José Antonio Villarreal (1924-2010) was a Mexican American writer who published three novels and many short stories in different anthologies throughout the past 50 years. His first novel Pocho was released in a hardcover edition by Doubleday in 1959. Don José, as we called him affectionately, published The Fifth Horseman in 1974, and Clemente Chacón in 1984, novels which spotlight the life of Mexican families during the 1910 Mexican Revolution, or on the U.S.-Mexico border in modern times. Don José passed away near his beloved Mt. Shasta on January 13, 2010. His wife Barbara will host a June celebration for don José that includes family and close friends.
I first met José Antonio Villarreal in Los Angeles in 1973. I was a graduate student at UCLA and had selected the paperback edition of Pocho (1970) as a reading assignment while tutoring Chicana inmates detained at Corona Institute for Women. I had sent Villarreal a letter suggesting I work on a Spanish translation of Pocho and his response, written in a graceful and ornate script, was prompt: he informed me that if he needed a Spanish translation of his novel that he would do it himself. Shortly afterward a brief note arrived in the mail asking me to meet him at his sister’s house in Los Angeles. I accepted the invitation.
On our first meeting, I saw Richard Rubio in the adult Villarreal: contemplative, observant, a chain-smoker. I also noticed that on a nearby table stood a bottle of tequila; before our meeting, Villarreal had enjoyed half of its contents. In a semi-humorous tone, he pointed with a smoldering cigarette to the memory of several boxes with copies of the hardcover edition of Pocho he had stored in his garage for many years. Doubleday had paid him in part with hundreds of unsold copies of Pocho. After giving away free copies to neighbors and to most of his family, one day he ordered the remaining boxes to be disposed by the garbage collector. We did not talk about the translation, but I got the point. It was evident he didn’t think there would be any interest in Pocho in the Spanish-speaking world; after all, hardly anybody had noticed in the United States. Nobody had any interest in literature that represented Mexicans in the United States, he argued; besides, Villarreal’s mind was on other, more important projects: he was waiting for the publication of his second novel, The Fifth Horseman, where he recounted the life background of Heraclio Inés (known in Pocho as Juan Rubio), and the national conditions that led to the 1910 Mexican Revolution. He assured me that this was his best novel yet. We drank another glass of tequila and continued with our conversation. I would have to wait until the summer of 1993 for the opportunity to translate Pocho. Meanwhile things were turning hazy around me as I listened and sipped tequila, so I rushed a few questions.
Villarreal informed me that his decision to be a writer was reached shortly before graduating with a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley in 1950. His plan was to write a cycle of four novels—he referred to it as a tetralogy—that would constitute a vast social landscape depicting the dispersion of a Mexican family through three generations, illustrating various modes of acculturation to urban life in the United States. As I would soon learn, the term “tetralogy” derives from Greek drama, and refers to three tragedies and one satyr play staged during the festival of Dionysus. Villarreal had given me a clue to his narrative cycle: it included aspects of satire and tragedy in four interconnected narrative compositions. Evidently Pocho corresponded to the first tragedy in the narrative cycle, with satire forthcoming.
After the publication of The Fifth Horseman, Villarreal intended to write a third novel telling of Richard Rubio’s return from the Pacific after the Second World War, thus continuing with the semi-autobiographical design that shaped Pocho’s storyline. The third novel was to be called The Houyhnhnms (later renamed The Center Ring), after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a satirical novel in four parts that narrated voyages to remote nations around the world. In 1984, Villarreal published a third novel, Clemente Chacón, but it does not belong to the tetralogy. Of the four novels initially proposed, only the first two reached print. According to Barbara, don José’s wife, the completed manuscript of The Center Ring and several of his short stories remain unpublished.
