Rain of Gold: A family’s history is America’s

I have a Mexican-American friend who swam the Rio Grande five times. I have another who has lived and raised a family in New York City for 17 years. When he first came, he tells me, it was hard because there were no shops selling the ingredients of Mexican cooking, no chilies, no tomatillos, no masa de harina. Now he and I can both buy those items five minutes from home.

The immigrant experience as lived by Mexican-Americans has become our modern metaphor, the classic American story: aspiration, movement, struggle, rejection, prejudice, work, acceptance. Increasingly, this s tory informs our literature. In “Mexican Voices/

American Dreams” (Henry Holt/Owl, $14.95, paperback), Marilyn P. Davis provides a moving oral history of Mexican immigration. John Rechy recently portrayed Chicano life in a fine new novel, “The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez” (Arcade, $19.95). And now Arte Publico Press, a brave and dedicated publisher of Hispanic-American writing, has a triumph in Victor Villasenor’s “Rain of Gold.”

Villasenor grew up in California amid several generations of his large Mexican family. But the world beyond the nearby border, the world of his cultural heritage, seemed very far away. He was an American, and it wasn’t until he went to live with relatives in Mexico, at 19, that his own background became a source of pride and strength. His first book was the 1973 novel, “Macho,” now a movie with Edward James Olmos and available from Arte Publico ($9, paperback).

“Rain of Gold” reads like a novel, a great novel of broad vision and sweeping drama. But it is a true story, that of Villasenor’s own family, and the people in it are real. So are the events, some fantastic, some epic in their drama, some touching in their romance, some brutally violent, all vivid with intimate memory.

The story begins at the time of the Mexican Revolution, in 1911, with a 6-year-old girl named Lupe. She will, in later life, be Villasenor’s mother. Beset by poverty and banditry, her family slowly painfully, makes its way north. The United States seems to promise security and adequate food. Meanwhile, in another Mexican state, the family of 11-year-old Juan Salvador is also struggling northward. For both families, the only resources to carry them the distance and across the border are determination and wits.

Once in the United States, the struggle is different and even greater. Villasenor’s tale includes gambling and bootlegging, crime, prison and escape, young machos and younger maidens, love, revenge, births, deaths, and the countless twists and turns of chance that eventually bring Lupe and Juan to the altar.

These lives pose the great American dilemma: how to become something new and yet retain all the wealth of one’s past. Villasenor re-creates them with vivid passion in a rough-hewn voice that is as honestly American as it is genuinely Mexican. And the family photos he includes look just like the ones in my own closet.

Villasenor’s grandparents came from the mountains of Jalisco and the jagged barranca country of Chihuahua. My grandparents came from the back streets of Copenhagen and Dublin. But Villsenor has written my family history, too. And yours.

Rain of Gold is one of the best – and most American – books of this or any other year.