Spanish southwest continues in Klail City y sus alrededores, published in English as Klail City. Like its predecessor, Klail City is composed of interwoven narratives, conversations, and anecdotes illustrating the town's collective life spanning fifty years. Winner of the 1976 Premio Casa de las Américas, the book was cited for its "richness of imagery, the sensitive creation of dialogues, the collage-like structure based on a pattern of converging individual destinies, the masterful control of the temporal element and its testimonial value, " according to Charles M. Tatum in World Literature Today. Introducing more than one hundred characters and developing further the portraits of Rafa and Jehú, Klail City prompts Western American Literature writer Lourdes Torres to praise Hinojosa for his "unusual talent for capturing the language and spirit of his subject matter."
Korean Love Songs from Klail City Death Trip and Claros varones de Belken are Hinojosa's third and fourth installments in the series. A novel comprised of several long poems originally written in English and published in 1978, Korean Love Songs presents protagonist Rafa Buenrostro's narration of his experiences as a soldier in the Korean War. In poems such as "Friendly Fire" and "Rafe, " Hinojosa explores army life, grief, male friendships, discrimination, and the reality of death presented through dispassionate, often ironic descriptions of the atrocity of war. Claros varones de Belken (Fair Gentlemen of Belken County), released three years later, follows Jehú and Rafa as they narrate accounts of their experiences serving in the Korean War, attending the University of Texas at Austin, and beginning careers as high school teachers in Klail City. The book also includes the narratives of two more major characters, writer P. Galindo and local historian Esteban Echevarría, who comment on their own and others' circumstances. Writing about Fair Gentlemen of Belken County, World Literature Today contributor Tatum comments that Hinojosa's "creative strength and major characteristic is his ability to render this fictional reality utilizing a collective voice deeply rooted in the Hispanic tradition of the Texas-Mexico border." Also expressing a favorable opinion of the book was Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Alejandro Morales, who concludes that "the scores of names and multiple narrators at first pose a challenge, but quickly the imagery, language and subtle folk humor of Belken County win the reader's favor."
Hinojosa continued the "Klail City Death Trip" series with Mi querido Rafa. Translated as Dear Rafe, the novel is divided into two parts and consists of letters and interviews. The first half of the work is written in epistolary style, containing only letters from Jehú—now a successful bank officer—to his cousin Rafa. Between the novel's two parts, however, Jehú suddenly leaves his important position at the Klail City First National Bank, and in the second section Galindo interviews twenty-one community members about possible reasons for Jehú's resignation. The two major characters are depicted through dialogue going on around and about them; the reader obtains a glimpse of Rafa's personality through Jehú's letters, and Jehú's life is sketched through the opinions of the townspeople. San Francisco Review of Books writer Arnold Williams compares the power of Hinojosa's fictional milieu, striking even in translation, to that of twentieth-century Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, noting that "Hinojosa is such a master of English that he captures the same intimacy and idiomatic word play in his re-creations."
After writing Rites and Witnesses, the sixth novel in the "Klail City Death Trip" series, Hinojosa turned to a conventional form of the novel with the 1985 Partners in Crime, a detective thriller about the murder of a Belken County district attorney and several Mexican nationals in a local bar. Detective squads from both sides of the border are called to investigate the case; clues lead to an established and powerful cocaine smuggling ring. Jehú and Rafa reappear in the novel as minor characters who nevertheless play important parts in the mystery's development. "Those who might mourn the ending of the ['Klail City Death Trip' series] and their narrative experimentation and look askance at Hinojosa's attempting such a predictable and recipe-oriented genre as the murder mystery need not worry, " concludes Williams. "He can weave a social fabric that is interesting, surprising, realistic and still entertaining."
Hinojosa told Contemporary Authors: "I enjoy writing, of course, but I enjoy the re-writing even more: four or five rewritings are not uncommon. Once finished, though, it's on to something else. At this date, every work done in Spanish has also been done in English with the exception of Claros varones de Belken, although I did work quite closely on the idiomatic expressions which I found to be at the heart of the telling of the story.
"I usually don't read reviews; articles by learned scholars, however, are something else. They've devoted much time and thought to their work, and it is only fair I read them and take them seriously. The articles come from France, Germany, Spain, and so on, as well as from the United States. I find them not only interesting but, at times, revelatory. I don't know how much I am influenced by them, but I'm sure I am, as much as I am influenced by a lifetime of reading. Scholars do keep one on one's toes, but not, obviously, at their mercy. Writing has allowed me to meet writers as diverse as Julio Cortázar, Ishmael Reed, Elena Poniatowski and George Lamming.
"My goal is to set down in fiction the history of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and with Becky and Her Friends, [which came] out in 1990, I am right on schedule. The Spanish version will also be out the same year. A German scholar, Wolfgang Karrer, from Osnabrueck University has a census of my characters; they number some one thousand. That makes me an Abraham of some sort.
"Personally and professionally, my life as a professor and as a writer inseparably combines vocation with avocation. My ability in both languages is most helpful, and thanks for this goes to my parents and to the place where I was raised."
In 1993, Hinojosa released The Useless Servants. This is a novel of the Korean War, told in the form of the journal of Rafe Buenestro, a Mexican American soldier. This novel exposes the negative treatment Mexican Americans and African Americans received from their fellow soldiers. Publishers Weekly says that in this book, "Hinojosa gives us a graphic picture of the unchanging face of war—raw, gritty and inhumane."
Further Reading on Rolando Hinojosa
Bruce-Novoa, Juan, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview, University of Texas Press, 1980.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 131, Gale, 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 82: Chicano Writers, First Series, Gale, 1989.
Saldívar, José David, editor, The Rolando Hinojosa Reader: Essays Historical and Critical, Arte Público Press, 1985.
Hispania, September, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 12, 1987.
Publishers Weekly, November 28, 1986.
San Francisco Review of Books, spring, 1985, fall/winter, 1985.
Western American Literature, fall, 1988.
World Literature Today, summer, 1977, summer 1986.