By Richard Vasquez
Introduction by Rubén Martínez
GUEST REVIEW BY DANIEL OLIVAS
In 1970, Doubleday did something that was rather unusual for a major press at the time: it published a novel by a Mexican-American author. That author, the late Richard Vasquez, was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who had toiled for a decade in writing his multigenerational family saga, Chicano. Rayo, the wildly successful Latino imprint of HarperCollins, has reissued this landmark novel in honor of its thirty-fifth anniversary. As Rubén Martínez notes in his enlightening and provocative introduction, Chicano had long been out of print despite its importance within the relatively young canon of Mexican-American literature. Martínez tells us that prior to Chicano, the only other Mexican-American novel was José Antonio Villareal’s Pocho which Doubleday also published—in 1959. It was through Vasquez’s daughter’s efforts that Rayo has reissued this noteworthy novel.
The initial publication of Chicano is an example of being in the right place at the right time. Martínez explains that the manuscript landed on the desk of Luther Nichols who was then Doubleday’s west coast editor in San Francisco. Nichols, an avowed liberal, saw the novel covering “fresh territory” and that Vasquez would be “opening a door” for similar works by Mexican-Americans. In 1970, the Chicano movement was gaining steam nationally as were the Black Power and women’s movements. When Doubleday released Chicano, sales were respectable but not spectacular. And Vasquez suffered what could only have been a great personal blow: while white critics praised the novel, Chicano critics, for the most part, wrote “scathing” reviews. Martínez explains that the Chicano reviewers thought that Vasquez was not radical enough (he was forty-two in 1970) and that he was nothing more that an “apologist for barrio pathologies.” Martínez asserts that much of this criticism can be “written off as heated rhetoric of the political moment.”
The great strength of Chicano is Vasquez’s ability to combine his journalistic training with his experiences as a veteran, construction worker, boxer, cabbie and grape picker to produce a highly-detailed narrative that follows the gritty saga of the Sandoval family from the Mexican Revolution to the late 1960s. The opening paragraph brings us to the hot desert of Northern Mexico:
“The locomotive roared out of the narrow stone canyon and for a few moments quickly gathered speed as the tracks dropped sharply to meet the level terrain of the valley of desert stretching ahead. The men in the cab strained their eyes and briefly, just before the tracks leveled to the valley floor, they caught a glimpse of the engine and two flatcars carrying the protective troop detachment far ahead. Then, in the valley, the shimmering heatwaves cut vision to a few miles, although the tracks stretched out in an arrow-straight path for many miles.”
The train, which is bringing cattle to the United States, derails injuring one of its riders, Hector Sandoval. Eventually, the inhabitants of the nearest village, Agua Clara, take Sandoval in as one of their own; in exchange, the villagers are allowed to take the injured cattle for food and dismantle the train to used in building—or improving—their modest homes (the village eventually takes on a new name: Trainwreck). Sandoval likes this village and ends up marrying a young woman named Lita, despite already having a wife and children in a large city. But life is hard in Mexico: the Revolution turns boys into soldiers for both sides and each day brings new uncertainties. Sandoval and his wife decide to take their family north to the United States to start fresh.
Vasquez follows the Sandoval clan through four generations as they splinter and struggle to become part of the American Dream primarily in their modest East Los Angeles community. Vasquez doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Members of the Sandoval family suffer from bigotry, poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction. Daughters fall into prostitution; one dies from a botched, illegal abortion. But within all this, we also see progress such as when Pete Sandoval joins a union as a cement finisher and helps build the freeways in burgeoning downtown Los Angeles. This is where Vasquez’s eye for detail (apparently based on his work experiences) creates vivid scenes that ring true:
“This pour was to be part of the decking over which traffic would move at high speed. Pete understood it had to be level, even. The state allowed only a sixteenth of an inch irregularity in ten feet. It took experts in the field to finish concrete according to highway specifications. Finishing machines, which would be used to pave the freeway over the dirt bed, could not be used here because of their weight. This part of a bridge had to be done by hand and had to be perfectly smooth . . . because if there were any bumps, causing traffic to bounce when the bridge was eventually opened, it could conceivably endanger the structure. An uneven concrete deck would have to be torn out, at prohibitive cost to the contractor.”
Where the novel stumbles is when Vasquez attempts to “explain” Chicanismo to his non-Chicano audience. The explanations aren’t incorrect or deceptive; rather, Vasquez’s devices tend to be artificial. For example, the character of David Stiver is a sociology student at USC who falls in love with Marianna Sandoval. Martínez calls Stiver the “whitest of white boys in Chicano literature.” Vasquez employs Stiver to be on the receiving end of Marianna’s lectures on what Chicanos do, say and feel. Stiver is simply a dope. And in the end, he’s a scoundrel who can’t face his family’s pressure to dump this “pretty little Spanish girl.”
But this is quibbling. Richard Vasquez offers a potent and unvarnished portrayal of one family’s attempt to find dignity and raise children in a land that forever feels foreign even over four generations. Chicano also serves as a historical document that chronicles imperfect survival in the face of often unrelenting obstacles. As Martínez notes: “Maybe in the end there is something essentially American about being Chicano.” Perhaps that was Vasquez’s greatest accomplishment: demonstrating that Chicanos are as American as anyone else.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books including Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press, 2004). He is currently editing an anthology of Los Angeles fiction by Latino/a writers. He practices law with the California Department of Justice and makes his home with his wife and son in the San Fernando Valley, California.