Arturo Islas, professor of English at Stanford University and Mexican-American novelist, eldest son of Arturo Islas, Sr., and Jovita La Farga, was born in El Paso, Texas, on May 24, 1938. Arturo Islas, Sr., served as one of four Mexican Americans in a largely Anglo-American police force and gained renown as a very skilled policeman in El Paso. Islas was the eldest of three sons, and his father was especially emotionally distant from him, mostly because Islas failed to meet his father’s machismo sensibilities as a firstborn. Arturo was a favorite, however, of his mother and grandmother. He learned to speak, read, and write English very early in his life, which enabled him to advance swiftly through his English-only elementary school. At home, he and his family spoke only Spanish as a result of his parents’ insistence on maintaining their Mexican heritage and identity. Islas contracted polio when he was eight and was left with a shortened leg and a semi-permanent limp. Following this life-changing event, he often read novels and histories and frequently spent time at St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso. During his adolescence, however, he left the Catholic Church. Academically, Islas was very successful and became the first Mexican American at El Paso High School to be valedictorian and the second to serve as president of the student council. Ultimately, he won an academic scholarship to attend Stanford University in 1956.
Islas became the first Mexican American in the United States to earn a Ph.D. (in 1971)—from the department of English at Stanford University, despite a struggle with intestinal cancer that resulted in a colectomy. He became an active member of the faculty at Stanford and was the institution’s first tenured Mexican-American professor. His acknowledged skill as a teacher caused a huge demand for his courses among Stanford students. His ability was recognized when he earned the Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education in 1976. Islas served as a mentor to Stanford’s growing Mexican-American population and applauded this group of students for their dedication to making Mexican-American expression visible in the face of racism. He played a leading role in the development of the Chicano community on campus and was the chair of the Chicano Faculty Recruitment Committee and codirected the Stanford Center for Chicano Research. In addition, Islas was a preeminent author who drew upon his experiences growing up on the Mexico-U.S. border. His hard-earned publication of his two novels, The Rain God (1984) and Migrant Souls (1990), stands as one of his most significant achievements. Another work, La Mollie and the King of Tears (1996), was published posthumously. His novels, based on family experiences, reflected the border culture of his childhood and included many references to El Paso locales. In particular, The Rain God was singled out as an immediate success and was awarded the Southwest Book Award for Fiction by the Border Regional Library Association and nominated by the Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Association as “one of the best novels of 1984.”
Islas identified with the Catholic Church in his youth, but for the majority of his life he did not identify with any religion. After 1986 his experiences as a recovering alcoholic in the Alcoholics Anonymous program prompted him to return to the Catholic Church and also to study Buddhism. In the political sphere, Islas championed multiculturalism but was not overtly political—he loathed the radical tendencies of political polarization. Islas remained unmarried and had no children but was involved in multiple relationships throughout his life. His longest relationship, with Jay Spears, lasted from 1971 to 1978. Despite deep-seated hostility following their breakup, the men reconciled in 1986 after Islas discovered that Spears had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. On January 14, 1988, Islas was diagnosed with HIV as well. Three years later, on February 15, 1991, Islas died, due to AIDS-related complications, in his home in Palo Alto, California. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered both over the Pacific Ocean and the El Paso desert.