José Antonio Villarreal: Pioneer of the Chicano Novel
California State University, Los Angeles
José Antonio Villarreal (1924-2010) was a Mexican American writer who published three novels and many short stories in different anthologies throughout the past 50 years. His first novel Pocho was released in a hardcover edition by Doubleday in 1959. Don José, as we called him affectionately, published The Fifth Horseman in 1974, and Clemente Chacón in 1984, novels which spotlight the life of Mexican families during the 1910 Mexican Revolution, or on the U.S.-Mexico border in modern times. Don José passed away near his beloved Mt. Shasta on January 13, 2010. His wife Barbara will host a June celebration for don José that includes family and close friends.
I first met José Antonio Villarreal in Los Angeles in 1973. I was a graduate student at UCLA and had selected the paperback edition of Pocho (1970) as a reading assignment while tutoring Chicana inmates detained at Corona Institute for Women. I had sent Villarreal a letter suggesting I work on a Spanish translation of Pocho and his response, written in a graceful and ornate script, was prompt: he informed me that if he needed a Spanish translation of his novel that he would do it himself. Shortly afterward a brief note arrived in the mail asking me to meet him at his sister’s house in Los Angeles. I accepted the invitation.
On our first meeting, I saw Richard Rubio in the adult Villarreal: contemplative, observant, a chain-smoker. I also noticed that on a nearby table stood a bottle of tequila; before our meeting, Villarreal had enjoyed half of its contents. In a semi-humorous tone, he pointed with a smoldering cigarette to the memory of several boxes with copies of the hardcover edition of Pocho he had stored in his garage for many years. Doubleday had paid him in part with hundreds of unsold copies of Pocho. After giving away free copies to neighbors and to most of his family, one day he ordered the remaining boxes to be disposed by the garbage collector. We did not talk about the translation, but I got the point. It was evident he didn’t think there would be any interest in Pocho in the Spanish-speaking world; after all, hardly anybody had noticed in the United States. Nobody had any interest in literature that represented Mexicans in the United States, he argued; besides, Villarreal’s mind was on other, more important projects: he was waiting for the publication of his second novel, The Fifth Horseman, where he recounted the life background of Heraclio Inés (known in Pocho as Juan Rubio), and the national conditions that led to the 1910 Mexican Revolution. He assured me that this was his best novel yet. We drank another glass of tequila and continued with our conversation. I would have to wait until the summer of 1993 for the opportunity to translate Pocho. Meanwhile things were turning hazy around me as I listened and sipped tequila, so I rushed a few questions.
Villarreal informed me that his decision to be a writer was reached shortly before graduating with a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley in 1950. His plan was to write a cycle of four novels—he referred to it as a tetralogy—that would constitute a vast social landscape depicting the dispersion of a Mexican family through three generations, illustrating various modes of acculturation to urban life in the United States. As I would soon learn, the term “tetralogy” derives from Greek drama, and refers to three tragedies and one satyr play staged during the festival of Dionysus. Villarreal had given me a clue to his narrative cycle: it included aspects of satire and tragedy in four interconnected narrative compositions. Evidently Pocho corresponded to the first tragedy in the narrative cycle, with satire forthcoming.
After the publication of The Fifth Horseman, Villarreal intended to write a third novel telling of Richard Rubio’s return from the Pacific after the Second World War, thus continuing with the semi-autobiographical design that shaped Pocho’s storyline. The third novel was to be called The Houyhnhnms (later renamed The Center Ring), after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a satirical novel in four parts that narrated voyages to remote nations around the world. In 1984, Villarreal published a third novel, Clemente Chacón, but it does not belong to the tetralogy. Of the four novels initially proposed, only the first two reached print. According to Barbara, don José’s wife, the completed manuscript of The Center Ring and several of his short stories remain unpublished.
In previous publications I have studied Villarreal’s narrative, its reception in Chicano literary criticism, and the difference in point of view between Pocho and The Fifth Horseman (Cantú 1985). In addition, I have examined Villarreal’s place in Chicano literary history; and have discussed questions regarding my translation of Pocho from English to Spanish (Cantú 1994). In both studies I contend that Villarreal’s work, particularly Pocho, has been misread by literary critics whose ideologically-confined approaches to narrative do not allow for Pocho’s singularity to appear in full form. When Villarreal made the decision to be a writer, the United States and the world for that matter were very different. Historical conditions changed once again in the 1970s when the Doubleday paperback edition of Pocho was released with a prologue by Ramón E. Ruíz. Ruíz stamped an approach to Chicano literature that was favored during the 1970s: impressionistic, ideological, reductive. It was at this time that I met Villarreal.
In what follows I examine the ways in which Pocho engages two fronts that are personified in the figures of a father (Juan Rubio) and his son (Richard), tacitly connecting questions of self, the nation’s frontiers, and world civilizations. Richard grows up in a multicultural, working-class neighborhood, with families having Portuguese, Spanish, Anglo American, Japanese, and Italian ancestries. Richard does not experience the world solely in a Mexican American barrio, a fact that adds a double dimension to the novel’s revisionary definition of an American hero, namely: the son of Mexican immigrants. First of all, the hero undergoes a transformation that takes him from the country to the city (therefore Pocho is the partial register of a larger narrative, continued in The Center Ring); second, the hero is now profiled against the prevailing prejudices on Mexicans at the time of the novel’s composition: instead of growing up in a monolingual world, his life-horizon is shaped by several languages and ethnicities, analogous to Sacramento’s interethnic setting in Ernesto Galarza’s Barrio Boy: The Story of a Boy’s Acculturation (1971). The hero’s native intelligence and desire to fashion a different self, however, will succumb to two cultures that work against him: the tradition-bound culture of rural Mexico, and the bigotry and racism he encounters in the surrounding Anglo American culture, also provincial. These forces will shape Richard Rubio’s own personal tragedy in Pocho.
