Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
Clemente’s family not only leaves the physical land behind, they leave their spiritual connection behind them, too, and this loss will create enormous conflict in their lives. To ameliorate their feelings of being uprooted, they make a symbolic attempt to take the land with them by filling a coffee can with rich dirt from their garden.
*Albuquerque. New Mexico’s largest city, the setting in which the novel’s main action occurs. After leaving their home in Guadalupe, the Chávezes make their home in the Barelas barrio in downtown Albuquerque. This city is literally and figuratively “in a new time and in a new place.” In this communal environment, the family at first feels accepted through the experiences they share with their neighbors. However, from Clemente’s first attempt to mix the lush soil from his original home with the “hard city soil,” the novel conveys the hostilities and difficulties the family will face.
The novel is filled with symbols that convey the violence, alienation, racism, poverty, and subjugation the family must confront and overcome if they are to survive. Some symbols are used ironically. For instance, a water tank next to a railroad yard might normally symbolize life, nourishment; here, however, it is a “black tower of steel [that] loomed over everything.” It projects the inherent evil of those who own the railroad, a socioeconomic institution that controls its workers through threats and coercion. Eventually, the tank becomes known as “devil’s tower” because of the injustices that take place there. The evil extends to the houses that surround the railroad yard as they are “dark with soot.” Even the elm trees, normally symbols of fertility and life, are “withered and bare.” The men who survive working in dismal, life-threatening conditions are covered with the black soot, which eventually creeps into their souls and destroys them.
The Roman Catholic Church, which should be a safe haven that offers its parishioners solace and hope, refuses to get involved in the strike against the injustices leveled against the people in the barrio. The public schools instead of being the great equalizer are places in which prejudice and violence flourish and are often even nourished. Rudolfo A. Anaya does not suggest that the people of the barrio should forsake the city and return to their rural environment. He does believe that if the family and the people of the barrio are to survive, they must reestablish their connection with their cultural heritage and forge new identities.
Aztlán. Mythical ancestral homeland of the Mexican American people that represents a spiritual reconnection to their culture, past, and pride as a people. When the people of the barrio rediscover Aztlán, their spiritual foundation, the “infusion of spirit into flesh,” they unite and overcome the injustices, violence, and alienation. Aztlán is a mysterious, spiritual place that could only exist in the Southwest, in particular, Albuquerque.