By Arturo Diaz
International Institute, UCLA, March 19 – The UCLA Program on International Migration closed its winter series on children, families, and migration with a spirited talk by Pulitzer Prize winner Héctor Tobar about his work. The author and journalist offered an example of the kind of socially subversive storytelling that brings him great satisfaction. One of his articles that appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times regarded Crown Hill, one of the oldest parts of the city. The hill is located in an area of abandoned properties facing the Harbor Freeway, flanked on the opposite side by the downtown towers. A homeless camp then dotted the hillside. It resembled, he remarked, an image of the end of the world in the center of the city. It was a powerful scene, said Tobar, of how the poorest people in LA were living on some of the city’s most valuable land, which was owned by wealthy conglomerates. He noted with pride how he had even calculated that one square foot of land in the camp was worth about 20 of the general relief checks on which the inhabitants subsisted.
The American-born son of Guatemalan parents, Tobar stumbled into journalism when he became a writer for a bilingual Spanish-English newspaper while pursuing Latin American studies and sociology in college. At that point, he had never considered writing to make a living, even though he had grown up thinking books were good and that writing separated people from a baser existence. His passion for social justice allowed him to quickly take to writing about social issues and he gained popularity thanks to his style, which he described as dark and funny. He said that el chiste, or the shtick, of journalism is to reveal truth to people, but not hit them over the head with it.
The constrained nature of journalistic writing and Tobar’s need to express more of the emotional, social and political truths that he witnessed in LA led him to write novels. He took workshops, classes and eventually completed an MFA program; his thesis was a novel about refugee soldiers from El Salvador who had fought in the civil war and then joined the stream of refugees coming to Los Angeles. “The Tattooed Soldier” (2000) was inspired by a story he heard about a man in MacArthur Park who had seen one of the men who had murdered people in this man’s village in El Salvador and whom he was planning to murder. Although not an immediate success, Tobar’s first attempt at literary political fiction slowly gained popularity and he eventually sold the film rights to the novel.
Tobar is now the author of two published novels that have been translated into other languages, with his most recent work, “Barbarian Nurseries” (2012), garnering high acclaim. He credits the success of this last book to the failure of his second novel, a literary response to California’s Proposition 187 that prohibited illegal aliens from using the state’s social services. By 1999, he noted, the first draft had been rejected by everyone, including his agent, who said it sounded like a polemic. In retrospect, Tobar agreed that the novel was too biased toward the immigrant experience. So he kept the first line and started over, this time drawing on his own personal experience and the understanding of race and class issues affecting different cultural groups that he had gained as a journalist. For example, he realized that feelings of nostalgia and loss fed the anti-immigrant movement in the United States, which is reflected in the manuscript in the speech of the district attorney, who describes how beautiful Los Angeles was before the influx of immigrants. He claimed that it was satisfying for him to put himself into the roles of the different characters, giving each one a real humanity. In the end, he noted, he humanized the characters and presented an instance of Latin American immigrant life as it existed in Los Angeles when he wrote the book.
Among the pantheon of Latin American writers, Tobar sees himself as focusing on the social class experience while avoiding sentimentality. Although he admits that he may one day write a novel about his mother, his characters have not always been Guatemalan. According to the writer, he seeks to avoid the autobiographical novel and instead reflect the setting and culture of LA. His experience as a journalist has taught him both the power of observation and how to use concrete things to develop metaphors so that people can feel and understand the place he calls home.
Mr. Tobar’s talk was sponsored by the UCLA Program on International Migration and the International Institute, the Institute for American Cultures, the Division of Social Sciences, the UCLA School of Law, the Burkle Center for International Relations, the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, the departments of geography and political science; and the Irene Flecknoe Ross Lecture Series in the department of sociology. The Irene Flecknoe Ross Lecture Series is made possible by a gift from Ray Ross in memory of his wife.
Hector Tobar is an award-winning journalist with the Los Angeles Times and the author of “The Barbarian Nurseries,” “The Tattooed Soldier,” and “Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States.”