by José Antonio Villarreal
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in the 1920s in revolutionary Mexico and in the 1930s and 1940s in Santa Clara, California; published in 1959.
This “coming-of-age” novel focuses on Richard Rubio, a young man whose parents immigrated to California from Mexico, highlighting the family’s struggle with the conflict between familiar Mexican and new American values.
The Mexican Revolution (1910-21) produced an environment of severe instability and violence. These conditions led to a massive emigration from Mexico to the United States of people seeking work. Many of the immigrants found work in California’s agriculture industry as farm laborers. The American-born children of these workers were often torn between two cultures. José Antonio Villarreal is an American-born child of immigrant parents. His novel Pocho dramatizes the struggles of the Rubios, an immigrant family that closely resembles his own.
The Mexican Revolution, 1910-21
Many factors led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. More than thirty years under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz had brought the country into the modern industrial age, but there was a price paid for this progress. The chasm between the rich and the poor grew ever wider, and the Indian poor resented the Spanish leaders, whom they felt had robbed the country of its wealth. On one level, the revolution was an attempt to reclaim land for the peasants, the Indians, and Mestizos. The rally cry was “Mexico for the Mexicans.” Under the leadership of charismatic revolutionaries such as Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and Francisco Madero, the country experienced a series of radical and violent changes.
As Pocho ends, Richard Rubio decides to enlist in the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. Enlistment was common among young Mexican American men during World War II, and the group distinguished itself for bravery in action. By the end of the war, Mexican Americans had won seventeen Medals of Honor, more than any other racial or ethnic group whose members fought in the war. In his book Latinos, Earl Shorris details the strong tendency of the young Chicano to demonstrate courage in battle—a reality that apparently had little effect on his fate back home.
Measured by the number of Medal of Honor winners who were Mexican-American and the rate at which Mexican-Americans suffered casualties, no other racial or ethnic group served with greater courage. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. soldiers on the Bataan Death March were Mexican-Americans. Yet in June of 1943 in California, hundreds of young Mexicanos and Mexican-Americans were beaten and stripped of their zoot suits by Anglo soldiers and sailors.
(Shorris, p. 97)
The zoot suit riots
In Pocho, Richard expresses a fascination for the zoot-suit-wearing young people who come to live in his Santa Clara community. Caught between the cultures of their Mexican parents and American friends, the zoot suiters sought to identify themselves as part of a new Mexican subculture. They adapted a look from the youth of Harlem. Wearing colorful tapered suits, shiny shoes, and “duck-tail” haircuts, the zoot suiters intended to stand out, and they did. In fact, in Los Angeles during the early 1940s, these zoot suiters, or pachucos, as they called themselves, became the center of a real-life courtroom drama.
CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS SURROUNDING THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION OF 1910
1876-1911: Dictator Porfirio Dîaz governs Mexico. His rule is responsible for many advances in industry and modernization. However, Dîaz loses favor with the people—especially the poor—when human rights are violated and liberal and economic reforms are not enacted.
1911: Madero becomes president.
1913: Madero is assassinated. Victoriano Huerta becomes president and dictator. He reinstates many of Dîaz’s policies. Fighting between the opposing factions continues.
1917: The revolutionaries produce a new constitution, which goes into effect. Carranza is inaugurated as the new constitutional president. Some land reform begins.
1919: Emiliano Zapata is assassinated.
1920: President Carranza is assassinated. Álvaro Obregón succeeds him as president.
1921: Revolutionaries retreat. Fighting ends.
1923: Pancho Villa is assassinated.
The media in Los Angeles ran a series of front-page stories warning readers about the “zoot suit gangsters.” Recent waves of crime were blamed on them. In such a charged atmosphere, the zoot suit drama started one Saturday night in August of 1942 near a rock quarry known as Sleepy Lagoon. A young Latino man got very drunk and passed out on a road. During the night, he was run over and killed. Immediately police and prosecutors determined which group of pachucos the young man belonged to. They descended upon some neighboring pachucos who were said to belong to a rival group. Without any evidence to prove the case, twenty-two zoot suiters in this neighboring group were arrested and put on trial for murder. The press dubbed them “the 38th Street gang” and openly referred to them in headlines as “Pachuco Killers” (Mirandé, p. 78).