In our age of globalism and corporate attempts to standardize cultures around the world to fit the American Dream, Pocho’s cosmopolitanism should be even more compelling than when Villarreal’s novel was first published almost fifty years ago. Arguably, Richard’s situation is not necessarily one of “infinite ways of being” (Breckenridge 12), particularly in the sense of ontological dispersion. On the contrary, Richard represents an ideal cognitive level individually attained in a multicultural and interlingual horizon, but taken away by the hard realities prevailing in the United States, especially for people of Mexican origin, before the Second World War. In After Babel, George Steiner illuminates this point as follows:
In certain civilizations there come epochs in which syntax stiffens, in which the available resources of live perception and restatement wither. Words seem to go dead under the weight of sanctified usage; the frequence and sclerotic force of clichés, of unexamined similes, of worn tropes increases. Instead of acting as a living membrane, grammar and vocabulary become a barrier to new feeling. A civilization is imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches, or matches only at certain ritual, arbitrary points, the changing landscape of fact. (22)
How is Richard’s native intelligence stimulated and stirred by a multicultural neighborhood? To what degree do the realities of racism and bigotry function as alienating forces that endow Richard’s personality with a dark side, as perceived by Zelda? What is clear is that Villarreal composed a novel that is critical of Mexican rural traditions (but not of metropolitan Mexican culture), and of anti-Mexican attitudes in the United States during the 1930s-1940s, finding its proper scope in a transnational horizon or interlingualism which, at the moment of its writing in the 1950s, no doubt galvanized Pocho against nationalisms on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. The force of Villarreal’s modernity is thus a negation of the term “Pocho” as an ethnic slur: to be a Pocho after reading Villarreal’s novel, does not signify one’s willful assimilation to the “white man’s” world; it means, instead, that one must undertake a path of discovery toward a greater sense of humanity when exposed to other world civilizations. The novel’s adoption of such a title, therefore, attests to its eccentric status and narrative singularity in the nationalist literary traditions of both the United States and Mexico. A war veteran of the Second World War, Villarreal must have felt uneasy in relation to any nationalist expression, no doubt associating it with totalitarian ideologies that he fought against during the war, or with cultural values that he found narrow and provincial.
II. On the Meaning of Pocho
The word “Pocho” appears only once in the novel: at the beginning of chapter 10, therefore near the novel’s conclusion. The occasion is Richard Rubio’s first meeting with Cirilo’s niece, Pilar Ramírez, who has just arrived from the ancient Mexican city of Cholula. The scene leans heavily on the side of irony: Cirilo has been introduced at the beginning of chapter 7, ready to move to Milpitas so he can keep his wife Macedonia and his niece Pilar from walking away with other men. “It is only in my own home,” Cirilo confides to Juan Rubio in front of Macedonia, “that I can protect them” (123). But this breach of etiquette only compounds an earlier embarrassment when Cirilo permitted Juan Rubio to make an “indecent” comment at his home in front of Macedonia:
“Pero, Cirilo,” he said, “why do you insist on living here in Alviso? Soon the rains will come, and once again you will be up to your colon in mud and water.”
“Ay, don Juan,” said Macedonia, in mild rebuke for his indecent metaphor.” (120)
There lurks in Juan’s phrase, obviously stated in Spanish but rendered in the novel in English, a homophonic association between the word “colon” and its Spanish equivalent, one that would allude to Nature’s way of “sodomizing” Cirilo. Functioning as a variant of the Mexican albur, Juan has verbally “dishonored” his host and friend, who nonetheless chooses to ignore Juan’s remark. The reader is left to wonder what Macedonia must be thinking, and yet there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that this cultural infraction will have foreseen consequences later in the novel.
There follows a dialogue between Juan and Cirilo meant for Macedonia’s ears: remembrances of rural life in Zacatecas, Mexico, where Juan used to maintain a diet of bull’s genital glands “roasted over an open fire” (125), or of rattlesnakes, to which Cirilo responds with a mixture of disgust, fear, and awe. The cultural associations are inevitable, with aphrodisiacs and icons of fertility easy to imagine (Cirilo had previously complained that he and his wife had not been blessed with children), and implicitly understood by Macedonia who looks directly at Juan during his anecdotes of life in Mexico told with a double-meaning (“her face expressionless, he felt a sudden quickening of his groin,” 123). Undeniably, Juan is true to his name as a Don Juan. However, instead of correcting Juan with courage and prompt resolve, Cirilo shames his wife in front of a friend, and soon pays dearly for this violation of marital trust. Juan had volunteered to help Cirilo build his adobe house; now with adultery in mind, Juan is ready to destroy his friend’s home. Soon thereafter, Juan shows up at Cirilo’s house when Macedonia is by herself. She greets Juan Rubio with a telling phrase: “I wondered how long it would take you to come” (135).
With the arrival of Juan Rubio and Richard at Cirilo’s house with the purpose of meeting Pilar, the reader notices that the narrative recapitulates episodes from previous chapters, preparing the ground for Juan’s direct experience of his dishonor and the collapse of his own household. It is not difficult to imagine the psychological tension between Macedonia and Juan Rubio, especially after knowing that Juan “had his eyes” on Pilar (165). With an understatement that seems more English than Mexican, Villarreal limits the meeting of the adult friends involved in a love triangle to a few lines: “The others talked among themselves, so Richard and Pilar were allowed to enjoy their conversation until it was time to leave” (165). Noticing that Pilar giggles when she listens to Richard’s Spanish, he identifies himself as follows:
“I am a Pocho,” he said, “and we speak like this because here in California we make Castilian words out of English words. But I can read and write in the Spanish, and I taught myself from the time I had but eight years.
‘It matters not,” she said. “I understand you perfectly well.” (165)
The omniscient narrator does not allow the reader to know Pilar’s point of view, but it must have been clear to her that Richard found her both interesting and attractive. Seen in this light, she understands Richard “perfectly well.” On the other hand, it is evident that Pilar does not see in Richard any attempt to deny his Mexican ancestry, nor a dialogue noted for its ungrammatical Spanish and “American” (taken as rude) manners, much less an arrogance toward Mexicans who do not speak English (in other words, various modes of behavior or expression that would justify the use of “Pocho” as an ethnic slur in Mexican/Mexican American encounters). In Richard’s commentary, “Pocho” remains defined by its language features, not by breaches of cultural etiquette. The reader, however, knows something that Pilar ignores: Richard’s eyes do not perceive Pilar for who she is; in a moment of dramatic irony, the reader sees in Richard a slight mix of incestuous confusion between Pilar and his own mother, and a fascination in his parents’ native culture (“He was seeing his mother as she had been long ago,” 164-165). Richard intends to see Pilar again, for he finds her “interesting and pleasant, and he liked her” (165). The reader is given a vantage point that reveals what Richard does not know at this juncture: that Juan Rubio also feels attracted to Pilar. In other words, Juan Rubio must have had identical thoughts when first meeting Cirilo’s niece: Juan was also seeing his wife as she had been long ago.
