Written by José Antonio Villareal
First Publication Knoft Books, 1959
Current edition: Anchor Books
Reviewed by Luís Torres
“Pocho” by José Antonio Villareal is one of the earliest novels by a Mexican American writer. It was first published by Knopf Doubleday in 1959 and is still in print and available from Anchor Books, an imprint of Random House. Encompassing key aspects of the Chicano experience from the 1920s to the 1940s, “Pocho” still holds powerful resonance for today.
Literary scholars like to show us how sophisticated they are by using all kinds of obscure words and phrases to characterize various styles and genres of literature. A book such as “Pocho” is characterized as a bildungsroman. That’s simply German for “coming of age story,” and indisputably “Pocho” can be described as a coming-of-age novel. It charts the adolescence of Richard Rubio, a character who struggles to define himself as he draws on the strengths and weaknesses from two worlds – that of the mexicano and that of the “American.” Rubio, born in 1919, is the child of a one-time revolucionario foot soldier who fought under Pancho Villa and a subservient, presumably “typical” Mexican village girl. The chaos of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 eventually pushes the family al norte where they end up in rural Santa Clara, California.
A constant theme of the story is the tension Mexican immigrants face as they are pulled (and pushed) by two cultures and two languages. It is a theme that appears, sometimes subtly and sometimes heavy-handedly, in many Chicano novels of the 1960s and 1970s. Here Villareal generally handles these struggles with a deft narrative touch. We see what is happening to the characters as they evolve. We hear their struggle in their voices as they inevitably confront the push and pull of the cauldron of duality in which they are distilled. Villareal effectively “shows”; he doesn’t “tell”. In Richard Rubio’s case it is often a difficult journey, forcing him to embrace his “Mexicanness” (as embodied in boldface in his mother and father) at times and compelling him to adopt a more “American” perspective as he grows and begins to question the world around him. He becomes a distillation of both worlds and becomes someone who “knows himself.”
Like Villareal himself, Richard Rubio grows up in a world that is immediately defined by the quotidian existence that comes with being a Mexican immigrant family eking out a living by picking the crops in the Santa Clara Valley. One season it is prunes, the next it can be asparagus. It is arduous, mind-numbing work. Richard is a kid who dreams of a world beyond his immediate circumstances. He haunts the tiny public library, devouring seemingly every book on the shelves. He realizes it would be a gigantic leap, but he dreams of someday going to college and being a writer. Such goals are not easily accessible for a young man of his circumstances, especially when the family is forced to deal with the challenges of the Great Depression by the time Richard is a teenager.
But he persists, all the while working to understand the people around him and, tellingly, working to understand himself and what his essence is. His chums are Mexicans and Italians and Japanese Americans. He confronts discrimination, prejudice and oppression in their many forms. He and his friends are busted by the cops and beaten for no reason, apparently, other than being “other.”
Meanwhile, his father and his mother begin to tear each other apart. In doing so, they begin to tear themselves apart. Richard is a witness to his father’s many infidelities and his long-suffering mother’s attempts to become strong and independent “in this new country.” The father berates her for being “Americanized.” She challenges his domineering, macho ways. The clashes threaten to lead to a kind of personal disintegration on Richard’s part, but now he’s strong enough not to let it do so. Ultimately, he determines that he can play no role in such chingasos. He can’t really take sides. He resents the idea that his parents try to make him choose one over the other. He loves them both, but realizes he has to focus on his own life, his own challenges and his own aspirations. All the while he is somewhat torn between two cultures, but works to create his own identity – drawing strength from the positive dimensions of each culture.
As the United States enters WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlists in the navy. He is both getting away from something and heading toward something – a future he hopes to have his own say in. He has to become his “own person.” That is the only way he can survive and eventually thrive. It’s a narrative arc that, of course, resonates with many Chicanos.
Now more than fifty years after it was first published, “Pocho” still has a strong, engaging narrative and the ideas at the core of the story are still relevant. However, there is a strange dimension to it, too. Some of the attitudes embodied by Richard’s father, Juan, seem indefensible given our social consciousness today. (I first read the book some thirty years ago and wasn’t struck by some of those things as much as I was on this latest reading.) Specifically, I’m talking about the heedless swaggering negative machismo that drives the book, particularly in the beginning.
The first few chapters are told from Juan Rubio’s point of view. We meet Juan (Ruben’s father) when he is a young man leaving the revolutionary struggle about the time Pancho Villa is assassinated. The scenes of near casual sexual abuse of women are disquieting to say the least. And it’s not as if such incidents are presented in a way that would lead the reader to question such negative macho behavior. It’s as if we are supposed to blithely accept such actions and attitudes as “normal” for Mexicans. Again, it is disquieting. I would be interested to read what today’s feminist literary scholars would make of those portions of the book.
Yet, despite that “Pocho” is an accomplished bit of storytelling. It is still valuable as one of the big stones that helped lay the foundation for the many Chicano/a bildungsroman novels that were to come.
Luís Torres is the author of a forthcoming book about the life and legacy of activist/educator Vahac Mardirosian.
Copyright 2012 Luis R. Torres