Last Wednesday, Los Angeles Times journalist and internationally acclaimed novelist Hector Tobar was awarded UC Santa Barbara’s 2012 Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature at a ceremony held in the McCune Conference Room of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building.
The Luis Leal Award, which is given each year to a distinguished writer specializing in the field of Chican@ and Latin@ issues, was inspired by UCSB faculty member Luis Leal, a pioneer of this type of literature who passed away in 2010 at the age of 102.
According to Chican@ studies professor Mario Garcia, organizer of the award ceremony, Tobar’s internationally recognized novels on the daily lives of Latin American immigrants have made him a worthy recipient of the 2012 Luis Leal Award.
“Tobar is a child of immigrant parents and so he’s able to reflect on these conditions of immigrants in Southern California and to present their experiences in a way that makes them into human beings for the rest of us to relate to,” Garcia said. “He’s articulating some of the issues and concerns that are there in the Latino community and giving a voice to the voiceless.”
The audience appeared to be composed primarily of UCSB students who have been reading Tobar’s books, and many attendees were eager to meet the author they have been studying. Second-year Chican@ studies major Evelyn Martinez said she felt a personal connection to Tobar’s work, noting that his books also address more universally-felt obstacles that immigrants face.
“His book addresses a lot of the problems that Chicanos face when we get here to the United States,” Martinez said. “I can relate because my parents had to suffer through similar things that the Guatemalan character suffers in his book, and I think his books are something that immigrants of all backgrounds can relate to.”
Many in the audience were visibly moved by Tobar’s speech, in which he reflected on his journey to becoming a novelist and discussed the inspiration for his two novels: The Tattooed Soldier, set in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Guatemala, and The Barbarian Nurseries, a novel about class and cultural conflict in modern Southern California.
Born in Los Angeles to Guatemalan immigrant parents, Tobar put a focus on education since it took a lot of time and difficulty for his own parents to attain one.
This struggle influenced Tobar’s decision to leave his position at the Los Angeles Times in pursuit of a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at UC Irvine. His MFA thesis there became the inspiration for his first novel, The Tattooed Soldier.
According to Tobar, he realized he had made the right decision by shifting to a career as a novelist during a student group meeting early in his writing career, when a Central American student approached him and told him that his novel was the first English book his El Salvadoran father had read. The student said he felt touched by the book’s content as it allowed him to better understand his father’s journey and struggles as an immigrant to the United States.
Tobar said moments like this made him realize his ability to reach many people through his writing, making his publications feel even more worthwhile.
“That really moved me because my whole justification as a writer is there in that moment,” Tobar said. “If I had never had another reader or written another book, my justification for being a writer would’ve been there in that one young man who read my book and was able to connect with his father and understand his history as a Central American person.”
Tobar ended the evening with an address to student attendees, encouraging them to take advantage of opportunities presented at UCSB and to always strive for excellence in life endeavors.
“You’re here now beginning a journey to become intellectuals, and it’s important to dream big and aim high. When I say aim high, I don’t mean in terms of money; I mean like doing something really well and studying your craft,” Tobar said. “I’m a writer and that means that I learn from two millennia of writers, going back to Homer and beyond. I study that craft and I take it extremely seriously. So I hope that whatever you do, you decide to do it well, that you have success and that you are able to honor where you come from.”