Manuel Rojas

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Manuel Rojas was born on January 8, 1896, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; he died on March 11, 1973, in his adopted homeland, Chile. His family moved to Chile in 1899 and from then until 1922 they wandered back and forth between Chile and Argentina, working a variety of jobs to earn a meager living. He probably settled permanently in Chile in 1924. In 1927, he published his first collection of short stories, Hombres del Sur, which included the story "El vaso de leche" ("The Glass of Milk").

It was about this time that Rojas became associated with the political group called the Anarchists, who opposed the oppressive Chilean government. He wrote articles for the Anarchist newspapers, La Batalla (in Chile) and La Protesta (in Buenos Aires, Argentina). The Popular Front political party took control of the government in 1936. In 1938 Rojas published a collection of essays, De la poesía a la revolución (From Poetry to Revolution), many of which were written during the struggles with the government in the 1920s and early 1930s.

From then until 1951 Rojas did not publish anything in book form, concentrating on making contributions to the journal Babel. His most influential novel, Hijo de ladrón (literally "Son of a Thief," but published in English as Born Guilty in 1955) was published in Santiago de Chile. This novel draws heavily on his childhood experiences when his family wandered from town to town looking for work and food. In it he looks at the plight of the poor and indigent peasants who lived at the bottom of South American society at that time. His protagonist Aniceto is the son of a common thief and it is he who bears the weight of his father's crimes. The police and others in the story expect him to have adopted his father's illegal lifestyle. This novel, along with Lanchas en la bahía (1932) and Mejor que el vino (1958), form an autobiographical trilogy and are thought to be his best and most important works.

Rojas is thought by many critics to be the best Chilean writer of the first half of the twentieth century, if not the best of all time. His output includes poetry, short stories, essays, and novels. These works look sympathetically at the lives of the people in Chile during Rojas' lifetime. He takes a compassionate look at thieves, bums, and other members of the lowest stratum of society. He does not glorify their lives nor does he condemn them.

His short story "El vaso de leche" ("The Glass of Milk") is a tightly written tale that draws the reader into the complexities of the issues raised in it. It is one of his most widely anthologized stories. The main character is a youth who is out of work and very hungry, much like the protagonist in Hijo de ladrón. As in his novel, there are no simple answers to the questions posed by the situations encountered in the story. Rojas lets the reader arrive at the answers.

Rojas received several awards during his lifetime, including the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 1957.

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