Victor Martinez dies at 56; novel won National Book Award


Victor Martinez, who won the 1996 National Book Award for young people’s literature for his semi-autobiographical novel about growing up Mexican American in California’s Central Valley, has died. He was 56.

Martinez died Feb. 18 at his San Francisco apartment of lung cancer, said his sister, Martha Manzano. The cancer was related to juvenile papillomavirus, which first struck him as an adolescent. Doctors linked the virus to growing up around pesticides, his sister said.

The fourth of 12 children of migrant farm laborers, Martinez was born Feb. 21, 1954, in Fresno. As a child, he worked in the fields after school and during summers.


He was taking vocational classes to be a welder when a high school teacher noticed his passion for reading and helped push him to attend Cal State Fresno through an affirmative-action program for Chicano youth.

In college, he discovered poetry, earned a bachelor’s degree in English and studied creative writing on a postgraduate fellowship at Stanford University.

With other Latino writers, Martinez became part of “a swashbuckling cadre of artists in San Francisco,” Juan Felipe Herrera, a friend who is a creative-writing professor at UC Riverside, told The Times in an e-mail.

For a decade, Martinez drove a truck and worked a variety of jobs before saving enough money to turn to writing full time.

While teaching poetry in junior high schools, Martinez recalled his own struggle at that age to find his voice, literally and spiritually, and decided to write a coming-of-age novel. He had published a book of poems, “Caring for the House,” in 1992.

At 14, he was unable to speak after the virus caused growths on his vocal cords, a condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. When he regained his voice after two years, he spoke with a distinctive rasp.


His first novel, “Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida,” was about a 14-year-old Mexican American boy growing up in the projects of an unnamed city in the Central Valley. The title refers to a Mexican story about a bird that complains how hot it is in the shade, not realizing that it is sitting in an oven.

He often said the book was partly based on his own life.

When he won the National Book Award judges called “Parrot” a “spirited novel of awkward love, ugly schools, neighborhood feuds — the stuff of a scruffy adolescence.… Strikingly authentic literature of poor people.”

The award “gave me a career,” Martinez told The Times in 1997. The $10,000 prize money was more than he had made the previous year.

Martinez contributed to journals and anthologies, and wrote two more novels that remain unpublished.

He was “humble, brilliant, gentle,” Herrera told The Times, “and a man who delighted in life in all its prisms.”

In addition to his sister Martha, Martinez is survived by his wife, Tina Alvarez, four other sisters and six brothers.