Thus, in his wish to protect both his wife and niece, Cirilo unknowingly welcomes the agent of his own dishonor. Juan Rubio will enjoy one, then the other. What follows in this same chapter is the breakdown of the Rubio household, Juan’s decision to leave his wife Consuelo, and the transfer of his love to Pilar, whom he will soon want to marry. As Richard discovers shortly before the novel’s conclusion, Pilar is pregnant with Juan Rubio’s child: “[Richard] thought of this unborn child and was jealous—a boy it would be, because things always happen like that” (185-186). Jealous, angry, and facing a collapsing household, Richard joins the war abroad, taking his internal conflicts with him.
One could propose at this point that Juan and Richard’s first meeting with Pilar creates situations of irony that are cumulative at two levels: first, this scene manifests its connectedness to preceding passages in the novel; second, the meeting with Pilar (translated as the young “pillar” that will be the foundation of the new Rubio household) forms an important stage in the narrative plot: the conflictive transition from the old world to the new. Juan Rubio’s transition, however, is only to a younger version of the old. He tried to be a modern urbanite but failed; therefore, his marriage to Pilar is intended as a return to old ways.
If we recall that it was precisely in Cirilo’s home—and after Cirilo’s open humiliation of his wife Macedonia—that Juan decides to be an “urbanite” in Santa Clara (123), we then begin to understand that Juan’s moral transgression, committed after he helps Cirilo build his adobe house, brings upon him an unexpected punishment: the collapse of his own household. It is in this same chapter that Luz, Juan Rubio’s daughter, returns home early one morning. Juan assumes she has spent the evening with her boyfriend, so he feels that his home has been dishonored. He will now destroy it with his own hands:
Juan Rubio rushed out the door and down into the cellar. From his tool closet he took an axe, and began first on the wine barrels and then on the shelves upon shelves of preserves, and when he was done destroying everything he had built or accumulated with his own hands, he walked into the house, a specter drenched in wine, purple and ominous. “Out!” he shouted. “Out, everyone, for I am going to destroy this cancer!” (166-167)
The reader is left with a sense that Juan Rubio—drenched in wine, purple and ominous as the god Dionysus--represents a singular case of a modern Mexican tragedy. The tremors that threaten to destroy Juan’s household are felt immediately after the scene with Cirilo and Macedonia: Richard was “aware that the family was undergoing a strange metamorphosis” (132). Sadness enters Juan’s heart, his children do not show any sign of respect, and one day “Juan Rubio cooked his own breakfast, and soon after he moved into another room” (134). This is the moment in the novel chosen by Villarreal to introduce his model of cultural transition and adaptation: “To be just, no one could be blamed, for the transition from the culture of the old world to that of the new should never have been attempted in one generation” (135).
The ambiguity works well: Juan’s loss is either determined by a logic of cultural adaptation to modern ways (e.g., there must be at least three generations for a complete transculturation), or it can be explained on moral grounds (Juan’s violation of his friend Cirilo’s honor and trust). On the other hand, perhaps there is no ambiguity: the dishonor brought on a friend’s home dramatizes masculine rituals that are a destructive force in any society, ancient or modern. The fact that Juan Rubio is a fair-skinned Mexican and Cirilo is an Indian from Cholula brings back echoes of a distant conflict: the Spanish Conquest. Juan wonders why Cirilo addresses him in a respectful manner (“usted”), while he responds in the familiar (“tú”). In these meetings between Mexican friends, the informed reader notices historical vestiges of a distant conquest that have determined colonial relations in Mexico for hundreds of years. Thus, when Juan Rubio enters Cirilo’s household, the colonial greetings resonate with forgotten but unresolved conflicts:
“Pass, don Juan. Pass into your house,” said a small dark man at the door. “What a miracle that you come to visit the poor!”
“The miracle, Cirilo, is that you find yourself at home,” said Juan Rubio, with a smile. The humorous greeting was traditional, almost as if by exaggerating their state they could make their poverty bearable. “ņCómo estás, Macedonia?” he said to Cirilo’s wife.
‘Muy bien, gracias a Dios, ņy usted, don Juan?”
It occurred to him that although these people were friends, he always spoke to them in the familiar, while they addressed him with respect. He felt a slight regret that this was so. (119-120)
It bears remembering that Villarreal’s reader must continuously shuttle back and forth between Mexican cultural traditions and the English language, at times capturing the syntax and idiom of the Spanish original in phrases that might seem awkward to a monolingual. When I began my Spanish translation of Pocho in 1993, Villarreal said to me: my characters will finally speak in their own language.
One should also note that Juan Rubio’s wife is of Maya ancestry, and that Richard takes after his mother (“All Indio, this boy of mine, she thought, except inside. The Spanish blood is deep within him,” reflects Consuelo ). During the 1950s, the Maya were viewed as artisans, architects, and great astronomers, therefore the opposite of the militaristic and sacrifice-driven Mexica (better known as the Aztec). But this is a projection into Mesoamerica of a European historical template based on Greek and Roman differences. Seen under this light, Richard’s artistic inclinations stem from his Mesoamerican, maternal origins. Cirilo’s fears, on the other hand, have a historical foundation that involves more than just a possible marital infidelity. To a man from Cholula, a criollo (someone with Spanish ancestry) like Juan Rubio would reenact an entire history of post-conquest Mexico in a northern California town that could be a symbol of Ancient Mexico: Milpitas. The implicit sacred corn functions as a synecdoche of an entire civilization, dishonored by Juan Rubio’s ancestors. The Rubio surname, meaning “blond” in Spanish, resonates with Pedro de Alvarado’s name in Nahuatl: Tonatiuh, the Sun God. Why doesn’t Cirilo consider the consequences of opening his home to someone like Juan Rubio? Married to a Maya woman, Juan Rubio is welcomed by Cirilo as a trustworthy friend. Cirilo, however, is mistaken.
