the distinguished professor

Prolific University of Houston professor wins prestigious $650,000 "genius" grant

Prolific University of Houston professor wins $650,000 "genius" grant

Cristina Rivera Garza university of houston
UH's Cristina Rivera Garza is a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship winner. Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

A prolific fiction writer and award-winning University of Houston academic has just received a major accolade. Distinguished professor Cristina Rivera Garza has been awarded a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship — dubbed more casually as a “genius” grant of a hefty $625,000 — the university announced.

The grant is a no-strings-attached gift “to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards the grants each year. Rivera Garza is one of just 21 nationwide individuals to receive the fellowship grant.

Rivera Garza is founder and director of the UH doctoral program in Hispanic Studies with a concentration in creative writing in Spanish.

“This is an incredible — and quite unexpected — honor. I am suddenly short of words,” said Rivera Garza in a statement. Amusingly, Rivera Garza told Andrew Dansby of the Houston Chronicle that she didn’t take the MacArthur call at first Tuesday morning because she didn’t recognize the number. She received an email asking for information about another candidate. “So I finally answered, and they delivered the news. It was quite a shock,” she said.

She  joins Rick Lowe, a UH professor of art who earned the fellowship in 2014, as the two MacArthur Fellows on faculty at UH. MacArthur Fellowships are among the most prestigious and generous awards given to those who have demonstrated extraordinary talent and dedication in academia, writing, music, film, and other creative fields, UH notes.

The majority of Rivera Garza's creative works are in Spanish but were written in the United States, where she has lived for more than 30 years. She earned her doctorate in Latin American history from the University of Houston in 1995 and was awarded an honorary degree from UH in 2012, according to UH. Rivera Garza joined the University of Houston faculty in 2016 and founded UH’s Spanish-language creative writing concentration in 2017. She leads the program as its director.