Alfredo Matilla, Former UB Professor, Poet and Novelist, Dies at 63

Release Date: April 16, 2001

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A renowned poet and playwright of the Puerto Rican diaspora will visit the University at Buffalo in May to commemorate the life and work of scholar, poet and novelist Alfredo Matilla, Ph.D., who for 23 years was a professor in the UB Department of American Studies.

Matilla, a UB faculty member from 1972-95 and chair of the Department of American Studies from 1991-95, died March 29 in Puerto Rico. He was 63.

The presentation by Pedro Pietri, "A Celebration of the Life and Work of Alfredo Matilla Rivas," will take place at 2 p.m. on April 25 in Room 330 of the Student Union on the UB North (Amherst) Campus.

Pietri, author of scores of books of poetry and more than 25 plays, represents one of the most original voices in the Puerto-Rican experience, as well as one of the most unique expressions of contemporary literature.

He came to prominence in New York City during the 1960s as one of the great voices of the "Nuyorican" movement, made up of writers whose work critically examined the place of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics and Latinos in what Pietri termed "this department store/called america."

Matilla championed Pietri's work when it was still considered marginal and translated much of it from English and "Spanglish" -- the languages in which Pietri wrote -- into Spanish, helping Pietri develop a wide audience in Puerto Rico. Matilla was the co-author of "The Puerto Rican Poets" (Bantam, 1972), which included Pietri's work; "Illusions of a Revolving Door: Plays by Pedro Pietri" (University of Puerto Rico Press, 1992); two book-length translations of Pietri's writing, and a number of journal articles and academic-conference presentations that considered his work.

At the time of his death, Matilla was a professor of English and Spanish at the University of Puerto Rico. He was the well-established and critically recognized Latin-American author of

several books, including a historical/biographical chronicle, "El Espanolito y el espia" ("The Spaniard and the Spy"), cited by literary critics as one of the most important books of 1999 by a Latin-American author. At the time of his death, he was at work on a sequel, "El Espanolito en Nueva York" ("The Spaniard in New York").

He also was a nationally known poet and short-fiction writer and served as a producer, writer, actor and consultant for 15 short independent films.

Among his edited works was a collection of theater criticism by his father, Alfred Matilla Jimeno, a classical musician who, along with Picasso and Pablo Casals, was a leading exile from Spain after the Spanish Civil War. His father later became a member of the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico and was a leading theater critic in Puerto Rico.

Matilla was the co-founder and sub-director of the National Center for the Arts in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and served on the editorial board of several Latino and Chicano- or Hispano-American literary publications.

Michael Frisch, professor of history at UB and a longtime colleague, praised Matilla as "a scholar of integrity distinguished by his creativity, clear intelligence and fine sense of humor."

Matilla often said he was Spanish by birth, but Puerto Rican by choice. He earned his doctorate in Spanish literature magna cum laude in 1967 from New York University and held a master's degree from New York University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Puerto Rico, both cum laude.

After teaching briefly at Long Island University, Vassar College, Goucher College and Brooklyn College, he joined the faculty of the UB American Studies Department in 1972.

"He was a fine teacher, very devoted to his students," Frisch said. "His writing and scholarship earned him international recognition, particularly as a poet, novelist and a scholar of the Puerto-Rican diaspora, the role of Latinos in the United States and Spanish Civil War exiles in the Caribbean and the U.S.

He served UB in many capacities -- as director of the graduate program in Puerto Rican studies, director of the Overseas Academic Program in Puerto Rico, chair and director of the graduate program of the Department of American Studies and adjunct professor of the Bilingual Program in the School of Educational Studies, now the Graduate School of Education.

Frisch added, "He also devoted a great deal of time to university service." He noted Matilla's work with the Poets in the Schools Program sponsored by the just buffalo literary center and his co-direction of the innovative summer institute in American history for high school teachers sponsored at UB from 1991-93with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

"In addition to that," Frisch said, "Alfredo was the godfather of a generation of Puerto-Rican community leaders in Buffalo."

He had been a member of the Committee on Hispanic Affairs in the State of New York, a member of the Western New York Hispanic Arts Advisory Council, co-founder of the Latin Artists' Coalition, contributing writer to the Western New York Spanish-language weekly "El Hispano," director of the Latino Theater Workshop, a volunteer weekly lecturer on Puerto Rican culture and literature at the Attica State Correctional Facility and an instructor in the American Studies Master of Arts Program at the Auburn Correctional Facility.

Janine Santiago, a UB doctoral candidate whose academic work was supervised by Matilla during his time here, called this a sad and painful time.

"I will miss his laughter, criticism and undivided attention," she said. "(He) traveled through life enjoying the glory of the world. UB has lost a great scholar. I have lost a dear professor and a dear friend."

Matilla is survived by his wife, Luz Myriam Tirado, associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, and two sons, Alfredo, 24, and Diego, 19.

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