His drive to read, write transcended humble border roots
Arizona Daily Star

Neto's Tucson by Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.14.2008



In the world of Miguel Méndez, storytelling is not linear. There are multiple intersections, progressions and digressions. Inside is outside, and distortions are simplified.

It's a literary world created over 78 years living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, filled with complexities to the outsider but clear to Méndez's eyes and ears.

An author and professor emeritus of Spanish at the University of Arizona, Méndez is cited in numerous anthologies of Latino and Chicano literature.

His 1974 "Peregrinos de Aztlán," later translated as "Pilgrims in Aztlán," is considered a seminal work in Chicano literature, a genre rooted in the Mexican-American immigrant experience. He has authored about 40 books and essays, including his 1996 autobiography, "Entre letras y ladrillos," translated as "From Labor to Letters."

Méndez has done all this and more with a fifth-grade education.

"I read as many books as I could. My house was filled with books," said Méndez.

We talked in his small UA office, which he shares with junior professors, in the basement of the UA's Modern Languages Building. The office, with its institutional metal desks and chairs, belies the body of work Méndez has created since his 1974 landmark.

Méndez, who was born in Bisbee, has chronicled border life through his novels, essays, short stories and poetry. He continues to pore through his history and the stories of Yaquis, Anglos, Mexicans, pachucos, blue-collar workers, bosses, women and men.

"I can't stop writing," he said, while telling me several stories of his life.

The people in his cuentos are those whom he knew growing up in an ejido, a communal farm, in Sonora after his family was forcibly repatriated to Mexico during the Great Depression. He returned north when he was 14 to work in the agricultural fields and later as a bricklayer in Tucson after World War II.

The words in his stories are those spoken by the forgotten, by the hopeful, the angry and the kind denizens of Sonora and Arizona.

In Peregrinos, Méndez challenges the reader to follow the irregular story line of an imaginary but realistic border town. It's a powerful piece of introspection recognized for Méndez's command of language, both impeccable Spanish and lively border slang, and for its gritty imagery. Peregrinos is also respected for its unvarnished view of the treatment of Yaquis on both sides of the border and the non-romanticized tales of immigrants crossing the border.

The love of literature came from his parents. His Mexican-born father was a miner and later an agricultural worker. His mother was born in Douglas and was bilingual.

As a young man working in Tucson, Méndez would spend his free hours at the old Carnegie Free Library, now the Tucson Children's Museum, and the UA library. When he had a few extra dimes, he bought books at his favorite bookstore on Meyer Street Downtown, run by a trio of brothers, refugees from the 1936 Spanish civil war.

He remembered that one of the brothers gave him a book by Russian author Feodor Dostoevski.

"I devoured it and went back for more. They gave me all his books," Méndez said.

Méndez said he didn't intend to write a classic Chicano novel. He said he purposely wrote a novel that mirrored the experience of life on the border.

He worked on the novel for more than five years, at night after a hard day of constructing homes for Tucson's exploding population of newcomers from other parts of the country.

Few of his friends knew about his secret passion. "I was very stubborn. I would stay up late at night reading and writing," he said.

One day he had a friend read his manuscript. His friend, a college educator, urged him to publish his work.

Méndez did — in Guadalajara, Mexico. The initial run of 5,000 copies sold out quickly, and Peregrinos was republished in the U.S.

In the early '70s, Méndez taught Spanish and Chicano literature at Pima Community College, then in its infancy. In 1984, Méndez received his honorary doctorate degree from the UA and began teaching full time. He has lectured widely in Spain and Mexico and this country.

While Méndez lives in a bilingual world, he works exclusively in Spanish. His books have been translated into English, Portuguese, Italian, Swiss, Dutch and other languages.

But English is uncomfortable for him. "I never had time to study English, to learn it well enough to teach and write," Méndez said in Spanish.

It's a dichotomy to some but perfectly acceptable to Méndez. English is not his world.

"My passion is in Spanish," he said.

● Reporter Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. has deep roots in Tucson. His maternal grandparents came here in 1931. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Argentine-born Onofre Navarro, lived in Tucson beginning in the 1860s. Portillo can be contacted at 807-8414 or eportillo@azstarnet.com.