SALINAS, LUIS OMAR
SALINAS, LUIS OMAR (1937–2008). Luis Omar Salinas, poet and teacher, was born on June 24, 1937, in Robstown, Texas. He was the son of Rosendo Valadez Salinas and Olivia (Trevino) Salinas, both second generation Mexicano-Tejanos.
Growing up in both Texas and Mexico, and later California, Luis Omar Salinas’s experiences from childhood come through in his poetry. In 1939 his father, a merchant, moved the family to Monterrey, Mexico, to open a store “that sold watches, rings, lanterns, kitchen utensils—novelties that would be of intrigue to a town that was increasing in population and growing dark with industry.” One of Salinas’s earliest memories was buying churros with his mother from a local factory in Monterrey; his poem “Mexico Age Four” offers a vivid glimpse of this memory. In 1941 Salinas’s mother died from tuberculosis. Rosendo Salinas returned with the children to Robstown after Olivia’s burial. He gave up Luis to his brother and sister-in-law, Alfredo and Oralia Salinas. Luis’s sister went to live with another aunt. The loss of his mother deeply struck Salinas. His poetry reflects the influence his mother’s death had upon him; “Olivia” is one such poem.
Luis Salinas took an early interest in school, which became a kind of surrogate for his mother. The racism in Nueces County, however, pushed his adoptive parents to move to California in 1946. They lived first in Daly City near San Francisco and then moved to the Fresno area. Salinas delivered a paper route for the Fresno Bee and also participated in the Boy Scouts and learned to play the trumpet. He continued to do well in school and impressed teachers with his command of the English language. He attended Longfellow Junior High in Calwa, California, near Fresno, before the family eventually settled in Bakersfield in 1954. Salinas graduated from Bakersfield High School. In the fall of 1956 he attended Bakersfield City College, where he earned an associate in arts degree in history. He also served in the U.S. Marine Reserves during his college years.
In 1958 Salinas moved to Los Angeles to attend California State College at Los Angeles and to rejoin his father, Rosendo. Although Luis had formerly studied history, he found himself drawn to drama. The strain of working forty hours a week, school, and a failed romance eventually took its toll on Salinas. He was hospitalized at Camarillo Hospital, where he was initially diagnosed as a schizophrenic. His stay lasted eleven months during which time he made an attempt to take his own life. He was released to his adoptive parents in December 1960. Salinas suffered several breakdowns throughout the 1960s and struggled with mental illness that was later determined to be manic depression.
Eventually, he returned to California State at Los Angeles in 1964. He attended sporadically until he eventually began studying poetry in 1965. In 1966 he enrolled at Fresno State College (now California State University Fresno) where he studied fiction writing from Tom Gatton. After the following summer, when he worked in his family’s clothing store, he attended a very significant course in his creative development—a poetry writing class with Philip Levine. This proved to be a defining moment for Salinas and his career, and he became one of the key figures in the Fresno school of poetry. By 1970 Salinas had published his first book of poetry, Crazy Gypsy—a name he often used to refer to himself. That year he was also hired to teach creative writing and Chicano literature in the Ethnic Studies Department at Fresno State. Despite having little political ideology, Salinas found himself in revolutionary crossfire when the Ethnic Studies Department was eliminated from the university in September 1970. His ties to the La Raza movement within his department caused some tensions within the university, but his critically-acclaimed Crazy Gypsy secured his prominence as a pioneer in the field of Chicano poetry. In 1973 he coedited From the Barrio, an anthology of Chicano writings.
Salinas supported his writing by doing various jobs for the latter part of his life until he returned to Fresno State to teach poetry. He published a second poetry book, Afternoon of the Unreal in 1980. Other volumes include Darkness Under the Trees/Walking behind the Spanish (1982), The Sadness of Days (1987), Sometimes Mysteriously (1997), and Elegy for Desire (2005) which was his last work. He won several awards for his writing, including Columbia Magazine’s Stanley Kunitz Award, 1980; the Earl Lyon Award, Fresno State University, 1981; General Electric Foundation Award, 1984; and the Flume Press Chapbook Award, 1991.
Known as one of the “founding fathers of Chicano poetry in America,” Salinas and his poetry have been the subject of study in both American and international universities. His friend and colleague Gary Soto described Salinas as “a pioneering poet in the Mexican-American literary scene.” Salinas died at seventy years in Sanger, California, on May 25, 2008. He never married or had children.
Christopher Buckley, “Elegy for Desire: Luis Omar Salinas 1937–2008,” October/November 2008, Association of Writers and Writing Programs (https://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/writers_chronicle_view/1618/elegy_for_desire_luis_omar_salinas_1937-2008), accessed March 3, 2015. Fresno Bee, May 29, 2008. “Luis Omar Salinas,” The HyperTexts (http://www.thehypertexts.com/Luis_Omar_Salinas_Poetry_Picture_Bio.htm), accessed March 3, 2015. Gary Soto, “Luis Omar Salinas: Chicano Poet,” MELUS, 9 (Summer 1982). Who’s Who among Hispanic Americans 1994–95 (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994).
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