Raúl Salinas, poet, activist, educator, and business owner, was born in San Antonio on March 17, 1934, to Elberto Salinas and Francisca Rodriguez. He grew up in East Austin and attended Catholic grammar school and public high school. His father abandoned the family when he was a small boy, but Salinas later credited his mother and grandmother for instilling in him a love of literature. Salinas was also known as “Roy,” a result of his name being Anglicized in school. He was an intelligent but rebellious student and dropped out of school after the eleventh grade. He moved to northern California, where he worked as an itinerant farmworker for several years.
Salinas became involved in the drug culture and sale of drugs and was arrested in 1957 and incarcerated in Soledad State Penitentiary in California. There, he first started writing, including poetry, and engaged in reading English, American, and Latin American literature. He was released from prison in 1959 but, back in Austin, was arrested for possession of marijuana in November 1961 and subsequently sentenced to do time at Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. During this incarceration, he joined the staff of the prison newspaper The Echo, and, based on his acquired knowledge of jazz, wrote (under the name of Roy Salinas) a regular jazz column for that paper. Salinas was released in May 1965, but felony drug charges in 1967 resulted in more prison time, this time at United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
While at Leavenworth, Salinas’s leanings to activism began to take shape. He edited the prison publication New Era, and he and other Chicano convicts produced a newspaper—Aztlán de Leavenworth. Salinas penned one of his most well-known poems, “Un Trip through the Mind Jail,” in which he chronicled the struggles of coming of age in Chicano barrios, such as his own neighborhood of La Loma in East Austin. The poem used Chicano vernacular idioms and incorporated graffiti to capture the street culture integral to his experience. According to scholar B.V. Olguín, the “semiepic, semiautobiographical poem…first appeared in May 1970 in the cultural nationalist prisoner newspaper Aztlán de Leavenworth” and went on to become “a foundational work in Chicana/o letters.” Salinas advocated prisoners’ rights and explored emerging issues of the Chicano movement.
After his release from prison in 1972, he lived in Seattle and attended the University of Washington. During his studies, he also taught Chicano literature as an adjunct faculty member. His book Un Trip through The Mind Jail y Otras Excursions was published in 1980. He moved back to Austin in 1981 and opened a bookstore called Resistencia in East Austin. The store served as a community gathering space for literary and political events as well as a hub for aspiring activists and activist groups. Salinas also taught courses in the Mexican American Studies program at the University of Texas and later taught classes in writing and social activism at St. Edward’s University. He led a non-profit organization called Red Salmon Arts, through which he conducted writing workshops for youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers. From 1989 to 1992 he was a youth counselor with South Austin Youth Services which addressed the need for gang intervention.
Often signing his work as “raúlrsalinas,” he identified with the Beat Generation of poets and dedicated some of his poems to writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and musicians such as Charlie Parker. He was an active voice in the American Indian movement and various other social change movements that he frequently discussed in his writing. Salinas’s other publications include East of the Freeway: Reflections de Mi Pueblo (1995) and Indio Trails: A Xicano Odyssey through Indian Country (2006). He also recorded spoken word CDs, including Los Many Mundos of raúlrsalinas: Un Poetic Jazz Viaje con Friends (2000) and Red Arc: A Call for Liberacion con Salsa y Cool (2005).
His accolades include the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Distinguished Writer Award, the Louis Reyes Rivera Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2004 National Association for Latino Arts and Cultures Lifetime Achievement Award. Raúl Salinas died of cancer in Austin on February 13, 2008. He was survived by his wife Elida, three children, and four stepchildren. He was buried in Assumption Cemetery in Austin. His papers are held at Stanford University.