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National Book Award winner Victor Martinez dies at 56

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By Valerie J. Nelson
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 9:36 PM

Victor Martinez, who won the 1996 National Book Award for young people's literature for his semi-autobiographical novel about growing up Mexican American in California's Central Valley, died of lung cancer Feb. 18 at his home in San Francisco. He was 56.

The cancer was related to juvenile papillomavirus, which first struck him as an adolescent. Doctors linked the virus to growing up around pesticides, his family said.

The fourth of 12 children of migrant farm laborers, Mr. Martinez was born Feb. 21, 1954, in Fresno, Calif. As a child, he worked in the fields after school and during summers.

He was taking vocational classes to be a welder when a high school teacher noticed his passion for reading and helped push him to attend California State, Fresno through a program for Latino youths.

He earned a bachelor's degree in English and studied creative writing on a postgraduate fellowship at Stanford University.

For a decade, Mr. Martinez drove a truck and worked a variety of jobs before saving enough money to turn to writing full time.

While teaching poetry in junior high schools, he recalled his own struggle at that age to find his voice, literally and spiritually, and decided to write a coming-of-age novel. He had published a book of poems, "Caring for the House," in 1992.

At 14, he was unable to speak after the virus caused growths on his vocal cords, a condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. When he regained his voice after two years, he spoke with a rasp.

His first novel, "Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida," was about a 14-year-old Mexican American boy growing up in the projects of an unnamed city in the Central Valley. The title refers to a Mexican story about a bird that complains how hot it is in the shade, not realizing that it is in an oven.

He often said the book was partly based on his life.

When he won the National Book Award, judges called "Parrot" a "spirited novel of awkward love, ugly schools, neighborhood feuds - the stuff of a scruffy adolescence. . . . strikingly authentic literature of poor people."

The award "gave me a career," Mr. Martinez told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. The prize of $10,000 was more than he had made the previous year.

Mr. Martinez contributed to journals and anthologies and wrote two novels that remain unpublished.

Survivors include his wife, Tina Alvarez; five sisters; and six brothers.

- Los Angeles Times

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