Tomás Rivera journeyed a long way from his early days in the South Texas town of Crystal City, where he was born to a family of migrant farmworkers. He enjoyed a varied and distinguished career as an educator and was appointed by presidents Carter and Reagan to serve on national higher education commissions. At the time of his death, in 1984, he was the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside. But arguably his most lasting accomplishment is his book . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra. Published in 1971, the slender volume marked the coming of age of Chicano literature in Texas.
Although the book is sometimes called a novel, that isn’t exactly right. It is instead a collection of stories about migrant families that are loosely linked by a child who experiences what he calls a “lost year.” The narrative pieces range from impressionistic passages of less than a page to more traditional short stories. It would appear that the work owes more to James Joyce than to realistic American novels that deal with similar material—a people dispossessed of land and forced to take to the road to earn a living.
The complexity of rendering the boy’s consciousness is seen even in the interpretations of the verb “tragó” in the title. “Tragar” means “to swallow up, drink up, gulp down, engulf”; one translator even uses “to part.” I prefer Evangelina Vigil-Piñon’s 1987 translation … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, mainly because “devour” is closer to the dimension of fear that the author seeks to conjure in his depiction of a child raised according to strict Catholic tenets. The boy is deeply apprehensive about what will happen to him if he blasphemes against God. The earth will devour him, he fears, and when he finds it does not, his relief is heartfelt.
Though the boy is preoccupied with his spiritual condition, he is also wounded by the poverty of his family, whose means of support is stoop labor—picking beets, spinach, and cotton. Children are particularly susceptible to tragedy. Two die when their “chicken shack” bursts into flames while their parents are working in the fields. Another is shot to death accidentally by a rancher who wants to scare the boy away from a stock tank. A son is lost in action in Korea. The children of another family wrestle with the idea that they will never receive Christmas presents.
Despite such adversity, the people endure. Traduced by salesmen, mistreated by employers, persecuted because of their race, they continue to hope. “When We Arrive,” the title of one story, addresses the perpetual longing for arrival—not just to a particular place, the end of a trip, but arriving fully as a people. Books like Tomás Rivera’s are part of that unfinished journey.