Ricardo Sanchez, one of America’s premier Chicano poets and a professor at Washington State University, has died of cancer at age 54.
Sanchez had taught at WSU for the past five years but returned to his native El Paso this spring to die. He lost his nearly yearlong battle with cancer on Sunday at a local hospital.
The fight was “just another struggle, not the first one, nor the last,” he said in a May interview.
Sanchez was a tenured professor in both the English Department and the Department of Comparative American Cultures at WSU.
“He was always trying to make poetry a living art,” Mary Wack, chair of the English Department at WSU, said Monday. “He served especially to generate a lot of student enthusiasm about poetry. He was a wonderful reader, with a very charismatic personality.”
Sanchez, who grew up in southcentral El Paso’s El Barrio del Diablo, frequently recalled that schoolteachers told him Mexicans don’t write poetry. As a result, he devoted much of his life to proving them wrong.
“Nobody will define me. I will define myself,” he said.
Sanchez’s poetry often evoked the harsh realities of life on the border and as a Chicano.
“He had the best ear of any Chicano poet when it came to mixing the Spanish and English languages - the language of the barrio,” said poet Bobby Byrd, owner of El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press, which published one of Sanchez’s books.
“He carried with him his whole life that anger that still seethed from the barrio,” Byrd said.
Sanchez, who spent time in prison for robbery during the 1960s, didn’t hide his past.
In 1971, a year after he was released from prison, “Canto y Grito Mi Liberacion,” a collection of Sanchez’s poems that helped define the burgeoning Chicano movement was published. In 1973, Doubleday released the paperback version. WSU Press plans to issue a second edition sometime next month.
Wack said that in his book “Amerikan Journey: Jornadas Americanas,” published in 1994, Sanchez’s work became more reflective, as illustrated in the poem, “There is No Time”:
“there is no time
to take back any moment
nor to mope
within a flighty hope,
for yesterday has gone
and now is when I live,
now is tantamount.”
Chicano studies scholar Luis Leal of the University of California-Santa Barbara wrote that Sanchez’s first book “stands out as a key work not only in the appearance of a major Chicano poet, but also in defining an important trend in the history of contemporary Chicano poetry.”
Poet Maya Angelou, who read one of her works at President Clinton’s inauguration, was among those who took note of Sanchez’s efforts.
“Ricardo Sanchez is like any great poet,” she said. “He’s at once a preacher, a teacher, a priest, a rabbi. He’s a guru, he’s a master. And because he is that he’s also a rebel. He’s a maverick. Every great teacher is a maverick.”
A funeral Mass is scheduled Wednesday in El Paso.