Hector Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, received UCSB’s Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Chicana Literature for his work in fiction. Tobar’s latest novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, was called one of the best novels of 2011 by the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe.
After receiving the award, Tobar lectured to a packed room in UCSB’s Humanities and Social Sciences Building and signed books for the group of Chicano/Chicana literature students in attendance. Tobar spoke of his childhood, upbringing, and career, including the impact his parents’ stories had on his life.
Tobar’s father, he said, instilled in him a desire to learn and read that never left, even through a primary education in some of L.A.’s rougher public schools. As Tobar grew up, his father, a young immigrant from Guatemala, attended night school to learn English, eventually getting his GED and attending Los Angeles Community College. “I grew up thinking of books as something incredibly cool,” Tobar said, adding that some of his first reading materials were his father’s college textbooks.
The Barbarian Nurseries is the product of more than 10 years of work, drawing from Tobar’s own experiences as a child of Guatemalan immigrants and his family life in Los Angeles and around the country. Tobar is also the author of Translation Nation, a nonfiction work detailing the spread of Latino identity across the United States. His first book, The Tattooed Soldier, is another tale of Latin American culture and identity in the United States. The concluding scenes of The Tattooed Soldier play out with a backdrop of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the national crisis that led to the Pulitzer Prize for Tobar and the L.A. Times news team’s coverage.
Tobar’s career as a writer has taken many twists and turns as he has shifted back and forth from journalism, fiction, nonfiction, and editorial writing. “All these things happened because I cared about the words,” Tobar said. “It worked not because I was trying to do something successful, but because I was doing something that felt true to me.”
His novels, he said, were the product of a dream and determination to see things through. “It’s nice to have three books,” Tobar said, “but what’s important for me is that I have all the memories of the journeys I took to write the books.”
Tobar currently writes for the L.A. Times in a number of capacities, including reviewing other books for the paper. He said his next work at length will be a creative nonfiction book on the lives and experiences of the Chilean miners involved in the 2010 Copiapó mining accident, which drew international attention to the 33 workers trapped underground for over two months.