Tuesday, May 05, 2009


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:

The ever-increasing army of people swarmed across while the border remained open, fleeing from squalor and oppression. But they could not flee reality, and the Texans, who welcomed them as a blessing because there were miles of cotton to be harvested, had never really forgotten the Alamo [circa eighty-five years earlier]. The certain degree of dignity the Mexicans yet retained made some of them turn around and walk back into the hell they had left. Others huddled close to the international bridge and established a colony on the American side of the river, in the city of El Paso, because they could gaze at their homeland a few yards away whenever the impulse struck them. The bewildered people came on—insensitive to the fact that even though they were not stopped, they were not really wanted.Rubio is pursued by agents of the Mexican government, and presently escapes to California (“I suppose it is as good a place as any at this time”). His son Richard is born while he is working on a melon farm near Brawley, in the Imperial Valley:The emigrants were scattered throughout the valley, and it was a hardship to visit each other, yet they somehow formed a unit of society, and they kept its secrets well—so well, in fact, that when a witch was murdered (for there were witches in those days, as there are today), she was committed to the earth, and the English-speaking population knew nothing of her death, if, indeed, they had known of her existence.The family migrates among Salinas (lettuce harvests), Parlier (grapes), Ontario (oranges), Firebaugh (cotton), and finally Santa Clara (prunes), where Juan Rubio and his wife settle at last to raise Richard and his sisters. Rubio continually reassures himself that Next year we will have enough money and we will return to our country, although the return is deferred again and again while “the chant increased in volume and rate until it became a staccato NEXT YEAR! NEXT YEAR!”—like the Jews ending their Yom Kippur fasts with the annual cry “Next year in Jerusalem!”

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’ ”:They had a burning contempt for people of different ancestry, whom they called Americans, and a marked hauteur toward México and toward their parents for their old-country ways. . . . They needed to feel superior to something, which is a natural thing. The result was that they attempted to segregate themselves from both their cultures, and became truly a lost race. 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.Richard is fascinated by them, and partly sympathizes, but even though they taunt him for being a “traitor to his ‘race,’ ” because he refuses to adopt their broken language and hostility toward “whites,” he only joins them part-way. “I can be a part of everything,” Richard thinks, “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. . .” (ellipses in the original).

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.


S. said...

Thank you for the recommendation, I'm always looking for Mexican-American authors that can convincingly and unstereotipically convey the experience of the double consciousness. I'll include it in my to-read list.

R/T said...

Thanks for highlighting POCHO, which I can now seek out and add to my ever-growing stack of books-to-read. Although Juan Rulfo does not qualify under the Mexican-American label, I wouild also put his PEDRO PARAMO high on any list of must-read books by Latin American (i.e., Mexican) authors.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading Pocho for my multicultural lit class this summer. Thanks for the analysis. I'll likely post my thoughts at my blog eventually as well.

Lyn said...

I've posted my review: Pocho. Thanks again for your review.