The Fifth Horseman, 1974
Clemente Chacón, 1984
“The Last Minstrel in California” and “The Laughter of My Father” (in Iguana Dreams, 1992)
The parents of José Antonio Villarreal (VEE-yah-ree-AHL) were born in Mexico and moved to the United States in 1921. His father fought for Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Villarreal’s family served as migrant workers in the fields of California before settling in Santa Clara in 1930. As a child he read such works as classical mythology, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). He has cited James Otis’s Toby Tyler, Or, Ten Weeks with a Circus (1881) as his favorite childhood book.
Villarreal received a B.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught at various universities, including the University of Colorado, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Texas-Pan American, the University of Santa Clara, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Villarreal has the distinction of having written what is considered to be the first Chicano novel, Pocho, published in 1959, before the Civil Rights movement began in earnest. Villarreal maintains his individuality within the Chicano movement; he acknowledges his cultural debt not only to the Chicano culture but to the mainstream cultures of the United States and Mexico as well. He considers Chicano literature to be a part of American literature and compares Chicano writers to the regional writers of the southern or western United States. He acknowledges Mexican literature as an influence on his writing but feels that, except for the difference of language, the literatures of Mexico and the United States are very similar.
Villarreal considers the best Chicano literature to be that which informs the rest of American society about the condition of Hispanics living in the United States. He does not hesitate to criticize radical propagandistic writings by Chicanos which, in his opinion, alienate the general public and are read only by Chicanos, who are already familiar with their predicament. Villarreal has gone as far as to say that Chicano literature has come to be considered a separate and distinct body of literature largely because of the promotional efforts of academics who must justify their jobs and graduate programs.
Villarreal’s first novel, Pocho, suggests that the Mexican Revolution was the beginning of the proliferation of Hispanic communities in the American Southwest. Subsequently, many other Chicano novelists have also referred to the revolution as the point of departure for Chicano culture. The novel’s title is a derogatory term for an Americanized Chicano. The father of the protagonist, Richard Rubio, had participated in the Mexican Revolution and then crossed into the United States. As he matures, Richard rejects his parents’ Mexican Catholic values in order to assimilate into American society. As he witnesses a demonstration by farm and cannery workers, Richard’s perspective is detached–he seems to have forgotten that his own birth was in a melon field in California’s Imperial Valley. Villarreal modeled Pocho after James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).
In his second novel, The Fifth Horseman, Villarreal took his assimilationist philosophy one step further by attempting to write a novel that could be considered part of the Mexican literary tradition, even though the novel is written in English. As in Pocho, the Mexican Revolution provides the historical setting. Several scenes appear to be strongly influenced by Mexican novels about the revolution.
The Fifth Horseman also recalls the many American novels about the Mexican Revolution that were written in the 1920’s and 1930’s, long before the Chicano rights movement; moreover, the novel’s title is even reminiscent of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1916), the novel about World War I by the Spaniard Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. By thus acknowledging his American, Mexican, and Spanish heritage, Villarreal asserts his belief that the best literature is universal.
In his third novel, Clemente Chacón, Villarreal depicts the plight of Chicanos in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The narrative has certain surreal qualities, which are perhaps the author’s way of suggesting that Chicanos had become totally divorced from their history by the second half of the twentieth history. For example, in the novel’s epilogue, a senator from Texas named Porfirio Díaz talks to the U.S. president about the problem of illegal Mexican aliens.