Saturday, April 17, 2021

Chicano Lit Renaissance Pioneer Tino Villanueva Continues to Inspire—National Poetry Month 2021


Tino Villanueva.

After all of these years Chicano Poet Tino Villanueva has something to say to us. One of the founding fathers of Mexican-American cultural scene of the 1960s and 70s he not only wrote powerful, personal poetry about identity and struggle, he mentored many others and guided careers as a teacher and an editor/publisher.

Villanueva was born in 1941 to a San Marcos, Texas to a family of migrant workers. He was drafted into the Army and served for two years as a supply clerk in the Panama Canal Zone where he became immersed in Hispanic literature, reading Rubén Darío and José Martí. Back in the States  he attended Southwest Texas State University on the GI Bill a MA at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a PhD at Boston University.

The Spanish edition of Scene from the Movie GIANT.

Writing in both Spanish and English, often sliding effortlessly between the two languages, Villanueva wrote poems exploring themes of memory, longing, and history. He is the author of several poetry collections, including Hay Otra Voz: Poems (1972):  Scene from the Movie GIANT (1993); and So Spoke Penelope  (2013). He translated Luis J. Rodríguez’s La Llaman América (1998), and his own poems have been translated into Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Greek, and Korean.

The founder of Imagine Publishers, Inc., Villanueva has edited Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal and the anthology Chicanos: Antología Histórica y Literaria (1980).Villanueva received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Texas State University, San Marcos and has taught at Wellesley College and Boston University.

Villanueva’s more recent work has shifted to finding new meaning in tales from Greek mythology. He has also exhibited his paintings. Now in retirement in Boston a selection of his papers is held at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

You, If No One Else is one of those poems that found new life amid the activism stirred by the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, gun violence, and the defense of democracy when it was under siege by Trumpism.  All of those movements have quoted or made memes of this poem.

You, If No One Else


Listen, you

who transformed your anguish

into healthy awareness,

put your voice

where your memory is.

You who swallowed

the afternoon dust,

defend everything you understand

with words.

You, if no one else,

will condemn with your tongue

the erosion each disappointment brings.

You, who saw the images

of disgust growing,

will understand how time

devours the destitute;

you, who gave yourself

your own commandments,

know better than anyone

why you turned your back

on your town’s toughest limits.

Don’t hush,

Don’t throw away

the most persistent truth,

as our hard-headed brethren

sometimes do.

Remember well

what your life was like: cloudiness,

and slick mud

after a drizzle;

flimsy windows the wind

kept rattling

in winter, and that

unheated slab dwelling

where coldness crawled

up in your clothes.

Tell how you were able to come

to this point, to unbar

History’s doors

to see your early years

your people, the others.

Name the way

Rebellion’s calm spirit has served you,

and how you came

to unlearn the lessons

of that teacher,

your land’s omnipotent defiler.


—Tino Villanueva


Rock Hudson as the family patriarch in the Giant confronts a racist diner owner who has insulted his son's Chicana wife and brown baby in the climatic sene from the sprawling epic.  It was a deeply personal experience for Villanueva.

Fight Scene Beginning was a breakthrough verse for Villanueva and appeared in Scene from the Movie GIANT a collection which was published in English and Spanish versions.  The English edition won the American Book Award in 1994.


Fight Scene Beginning

Bick Benedict, that is, Rock Hudson in the

Time-clock of the movie, stands up and moves,

Deliberate, toward encounter. He has come out

Of the anxious blur of the backdrop, like


Coming out of the unreal into the world of

What’s true, down to earth and distinct; has

Stepped up to Sarge, the younger of the two,


And would sure appreciate it if he: “Were a

Little more polite to these people.” Sarge,

Who has something to defend, balks; asks

(In a long-shot) if: “that there papoose down


There, his name Benedict too?,” by which he

Means one-year old Jordy in the background

Booth hidden in the bosom of mother love of


Juana, who listens, trying not to listen. Rock

Hudson, his hair already the color of slate,

Who could not foresee this challenge, arms

Akimbo (turning around), contemplates the stable


And straight line of years gone by, says: “Yeah,

Come to think of it, it is.” And so acknowledges,

In his heart, his grandson, half-Anglo, half-


Brown. Sarge repents from words, but no

Part of his real self succumbs: “All right—

Forget I asked you. Now you just go back

Over there and sit down and we ain't gonna


Have no trouble. But this bunch here is

Gonna eat somewhere’s else.” Never shall I

Forget, never how quickly his hand threw my


Breathing off—how quickly he plopped the

Hat heavily askew once more on the old

Man’s head, seized two fistsful of shirt and

Coat and lifted his slight body like nothing,


A no-thing, who could have been any of us,

Weightless nobodies bronzed by real-time far

Off somewhere, not here, but in another


Country, yet here, where Rock Hudson’s face

Deepens; where in one motion, swift as a

Miracle, he catches Sarge off guard, grabs

His arm somehow, tumbles him back against


The counter and draws fire from Sarge to

Begin the fight up and down the wide screen

Of memory, ablaze in Warner-color light.


—Tino Villanueva


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