During the trial, the young men were not permitted to shave or to wear new suits. The court wanted to present them as disheveled gangsters. It soon became clear that the entire Mexican American community was being put on trial. Newspaper editorials continued to attack the young men’s characters. One headline screamed a warning about the “Mexican Goon Squads” (Mirandé, p. 79). The twenty-two defendants were quickly found guilty and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Meanwhile, the inflammatory articles about zoot suiters continued to appear in the Los Angeles newspapers. Policemen would patrol Mexican areas of Los Angeles with nightsticks that had razor blades on the ends. With the razor blades, they would rip the suits of the zoot suiters. Finally, on the night of June 4, 1943, six carloads of white sailors cruised into East Los Angeles looking for the zoot suiters. The sailors severely beat up some Mexican youths, ripping their zoot suits right off them when they were finished. Thereafter, the sailors continued to attack young Mexican men in restaurants, bars, and movie houses. Close behind the sailors were Los Angeles police cars. “The police came after them in mopping-up operations and arrested the boys who had been beaten up. In the morning, 44 severely beaten Mexican boys were under arrest” (Nava, p. 155).
In the days that followed, newspaper articles issued repeated warnings. “[The press] warned that the Mexicans were about to riot with broken bottles as weapons and would beat sailors’ brains out with hammers” (Nava, p. 155). Reacting once again to the press coverage, two hundred white sailors continued to riot in East Los Angeles. The mob would seek out and beat any Mexican on the streets. They even stopped trolley cars to pull the young men out. Finally on June 7, the military authorities declared Los Angeles out of bounds for all military personnel. After two more days, the beatings tapered off and finally stopped. Altogether Mexican Americans in and around East Los Angeles had suffered six days of violent attacks in the zoot suit riots. Editorials and letters to the editors of the Los Angeles papers lamented the fact that the military personnel were sent away before they could finish the job.
In response to the riots, the L.A. City Council declared the wearing of zoot suits a misdemeanor offense. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was reported to be upset by the beatings. Clearly, she said, the riots were based on a long history of discrimination against the Mexicans in the American Southwest. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times, portraying another mindset of the time, refuted the first lady’s statements.
Juan Rubio steps off a train in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in 1921. Ten years earlier, as an eighteen-year-old cavalry officer in Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army, he had helped overtake the city, which had been under the control of the dictator Dîaz’s government forces. For Rubio, the victory had been a glorious moment. Later Alvaro Obregón defeated and exiled Villa. Now Rubio optimistically hopes for his hero, Villa, to return and reclaim the city of Juarez, an important gateway to the neighboring United States.
On his first day in Juarez, Rubio meets a prostitute and gets into an argument with her pimp, whom he shoots and kills. He is arrested. The general who runs the city turns out to be one of Juan Rubio’s closest revolutionary friends. In light of their friendship, the general devises a plan to sneak Juan Rubio out of the city so he can avoid punishment for the murder. Juan Rubio finds himself being smuggled into the United States to start a new life.
By 1923 Rubio has settled in El Paso, Texas, and has been joined by his wife and children. Rubio becomes involved with a group of revolutionaries who conspire to assassinate Mexico’s President Obregón. Rubio will be the hit man. Agreeing on the plan, the men are interrupted by news that Pancho Villa has been murdered. Rubio is overcome with grief. He gives up plans to assassinate Obregón and decides to start life anew in California. He and his family head toward Los Angeles.
There Juan Rubio’s only son, Richard, is born. The family makes a series of moves across California as Juan Rubio follows the trail of agriculture jobs. Tiring of constantly being on the move, the Rubio family finally settles in Santa Clara in northern California. Rubio finds a job picking plums and reminds himself often that one day he will return to his homeland. However, as the years pass, his family grows larger and he realizes that he probably will never return, which saddens him deeply. He feels lost and homesick.
The story progresses to the early 1930s. Nine years old, Richard Rubio ponders many questions about creation, death, and Catholic rules regarding sexuality and sin. Clearly gifted at a young age, he becomes fascinated with reading and the exploration of ideas. The Rubios are living in a multiethnic community. Richard’s classmates are Spanish, Italian, Mexican, and Japanese. At school, he is sometimes called names like “tortilla strangler” (Pocho, p. 47).
FROM THE MEXICAN TO THE WHITE LABORER—A HELPING HAND
During the 1930s tens of thousands of Americans arrived in California to work the farms. Coming from Oklahoma and other areas blighted by tremendous dust storms, they came to be known as the Dust Bowl migrants. In 1939, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (also covered in Literature and Its Times) dramatized the horrendous working and living conditions to which these migrants were subjected. This exposure of the poor working conditions shocked a public that had been largely indifferent to the plight of the Mexican farm workers living in the same conditions. In many instances, Mexican families helped Dust Bowl migrants new to California. In Pocho, readers see the Dust Bowl migrants setting up tents in the yards of established Mexican working families. Cirilo, a Mexican farm worker, says, “I found [my wife] making tortillas [for the newcomers] while a houseful of blondes ate ravenously” (Villarreal, Pocho, p. 124).
