Alfred Arteaga (1950-2008)

Poet, teacher, advocate, and friend Alfred Arteaga passed away on July 4th. Loved ones celebrated his life and work at a memorial service this past Saturday. Those of you who had the pleasure of crossing his path at UC Berkeley know what a humorous and caring person he was. He will most certainly be missed.

Here is the obituary released by the campus.

Poet Alfred Arteaga, professor of Chicano and ethnic studies, dies at 58

By Rachel Tompa, Media Relations; 11 July 2008

BERKELEY – Alfred Arteaga, renowned poet and professor of Chicano and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, died on July 4 of a heart attack at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara. He was 58.

Arteaga 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 originally joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1990 as an assistant professor of English and was tenured in the Department of Ethnic Studies in 1998.

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 at UC Berkeley. “But in contrast to most people, he not only mastered a European education, but he had a profound knowledge of indigenous traditions, philosophies and aesthetics of the pre-Columbian world.”

Arteaga’s most recent book of poetry, “Frøzen 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.”

On a personal level, Arteaga was a warm man, Pérez said. “He was a very beautiful, very large- hearted, generous human being. He was loved and respected by his students as a caring mentor and by his colleagues as a collegial man with an easy laugh.”

Beatriz Manz, chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, agreed. “He always seemed to have a permanent smile on his face,” Manz wrote in an e-mail. “His students loved him. His office was a few doors away from mine, and I always had to contend with students sitting on the floor outside his office and maneuver walking over a dozen stretched-out legs.”

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 “Frøzen 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 the city of 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 began writing poetry at the age of 8, said his daughter, Mireya Arteaga. His love of music and his passion for the written word were always entwined, she said.

Pérez said Arteaga had many interests outside of poetry – he loved to travel and spoke and read many languages, including Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Latin. His daughter said he was well-versed in every topic she could think of. “There wasn’t a question I could ask him that he didn’t know the answer to, from cars to language to travel to food to foreign language to science to geography to current events to movie trivia,” she said. “Not once in my 29 years of life, or my sisters’ 30-plus years, did we ever stump him.”

Alfred 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 UC 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.

2 thoughts on “Alfred Arteaga (1950-2008)

  1. Alfred was a beautiful person. I’m not sure this will quite get to the root of that, but I’ll try. I don’t know how our generation of academics will turn out, but Alfred’s generation at Berkeley (and it seems funny to say that, he was only three years older than I am, but I got a late start), even the best of them, they were good mentors and fine scholars, but there was often an invisible barrier between them and us. Not with Alfred … wherever he was, he was “with” the people.

    Let me put it this way, and anyone who has ever had to write an acknowledgments page will know what I mean. For my dissertation, I thanked the people on my committee, I thanked my friends in my diss group, I thanked the woman who first got me started writing … heck, I even thanked the Human Relations Supervisor who convinced me to leave the factory after ten years.

    I finished off by thanking the various scholars who had helped me when they didn’t need to … people like Mike Rogin and Julian Boyd. But there were two professors I mentioned who I thought of as a kind of pair, although for all I know they never met. Francine Masiello was simply the best professor I ever had, and the best mentor who ever came from outside my program and still kept an eye on me.

    The other person was Alfred. Because whenever he was around, I felt like there might be a place for me, too. We didn’t study the same things, I never took a class from him, never worked with him. But he was an icon to me, he always had time, he was always willing to take the extra step … and yes, he was at times a bit of a pain in the ass to UC, which of course made me love him all the more. He will be missed.

  2. Thank you for remembering my dad, reading these descriptions about him remind me how many friends he made over his lifetime.

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