Tomás Rivera (1935-1984)

    Contributing Editor: Ramón Saldívar

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Rivera's novel is written in nonsequential chronology, with a multiplicity of characters, without an easily identifiable continuous narrator, and without a strictly causal narrative logic. While each of the selections is coherent within itself, students will need to be prepared for the apparent lack of continuity from one section of the work to the next.

    I begin with a careful discussion of the first selection, "The Lost Year," to show that there is, at least in sketchy form, the beginnings of a narrative identity present. As in other modernist and postmodernist writings, in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Go Down, Moses, for example, or in Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, the narrative is not expository, attempting to give us historical depiction. It offers instead complex subjective impressions and psychological portraiture. Students should be asked to read the first selection looking for ways in which the narrative does cohere. Ask: Who speaks? Where is the speaker? What does the speaker learn about him/herself here, even if only minimally? As students proceed to the following selections, it is appropriate to ask what this unconventional narrative form has to do with the themes of the work.

    Rivera's work is openly critical of and in opposition to mainstream American culture. What does it accomplish by being oppositional? What does it share with other "marginal" literatures, such as African-American, feminist, gay and lesbian, or third world writings? Instead of attempting to locate Rivera within American or modernist writings, it might be useful to think of Rivera's place within the group of other noncanonic, antitraditional, engaged writings.

    Students are sometimes misled by the apparent simplicity of the first selection: They might need to be carefully alerted to the question of identity being posed there. Also, the historical context of racial violence and political struggle may need to be constructed for students: They may want to see these stories as exclusively about the plight of individuals when in reality Rivera is using individual characters as types for a whole community.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    General Themes: The coming to maturity of a young child, as he begins to get a glimmer of the profound mystery of the adult world. The child, apparently a boy, raises in the second selection the traditional lehresjahre themes, having to do with the disillusionment of childhood dreams.

    Specific Themes: This coming to maturity and the posing of universal existential questions (Who am I? Where do I belong?) take place within the specific historical and social context of the working-class life and political struggle of the Mexican-American migrant farmworker of the late 1940s and 1950s in Texas.

    Universal themes are thus localized to a very high degree. What does this localizing of universal themes accomplish in the novel? Also, the question of personal identity is in each of the three selections increasingly tied to the identity of the community (la raza). The stories thus also thematize the relationship between private history and public history.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Questions of style are intimately involved with questions of substance in these selections. Rivera claims to have been influenced by his reading in James Joyce, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and the great Latin American novelists. Rivera also acknowledged that he had been profoundly influenced by the work of the great Mexican-American anthropologist and folklorist Américo Paredes, whose ethnographic work realistically pictured turn-of-the-century life in the Southwest. Why does this work about the "local" theme of life in the American Southwest offer itself in the form of high modernism? Would not a more straightforward social realism have been more appropriate for the themes it presents?

    Original Audience

    The work was originally written in Spanish, using the colloquial, everyday cadences of working-class Spanish-speaking people. Bilingual instructors should review the original text and try to point out to students that the English translations are but approximations of a decidedly oral rhythm. Written at the height of the Chicano political movement and in the midst of an often bitter labor struggle, at times Rivera's work bristles with anger and outrage. The turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s plays a large role in the tone of the work.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Rivera claimed to have been influenced by many modern authors, Faulkner chief among them. A useful discussion of the relationships between form and theme might arise by comparing Rivera's work with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom! What does narrative experimentation have to do with social realism? Why does an author choose nontraditional narrative techniques? What does one gain by setting aside causally motivated character action?

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. Many of the questions posed by this study guide might be fruitfully addressed to students before they read Rivera's work. Especially useful are those questions that ask students to think about the relationship between form/content and that take into account the historical/political circumstances of the period during which these stories were written.

    2. Students might consider in the piece entitled "And the Earth Did Not Devour Him": Why does the earth not devour him? What does the narrator learn and why does this knowledge seem so momentous? Concerning the last selection, "When We Arrive," students might discuss the journey motif: Where are these migrant workers going? What will they find at the end of the road?


    Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), pp. 74-90, includes a discussion of the selections. International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera, edited by Julian Olivares (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985) is an excellent collection of essays on And the Earth Did Not Devour Him.