Young Richard proves to be an unusual child. He engages his mother in difficult conversations about God. He says that he believes in God, but doesn’t believe everything that religion offers him. His mother, a staunch Catholic, is shocked that a child could think this way. He confides that he wants to be a writer.
In the neighborhood, Richard comes to know a group of other young people. Included are the tough tomboy Zelda; the sweet, sensitive younger girl Mary, who falls in love with Richard and shares his passion for books; and Ricky, Richard’s best friend.
Meanwhile, Richard’s father, Juan Rubio, starts to visit the home of a Mexican friend. The
friend, a recent immigrant, still practices Mexican ways of life. Their friendship is indicative of Juan Rubio’s movement toward a more Mexican way of life and away from his assimilating family. Juan also takes an interest in having the friend’s wife as his mistress.
Richard has his first full sexual experience with Zelda. He starts to ponder the meaning of life and has a talk with his father in which he asserts his manhood. His father says that he is proud of Richard, because for a Mexican, being a man is everything.
Inspired by her American friends, Richard’s mother, Consuelo, confronts Juan about his womanizing. Juan reminds her that she is not an American. In response, Consuelo allows her once-immaculate house to become disheveled and dirty—an act of liberation and defiance. Her marriage crumbles as she and her daughters become increasingly American in their ways of thinking and behaving. Juan retreats to the arms of his Mexican mistress.
By 1940 larger numbers of Mexican immigrants are moving into the Santa Clara Valley. Among them are a new wave of young people called zoot suiters, or pachucos. Richard starts to associate with them, even if he doesn’t quite fit in. In their company, he gets arrested by the police, who eventually realize that he’s a college-bound boy and set him free.
Richard’s sisters and mother continue to adopt American ways. One night, Richard returns home to find his father fighting with them and calling them names. The fight escalates to a violent climax. Juan Rubio hits his wife, then realizes that it’s best if he leaves the family. He has grown too far apart from them and wants a real Mexican woman. Planting a kiss on his son’s face, he leaves sadly.
Richard now becomes the man of the household. He recognizes that his father felt compelled to follow his dream and live a Mexican life, but he feels confused about what his own dreams are. He shares with his mother his deepest thoughts, including the fact that he’s lost his faith in God, and informs her that he will be enlisting in the U.S. Navy. As he leaves for the navy and World War II, Richard muses about his love for his childhood friends and his family. Wondering about what life will bring him, he feels that he’ll never come home again.
Caught between two cultures
After settling in the United States and being exposed to American culture, some members of the Rubio family adopt American attitudes and beliefs. Tensions build when the family patriarch, Juan, holds fast to his Mexican ways. These tensions turn into fights, animosity, and eventually, the disintegration of the Rubio family.
The issue of assimilation and the strain that it can cause in families is raised throughout Podio. A closer look at the Rubio family’s struggle provides insight into both the Mexican and American cultures as perceived by the author, who has lived in both worlds himself.
Juan Rubio’s personality, his character and overall presence, can be summed up in the word machismo. Machismo, meaning “extreme manliness,” takes on great importance in the development, growth, and actions of many Latino males, as illustrated by a comment Juan Rubio makes to his son in the story: “You are a man, and it is good, because to a Mexican being that is the most important thing. If you are a man, your life is half lived; what follows does not really matter” (Pocho, p. 131).
In Mexican culture, machismo ranks second only to devotion to family. “Before he is considered a ‘real man,’ the male must command respect from others for himself and his family. Honor and respect, then, are critical components of machismo, as are drinking capacity, physical prowess, and virility” (Madsen in Mirandé, p. 167). Both prowess and virility in this case refer directly to the number of women a man can seduce, whether he is married or single. Part of the original machismo belief is that “men are stronger, smarter, and vastly superior to women in all spheres” (Mirandé, p. 167). In the 1920s to 1950s, this translated into most females playing only two possible roles in a male’s life—that of a submissive wife, or of a casually concealed mistress.
In Pocho, Juan Rubio, a married man with children, solicits the services of a prostitute by the second page of the novel. Eventually he finds himself involved with a series of mistresses, and he expects his wife to understand. When she first confronts her husband about his infidelities, he pounds his fist on the table and shouts at her, “I have had my fill of your whimpering and your back talk! You are thinking yourself an American woman—well you are not one and you should know your place” (Pocho, p. 91).