Pocho is a novel that complies with most of the rules of realism, and yet the novel’s aesthetic disintegration in relation to its rhetorical and iconographic patterns (the tree, Richard Rubio’s list of readings, and so on), coupled with the apparent “dismemberment” of its chapters that seem to some readers as being adventitious to the narrative (such as chapters one and four), turn instead into symptoms of an avant-garde aesthetic that was latent in Villarreal’s early writing but did not fully develop in The Fifth Horseman nor in Clemente Chacón. Villarreal’s heirs in Chicano literature—from Alfredo Véa to Michael Nava and Helena María Viramontes, to name a few--have begun to experiment with narrative structure and continue to write transnationally, that is, beyond the United States. Significantly, these authors underscore the importance of language and experimentation with time and space; moreover, they include in their novels intertextual references to world writers (for instance, Dante in Nava’s novels, Aristophanes and Robert Frost in Véa’s), and favor a new America, less xenophobic, and thus committed to its democratic ideals.
The world that Villarreal envisioned fifty years ago in Pocho continues to haunt the best of Chicano novelists writing today. Admittedly, the work of these novelists has gone beyond Pocho in terms of formal innovations, and yet Villarreal’s first novel--with its inquisitive hero who is intellectually gifted, rebellious against tradition, critical of his immediate environment, and who seeks self-realization in a modern world--illustrates a Mexican American tragedy that retains to this day its narrative singularity in the developing Chicano literary tradition.
We thank José Antonio Villarreal for his narrative contributions to the literary history of Mexican Americans, Chicanas/os, and Latinos. We won’t forget him.
Roberto Cantú and José Antonio Villarreal in a July 1994 reception in Tijuana (México) for the Spanish translation of Pocho (Anchor, 1994).
Eliud Martínez, Roberto Cantú, and José Antonio Villarreal, with students. In the background: Mt. Shasta. April 1993.
About La Bloga's Guest Columnist Roberto Cantú (pictured Left, and below, standing Right with Don José and Jim Beam):
Mission Santa Barbara – Revisited
Juanita Salazar Lamb
The last time I walked the paths at Mission Santa Barbara I was 11 years old, and we were living in Oxnard, California. A day trip to Santa Barbara was, at the time, an inexpensive getaway from our crowded life on Felicia Court. The vast apron of neatly manicured lawn that rolled out from the mission to the edge of the street was a welcome contrast to the anemic grass that grew in the common areas of La Colonia housing project. And although no sign was posted, the beauty of the gardens and walkways made even children speak in hushed tones, and spoken words were captured by the flowering plants and the gurgling fountains on the grounds. A trip to Mission Santa Barbara was a break from the concrete block apartment walls that absorbed no noise, but rather transmitted voices between apartments, so that we always knew when our next door neighbor’s husband had come home late and she wanted an explanation “NOW!”
And now 47 years later I walked the paths again when I took a break from a professional conference held at a resort hotel where I had a room with a view of the ocean. I rode the shuttle up State Street to the end of the route, then made my way to Mission Street and followed that past stately homes with lush gardens and well-manicured lawns. Past Roosevelt Elementary school where mothers waited in late-model cars to pick up their children at the end of the school day.
Where Mission Street turns and becomes Laguna, the street rises on a slight grade as if to acknowledge that it leads to a sacred site. A sense of serenity and a need for hushed voices, a memory of those long-ago walks, surround me as I approach the Mission.One of the first sites is the ancient lavandería, the open-air waterchannel where mission residents washed clothes by beating them against the curved sides of the channel. It’s fenced off now but if not then, perhaps my mother ran her hand along the rough masonry and considered the loads of laundry she did for her family every week.
At the entrance to the Mission is a statue of Padre Junípero Serra who traveled from Spain to build missions in the western-most reaches of Nueva España in the 18th century. As my father contemplated this man who traveled to a foreign land and faced hardships to achieve his life’s work did he consider his own journey from Mexico from which his family had fled in times of revolution? Did he think of his most recent journey from Texas hoping to build a better life for his own family?
Echoes of my own footsteps call to me as I follow the well-worn paths toward the patio, where another fountain whispers its notes, a water-voice absorbed by the lush plants in the garden. Did my parents stand here and think of the lush yard and flower garden they had left behind? Perhaps they wondered whether they would ever again have a garden whose fragrance and beauty they could enjoy any time they stepped out of their own house?
