BOOKS & THE CULTURE A Populist Borges BY BRYCE MILLIGAN THE HARVEST By Tomas Rivera Houston: Arte Publico Press 135 pages, $8.50 TOMAS RIVERA once said in an interview with Juan Bruce-Novoa that the inspiration to write . . . y no se lo trago la tierra/ . . . and the earth did not devour him came from Rivera’s chance library encounter with Americo Paredes’s With a Pistol in His Hand, a scholarly treatment of the life of Gregorio Cortez and the corrido which he inspired. Rivera was struck, he said, when he realized that “Americo had documented one person para siempre tant. I felt that I had to document the migrant worker para siempre . . .” That he most certainly did, rendering from the heart of the Tejano migrant experience a narrative which both documented and enriched that reality. From its publication in 1971, by Quinto Sol in Berkeley, however, there were questions about the book. Some stories had been removed from the original manuscript and readers wondered what they were and why they had been removed. Critics wondered about the author a migrant worker who eventually became Chancellor of the University of California at Riverside who had developed his distinctive style, a difficult web of interconnected yet apparently fragmented short narratives. Then there was the publication of Rivera’s very Borgesian story, “Looking for Borges,” in Revista ChicanoRiquena, which upon closer reading turned out to be almost anti-Borgesian in philosophical intent. Finally there were rumors of another book in the works, La casa grande del pueblo, from which only a single short story has ever been found. Barring the unlikely discovery of a cache of Rivera stories, these questions and issues have been laid to rest by two books from Arte Publico Press: the 1985 issue of Revista Chicano-Riquena entitled “International Studies in Honor of Tomas Rivera,” edited by Julian Olivares, and a newly published collection of Rivera’s non-Tierra fiction, Bryce Milligan is a freelance writer living in San Antonio. The Harvest, also edited by Olivares. As Eliud Martinez wrote in the “Studies” volume, Rivera “was born to witness, to remember and to tell . . . When Tomas died, the world lost his memory of other songs of life, impressions and experiences, from his childhood and youth; and, from more recent years, the memories of things that he witnessed and experienced, silently, like the watchful child narrator of his novel Olivares brings together in The Harvest seven short stories by Rivera which dramatize just how much we lost when the author died suddenly in 1984. Some of the translations are by Rivera, some by Olivares; all are well-crafted. Two of the stories are previously unpublished, “La cosecha” remaining stories have been published, but generally in magazines of limited circulation. Thus “The Harvest” will benefit not only Rivera scholars, but the growing number of general readers who have come to realize that Tierra, while slim, is an extremely powerful piece of fiction. Olivares has also done readers the service of providing an enlightening introduction and an unusually ducid set of notes clarifying Rivera’s confusing publication history. THE TITLE story is an important one as it shows us a softer side of the migrant worker’s relationship with the land itself, a relationship which in Tierra was adversarial at best. Here we observe an old campesino who, nearing death, goes out secretly to literally embrace the earth burying his arm in the ground to feel mother earth move. This mystical connection with the land is passed on, unbeknownst to the old man, when a boy spying on his curious activities takes up the private ritual himself. Rivera was most adept at taking a slice of real life, then telling the story as one would a folk tale; the effect upon the reader is a feeling of familiarity, that he or she must have heard the story before. This is especially true of the simple love story, “Eva and Daniel.” Friends since childhood, they elope during a carnival but they do not run “away;” rather they run home. Quickly wedded, Eva becomes pregnant and Daniel becomes fodder for the cannons of the Korean War. Eva dies in childbirth and Daniel goes AWOL, spending the rest of his life working at odd jobs just long enough to buy batches of fireworks which he sets off as farewell valentines for Eva. This little narrative gem is told in a matter of six pages, but Rivera was able in that short space to etch a story onto the reader’s memory: a true corrido of common life. The second of the unpublished stories is “Zoo Island,” in which a boy wakes one morning with the desire to conduct a census of the chicken-coop camp in which he lives. It turns out that there are more people in the camp than in the nearby town, yet the town has a gas station, a post office, a dance hall, a church and a grocery store; the camp has a water pump and four outhouses. Taking the census is a metaphor for the Chicano movement at large the establishment of community. Other stories in this collection include “The Salamanders,” the much-analyzed “On the Road to Texas: Pete Fonseca,” and the one known story from La casa grande del pueblo, “Inside the Window.” The latter story contains obvious narrative threads intended to connect elsewhere. Alas. Mainstream literary critics have occasionally wondered at the importance ascribed to Rivera’s extremely limited production. There are, for example, currently two different editions of Tierra in print one an “interpretation” and translation by Rolando Hinojosa, and the other, a translation by Evangelina Vigil, both from Arte Publico a unique circumstance indeed in the world of publishing. It is true that Rivera left very little fiction by which to judge his literary reputation, but that is almost beside the point. What Rivera did with Tierra, for hundreds of aspiring Chicano writers, is precisely what Rivera said With a Pistol in His Hand had done for him. “It fascinated me,” he said, “because, one, it proved that it was possible for a Chicano to publish; two, it was about a Chicano, Gregorio Cortez y sus azanas the effect was not merely inspirational. Only very recently have Chicano and Chicana fiction writers begun to escape the stylistic orbit of the Rivera model, gradually achieving longer works which rely more on narrative force than upon the gem-like faceting which Rivera did so well. But neither y no se lo trago la tierra nor The Harvest should be read solely for their importance to an ethnic literary movement. Rivera at his best is a Texas treasure, a populist Borges. O THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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