In addition to the confrontations with her husband over his cheating, she refuses to clean the Rubio home as a further act of defiance. She watches as her Americanized daughters stay out very late on dates. The Rubio women begin to lose their tolerance for the rules imposed by machismo. It becomes clear that Juan and Consuelo will be forever separated by a cultural border that neither wants to cross.
Villarreal used his own life as the main source for this book. The main character, Richard Rubio, and the author share the following details about their lives:
- They are both born in the Los Angeles area in 1924.
- Their favorite book is Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus.
- Both question the church and eventually reject the notion of formal religion altogether.
- Each of them enlists in the Navy in 1942.
- Both of their fathers fight with Pancho Villa’s troops in the Mexican Revolution.
- Like the author’s father, Richard Rubio’s father in the novel settles in the United States in 1922, where he is later joined by his wife and three children.
- After traveling throughout California following a series of agriculture jobs, the Rubios, like the author’s family, settle in Santa Clara, California.
The characters’ feelings also draw on the author’s real-life experiences. In the novel, Richard rejects the labels that society tries to place on him: “I can be a part of everything, he thought, because I am the only one capable of controlling my destiny.... Never—no, never—will I allow myself to become part of a group—to become classified, to lose my individuality” (Pocho, p. 152). In real life, Villarreal rejects the use of the term Chicano, or any other particular label for himself or his work. “I do not call myself a Chicano writer and I do not think of myself as one, namely because the name alone implicitly brings out restrictions and inhibitions detrimental to my achieving the artistic level I seek” (Villarreal in Novoa, p. 42).
Seeds of the Chicano civil rights movement
Throughout the 1950s, and leading up to the publication of Pocho in 1959, a series of small organizations served as advocates for Latino voter registration, civil rights, and work reform. The vast majority of these groups were quite small and localized in nature. They would, however, prove to be the precursors of the national Chicano civil rights movements that would take shape in the 1960s.
During the mid- to late 1950s, some of these organizations grew in scope and gave many Latinos their first exposure to community activism and organization. As one author notes, these organizations served a twofold purpose: “First, they kept the light of protest burning during the quiet, incubating years. Second, these groups formed the core from which later organizations gained inspiration to continue the struggle” (Vigil, pp. 185-86).
Two such groups of the late 1950s were the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the G.I. Forum. LULAC sought to fight prejudice against Latinos by advocating equality in housing and the workplace, and by lobbying for favorable legislation. The group also strived to create a sense of community and ethnic pride among Latinos.
The G.I. Forum, founded during the 1950s, was a group devoted to the special needs of the World War II and Korean War veterans of Latino heritage. In fact, the G.I. Forum was a direct response to the high percentage of Latinos who fought in these two wars during the 1940s and 1950s. The G.I. Forum helped many displaced Latino servicemen returning from service find higher-paying industrial jobs than those that had been historically available to them.
These organizations were successful in their own right. Yet also during the late 1950s arose a group called the Community Service Organization (CSO), which some historians credit as the main catalyst for the sweeping Chicano political activism of the 1960s. Late in the 1950s observers began to detect discontent within the Mexican American community, and instrumental in organizing Latinos to express this discontent was the CSO. It sought to register Latino voters and so create a new, powerful voting block that would reflect the massive Latino population, especially in the Southwest.
One young man who had worked as a farm laborer in Delano, California, was recruited to organize a CSO Latino voting drive. With no prior experience in activism, the young farm worker surprised the CSO leaders with his skills as an organizer and his ability to inspire cooperation and support. He was able to register more new voters than anyone in the organization had imagined. The young man was Cesár Chávez, and this first taste of activism would launch what would become his life’s work.
After a decade of success with CSO, Chavez gained the confidence to establish his own group, the United Farm Workers’ Union, in the early 1960s. During the 1960s and 1970s, the UFW
would gain national attention and the support of millions. More importantly, perhaps, the UFW would give the Latino working poor a sense of power and belonging not yet experienced by the characters in Villarreal’s novel.
Pocho has been described as the first Chicano novel published for a widespread audience. Many critics compare the novel to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Pocho received mainly positive and some mixed reviews. William Hogan in the San Francisco Chronicle complimented the novel for its treatment of Richard Rubio. “Villarreal fights no causes here. He is concerned only with a boy. He portrays him with a depth and with a narrative grace and honesty rare these days in a first novel” (Hogan in Ryan, p. 497). In the Nation, John Bright stated that Pocho “is notable not only for its own intrinsic virtues, but as a first voice from people new in our midst who up to now have been almost silent” (Bright in Ryan, p. 497).
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Morin, Raul. Among the Valiant: Mexican-Americans in WW II and Korea. Alhambra, Calif.: Borden, 1963.
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