On Aug. 18, 1929, Juan Salvador Villasenor married Lupe Gomez in a church in Santa Ana, Calif. Each came from a family that had fled the horrors of the Mexican Revolution. The life their families led before that cataclysm and their eventual settlement in the United States is one of survival and wonder. Now their son, Victor Villasenor, has written “Rain of Gold,” a grand and vivid history of both clans in an ambitious narrative that draws on the utter terror of those years and the intuitive wisdom of his people as they adapted to their new country.
An Irish priest who loves bootleg booze performs the joyful wedding, which is attended by a Jewish tailor, an Indian sheriff who protects bootleggers, and of course both families, including the groom’s God-fearing mother, who often sits in the outhouse in blasphemous conversation with the Virgin Mary, “the Bible open on her lap, a cigarette hanging from her lips and a glass of whiskey in her left hand.”
The immigrant experience has always been integral to the American adventure. What makes the Mexican ordeal different is that they arrived by foot rather than by airplane or in steerage. The Villasenor and Gomez families came in the first wave of mass migration from Mexico, in the early 20th century. Victor Villasenor had been hearing stories from his family’s older generations about the arduous journey, descriptions of cruelty and hardship that strained credulity and obsessed him with the desire to squeeze every memory from his elders, and then visit the Mexican settlements where they grew up.
Mr. Villasenor, author of two previous books, alternates between the two families, focusing on the volatile Juan Salvador and the thoughtful Lupe; eventually the book becomes their love story. His dialogue is convincing and the pace seldom falters. What “Rain of Gold” shows best, however, is how the Porfirio Diaz regime, and the revolution it provoked in 1910, affected day-to-day family life. American investment In Mexico, encouraged by both Governments, proved meddlesome, manipulative and eventually destructive to the workers toiling in American-owned mines. “These tricky gringos, Lupe’s father says of a United States mining company, “they got it all planned out for us for the next two hundred years!”
The Villasenors, meanwhile, among the thousands camped at Juarez hoping to cross into the United States, witness daily degradations that extend into their own family. One day, out searching for firewood, Juan Salvador witnesses a dozen “wild men” ambush six horsemen, “hacking them with their machetes, and shooting their horses out from under them” for their clothes, shoes and surviving mounts. Flies, ants and vultures quickly attack, and, crazy with hunger for himself and his family, Juan bites a dead horse’s “bloody hairy hide…but he just didn’t have big enough teeth, nor enough saliva to get at the piece of dirty, dry meat, and he began to choke.” Another day in the streets Juan sees a disgusting and wrinkled old bag of bones wearing black, with gnarled hands, sick-looking, dirty, whining, crying, clawing, pitiful. Much to his horror he discovers it’s his own mother, shamelessly begging.
Both families have a spiritual underpinning where God and nature are worshipped as one. Time is measured in fists – “the sun was five fists off the jagged horizon” – and the sun itself, “the right eye of God,” is “the blanket of the poor.”
Lupe’s family, once in the States, follows the crops. She dreams of sufficient education to land an office job. “You dirty little Mexican,” one teacher scolded the dignified girl, “You’re too old to be in school!” Salvador – he had dropped his first name to throw police off his trail – had been eyeing Lupe from afar, and manipulated a chance meeting in the sweltering fields one day when he punched out a boorish Anglo foreman who refused her father a sip of water. “‘Thank you,’ she said, `but you didn’t have to hit him so hard.'”
By this time the smooth-talking, impulsive Salvador, whose few years in the States had been filled with mining camps, jails, fights, brothels, gambling dens and pool halls, had settled into the bootlegging profession. He had plenty of street smarts, but often the street got in the way of his smarts. He admired the solidarity of other workers and vilified the spineless vendidos, the Mexican sellouts. Still, it “never failed to amaze him how different his people were from the nglos. Los mejicanos never wasted anything. Instead of green grass in front of their homes, they had vegetable gardens. And they didn’t fence in their livestock, but let them roam free so they could eat anything they could find. Instead, they fenced in their crops.”
“Rain of Gold” captures well the odd formality of rural turn-of-the-century Mexican speech patterns, but repetitive cliches and telegraphed scenes diminish it somewhat. Mr. Villasenor’s style swerves from engaging and moving to cornier than a hip-pocket novela. His characters are keenly drawn, however, and the smells pungent. Often I felt like a family member quietly watching from a corner stool. Put “Rain of Gold” on the same shelf with Cary McWilliams’s “North From Mexico” and “Bracero,” by Eugene Nelson, to better understand how overwhelmingly the Mexican border renews life and fosters love.
By Tom Miller