A Mexico book by Victor Villasenor
The simplest way to describe this novel is to say that it’s a kind of Mexican “Roots” – a big family survival saga covering three generations of two families, complete with a large cast of characters. Author Villaseñor has based his complex, sprawling tale on the experiences of his own family members and his interviews with them. In fact, even though this is a novel the author has included several actual family photos of the people he’s writing about. It certainly lends a measure of authenticity to the narrative.
Historically, the novel covers the period from the Mexican Revolution and the days of Pancho Villa, around 1910, to the Prohibition era in California. The action – which involves people being forced to leave their homes and find new places to live – takes place in many parts of Mexico and in many states in the U.S.
While long sagas aren’t my favorite kind of reading, it’s easy to be caught up in this story – or, more correctly, in these stories. There isn’t really a single plot line so much as there are many things seeming to go on at the same time. I recently reviewed Marilyn Davis’s “Mexican Voices, American Dreams” which is based on scores of interviews with Mexicans who crossed back and forth over the border and there are many overall similarities in the experiences of the characters in both books, even though one is classed as fiction and the other non-fiction. Villaseñor’s ancestors are people who worked in mines and quarries and on farms and cotton fields and who picked firewood for sale to earn extra cash in order to survive when they first came to the U.S. Their treatment at the hands of local farmers and mine-owners wasn’t always too charitable and there are plenty of incidents of racial prejudice and downright cruelty. A few of them manage to see the inside of a jail or two. But at least the border was easier to cross and recross in those days.
One of the turning points in the family fortunes seems to have come from Juan Salvador, who I assume must have been Villaseñor’s grandfather. Juan was working with a road gang in Montana in 1921 or 1922 and, after some harrowing experiences, left to go to work in a gambling den/whorehouse run by a famous Englishwoman who seemed to have pretensions to being a “lady”. In any event she saw something in Juan and taught him “the mysteries of life, love, women and good manners”. Juan was one of my favorite characters in the book and it’s his “upgrading” that seems to give the family fortunes a lift as well.
One benefit in reading this novel is the insight it gives into Mexican ways of thinking and behaving. In some instances this can be humorous, as in the following example. “Juan laughed. It never failed to amaze him how different his people were from the Anglos. Los mejicanos never wasted anything. Instead of green grass in front of their homes, they had vegetable gardens. And they didn’t fence in their livestock, but let them roam free so they could eat anything they could find. Instead, they fenced in their crops.”
Or: “But, Juanito, it’s true,” insisted Epitacio. “In the United States, people have no wrinkles on their faces, they’re so well fed. And they keep a toilet inside their homes so they can use them constantly…they’re so full of shit!”
The mothers in this story all emerge as extremely strong characters. If anything, however, they’re a bit too noble and self-sacrificing. Like: “Money isn’t everything,” said Luisa. “Our family, our blood, our dreams – these are the reasons that we’ve been struggling all these years; not money.”
And there’s an emotional element that I don’t think you’ll find too often in other types of family sagas. The characters cry a lot – but they also have a lot to cry about – and you get passages like this: “Lupe looked up at the heavens. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked out at the millions and millions of stars as far as the eye could see… She turned to her mother and took her into her plump, strong arms, holding her. And Lupe and her mother cried and cried, heart-to-heart, two women sitting under the star-filled heavens.”
Verdict: An entertaining family saga about a group of people you ultimately end up caring about.
RAIN OF GOLD
By Victor Villaseñor