As if by coincidence (but no doubt by authorial design), chapter seven—one that begins with Juan Rubio visiting his friend Cirilo--concludes with a critical discussion between Juan and his son Richard, with the young hero showing signs of intellectual rebellion against his father’s views, against Catholicism, and against Mexican colonial traditions. Unable to engage his son’s questions rationally, Juan apologizes to his son: “Forgive me that I cannot help you. I feel your problem, but I am not an educated one” (131), thus echoing Consuelo’s own regret in chapter three (“I am ashamed that I do not know what you ask,” 61). Ultimately, the world of Cirilo, Macedonia, Consuelo and, among others, that of Juan Rubio, is one of imprisonment “in a linguistic contour which no longer matches, or matches only at certain ritual, arbitrary points, the changing landscape of fact” (Steiner 22). Richard’s quest will follow a different path, one that will change the meaning of “Pocho” in a manner that has yet to be understood in Chicano literary criticism.
III. Tradition and Rebellion in Pocho
Richard’s birth is described in the closing moments of the first chapter, attended by omens, a mother’s trance, and a child’s first cry in the wilderness “where a dry river bed met a tributary of the Canal del Alamo” (28). From a literary point of view, this birth is portentous: it unveils a hero who will be a social outsider, with an origin identified by symbols of death (dry river bed) and life (the tributary), thus between the old and the new, with the old Zacatecas fused with the new land in his mother’s entranced mind (“in her mind she was back in an hacienda in Zacatecas, walking on a dry creekbed such as this,” 30). To any Mexican American born near a place with Alamo as a name, the historical associations are not difficult to fathom. In terms of literary affiliation, however, a birth in the wilderness—a phrase that one associates with the frontier, territorial expansionism, but also as a Transcendentalist word with meanings that range from personal freedom and an anti-institutional attitude, to a search for a new sacred—can be interpreted as suggesting an artist or writer’s birth.
These expectations—a social outsider, a hero caught in the conflict between the old and the new, and pulled by the weight of tradition and the forces of modernity--are confirmed in the novel, endowing the young hero with a destiny that moves forward with the force of rebellion. As such, Richard Rubio rises from Villarreal’s pages with the ancient features of an epic hero who is transitioning to the modern world fit for a novel’s protagonist. This paradigm of transition gives Pocho a textual memory of a bygone heroic age replaced by a modern, bourgeois era of the market and the self-made man. As every reader of Pocho knows, Villarreal’s story is a repudiation of the American tale of rags to riches; its hero, Richard Rubio—bibliophile, intellectually inclined, and critical of his surrounding world--embraces knowledge as a means to self-empowerment and transformation. Pocho is thus structured as the layered memory of a historical evolution from the world of the epic to that of the modern novel.
Pocho’s second chapter opens with Richard as a nine-year old crossing a cemetery covered with petals
of cherry blossoms, establishing a direct symmetry with the first chapter
(devoted to Juan Rubio) according to the cycle of seasons: in the first
chapter, winter and a falling snow; in the second, spring and falling cherry
blossoms that “floated down like gentle snow” (32). In their dramatic impact, both chapters symbolize a seasonal
change in Nature: from death in winter to its resurrection in spring.
In this opening scene, Richard has successfully gone through a Catholic rite of passage associated with an important threshold phase: his first confession. He carries two tokens of identity: first, a cap because, according to his father, it “was an essential part of a man” (33); second, Richard has just won a contest for being the first to learn his catechism and has a picture of the Virgin Mary; “as his first symbol of recognition, it gave him a pleasant feeling” (32). Richard is portrayed, however, as a frightened and yet happy child pleased that God has created the robin and the rabbit “with the ability to make play out of life” (32). The intellectual triumph, nonetheless, is accompanied by a fear of death: he has just confessed to the priest that he plays with himself because other kids, mostly Spaniards, discriminate against him. As Richard discusses his fears of damnation with his mother, she realizes that the phrase “play with himself” might mean something other than the innocent play of a child. What follows will be a continuous separation throughout the novel between the son and the mother, resulting in Richard’s lesson: never to trust an adult. Joe Pete Manõel is the exception, and that will be due to the manner in which he impresses the young Richard, who thinks Joe Pete knows everything.
Richard’s itinerary of personal growth, mental awareness, and a critical approach to worldly matters soon takes shape in the form of a rhetorical and iconographic subtext that originates in these early passages, identified with an orchard, a tree of knowledge, and a modern-day Adam known for transgressions, a lost innocence, and with being cast out of a Garden of Eden. Throughout the novel, Richard will be portrayed frequently next to a tree when meditating, crying, or discovering his calling, namely: to be a writer. The constant appearance in the narrative of the tree motif next to an inquiring and truth-seeking boy who loves books and spends most of his free time in the local public library, suggest the portrait of the young Mexican American Adam/Artist who must forge and recreate his own life.
In tracing the intellectual development of his young hero, Villarreal deploys a syncretic model that combines structural features from the Bible (e.g., Genesis) and Mesoamerica (e.g., the tree as axis mundi), thus developing an iconographic pattern in Pocho that will later appear in Chicano novels, from Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972) to Alfredo Véa’s Gods Go Begging (1999). One finds a total of seven references to various trees in Pocho, from cherry and oak trees to fig and walnut trees, constantly as an icon of knowledge, epiphanies, or the feeling of being cast away from “home,” so to speak. Spreading through the novel as a fan of arboreal allusions, Pocho opens with cherry trees associated with Mexican cemeteries (more so than a reference to segregation, the connection will be to Mexican Catholicism, Richard’s confession, and his fears of spiritual damnation); next, a giant oak tree presented as an axis mundi (“He stopped in the shade of a giant oak tree that grew in the center of the field,” 33); when Consuelo is about to give birth and, seeing her pain, Richard thinks “against God” and “walked away into an orchard. He began to think” (39). In Villarreal’s reworking of the story in Genesis, the transgression is not culinary (“Thou shall not eat”), but heretical: rebelling against God’s will. Admittedly, the passage involves a good degree of irony given that the reader glosses this passage as the boy’s total ignorance of the birth process; yet, more than just a boy’s ignorance, the overall arboreal pattern indicates the intellectual birth of the hero: he begins to think inside an orchard. This mental faculty can be read as the beginning of critical thinking in Richard.