As I pass el portal at the edge of the garden, I remember racing my brother to the far end of this long corridor. I was older so could have easily won, but he was athletic and fiercely competitive. Who won? I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Maybe it didn’t matter then, either.
Through the door is the Mission cemetery where a sense of eternal quiet hovers over all. The tombs are weathered and gray, yet stately as they watch each person who slows as they pass. Which tomb remembers me? Did I stop and consider them those many years ago? Or did I rush through this part of the visit, eager to move away from death as it was something I couldn’t fathom for myself or anyone else I loved.
But the only way out of the cemetery was through the doorway of the skulls. I have no memory of this doorway, although I can easily imagine myself hurrying through this portal to leave death and dying behind and rush through to return to the beauty of the gardens.
Mission Santa Barbara has withstood its own hardships since it was built in 1786: earthquakes, Pacific storms, battles, fire and of course, hundreds of thousands of feet walking its paths. Yet it stands with its lovely gardens and fountains, holding on to memories only to release them for relishing by a not-so-young girl who returned nearly 50 years later.
ARIZONA GREEN (manifesto #1070)
For all those marching & writing against SB1070 & for all those who want to believe it
So it came to pass –
After the boycotts left the Arizona banks tortilla burnt & chipotle dry
After the boycotts shooed away the Repugnicants from the casinos & spas
After the boycotts jammed all the Holiday Inns the Westins & the rest
After the airports only served three-day old Nachos
After the Gun Show tents frizzled into piñata bits
After all the lawns in Scottsdale rolled themselves up en route to Naco
After all the turistas popped-a-wheely en route to Mesquite then El Paso
After all the jailbirds busted out singing de colores de colores
After all the city councils got bumped down by los panaderos
After all the mayors got spanked up by las barrenderas
After the last vigilantee skipped out incognito as George López
After Governor Jan Brewer offered free workshops in Pendejismo
After all the bordo walls & scanners & patrols shriveled & popped
Arizona went green
Arizona went .......... green
Yes Arizona went absolutely.......... .......... greeen
Chile verde green
Celery & lechuga green
Jalapeño green Serrano green
Broccoli green artichoke green green grape green
All those campesino greens all those.......... .......... .......... .......... greeens
All those Folklórico dress greens & danzante penacho bead greens
It was a kinda flowery Virgen de Guadalupe green
It was a kinda green you notice after an August monsoon storm green
It was a kinda green you notice after ICE agents zoom zoom out green
It was a kinda green you notice when you are runnin’ ilegal yes
You know the earth is with you
You know it because everyday you touch it you speak to it
with your cilantro-shaped voice.......... .......... .......... you say
Eres todo lo que tengo
You .......... are all I have
You say it because it takes a road ramblin’ crossin’ life to say it
You say it because it takes lost familia hands to touch it so you lift them
You join them with other hands even if they are miles miles away
That is when you dance
That is when you dance green in the green wind
That is when you dance green on the blown southern deserts of Arizona
Wild blades of green among the borderdead
You rise again
§ los panaderos, the bakers, givers of bread on your corner
§ las barrenderas, the cleaning women, as in people’s flags as in
banderas de la gente green
§ Pendejismo, stupidity with a pen, a pen with Repugnicant ink inc.
§ bordo, border as in the shape of an “Oh-rah-leh, chale!)
§ lechuga, lettuce, (ley-chew-gah, and as in “let us,” as in ley as in people’s law)
§ campesino, farmworker all amped up, ampesino, ampesina, ampesin@ green
§ Folklórico, Chican@ Mexican regional dance group, feelin’ good, a national
green zapateado across community centros & schools & streets in Phoenix all the way to Tenochitlan and beyond green
§ Danzante penacho, Aztec ceremonial dancer breast-plate & a green pen, a feathery pen made of ceremonial stomps across the green migrante trails that erase all borders with green songs, green insence & puro corazón.
- Juan Felipe Herrera / 5-3-10 ©