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Fernando Alegria, 87, Chilean Exile Raised the Profile of Latin Writers

November 23, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Fernando Alegria, the Chilean-born author and former Stanford University professor who pioneered the study of Latin American literature in the United States, has died. He was 87.

Alegria died Oct. 29 at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif., of kidney failure, according to his daughter Isabel.

Best-known for his novels, literary criticism and poetry, Alegria also served as Chile's cultural attache in Washington, D.C., from 1970 to 1973. He was appointed by Chilean President Salvador Allende, a longtime friend who became the subject of Alegria's novel based on the president's life and violent death. "Allende: Mi Vecino, El Presidente" was released in the U.S. in 1993 under the title "Allende: A Novel."

Alegria was banned from Chile when Allende was assassinated and his government overthrown in a 1973 military coup. The writer spent the rest of his life in the United States, where he became a citizen, although he often visited Chile after 1987, when he was allowed back into the country.

Throughout his teaching career, Alegria developed original courses about Latin American authors, including several on Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He often took part in seminars about Latin writers and edited several collections of their works, including "Chilean Writers in Exile: Eight Short Novels" (1982).

"Fernando Alegria was very important in integrating Latin American literature into academic studies in the U.S. at a time when 'Latin' meant the literature of Spain," said Adan Griego, curator for Latin American, Mexican American and Iberian Collections at the Stanford University Libraries, where Alegria's papers are housed.

Several of Alegria's books attracted wide attention. "My Horse Gonzalez" ("Caballo de Copas") is a humorous novel about a Chilean jockey who immigrates to the U.S. The book, which captures some of the author's passion for horse racing, was published in Spanish in 1957 and later translated into English. It won several literary awards in Chile.

Alegria also wrote critical studies on the influence of Walt Whitman and German-born novelist Thomas Mann on Latin writers. Alegria's "Brief History of the Latin American Novel" ("Breve Historia de la Novela Hispanoamericana") was published in Spanish in 1959 and updated several times.

Along with his personal collection of 5,000 books, Alegria gave Stanford his correspondence, including letters from Neruda, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa.

There is also a note from U.S. poet Allen Ginsberg, whose best-known poem, "Howl," Alegria translated into Spanish.

Born in Santiago, Alegria came to the United States after graduating from the University of Chile.

He earned a master's degree at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1941 and a doctorate at UC Berkeley in 1947.

Alegria joined the faculty at Berkeley as an instructor that year and rose to the level of full professor by 1964, teaching Spanish and Portuguese.

He moved to the Stanford faculty in 1967 and retired in 1988.

In addition to Isabel, of Berkeley, Alegria is survived by children Carmen, of Palo Alto; Daniel, of Portola Valley, Calif.; and Andres, of Pinole, Calif.; as well as nine grandchildren.

His wife, Carmen Letona, died in 1994.

Contributions in his name may be made to La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705, or the Western Institute for Social Research, 3220 Sacramento St., Berkeley, CA 94702.

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