- Migrant Imaginaries and the Politics of Form
When I was a student at Southwest Texas State University, I never heard of its famous alum Tomás Rivera or the Chicano literary classic … y no se lo tragó la tierra / And the Earth Did Not Part (1971).1 I was first introduced to the bilingual edition of Rivera's complex, deeply moving novel in 1995 while completing my Ph.D. coursework in Lincoln, Nebraska, more than 800 miles away from my Texas home. The form and content of the book made an immediate impression. With its alternating chapter and vignette structure, Rivera's novel called to mind Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1925). But it was the voices and the longing of the people resounding throughout the work that captivated my attention, for these were familiar voices, familiar longings. My own family had been marked by the painful separation and economic hardship that often defines the migrant experience. Rivera's work, along with that of Rudolfo Anaya, catalyzed my emerging cultural and critical consciousness, one later honed by the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcón, and Tey Diana Rebolledo.
Written during the Chicano Movement (1965–1975), Rivera's novel documents the hopes and aspirations of Mexican migrants during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The novel also announces and historicizes the mobilization of Mexican Americans in their battle for civil rights. Rivera documents the origin of this mobilization by following his unnamed male protagonist as he attempts to reconstruct what readers are initially led to believe is a lost year based on the chapter's title. The brief opening scene touches on such issues as memory, language, articulation, [End Page 435] consciousness, and place, but the themes of loss and fragmentation dominate. As the protagonist endeavors to disentangle the year's events, temporal and geographic dislocation send him spiraling in concentric circles. The protagonist's condition is such that "he even forgot the name he had been called" (83). While he discerns how the lost year began, its chronology remains elusive. As José Limón observes, the "protagonist comes to a critical consciousness and a knowledge of domination even as he also comes to know his own culture" (199). Before doing so, however, the protagonist "saw and heard many things" (83), constituting the lives and lifeways of a South Texas migrant community with an emergent political consciousness.
Racism and classism characterize the lives of the Mexican migrants in Rivera's work, so it is easy, though negligent, to overlook how they contest their oppression through such cultural forms as chisme (gossip), folktales, and poetry. For example, in the vignette "Bartolo passed through …," a traveling poet, who appears annually to peddle his work to the townspeople, authors and authorizes the agency of the townspeople, especially by including the names of the town's residents in his works. He advises them "to read the poems out loud because the spoken word was the seed of love in the darkness" (147). The poems, therefore, become a space that can both accommodate and document the experiences of the townspeople, thus affirming their humanity in the face of constant dehumanization. While moments of resistance like this one are embedded throughout the novel, the most prominent instances appear in the final chapter as a kind of revelation to both the reader and the unnamed protagonist.
In "Under the House," the final chapter, the protagonist completes the synthesis initiated in the first chapter. In stream-of-consciousness recollection, we hear most clearly the defiant, critical voices and see the spirit of the people, whom the narrator/storyteller longs to embrace. Once the protagonist can construct a coherent past—"To discover and rediscover and piece things together. This to this, that to that, all with all"—he sees that he is missing more than simply one year (152). He believes he has lost "so many years" (151). By scrutinizing his past...