Victor Martinez, Chicano Poet/Author Passed Way
Today Feb. 18, 2011
by Francisco X. Alarcón
Today Mission District photographer Linda Wilson, long time staff member of El Tecolote, the bilingual newspaper of San Francisco, called me at home to let me know that my friend of more than 33 years, Chicano poet/author Victor Martinez had passed away. I am very saddened by the passing of this great poet, author of the celebrated novel Parrot in the Oven which was awarded the 1996 National Book Award for Young People's Literature among other prestigious literary awards.
I first met Vic at Stanford University in 1977 where he held a Wallace Stagner fellowship in the Department of English. At Stanford University I had also met Juan Felipe Herrera at the International House during Orientation Week at the beginning of Fall Quarter of 1977. Victor Martínez became a very active member of the tertulias literarias that were regularly held at Chicano poet/muralist/visual artist José Antonio Burciaga’s home in Menlo Park, near Stanford, with his wife Cecilia Preciado also hosted always so graciously. Bernice Zamora, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gloria Velázquez, Gary Soto, Lucha Corpi, Emy López, Javier Pacheco, Francisco Santana, José David Saldívar, Orlando Ramírez, were some the writers who were part of his circle of literary friends.
Later Vic moved to the Mission District as Juan Felipe Herrera and I also did. The three of us lived and passed on to each other the same apartment we had rented at different times on Capp Street in the heart of the Mission District. The three of us became active members of Humanizarte, a collective of Chicano poets, and later of the Chicano/Latino Writers’ Center of San Francisco together with other Bay Area poets, like Lucha Corpi, Rodrigo Reyes, Juan Pablo Gutiérrez, Ana Castillo, Martivón Galindo, Margie Robles Luna. Vic was one of the regular writers and editors of La Revista Literaria de El Tecolote, contributing stupendous book, theater, and film reviews. One outstanding film review that comes to my mind at this moment was a collective film review of El Norte that Victor Martinez, Juan Felipe Herrera and I did together and which included an interview with its acclaimed director, Gregory Nava.
It was at Stanford University where Victor Martínez met Tina Alvarez, the love of his life. I told Linda Wilson over the phone, that one morning Tina and Vic called me to come in a hurry to their pad on Capp Street. I ran from my flat on San Jose Avenue, few blocks away, and found out that they had decided to get married that day and they wanted me as a witness. We took a joyful BART ride to City Hall in the San Francisco Civic Center and I was their sole witness to a simple and yet very profound ceremony that touched my heart. Vic and Tina didn’t need a lot of the usual trappings to show their love and commitment to each other.
I told Linda Wilson that I am leaving for Guatemala for a six day visit but that in transit I will write a tribute to Victor Martinez for El Tecolote. I am in mourning and want to express my deepest condolescence to Tina Alvarez, y toda la Familia Martinez. My thoughts and prayers are with you as I set to travel to Guatemala.
I am including below a biography, a book review, and the transcript of a PBS interview done one day afer Victor was awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 1996:
Victor Martinez was born and raised in Fresno, California, the fourth in a family of twelve children. He attended California State University at Fresno and Stanford University, and has worked as a field laborer, welder, truck driver, firefighter, teacher, and office clerk. His poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies. Mr. Martinez was awarded the 1996 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for Parrot in the Oven, his first novel. He now makes his home in San Francisco, California.
Victor Martinez was born into an impoverished family in west Fresno, California. It was here, growing up with his eleven brothers and sisters, that he formed his Hispanic identity and began to mentally record events for his eventual writing. Despite their monetary struggles, the Martinez family remained strong, avoiding the pitfalls that plague project housing. 11 out of the 12 Martinez children all hold B.A.s or higher; Victor attended California State University and Stanford.
Martinez's literary career didn't come easily. His first poem was tossed away to the trash can by a grade school teacher who didn't mind shaming him in front of the class. Self-described as a "student who sat in the back of the class" and as someone who wasn't "that high of an achiever", it took some time for his skills to get recognized. In 1996 however, Parrot in the Oven won the National Book Award and got him major recognition for YA literature.
Parrot in the Oven is Martinez's first novel and only major publication. In 1992 he did publish a collection of poetry titled Caring for a House with Chusma House Publications, but it has since gone out of print. Many of his works have been published in other various collections and anthologies. He now lives in San Francisco with his wife, Tina Alvarez, and writes six hours per day.