Tomás Rivera: “. . . Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him)”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Reading Tomás Rivera’s groundbreaking book, . . . Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him), was the first time I had a full, powerful, visceral sense of what it must be like to be a migrant worker. Don’t get me wrong: I know that a book can’t substitute for real, lived experience – but for me, good books are portals into other lives. They allow me to expand my awareness, my knowledge, my consciousness – and when they’re done really well, they tell a great story, too.

Such is the case with Rivera’s 1971 book. Comprised of short stories and vignettes, the 70-page book could be seen as more a collage or story cycle than a novel – but I think it adapts the novel form to the rhythms and patterns of the lives lived by Chicano migrant workers in the United States. Just as Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1896 book, The Country of the Pointed Firs, can be seen as an unconventionally structured novel, so, too, can Rivera’s book be seen as challenging the classic definition of a novel. It’s as if Rivera – the son of migrant workers – is saying, “Chicano migrant workers don’t have the luxury of lives lived in one place. They don’t have the luxury of living a novel. Their lives are fragmented and fractured, as they move from place to place.”

This fragmentation is felt tangibly in the book’s unusual structure. The semi-autobiographical book opens with an unnamed narrator, the 12-year-old son of South Texas Mexican American migrant workers, crawling under a house, where he begins to recall stories from the previous year. The rest of the book unfolds in a collage of story fragments – the bits and pieces the boy remembers from his family’s constant travel around the United States.

The boy is “wounded by the poverty of his family, whose means of support is stoop labor – picking beets, spinach, and cotton.” The Texas Monthly says that children in the book 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.”

One of the most heart-wrenching of the stories, “When We Arrive,” describes the harrowing journey from one farm across multiple states to another farm. Much like Langston Hughes’s 1951 collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred, captures the voices he hears on Harlem streets, this story weaves together snippets of conversation heard on the truck carrying the migrant workers. Multiple speakers speculate on what they’ll do when they get to their destination. “When we get there” is a common refrain. One speaker finally says in exasperation: “When we arrive, when we arrive, the real truth is that I’m tired of arriving. Arriving and leaving, it’s the same thing because we no sooner arrive and . . . the real truth of the matter . . . I’m tired of arriving. I really should say when we don’t arrive because that’s the real truth. We never arrive.”

After the book’s twelve episodes, the last piece of the book, a kind of epilogue, brings us back to the unnamed narrator under the house. Here, the boy realizes what he has been doing under the house – re-membering the past year. The boy says,

I would like to see all of the people together. And then, if I had great big arms, I could embrace them all. I wish I could talk to all of them again, but all of them together. But that, only in a dream. I like it right here because I can think about anything I please. Only by being alone can you bring everybody together. That’s what I needed to do, hide, so that I could come to understand a lot of things. From now on, all I have to do is to come here, in the dark, and think about them. And I have so much to think about and I’m missing so many years. I think today what I wanted to do was recall this past year. And that’s just one year. I’ll have to come here to recall all of the other years.

As he comes out from under the house, the boy “realized that in reality he hadn’t lost anything. He had made a discovery. To discover and rediscover and piece things together. This to this, that to that, all with all. That was it. That was everything.”

With his family and fellow migrant workers always on the move, the boy realizes that the only “narrative” he can give to his life will come from piecing each tale to the one before. There is no single place, no permanent home of his own on which he can hang his story. The narrative will have to come in the deliberate act of re-membering.

Rivera’s book was a watershed moment in the Chicano rights movement. Its publication followed on the heels of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers strike and the 1969 gathering of 3,000 Chicanos in Denver to draft El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, a series of resolutions aimed at freedom from economic, social, and political oppression. Rivera said of his work:

I felt that I had to document the migrant worker forever, so that their very strong spirit of endurance and will to go on under the worst of conditions should not be forgotten, because they were worse than slaves. They may be economically deprived, politically deprived, socially deprived, but they kept moving, never staying in one place to suffer or be subdued. . . . To me they were people who searched, and that’s an important metaphor in the Americas. My grandfather was a searcher; my father was a searcher; I hope I can also be a searcher. That’s the spirit I seek. Now this is a positive image of the migrant as opposed to the negative one of him as lost in the stream of labor. Well, that’s the point: to be able to document his strength, to show that he really was not lost.

It is crucial to note that Rivera wrote the book in Chicano-flavored Spanish and declined to issue an English translation: he wanted American readers to meet their Chicano neighbors on their own terms, wanted them to acknowledge a language other than English as an American language. Later, the book was translated into English by several different translators, though Rivera himself did not pen an English version. The standard edition of the book includes Rivera’s original Spanish version, Evangelina Vigil-Piñón’s 1987 English translation, and stills from the 1995 film (And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him). (If you become especially interested in Rivera’s work, you must check out Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works.)

Rivera claimed that his book received “thousands” of rejections before winning the 1970 Premio Quinto Sol award, given to the best fiction written by a Mexican American author as a way of bringing attention to Chicano writers. Rivera was the first to win the award, which netted him $1000 and publication of his book.

And the Earth Did Not Devour Him was a breakthrough success for Chicano literature and the growing Chicano rights movement. The book is frequently taught in ethnic and Chicano literature courses throughout the United States. Rivera himself was also a success: he received a PhD in Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Oklahoma and went on to become the chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, a position he held until his death in 1984. He was the first Mexican American to hold such a position at the University of California.

If you want to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, I can think of no better place to start than Rivera’s landmark book!

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Watch:Watch a four-minute clip from And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him, the 1995 film based on Rivera’s book.

Image Credit: Dorothea Lange, “Pinal County, Arizona. Mexican Boy Age 13, Coming in from Cotton Field at Noon” (1940), courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration [CTL#NWDNS-83-G-41839].