The fourth reference to a tree is unspecified but it is found in Richard’s back yard, so one is led to assume it’s the fig tree. The scene introduces the element of the marvelous and fantastic: the return of the anguished dead who demand a proper burial, therefore an ancient cultural practice found in various world civilizations and presented dramatically in Sophocles’ Antigone, and in Euripides’ Medea and Electra (Edith Hall xxx-xxxi).
Richard was outside under a tree when it happened […] Don Tomás looked at him sadly, and his face was very white, because he did not have any blood. He did not talk and Richard did not talk, but he knew don Tomás wanted him to put him back in his grave. (Pocho 45, my emphasis)
The topoi of the garden, the orchard, and the tree—necessary referents in a rural setting—turn in Pocho into pastoral features that one associates with myths of creation, primal settings, and narratives that explain the beginning of a long process in human history, from the sacred to secularization. As if aware of the necessity to include the portrayal of a Genesis-like couple, the fifth reference to a tree takes us back to Richard’s back yard, but now in the company of his Anglo American friend, Mary Madison. Richard and Mary are associated with books, with learning, and with a love that is innocent. The spotlight falls on both characters when Mary visits Richard’s home for the first time:
They sat in the shade of a fig tree. “You know what?” said Richard. “I’m gonna write books when I grow up.” He immediately became embarrassed. “I never told anyone that before […] I want to write about donkeys, and say nice things about them, for a change. I save everybody at the end, though,” he explained, because he did not want to seem too unconventional. (74)
Language in Villarreal functions as a generative model of reality in Steiner’s sense: it allows the reader to understand the storyline at multiple levels, from the biblical to the pastoral, including questions of hierarchy and social inequality as projected in the world of horses and donkeys where the latter are mistreated and verbally abused as lazy, dumb, and ugly. Based on personal experience, Richard associates donkeys with Mexicans, an association that he will soon deal with courage and subversive resolve. Villarreal depicts literacy as providing the background for questions, self-examination, and criticism; as such, literacy allows one to question collective opinions that turn into political ideologies, ethnocentric prejudices, and repressive orthodoxies. Richard Rubio’s educational quest must therefore transcend two levels: first, his rural Mexican culture; second, the urban prejudices and “ethnic profiling” in the United States that he discovers among his neighbors (e.g., Mary Madison’s mother), police officers, and his elementary school teachers:
And the adviser in the high school, who had insisted he take automechanics or welding or some shop course, so that he could have a trade and be in a position to be a good citizen, because he was Mexican […} What the hell makes people like that, anyway? Always worried about his being Mexican and he never thought about it, except sometimes, when he was alone, he got kinda funnyproud about it. As he walked toward home with the guys, he thought about the things he had just discovered. He would never really be afraid again. (137)
Prior to this moment, Richard had witnessed a sudden rise in the arguments between his parents; his mother Consuelo becomes suspicious and jealous of Juan Rubio, so she asks Richard: “You must always tell me what he does” (94). Richard walks to the orchard and realizes that his self-mastery will only be possible when freed from darkness, ignorance, and the bonds of tradition. Thus, in the middle of the novel (chapter five, pp. 94-95), Richard locates himself at the center of an iconographic spot in the garden--a fig tree:
He thought of his sisters and saw their future, and, now crying, he thought of himself, and starkly, without knowledge of the words that would describe it, he saw the demands of tradition, of culture, of the social structure on an individual. Not comprehending, he was again aware of the dark, mysterious force, and was resolved that he would rise above it. It was nighttime, and black under the figtree where he lay, and he suddenly sat up and said: “ŃMierda! ŃEs pura mierda!” (95).
Exactly five chapters afterwards, Juan Rubio and Richard meet Pilar Ramírez in Cirilo’s household. At this point the iconographic and thematic threads that appear in the narrative at precise and meaningful junctures will converge in the symbolic destruction of an old world and the cutting of the umbilical cord, as it were, that will lead to Richard’s new world. Feeling dishonored, Juan destroys his home, runs away to Pilar’s side, a younger wife who reminded him of Consuelo “as she had been long ago” (165). Consuelo acts as if nothing has happened, pretends to be busy sweeping the house, no doubt thinking that her son will now replace Juan as the head of household. As Juan drives away to begin once again his new/old life, for Richard “the symbolism was so starkly real to him at that moment that he ran out the rear door, and, clutching at the trunk of the walnut tree, he uttered painful sobs until there were no tears left” (170). Read as a narrative sequence, these seven passages with references to various trees—cherry, fig, walnut, among others—symbolize the household setting of a modern Mexican American Adam who must accept and embrace his “cast away” condition, never to look back in nostalgia for a lost Eden. Such would be the meaning that illuminates the significance of the concluding lines in the novel that combine memory with a personal resolve to cut with the past: “He thought of this and he remembered, and suddenly he knew that for him there would never be a coming back” (187). As any reader of Pocho will recognize, this last phrase is deeply ironic for it repeats, almost verbatim, what Juan Rubio thinks as he walks into Cirilo’s bedroom prior to seducing his wife Macedonia:
Thus it was done, and for him there could be no going back. He had returned to former custom, and he would never be weak again, nor would he compromise another time. (136)
The wording is almost identical, and yet the motives are diametrically opposed. In trying to be an urbanite, Juan Rubio thinks he has failed: the “modernization” of his household brings anarchy and the loss of his patriarchal power. So he returns to former custom. Not so with Richard, who bids farewell to rural America and dreams of city life—and if one lives in Santa Clara, such a city can not be other than San Francisco. The difference is clear, I think, and this belief led me to translate the novel’s concluding sentence with the Spanish tradition in mind: “de repente imaginó que se sacudía el polvo del calzado en testimonio en contra de esa etapa de su vida que había caducado y se alegró al saber que jamás abría razón para regresar” (265). The association is deliberate with Saint Theresa’s farewell to her native town of Avila, shaking the dust from her sandals as a sign that she is not carrying anything that will remind her of home. This image is so well-known in the Spanish-speaking world that I assumed anti-clerical writers, including Villarreal, would not mind being next to such a saintly company.
IV. Pocho, Literacy, and Literary Tradition
Pocho dramatizes the attempts by both father and son to be modern urbanites in the United States in just one generation. After Juan Rubio decides to buy a home in Santa Clara, the omniscient narrator paraphrases Richard’s musing about the gains and loses:
Until now, Richard believed that someday they would live in Mexico, and he fancied himself in that faraway unknown. He realized that it would be difficult for him in that strange place, for although he was a product of two cultures, he was an American and felt a deep love for his home town and its surroundings. So when he was certain his family would remain, he was both elated and sad. Glad that he would be raised in America, and sad for the loss of what to him would be a release from a life that was now dull routine. Only through his books did he occasionally break the monotony. (129, my emphasis)
Villarreal’s narrator does not portray modernization as the total annulment of the past or of traditions; nor is it synonymous with “Americanization,” or assimilation, as understood by critics of Villarreal. On the contrary, modernity is defined as the dialectic between the living sap of tradition—hence not the mechanical and routine manner of living tradition--and the emerging historical forces. Villarreal knew that there lurks in the term “Pocho” an ethnic slur ready to be thrown on someone who willingly embraces change and adaptation to a “foreign” culture, nonetheless the historical evidence shows that every civilization has been the result of transcultural exchanges. A list of Richard’s favorite readings—from Cervantes to Voltaire and Dostoievski--indicates a worldly range that would serve as a symptom of Richard’s cosmopolitan inclination; on the other hand, Richard’s yearning for city life in Santa Clara can only have one metropolitan referent: the City of San Francisco, known for its international urban style and, in Pocho, a symbol of America’s future as a civilization. Opposed to the idea of “role models” from everyday life—Richard learns the lesson from Joe Pete, who insists that Richard think for himself—our hero engages different points of view in his many readings, thus learning to question his own assumptions while enriching his understanding of the bonds that link him to his family, society, the world and, ultimately, to himself:
I can be a part of everything, he thought, because I am the only one capable of controlling my destiny….Never—no, never—will I allow myself to become a part of a group—to become classified, to lose my individuality….I will not become a follower, nor will I allow myself to become a leader, because I must be myself and accept for myself only that which I value, and not what is being valued by everyone else these days…like a Goddamn suit of clothes they’re wearing this season or Cuban heels…a style in ethics. (152-153)
Read from the point of view of a veteran of the Second World War, the references to “followers” and “leaders” acquires significance in the context of what gave this war its reason for being, namely: the totalitarian politics of Italy, Germany, and Japan. The reader’s political imagination centers on Hitler as a Führer (leader), with the masses as benumbed followers. But there is more in Richard’s reflective monologue: it also includes the rising culture industry in the United States, with people turning from a tradition-oriented cultural ethos in rural areas to a modern inner-directed and other-directed lifestyles in metropolitan areas. This classification and theoretical model was proposed by David Riesman in his book The Lonely Crowd, a best-seller published in 1950 that enhanced the era’s understanding of modern changes in the social personality types in the United States.
When one reads Pocho next to Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (another “best-seller” published in Mexico in 1950), Villarreal’s insights and literary achievement are better appreciated. I am not necessarily interested in the question of “influences” and sources, but rather in the work of writers who lived and responded to their age in converging ways. Nonetheless, it is evident that when Villarreal wrote Pocho he had envisioned a working template that would inform his novel, especially in relation to the process of adaptation to the culture, and appropriation of the language, of the United States. Villarreal’s reference to the crisis in Juan Rubio’s household and its collapse, and to it being nobody’s fault “for the transition from the culture of the old world to that of the new should never have been attempted in one generation” (135), brings to mind David Riesman’s model of three social types, more so than U.S. sociological theories applied to immigrants of European origin. Riesman proposed a generational model of cultural change based on the transition from a rural to a metropolitan setting in the post-war United States, a model that corresponds to Pocho in several interesting ways.
In brief, Juan Rubio could be defined as tradition-oriented, but his son Richard—through his education, his internalized ethical standards that contravene traditional morality, and his insensitivity to public “shame” (“he would never be ashamed again for doing something against the unwritten code of honor,” 108)—fits the inner-directed personality type, albeit in a broad and general sweep. The other-directed, who feel anxiety—not shame nor guilt--for not being part of a group, ironically include the Pachucos whose group-orientation appears to be also repudiated by Richard:
In their frantic desire to become different, they adopted a new mode of dress, a new manner, and even a new language. They used a polyglot speech made up of English and Spanish syllables, words, and sounds. This they incorporated into phrases and words that were unintelligible to anyone but themselves. Their Spanish became limited and their English more so. Their dress was unique to the point of being ludicrous […] he felt that they were somehow reneging on life; this was the easiest thing for them to do. (149-150,151)
This portrayal of Pachucos is consistent with the one found in The Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz. One could propose, however, that the convergence of views on the Pachuco can be explained, not necessarily as proof of Paz’s direct “influence” on Villarreal’s novel, but as a generalized perception of Pachucos by writers and a growing middle class on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border during this period. On the other hand, one must recall that Paz ultimately agrees with the Pachuco’s refusal to embrace either the Mexican or U.S. cultural traditions. As Paz states at the end of his book’s opening chapter, Mexico and the United States do not have a culture of transcendence (as if to enrage nationalist Mexicans, Paz found a culture of transcendence in Republican Spain during the Civil War).
Be that as it may, a thorough research on the years that Villarreal was writing Pocho (1950-1953, for the first draft) would undoubtedly exhume among the findings the following historical facts. Villarreal was writing Pocho during the term of Miguel Alemán, President of Mexico between 1946-1952. As is well-known, the post-war years open with Mexico’s first signs of government-led industrialization, social diversification and the rise of a middle class, the era of the Golden Age in Mexican cinema--with its sentimental farewell to rural Mexico, coupled with a fascination with a developing Mexican urban culture—and, no less important, the emergence of literary masterpieces such as Pedro Páramo (1955), by Juan Rulfo, and La región más transparente (1958), by Carlos Fuentes, among others. The novels by Rulfo and Fuentes are now part of the Latin American literary canon, but at the time of their publication—which coincided with the publication of Pocho--Mexican readers considered such novels to be “difficult.” Mexico’s literary avant-garde, however—represented by Rulfo and Fuentes and Paz, to name a few—had complex origins in the literatures of Europe, the United States, and Mesoamerica. As such, modern Mexican literature was anti-nationalist and open to world literatures, leaving ethnic slurs such as “pocho” behind.
The question of literacy in Pocho is fundamental when discussing Richard’s subjectivity and its formation. Intellectual achievement is one of the first distinguishing marks in Richard’s life (e.g., the recognition award in learning the catechism), marked throughout the novel by references to Richard’s constant reading and the implicit manner in which such readings inform Richard’s behavior. Throughout most of the novel Richard is seen next to books with titles such as Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus (p. 40), Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Candide, Gone With the Wind, and unidentified novels by Blasco IbáĖez (103). Interestingly, Toby Tyler’s second chapter is titled “Toby Runs Away From Home.” Evidently, Richard’s readings turn into a sub-text that runs parallel to the narrative plot, throwing light on the storyline’s twists, on the constant doubling (for instance, the “twinning” of Richard next to his father, Joe Pete, and Ricky Malatesta), and character development. Indeed, reading books is an essential activity for Richard, becoming one of the few “customers” (69) in the public library besides Mary Madison. Richard’s love of books is a symptom of a desire to tear himself away from a confined existence:
“Mamá, do you know what happens to me when I read? All those hours that I sit, as you sometimes say, ‘ruining my eyes’? If I do ruin them, it would be worth it, for I do not need eyes where I go then. I travel, Mamá. I travel all over the world, and sometimes out of this whole universe, and I go back in time and again forward. I do not know I am here, and I do not care.” (64)
Richard’s quest, however, will find fulfillment in unexpected ways: instead of travel, he will soon join a distant war brought home. His destiny begins to change in chapter eight, where the reader finds father and son enjoying parallel lives: Juan Rubio seduces Macedonia, his friend’s wife; Richard, meanwhile, has agreed to marry Mary Madison but begins a love affair with Zelda. Both father and son are drawn into a world that takes away their sense of balance. We know that the structural beauty of tragedy is found on the stage with two characters, “each of them standing for an opposing set of values and actions” (Bate 160). Can we read Pocho as Villarreal suggested in 1973, as the opening work in a tetralogy with a tragedy—Mexican American in nature--at its core? Father and son are constantly sharing the same stage and do stand for an opposing set of values and actions. Be that as it may, Richard eventually cuts the link to his extraordinary birth and what it promised at the end of the opening chapter, becoming ordinary with the joys of lust and love.
He still felt the need for that unknown; that substantiality that had eluded men from the beginning of time, but it lost its importance for the present. He was young, and the time for the pursuit of the esoteric would come soon enough. When the day came that he married Zelda, he would be forced to find himself. (144)
The narrator is clearly spotlighting our hero’s capitulation to youthful pleasures, but aren’t we also being informed of Richard’s rationalization and postponement of what from the beginning was his personal search, namely: to rise above ignorance and the darkness that surrounded him? The implicit theme of a hero’s journey charts an important change in the narrative’s direction: the omniscient narrator reveals Richard in moments of self-betrayal. As we will see shortly, the concluding three chapters (9-11) mark the collapse of Juan’s household and the nervous breakdown of our young hero.
Chapter nine marks the darkest phase in
Richard’s on-going process of maturation, and therefore crucial to our
understanding of Villarreal’s novel. Juan Rubio’s house is a mess—and
part of the chaos is humorous. For
instance, instead of the original front lawn in the new house, “Juan Rubio had
planted a vegetable garden. There
were tomatoes there now, and chiles” (145). As in a David Lynch movie, the American Dream in Pocho has its own dark side as well: Juan’s new house is falling apart (“Trash
and garbage were on the floor; bedrooms were unkempt, with beds unmade,”146),
and the squalor is ominous: it
heralds Juan Rubio’s forthcoming flight away from his new home. Morally speaking, Juan Rubio is
no longer an authority in his own household. Richard, on the other hand, is portrayed as living the
American Dream: he is busy with
school, football practice, and his family has moved to a new house. No less important, he spends evenings
with his girlfriend Zelda, and Luz—an older sister--has begun dating.
Richard enters the house and begins to scream to his sisters ordering that they pick up the clutter and clean up, demanding that Luz be included in the household tasks. Luz, however, is in her boyfriend’s car, enjoying her own moments of lust and love, so she sends Rubio a message: “go to hell” (146). What follows includes unexpected forms of behavior in our young hero: Richard runs angrily outside the house, pulls Luz out of the car, and slaps her twice in front of her “big, powerful” boyfriend (147), who steps out of the car to defend Luz. Now to the unexpected part:
Richard backed away toward the yard next door and took a brick from an abandoned incinerator.
“Come on, you big son of a bitch,” he said, “Come after me and I’ll kill you!” The boy hesitated, then moved forward again. “That’s it,” said Richard, ”come on and get your Goddamn head busted wide open.”
The boy went back to his car. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. “Crazier’n hell!” (147)
That night the family has dinner together in “the old way” (147), afterwards Richard reads to his parents a Spanish translation of Dostoievski’s Crime and Punishment (147). We read that for two hours Juan and Consuelo follow Richard’s reading with brief exclamations of agreement. Since Richard’s choice of readings somehow throw light on his changing character through the progression of the novel, how can we find a connection between Dostoievski’s novel and Richard’s behavior, not to mention his parents’ exclamations of agreement? Anguished by changes in his native Russia brought by modernization, Raskolnikov—the protagonist in Crime in Punishment—finds in Alyona Ivanovna, the moneylender, a symbol of Russia’s growing emphasis on money. A college drop-out, Raskolnikov owes money, months of back rent, and so begins to plan the moneylender’s murder. He kills Alyona with an ax by crushing her skull. Not having an ax at hand, Richard grabs a brick and threatens Luz’s boyfriend with busting his head wide open.
Richard’s violent behavior, patterned after a character in a novel by a Russian novelist, is a symptom of a personal educational crisis caused by a total lack of guidance at home, the divisive racial bigotry that defines Richard’s social environment and, in a most telling manner, by his public school teacher:
She was only a short time out of normal school, but her ideals about school teaching had already disappeared, and she was pretty enough to have her fun whenever she desired. If these kids only knew, she thought, with a satisfied smile. (70)
Miss Moore’s attitude and tarnished pedagogical ideals represent the era’s U.S. public education. In 1968, thus nine years after the publication of Pocho, thousands of Mexican American students walked out of their campuses protesting an inferior education and demanding school reform. This historical event is known as the Chicano Student Walkouts. Richard Rubio, growing up in a different historical period, walked out of school in his own manner.
Richard befriends the Pachucos and his mounting anger and frustration find release in a gang fight (for Richard, “the finest moment of a most happy night,” 157). He will soon be dragged to the police station with friends from his old neighborhood. Richard discovers another side in the life of the Pachucos: one that is based on honor and courage. His neighborhood friends, however, disappoint him: they believe they have been carried to the police station due to “mistaken identity”; they are seen in Richard’s company:
Hearing about Mexican kids being picked up by the police for having done something had never affected him in any way before [..]. Now, for the first time in his life, he felt discriminated against. The horrible thing that he had experienced suddenly was clear, and he cried silently in his bed. (163)
This mood and frame of mind in Richard closes chapter nine; in the next chapter, we find him and Juan Rubio at Cirilo’s house ready to meet Pilar Ramírez. One can now understand the parallel views of father and son: when they meet Pilar, both feel a nostalgia for an earlier and less complicated past. As a younger version of Consuelo, Pilar represents what both have lost. We can now also return to Richard’s definition of “pocho” to understand both its semantic irony and the changes in Richard’s character: a “pocho” is someone who makes “Castilian words out of English words” (165). But as we know, this fits de narrator’s description of the Pachuco “polyglot speech”: “made up of English and Spanish syllables, words, and sounds” (149-150). As is well-known, Pachuco “language” has its own intonation, rhythm, and body movements: the Richard we meet in chapter ten has been impacted by the experiences in the previous chapter. Although Richard is not a Pachuco, his friends Rooster and Tuerto have left their mark in his character.
In the end, Juan and Richard gravitate along a downward spiral: the father watches with horror and rage the collapse of his household, and the son moves in the direction of a nervous breakdown: Richard will consider suicide while driving his friends to a local brothel (179). Ricky Malatesta’s remark that in the morning he plans on taking his girlfriend to mass confirms that language has “become a barrier to new feeling” (Steiner 22). The confusion in his mind is a microcosm of the world: it is at war and most of the Pachucos are enlisting. When Richard gets home and learns that Juan Rubio wants to divorce Consuelo so he can marry Pilar Ramírez, who is pregnant, Richard’s situation only grows more absurd. When he enlists in the Navy and swears that for him there will never be a coming back, one finds no reason to doubt his word.
Questions regarding form and narrative structure in Pocho have been posed by literary critics. For instance, chapters one and four—with Juan Rubio and Joe Pete as central characters, respectively—have been judged extraneous in a novel that should have limited its focus to only one protagonist: Richard Rubio (I question these views in 1985: 422). Although with hardly a reference to Joe Pete, I have herein examined the ways in which Villarreal’s novel achieves its artistic unity, the model of acculturation that informs it (old/new worlds), and a protagonist’s search for intellectual exemplars, mostly in literature. Joe Pete is admittedly a pivotal influence: he encourages Richard to think for himself. Thus conceived, Pocho’s narrative structure would lose its conceptual integrity without the opening chapter—with winter and death as Juan Rubio’s accompanying symbols—or the fourth, devoted to Joe Pete and his instructive dialogues with the young Richard.
Chicano novelists have begun to experiment with formal features and have produced narrative sequences similar to the ones we find in Pocho. To illustrate, consider chapter 15 in La Maravilla (1993), by Alfredo Véa. Composed of 16 chapters, and focused on the 9-year old Beto for the most part, La Maravilla unexpectedly introduces Beto as an adult Vietnam veteran who moves from one field of death (battlefields in Vietnam) to another (a cemetery in Arizona), in a simulated Day of the Dead in tribute to his grandparents. Thus, in chapter 15 Beto has grown to be a man who returns from a distant war; in the next chapter, Beto is once again a 9-year old boy being taken away by his mother to distant fields: the farms in California. In Latin America, readers who are familiar with Julio Cortázar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1965), know that its reading
begins in chapter 73 (as proposed by Cortázar in the novel’s front page).
Pocho is a novel that complies with most of the rules of realism, and yet the novel’s aesthetic disintegration in relation to its rhetorical and iconographic patterns (the tree, Richard Rubio’s list of readings, and so on), coupled with the apparent “dismemberment” of its chapters that seem to some readers as being adventitious to the narrative (such as chapters one and four), turn instead into symptoms of an avant-garde aesthetic that was latent in Villarreal’s early writing but did not fully develop in The Fifth Horseman nor in Clemente Chacón. Villarreal’s heirs in Chicano literature—from Alfredo Véa to Michael Nava and Helena María Viramontes, to name a few--have begun to experiment with narrative structure and continue to write transnationally, that is, beyond the United States. Significantly, these authors underscore the importance of language and experimentation with time and space; moreover, they include in their novels intertextual references to world writers (for instance, Dante in Nava’s novels, Aristophanes and Robert Frost in Véa’s), and favor a new America, less xenophobic, and thus committed to its democratic ideals.
The world that Villarreal envisioned fifty years ago in Pocho continues to haunt the best of Chicano novelists writing today. Admittedly, the work of these novelists has gone beyond Pocho in terms of formal innovations, and yet Villarreal’s first novel--with its inquisitive hero who is intellectually gifted, rebellious against tradition, critical of his immediate environment, and who seeks self-realization in a modern world--illustrates a Mexican American tragedy that retains to this day its narrative singularity in the developing Chicano literary tradition.
We thank José Antonio Villarreal for his narrative contributions to the literary history of Mexican Americans, Chicanas/os, and Latinos. We won’t forget him.
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Roberto Cantú and José Antonio Villarreal in a July 1994 reception in Tijuana (México) for the Spanish translation of Pocho (Anchor, 1994).
Left to right (back row): Eliud Martínez, Roberto Cantú, and José Antonio Villarreal, with Marisela Norte (front row) and students. In the background: Mt. Shasta. April 1993.
José AntonioVillarreal and Roberto Cantú, posing next to a bottle of Jim Beam near East L.A. Fall 1975
 Looking back at Chicano literary criticism on Pocho, Vernon Lattin summarizes as follows: “Pocho has been attacked as an assimilationist novel preaching integration, its author seen as a pocho himself who presents stereotypes of the Mexican-American people. The protagonist’s individualism has been seen as the author’s denial of el pueblo and his heritage. The novel needs to be judged on its own terms” (185).