17 July 2008
Alfred Arteaga, renowned poet and professor of Chicano and ethnic studies, died July 4 of a heart attack at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara. He was 58.
Arteaga, who joined the Berkeley faculty in 1990 as an assistant professor of English and was tenured in the Department of Ethnic Studies in 1998, was a pioneer in post-colonial and ethnic-minority literature studies and an important early Chicano-movement poet. He was an expert on the works of Shakespeare and the Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Arteaga was interested in the collisions of different cultures and the resulting mixtures. His early focus on the Renaissance eventually merged with his later work on Chicano literature, particularly the merging of Western and indigenous influences in the Americas after European colonization as reflected in language and literature. His studies and teaching focused on the contributions of contemporary Chicano literature and music to American culture. He drew attention to the hybrid culture of Chicano writers by focusing on their hybrid use of language.
“He was really a Renaissance man,” said Laura Pérez, associate professor of Chicano and ethnic studies. “But in contrast to most people, he not only mastered a European education but had a profound knowledge of indigenous traditions, philosophies, and aesthetics of the pre-Columbian world.”
Arteaga’s most recent book of poetry, Frozen Accident (2006), “is absolutely brilliant and his masterpiece,” Pérez said. “It’s very bold, daring, and successful.” In the book, Pérez said, Arteaga stages a conversation between Western and pre-Columbian schools of thought around the meaning of life, the possibility of truth, and the uncertainty of the afterlife, concluding that art and poetry triumph over nihilist philosophy and are the closest we can come to obtaining truth. “I feel that his work is an embodiment of that,” she said. “He infused his insights as an artist into his studies as a scholar.”
Arteaga won several awards, including the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence in 1998 for his book of essays House With the Blue Bed (1997). He also received a National Endowment for the Arts creative-writing fellowship in poetry in 1995.
Besides Frozen Accident, Arteaga published four other collections of poetry, Zero Act (2006), Red (2000), Love in the Time of Aftershocks (1998), and Cantos (1991). His poem “Corrido Blanco” from Cantos was memorialized as part of the Berkeley Poetry Walk, a collection of poems set in cast-iron panels in the sidewalk on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. A sixth collection of Arteaga’s poetry will be published posthumously, Pérez said. Arteaga also published a book on literary theory, Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities (1997) and edited An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands (1994), a collection of essays.
Arteaga was born in 1950 in Los Angeles. He received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Columbia University in 1974, and a master’s degree and doctorate in literature from UC Santa Cruz in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Before coming to Berkeley in 1990 he was an assistant professor of English at the University of Houston for three years.
In 1999, Arteaga suffered a massive heart attack and spent six weeks in a coma. He recovered, but had another heart attack in 2005. In 2006 he traveled to Thailand, where doctors cultivated Arteaga’s stem cells from his blood and injected them into his heart in an experimental procedure that was an alternative to a heart transplant. His family and friends organized several poetry-reading benefits for this procedure.
Arteaga is survived by his daughters, Marisol Arteaga and Xochitl Arteaga of Los Angeles and Mireya Arteaga of Aptos; sisters Tisa Reeves and Rebecca Olsen of San Jose; mother Lillian Wilding of San Jose; and two grandchildren.
A campus memorial service is being planned for the early fall.
— Rachel Tompa