Of Mexico, Of Ourselves

A review of “Wild Steps of Heaven”

They didn’t know who they were messing with when they took on Victor Villasenor. In a literary showdown that has achieved legendary status, Villasenor took on a major New York publisher with his previous book, “Rain of Gold.”

After paying him a generous advance,the publisher informed the author that this first volume of his family history (of which “Wild Steps of Heaven” is the second) was fiction. When Villasenor could not convince them it was history, he went to the astounding lengths of returning the advance and buying his life story back from New York.

“Rain of Gold” was eventually published by tiny Arte Publico Press, and still managed to rack up impressive sales. The tough Oceanside rancher was elevated, among other writers, at least, to minor hero status. And that editor, one hopes, is currently slinging burgers at the Times Square Burger Boy.

This story has real bearing on “Wild Steps of Heaven.” Once one understands the Villasenor ethos and strength of will, these events come to seem like a chapter from the book. At one point near the middle of the book, a child complains about yet another round of danger and overwhelming hardship. An old woman grows impatient with his sniveling and snaps, “Quiet!….Why, the heavens are with us at this very moment…Just open your eyes and see all the glorious angels singing about us.”

Although shorter than “Rain of Gold” by nearly half, “Wild steps of Heaven” has a stateliness and heft that makes it seem longer. Dealing, in large part, with the dangers and witchiness of northern Mexico on the eve of the revolution, with terrible violence and another remarkable cast of characters – especially some refreshingly powerful women – “Wild Steps of Heaven” is full of event and activity. Magic spells, danger, hard work and killings weave in and around the domestic lives of Juan and Jose and Dona Margarita and the other family members as they try to survive in an ever-more-explosive world.

Villasenor’s many fans should enjoy this book; it is a worthy follow-up to “Rain of Gold.” (He is also the author of one of the early mass-market Chicano novels, “Macho!,” from the early `70s.) Because of its setting, its revolutionary milieu and its meditations on female power and magic, it should also appeal to those who loved “Like Water for Chocolate.”

Villasenor is a good enough writer to know that Mexican suffering is also human suffering; that Mexican family life, love, adventure, and laughter is also human. The Mexicanness of the story, of our lives, in spite of what Pat Buchanan might say, is an accidental detail. A beautiful, rich, a proud detail, but one we had no hand in choosing for ourselves. Ultimately, because it is so particular and “Mexican,” the story becomes universal. The Villasenor family becomes our own family, much as the Joads were able to join us in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Fortunately for us, Villasenor’s literacy came late and hard. He read his first book at 20, while on a visit to Mexico. He knows what it costs, both to read and to write, and it shows in his determination to tell his story, no matter what the odds. Writing is no game to him, and, I suspect, not merely a job, either.

Knowing the New York editorial crowd too well, I can imagine Villasenor’s editor deciding that American readers wouldn’t care enough about a Mexican family to buy the book. And, once they bought it, not being able to accept the story as true. I was once told by a future pizza delivery technician at a New York publisher’s office that I shouldn’t write about white people – that I only understood “suffering Mexicans.” Up on the Villasenor ranch, Don Victor did it his way. He had faith in his story, and he had faith in us.

So far, readers are repaying his trust. “Wild Steps of Heaven” is their story, too.

Reviewed by Luis Alberto Urrea