... y no se tragó la tierra/... and the earth did not part, 1971 (also pb. as This Migrant Earth, 1985; ... and the earth did not devour him, 1987)
The Harvest: Short Stories, 1989 (bilingual)
Always, and Other Poems, 1973
The Searchers: Collected Poetry, 1990
Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works, 1991
Rarely has a literary reputation been so securely based on one slim novel as that of Tomás Rivera (rih-VAYR-ah). Though he was also highly regarded as a college administrator and educator–becoming, in 1979, the first Chicano to be named a chancellor in the University of California system–and though he published a small collection of poems (Always, and Other Poems) in 1973 and scattered poems, essays, and short stories afterward, it is on his striking episodic novel, . . . and the earth did not part, that his literary reputation rests.
Born on December 22, 1935, the son of migrant workers Florencio and Josefa Hernández Rivera, Tomás Rivera himself did migrant work until 1957. He received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1958 and a master’s degree in educational administration in 1964 from Southwest Texas State University; he subsequently studied at the University of Oklahoma, from which he earned a doctorate in Romance languages and literature in 1969. His novel . . . and the earth did not part was first published in 1971, in an edition that printed both the original Spanish and its translation into English; it won the Quinto Sol National Chicano Literary Award. In 1978 he married Concepción Garza, and in 1979 he became chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.
Not a conventional novel, . . . and the earth did not part may appear to some at first reading to be a collection of loosely connected short stories and sketches. While the separate chapters are written and can be read as individual stories, critics agree that the deeper structure of the work as a whole demands that it be read as a novel.
The book begins with a chapter entitled “The Lost Year,” which introduces the theme of lost time that will continue through the novel. When the narrator describes a recurring dream in which the unnamed protagonist “would suddenly awaken and then realize that he was really asleep,” the reader may be put in mind of the beginning of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), in which the narrator wakes with the candle extinguished and cannot remember whether he has slept. As Rivera’s book continues, the reader understands that the period the narrator is describing as a year is actually several years, which have blended together into a single year. The fragmentation of the chapters that follow highlights less the memory loss of the protagonist than the slow regaining of memory he is experiencing.
The novel follows the effects of migrant living and working not only on the main character but also on the community of workers. Typically, the chapters alternate sections of tersely described action with equally terse dialogue between unnamed speakers–sometimes between the characters of the story being told and sometimes between two people who are discussing this story, which might be well known to both of them. At the end of “The Children Couldn’t Wait,” a story about a child being shot for taking a drink of water, two people talk about how the boss who shot him went crazy and lost all of his money. Similarly, both “The Little Burn Victims” and “The Night the Lights Went Out”–the first a story of children burned to death and the second a story of a jealous lover who electrocutes himself–end with the voices of people casually discussing these tragedies. Not only do the tragedies belong to the entire community, but they are accepted almost as everyday, if fascinating, occurrences.
Side by side with these apocalyptic stories are the stories that seem to center on the main protagonist himself; though it is not certain that the young boy who appears in many of these stories is the same one, it is certain that the stories are presented as if they might be about the same person. Just as the tragedies belong not only to the people to whom they happen but also to the entire community, each story about the growth and disappointments of a young boy belongs not only to the boy himself but also to people like him. In “It’s That It Hurts” the boy, having been expelled from school for fighting back when attacked by a couple of what the principal calls “our kids,” and unable to imagine breaking the news to his parents, tries to convince himself that maybe he was not expelled. The irony is that his expulsion from school marks the beginning of his real education. Three stories, “A Silvery Night,” “And the Earth Did Not Part,” and “First Communion,” trace his growing mistrust of religion as he calls on the Devil to appear, curses God for letting his father and little brother both get sunstroke, and lies to a priest at confession. In each case he expects some sort of retribution to occur, but instead he comes to the sudden recognition that the Devil will not appear and that the earth will not open up and swallow him.
His astonishment at learning that apocalypses need not occur leads up to the “The Portrait,” in which a man who has been swindled by a person who promised to make a portrait of his dead son searches out the swindler and forces him to make the portrait from memory. For the first time in the book, forceful action taken by a Chicano against an exploiter produces a desirable result. In the penultimate chapter, “When We Arrive,” migrant workers on a truck that has broken down discuss what they will do when they arrive, even after one of them says, “We never arrive.” They never arrive at anything except waiting for the next job, the next arrival; still, in this constant waiting, a community is forged.
Before his death, Rivera was working on a second novel, La casa grande, sections of which had appeared in various journals, but no final product was released. Regardless, on the basis of his one short novel . . . and the earth did not part, which has become a standard text in North American Hispanic and Chicano literature classes, his literary reputation is secure. Partly because his novel was written in Spanish and was translated into English, many critics of Chicano literature view it as a text that liberated other Chicano writers to find their authentic voices. When the journal Revista Chicano-Riqueña, which Rivera helped to found, published a special double issue, International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera, after his death, many of the contributors recalled not only his presence as a writer but also his liberating generosity as an educator and friend.