The Bridge Theatre Company’s production of Wives of the Dead by Todd Hearon (GRS’02) starts February 8 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Week of 1 February 2002 · Vol. V, No. 21


Search the Bridge

Contact Us


From assembly line to poetic line
Literary tour strengthens U.S.-Honduran ties

By David J. Craig

Tino Villanueva, a CAS preceptor in modern foreign languages and literatures and an award-winning poet, recently returned from a trip to Honduras that one reporter there called "as important as the first cultural mission to Honduras by a group of U.S. archaeologists in the early 1950s."


Tino Villanueva Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Villanueva (GRS'81) traveled in early January to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, to participate in a gathering of noted American and Honduran poets and novelists at the embassy residence of U.S. Ambassador Frank Almaguer. The theme of the evening was Multiculturalism and Literature, with approximately 90 people in attendance, including college deans and provosts, politicians, and artists.

"I heard over and over again that these kinds of events should happen more often," Villanueva says. "The chief function of our embassy in Honduras is to help protect American business interests, but I think they should work to promote more cultural gatherings like this one."

Villanueva presented a reading from his book-length poem in five parts, Scene from the Movie Giant, winner of a 1994 American Book Award. In the scene, a Texas rancher named Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) has a fistfight with a restaurant owner who refuses to serve a family of Mexican immigrants. The series of poems recalls Villanueva's awakening awareness of prejudice as he watched the 1956 film in a theater when he was 14.
"Tino's presentation was the highlight of the evening," says Carlos Bakota, first secretary and press attaché at the embassy. "Our ambassador was very moved by his readings."

Also during the Honduras trip, Villanueva joined his friend and fellow poet, José Cuervo, and two Honduran writers, novelist Roberto Quesada and poet Claudia Torres, to present readings of their work at a cafe. The next morning they held a poetry workshop at Casa Alianza, a school for troubled teenagers.

The Honduran news media gave all the events extensive coverage. One reporter, making no attempt to hide his skepticism, goaded Villanueva about his attempt to introduce poetry to the adolescents, many of whom used to sniff glue and live on the street.

"Some people had given up on these kids," Villanueva says. "Once we were in class, the reporter asked me, 'What do you expect to achieve today?' I said, 'You never know. Look at their faces. I was once their age and sat in a little classroom, and maybe I didn't like poetry then, but I turned out to be a writer. And there's no reason why one of these kids years from now won't be giving a reading of his work."

Villanueva can relate to disadvantaged youths. A third-generation American of Mexican descent, he was born in San Marcos, Tex., to a family of migrant workers and began picking cotton when he was seven years old -- an experience he would later describe in his poetry. As they traveled to follow the harvest season, which varied across the state from October through February, his parents enrolled him in different public schools so he could keep up with his grade level. But the constant moving affected his performance. High school teachers encouraged him to learn a trade, such as auto mechanics or carpentry. After he graduated, he began working at a furniture factory, which had just moved into town from San Antonio in 1960. Its arrival, he says, was akin to an industrial revolution for San Marcos.

"It was a providential thing," he says, "because it broke the migrant cycle of many families. The factory employed a lot of Mexican-Americans. When you depend on picking cherries or cotton, you're at the mercy of the weather -- when it starts raining you're not earning any money. The farmer doesn't want you to pick wet cotton because he can't take it to the gin that way, so you have to wait half a day for the sun to come out. Working at the factory, I was in heaven. I mean, you've got to put it in perspective: when it rained outside I was still earning money, and President Kennedy had just signed the minimum wage law, bringing it up from $1 an hour to $1.25."

Even so, Villanueva hoped to take a civil service exam so he could get a job as a postal worker. A major hurdle was the vocabulary section of the test. For more than three years he collected unfamiliar words he heard on television or read in the newspaper, jotted them in a tiny green notebook, and committed their definitions to memory. He carried the book with him to work every day and studied the words while putting together three-drawer chests, chairs, and mirror frames on the assembly line. "It became like a doctrine," he says. "My self-esteem improved, and suddenly I wasn't the same person anymore."

Later he recounted that experience in "Convocation of Words," a poem published in his 1994 volume Chronicle of My Worst Years (Northwestern University Press).

Before Villanueva could take the civil service exam, he was drafted into the Army, in 1964, and worked as a supply clerk in the Panama Canal Zone, where he befriended a Panamanian who recited Spanish poetry from memory. Villanueva became a voracious reader of Hispanic literature, memorizing the work of poets such as Ruben Dario and Cuban revolutionary José Martí.

Two years later, in 1966, he returned briefly to the furniture factory before attending Southwest Texas State University on the G.I. Bill. A freshman at age 24, he majored in Spanish with a minor in English. He continued his studies in Spanish literature in graduate school, earning a master's at SUNY-Buffalo, where he met Cuervo, and a doctorate at BU.

A veteran of the Chicano literary renaissance of the 1970s, Villanueva is the founder of Imagine Publishers, Inc., and the editor of Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal. He also paints; his mixed-media work has been exhibited in El Paso, Tex., and Boston as well as in Germany, and has graced the covers of numerous magazines and literary journals.

Villanueva has given talks at a number of U.S. high schools, and during last month's literary events in Tegucigalpa, he was moved by the responses of the Casa Alianza students to his poetry lesson. The youths asked him for autographs and presented him with a mural of their city that they had painted on canvas duck cloth.

Such gestures are encouraging, he says, for it shows that all teenagers really need is a teacher to inspire them to take some direction -- whether it's literature, computers, or geography.

Fortunately, he had been able to find a direction on his own.

"At one time I thought I was a pretty good sandlot baseball player," he says. "I thought I had a pretty good curveball and knuckleball, and I thought the scouts would come knocking on my door, but they didn't. It wasn't baseball that saved me -- it was words."


1 February 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations