In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I want to take a look at Pocho by José Antonio Villarreal, perhaps the earliest Mexican-American novel—it was published by Doubleday in 1959—and yet one that is rarely recommended, not even on a list of novels about “growing up Mexican-American,” Villarreal’s subject. Pocho is of considerable historical interest, anticipating La Raza and the politicized terms (“illegal aliens,” “undocumented workers”) in which the question of Mexican immigration is currently discussed. And since all literary evaluation is staked on the grounds of a book’s external relationships, that is also the novel’s literary value.
The son of a migrant worker, Villarreal was born in Los Angeles in July 1924 and wrote the book in his early thirties between graduation from Berkeley and a technical editor’s job with Lockheed. Pocho is an autobiographical novel, following two generations of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. Juan Rubio, a cavalry officer in Pancho Villa’s army, joins “the great exodus that came of the Mexican Revolution” after gunning down a rich Spaniard, crossing the border between Juárez and El Paso. His story may be more dramatic, but he is one of many:
Richard grows up in the Spanish-speaking diaspora where the Mexican families “held small Mexican fiestas and sang Mexican songs, so that there, in the center of Santa Clara, a small piece of México” is established. But he catches the bug of learning (“Already I can see that books are your life,” his mother tells him), and inevitably he begins to pull away from his family and their subculture. His mother hopes that formal education will bestow respectability upon her son, but Richard wants something more. When his mother speaks superstition, his thoughts switch into English, and he examines the truth; and when he drifts back into memory, his thoughts switch back to Spanish. This bilingualism serves not merely to demarcate generations and classes of Mexican-Americans, but gives the younger and better educated access to two different modes of discourse.
The remainder of the novel, a small Bildungsroman, traces Richard’s progress toward understanding and respectability. Richard figures out early that “the teachers teach us all kinds of things, and sometimes they’re not really honest about it.” All of the adult authorities in his life—“the teachers and the sisters and the priest—they all lie to us sometimes. I don’t know why, but they do, and it makes me feel real dumb.” English becomes the language in which he pursues intelligence, while Spanish is the language which keeps him connected to his family.
Villarreal’s account of his autobiographical hero’s Americanization would probably not pass muster in the current climate of literary opinion. Pocho more closely resembles Yiddish novels, like Esther Singer Kreitman’s remarkable Sheydim Tants, just reissued by the Feminist Press under the title Dance of the Demons, in which a Jew from a narrow traditional background is pitted against the modern emancipated Westerner she might have been. As he grows older, Richard watches with a newly formed skeptical knowledge as his father objects to his wife’s thinking of herself as “an American woman,” which would mean—as Richard comes to understand—sitting to dinner with her family instead of waiting on them until they were finished, rightfully protesting her husband’s adultery, being protected by the law from his beatings. Richard sees “the demands of tradition, of culture, of the social structure on an individual,” and he does not like them. He prefers the American promise of freedom from the “primitive way” of México.
He rejects, equally, the “white” assumption that his fate as a Mexican is to wind up with a menial job and the Mexican assumption that he must join a gang and adhere to a code of honor. “Everything had another way to it, if only you looked hard enough,” Richard reflects, applying the lesson of bilingualism, “and he would never be ashamed again for doing something against the unwritten code of honor.” He encounters antisemitism for the first time, discovers masturbation, spurns the Church. Standard stuff perhaps. Pocho may be little more than an exploration of Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” from a Mexican-American perspective. The historical context, rendered entirely unfamiliar by the later politicization of Mexican immigration, gives the novel a flavor and importance it might not otherwise have.
But one thing more. Villarreal’s novel is extraordinary in being set at almost the exact moment at which Mexican-American political consciousness began to dawn. As the Second World War draws near—the novel ends with his induction into the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor—Richard, not yet eighteen, begins wandering out of his familiar surroundings into the larger neighboring city of San Jose. There “he began to see more of what he called ‘the race’ ”:
There are those who will attribute Richard’s decision, not to his control over his own destiny, but to the unexamined individualist ideology of the day. Yet perhaps that is the point. Richard rejects La Raza, because he embraces America. In the end, he is “quite sure he did not really believe there was a Mexican cause. . . .” He is, he concludes proudly, a pocho, who “make[s] Castilian words out of English words.” And an American, who contributes in precisely this bilingual way to the further development of American culture.