RICARDO SANCHEZ, Ph.D.
(March 29, 1941 - September 3, 1995)
Ricardo Sánchez, a renown poet, teacher, and activist had a complex life that was full of many contrasts. He is considered to be one of the precursors of the Chicano literary genre. Both his personality and his literary style were full of passion, strength, and eloquence. These, consequently, were the result of his upbringing in El Paso, a city which he loved for its diversity and contrasts of customs.
Though his family had northern New Mexico roots which went back more than five centuries, they moved to El Paso before his birth. Thus he was the youngest of thirteen children born to Pedro Lucero and Adelina Gallegos Sánchez. He was raised in the rough but no longer existing neighborhood known as El Barrio del Diablo. His family was very caring and his father's strength and vigor of character helped in forging Sánchez' love and passion for community and family.
Ricardo Sanchez was an innately intelligent and curious youth who learned very early the pleasure of having knowledge and made it a point to read and spend long hours in libraries. But he was not a typical "nerd" as young people today might have called him. The ruggedness of the barrio and his incisive mind made him a very unique street wise person. He was part of the pachuco subculture of the Barrio del Diablo. These gang-like groups of young people had become a natural phenomenon of youngsters in the barrios of El Paso who hadn't been able to identify with and felt forgotten by both American and Mexican culture. These young people had adopted a unique style of dress and a language known as caló that combined idiomatic phrases of English and Spanish. This combination of words into the formation of new words is a technique known in literature as neologism and has been practiced by many outstanding writers in world literature. In fact, Ricardo Sánchez' whole body of works are resonant with neologisms which can be traced back to the barrio's caló and to his existence in El Paso -- a city of multiple linguistic borders.
Consequently, the contrast of a street wise, but intellectually curious young man full of cutting questions and remarks made him an unusual package to deal with. His growth was stifled by the educational system of the 1950's which for the most part employed teachers who were insensitive and condescending towards Chicanos. For example, once when he was asked by a teacher what he would like to become he answered that he wanted to be a poet. The teacher laughed and ridiculed him saying that people like him couldn't be writers; they could only be janitors.
Feeling stunted by an irresponsive educational system, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He earned entrance into officer candidate school; however, a series of untimely events in his life culminated in two prison terms in both California and Texas. Hearing of the separate accidental deaths of two brothers set off a mode of not wanting to live and resulted in the unwise action of committing an armed robbery. After he was paroled from California he married Maria Teresa Silva, his beloved wife of thirty years. However, his economic state of affairs and peer pressure led him to participating in another armed robbery. While in prison he continued to read and write intensely and in the Ramsey prison of Texas he became a librarian and teacher. Though Sánchez later described his actions as stupid, he was never ashamed to admit that he was an ex-convict. In fact, he felt it was his duty to educate youth against the glorification of prison and lifestyles that lead to prison.
Shortly after being paroled from the Texas prison system, he earned a high school equivalency certificate and many of his writings were already being published in anthologies and chapbooks. In 1969 he received a Ford Foundation sponsorship as a Frederick Douglass Fellow in Journalism and while in Richmond, Virginia he wrote for the Afro American newspaper. With just a G.E.D., in 1970, he was employed as a staff writer and humanities instructor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In 1971, his book Canto y grito mi liberación was published by Míctla Publications, a publishing company founded by Ricardo Sánchez to publish Chicano writers who weren't being published by the existing literary press. When Canto y grito mi liberación was republished in 1973 by Anchor Books, Doubleday, Sánchez received scholarly attention on a national level and in 1974, after being sponsored by Ford Foundation grants completed a Ph.D. program in American Studies and cultural linguistic theory at the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Dr. Sánchez held various visiting positions as a professor or writer in residence. For example, he worked at El Paso Community College (1974), University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (1977), and University of Alaska (1979). From 1977 to 1980 he was an assistant professor at the University of Utah Ethnic Studies Center. After working five years as an associate professor and joint appointee in both the English Department and the Department of Comparative Cultures at Washington State University, he achieved full professorship with tenure in early 1995.
Dr. Sánchez wrote a column in the San Antonio Express-News from 1985 to 1988 as well as one in the El Paso Herald-Post from 1988 to 1991. Always active and concerned with the development of full human potential, he was an eloquent, passionate, and moving speaker against any prejudice that would curtail human understanding. His articulate, powerful, inspiring, and legendary speaking ability resulted in his high demand for speaking engagements and poetry performances both nationally and internationally. In 1978 he was invited to participate at the One World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam, Holland and in 1986 he was also invited to the Poets of the Latin World in Mexico City. He performed or spoke in almost every state of the United States.
In addition to writing many books, his works have been included in a myriad of anthologies within the U.S. as well as in anthologies in Italy, France, Germany, and Mexico. Moreover, he wrote many introductions to books by other writers and he has been the subject of several doctoral dissertations. Furthermore, his papers, letters, and documents have had the distinction of being archived at the University of Texas at Austin as well as at Stanford University.
The width and breadth of Sánchez' life experiences are staggering and too numerous to mention in a brief biography. He was a very complex but authentic man who wrote what he thought and thought what he wrote. The power and genius of his written and oral communication made him a person to be admired and respected by friend and foe alike. Throughout his life his concern was to criticize policies and conditions that repressed people from acting out their full humanness. Though his message was a universal message, he believed that he had to speak from a Chicano reality. He believed that once Chicanos understood their racial, cultural, and historical mixtures and juxtapositions a cosmic consciousness would evolve that would allow them to value not only their own but other cultures as well. Thus, Chicanos would be in the forefront to a better world understanding. He was adamant in identifying himself as a Chicano and not a Hispanic because he believed the latter term was too bland and imprecise, and omitted the multiplicity of the makeup of the Chicano -- especially the Indian component. It sacrificed their uniqueness, left them vulnerable to losing the significance of the successful social struggles Chicanos had had throughout the Southwest, and de-emphasized the importance and process of self-naming.
Though Dr. Sánchez was staunch in his identity as a Chicano, he was not particular nor timid with whom he made friends. He had a staggering amount of friends whom he loved and who loved him and who were not only Chicanos but also from diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Though he could be fierce, vehement, and critical, his friends loved him because he was genuine, direct, jam-packed with anecdotes, intellectually gifted, spontaneously full of life, and willing to listen and give a helping hand at any moments notice.
Before Sánchez knew that he had cancer, his plans were to resign from Washington State University and return to El Paso as a free-lance writer. Though he had been celebrated and recognized throughout the United States during his life, it seems that he had been ignored by the powers that be in his hometown. In fact, it wasn't until he was terminally ill when UTEP together with the El Paso Public Library finally organized a celebration of his life's works. Similarly, his induction into the El Paso Writers Hall of Fame came after his death. Nevertheless, his love for the city, which was enhanced by its diversity, an understanding of its complex dynamics, and the important role it had in forming him and other Chicanos, endured all through his life.
Dr. Sánchez' life was full of obstacles and challenges that he had to overcome. Cancer for him was not something saddening but just another challenge of a mortal being. His endeavor to survive was gallant, and dignified. Never at a loss for words or of dreams to be realized he described his plans to start a Chicano cultural arts school for the youth of El Paso up to the time of his death.
Compiled by Roberto Barcena
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