Luis Leal dies at 102; scholar of Mexican, Chicano and Latin American literature

Luis Leal, an internationally recognized scholar of Mexican, Chicano and Latin American literature who was one of the founders of the field of Chicano literary studies, has died. He was 102.

Leal, a professor of Chicano studies at UC Santa Barbara, died Monday of natural causes at a convalescent hospital in Santa Barbara, said his son, Antonio.

A professor at the school since 1976, Leal taught his last class in Chicano literature in late 2004 but remained active as a scholar.

“Professor Leal was a beloved member of our campus community and a scholar of tremendous international renown,” UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang said in a statement. “With respect and affection, we called him ‘Don Luis.’ ”

Leal, who previously held teaching positions at the University of Chicago, the University of Mississippi, Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Illinois, wrote more than 45 books and 400 scholarly articles.

His book “A Brief History of the Mexican Short Story,” originally published in Spanish in Mexico in 1956 and later in English in the United States, is viewed as a landmark of modern literary scholarship.

“That’s what really brought him his initial critical recognition,” said Mario T. Garcia, a professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of the 2000 book “Luis Leal:An Auto/Biography,” an oral history presented as a dialogue between him and Leal.

“He began writing on Mexican literature, and he expanded to Latin American literature outside Mexico,” Garcia said. “By the late ‘60s, he began to focus on Chicano literature and champion it as an important part of American literature.”

It was Leal’s “standing as a major scholar that gave credibility to the idea of Chicanos having a literature,” Garcia said.

Then a professor of Spanish at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Leal “began to write essays and deliver papers at conferences that began to call attention to the concept of Chicano literature, which hadn’t really been acknowledged in American literary circles,” Garcia said.

“Since his field was literature, he basically said Chicanos are not just writing now, they have a long history of literary product as far back as the Spanish Colonial era of the Southwest.”

Leal received numerous honors, including the National Humanities Medal, which was presented at the White House by then- President Bill Clinton in 1997.

He also received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Assn. for Chicano Studies in recognition of his lifetime achievement in 1988. And in 1991, he was awarded the Mexico Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor granted to foreign citizens by the Mexican government.

In 1995, UC Santa Barbara established the Luis Leal endowed chair in the department of Chicana and Chicano studies, which he held until 1997. And in 2003, the Santa Barbara Book Council and UC Santa Barbara created the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano-Latino Literature.

“Even though he had slowed up a bit, he never stopped his work,” Garcia said, noting that Leal continued to write reviews and short pieces and to co-edit Ventana Abierta, a journal of U.S. Latino literature written in Spanish.

Leal was born Sept. 17, 1907, in Linares, Mexico.

He received a bachelor of science degree in Spanish from Northwestern University in 1940 and a master’s in Spanish from the University of Chicago in 1941. Leal became a naturalized citizen and was drafted into the Army during World War II and served in the Pacific. He earned a doctorate in Spanish and Italian from the University of Chicago in 1950.

Leal was predeceased by his son, Luis; and his wife, Gladys.

Besides his son Antonio, he is survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A graveside service will be held at 3 p.m. Monday at Goleta Cemetery, 44 S. Antonio Road, Goleta.

Plans for a campus memorial are pending.