Rolando Hinojosa is a Chicano (Mexican-American) writer who is still active well into his 80s. He is sometimes referred to as Rolando Hinojosa-Smith. As well as being a poet, essayist and Professor of English, he is most famous for a lifetime project that he calls Klail City Death Trip, a series of novels now numbering fifteen. The story in each book relates to the previous one and they are set in a fictitious region of the southern states called Belken County which he places on the border between Texas and Mexico.
He was born on the 21st January 1929 in Mercedes, a place in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. His father had been a soldier during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 and, naturally, he grew up speaking Spanish until junior high school when he had to learn English. He had been an avid reader all through his childhood and his good education led to a variety of teaching appointments that have continued throughout his life.
His epic Klail City Death Trip series of novels are a remarkable piece of work where he portrays the constant struggles with violence and racism that have been a permanent fixture along the Mexican-American border for over a century. His stories are poetic and multi-layered, with over a 1000 characters inhabiting the imaginary world that he has created. Belken County may not exist on any genuine map of the United States but there are clear parallels in this world to the real border locations that separate Mexico from the southern states.
Although these stories have a serious, sometimes tragic side, Hinojosa never fails to inject humour into the work. He declares to anyone who will listen that he loves to play with words, loves to present his poems and stories in a playful manner, despite the occasional sombre subject matter. He uses a number of different forms and styles. His book Korean Love Songs, for example, is written in narrative verse and remains his only published collection of poetry. It has been described as a daring book of poetry that is mostly written in free verse. It’s all about the horrors of the Korean war and the often small-minded attitude of the military leaders who do their utmost to get as many of their men killed as possible.
One poem, Chinaman’s Hat, is particularly harrowing in that it describes the terror endured by soldiers of the 88th Field Battalion who abandon their weapons in the face of overwhelming odds and flee the battle field. As an object lesson in discipline to their fellow soldiers they are forced to march back, under guard, to recover their weapons. It seems that the maintenance of military discipline counts more than the preservation of human life. Here is an extract from the author’s notes on this incident:
He learned his considerable literary skills at a very young age and was fortunate that he had teachers who encouraged him to write at great length. Many of his articles for the school newspaper survive to this day, displayed in the high school library in Mercedes, where he grew up. They didn’t go any further in those early days though and this, perhaps, was to his benefit as he never had to fear rejection by publishers. He could therefore compose his verse and stories without any hindrance.
As his Klail City series passed into the annals of literary excellence Hinojosa was often referred to as a “border writer”. He has never felt comfortable with that label though and prefers to refer to himself as a writer from Texas. He says:
Hinojosa has won a number of literary awards, especially for his Klail City series. Perhaps his most significant award has been the prestigious Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award which was presented in 2014 by the National Book Critics Circle. He was justly proud of this saying that he was
Rolando Hinojosa remains as much “in love” with storytelling and teaching as he was right back at the start and he still occupies the post of Ellen Clayton Garwood professor in the English Department at the University of Texas, Austin. He also teaches Spanish there.