“…y no se lo tragó la tierra”
aka “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”
Written by Tomás Rivera
Published by Arte Público Press 1987
First published in 1970 by Quinto Sol
Review and reminiscence by Luís Torres
During the last few months we’ve been taking second looks at some of the books that – for one reason or another – are considered classics of Chicano literature. Personally, it’s been a worthwhile experience re-reading books that I first read thirty or even forty years ago. We are not the same person today that we were some years before. It’s hoped that we’ve learned a bit more about the world – and ourselves – every day we live. So our perspective evolves, we hope. And so when we sit down to read something that we read many years before, we are inevitably reading it through a different prism today.
In giving a second look at books such as Ernesto Galarza’s “Barrio Boy,” José Antonio Villareal’s “Pocho,” and Rudolfo Anaya’s venerable “Bless Me, Ultima” I was generally delighted to discover that the stories that were told and the textures revealed in the storytelling not only held up but seemed to have ripened with age. A bit like a fine wine. That’s encouraging.
This time around we’re taking a second look at a little jolla of a book that was among the very first books we could actually classify as “Chicano literature.” It’s the legendary gem by Tómas Rivera. Its actual title is – and it is written in lower case – “…y no se lo tragó la tierra.” The title of the book has been variously translated as “And the Earth Did Not Part” or “…And the Earth Did Not Devour him.”
It remains a treasure.
I first read Rivera’s quixotic little novel soon after it was published, in 1971. I was a sophomore in college. For those born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have to go into the Way Back Machine for some exposition.
In the early seventies we were in on the ground floor of the development of something called “Chicano studies.” A few classes were beginning to be offered, mostly in politics, sociology and history. There were very few courses on Chicano literature. (In undergraduate school I actually tried to turn all of my regular courses into Chicano studies courses. In an Urban History class, I wrote term papers about “Chicanos in the City,” in sociology classes I wrote papers about “The Sociology of the Chicano Gang Life” and on and on. You get the idea.) But back to Chicano literature.
I was in what must have been one of the first Chicano literature classes ever. And – guess what?– there wasn’t a lot of Chicano literature available. There was some energetic poetry that we’d find in pulp periodicals. There were a few plays, mostly material from El Teatro Campesino. And there were a few short stories available from small, grassroots publishers. The explosion of Chicano literature was just around the corner. In that first Chicano lit class I took we mostly relied on Mexican materials. “The Death of Artemio Cruz” by Carlos Fuentes. “The Labyrinth of Solitude” by Octavio Paz. You get the picture. And then came “…y no se lo tragó la tierra.”
I was a pretty voracious reader in high school. I read all the typical American writers that the English teachers recommended. I was enthralled by stories and ideas that were far removed from my own experiences growing up on L.A.’s eastside. I was captivated by different characters and moved by their motivations and desires and goals – and setbacks. But I was always looking for characters who looked like my family, talked like my family and, essentially, acknowledged that people like us existed. As a kid in the library the closest I got to that, it seemed, were some works by Steinbeck which included occasional glimpses into the lives of Mexican Americans or Mexicans.
Then came “…y no se lo tragó la tierra” by Tómas Rivera.
Again, this was forty years ago. Here was a book that — what do you know? –was about us. It was about tios and tias and abuelitos. It was about the kind of backbreaking work that many of our families did at one time or another. It was about dreams and meditations that meant something to us. It was about characters and stories and ideas that were ours, as well as being universal. It was a revelation to read that little book so many years ago. And after reading it again very recently, it’s clear that it is a slice of American fiction that holds up to scrutiny and, beyond that, is likely to be established for generations to come as a beautifully written and thought-provoking work of art.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you are moved by good writing and insightful storytelling, you cannot help but be captivated by “Tierra.” It is a slightly mysterious book. It breaks lots of rules about the structures of literature. It makes up its own rules in some cases. There is no clearly identified central protagonist. There is not really a linear narrative. There is not a cavalcade of named characters with motivations and idiosyncrasies that we customarily follow.
Instead, “Tierra” is constructed as a loosely arranged montage of soliloquies, observations, snatches of conversation that we eavesdrop upon, as well as more conventionally constructed “mini stories.” You are immersed in a specific world. It is, ostensibly, a world of poor Mexican American migrant workers in the 1940s and 1950s who follow the piscas every season from Texas to the northern Midwest. It is nominally about a young chicanito who is beginning to explore and question the world around him. But those are elements in the book. The joy comes from the wonderful integration of those seemingly random elements into a coherent whole.
In some respects Rivera’s book reminds you of Eduardo Galeano’s works, with small almost stream-of-consciousness descriptions of things. For example, this five-line observation is, by itself, an entire “chapter” in Rivera’s book:
“What his mother never knew was that every night he would drink the glass of water that she left under the bed for the spirits. She always believed that they drank the water and so she continued doing her duty. Once he was going to tell her but then he thought he’d wait and tell her when he was grown up.”
Some of these little observations are, to me, evocative of haiku. At other times Rivera’s book makes you feel as if you entered a Chicano house, sat in the living room, and overheard a conversation going on in the kitchen. The characters aren’t identified nor described. But we know them:
“Comadre, do you all plan to go to Utah?”
“No, compadre. I’ll tell you, we don’t trust the man that’s contracting people to go work in –how do you say it?”
“Utah. Why, comadre?
“Because we don’t think there’s such a state. You tell me, when’ve you ever heard of that place?”
“Well, there’s so many states. And this is the first time that they’ve contracted for work in those parts.”
“Yeah, but tell me, where is it?
“We, we’ve never been there but I hear it’s somewhere close to Japan.”
If, like me, you read “…y no se lo tragó la tierra” years ago, you’re in for a treat if you pick it up again. And if you’ve never read Rivera’s book, I envy you. You get to read it for the first time. You are really in for a treat.
Luis Torres, a journalist and writer from
Pasadena, California, is at work on a
book that examines the 1968 East Los
Angeles high school student walkouts.