Victor Martinez: "I am an American writer"

By Harriet Staff

Mission [email protected] remembers poet and National Book Award-winning novelist Victor Martinez who passed away earlier this week. Born in Fresno, California, Martinez would prove influential and respected enough among his 11 other siblings to secure his own room to write, yet he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996 that the most his high school guidance counselor had encouraged of him after reviewing his talents and high test scores was a career in welding.

Free from the low expectations of high school, Martinez first went to Cal State Fresno then on to receive the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford before settling in San Francisco where he formed the Humanizarte collective with other Chicano poets (including his friend Francisco X. Alarcon who wrote of his contributions to the Bay Area in The Rumpus) as well as being active in the Chicano/Latino Writers’ Center of San Francisco, the reopening of the Mission Cultural Center, and a frequent contributor to El Tecolote. Despite his involvement in the Mission literary community, his work went largely unnoticed elsewhere until he published Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida.

In 1996, Victor Martinez, a local poet, reached a personal low when he read his poetry at Intersection for the Arts and exactly six people showed up. Three were friends.

A week later, he discovered that he was nominated for the National Book Award.

Galeria de la Raza threw a send-off party before he flew to New York for the awards ceremony. “We said, ‘You’re going to win!’” recalls writer Alejandro Murguía. “He said. ‘Nah. I’m a Chicano writer. This is a New York award.’”

He won.

The book would end up on high school reading lists everywhere (while being banned by just as many) and send him to read and speak all over the country. Though even then, not everyone got his work. "In other places, recalls Martinez’s wife, Tina Alvarez, he would be introduced only to Latino students. 'He would refuse to speak unless it was to the entire class,' she says. 'He would say, ‘I am an American writer.’”

His style was laborious and minimalist. “He was like a chiseler,” says another friend, the artist Jurgen Trautwein, who spent years getting beers at the Zeitgeist and talking art with Martinez. “Someone who built something up and took it down to the core, the skeleton. He had a lot of love for sculpting. He loved Giacometti. He read his biography over 10 times.“‘Too many words. That’s what he would say. ‘Too many words.’”

“He would tell me, ‘Poetry is the essence of thinking,’” says his brother, Ramiro.

When people asked him what he did for a living, he said he drove a truck.

“So many people have wiped their asses with the word artist,” says Sal Garcia, laughing. “We were of the working class.”