Authors: Victor Villaseñor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, biographer, and screenwriter

Identity: Mexican American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Macho!, 1973

Short Fiction:

Walking Stars: Stories of Magic and Power, 1994

Screenplay:

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, 1982

Nonfiction:

Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona, 1977

Rain of Gold, 1991

Wild Steps of Heaven, 1996

Thirteen Senses: A Memoir, 2001

Biography

Victor Edmundo Villaseñor (VEE-yah-sehn-YOHR) is one of the significant chroniclers of the Mexican American experience; his novel Macho! was, along with Richard Vásquez’s 1970 novel Chicano, one of the first Chicano novels issued by a mainstream publisher. Villaseñor was born to Mexican immigrant parents in Carlsbad, California. His parents, Lupe Gomez and Juan Salvador Villaseñor, who had immigrated with their families when young, were middle class, and Victor and his four siblings were brought up on their ranch in Oceanside. Villaseñor struggled with school from his very first day, being dyslexic and having spoken Spanish rather than English at home. He dropped out of high school, feeling that he would “go crazy” if he did not, and went to work on his parents’ ranch. He briefly attended college at the University of San Diego, where he discovered that reading books could be something other than drudgery, but left college after flunking most of his courses. He became a boxer for a brief period, then went to Mexico, where he suddenly became aware of Mexican art, literature, and history. He began to be proud of his heritage, rather than confused and ashamed, meeting Mexican doctors and lawyers–“heroes,” he says–for the first time. He read extensively.{$I[AN]9810001552}{$I[A]Villaseñor, Victor}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Villaseñor, Victor}{$I[geo]LATINO;Villaseñor, Victor}{$I[tim]1940;Villaseñor, Victor}

Returning to California at his parents’ insistence, Villaseñor worked in construction beginning in 1965 and painstakingly taught himself how to write. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was particularly inspirational. He wrote extensively, producing many novels and short stories. They were steadily rejected until Bantam Books decided to take a chance and publish Macho! in 1973. The novel’s protagonist is a young man named Roberto García, and the novel covers roughly a year in his life, first in his home village in Mexico, then in California, then in Mexico again. Somewhat unwillingly, Roberto journeys northward with a group of norteños from his village to earn money working in the fields of California. Roberto’s personification of–and finally, inability to fully accept–the traditional social code of machismo; his conflicts with others, notably fellow norteño Pedro; and the larger labor struggle between migrant workers and landowners in California provide the central action of the book. Macho! received favorable reviews. The year of its initial publication Villaseñor married Barbara Bloch, the daughter of his editor; they have two sons, David and Joe. Villaseñor built a house on his parents’ property, and as his sons grew older he enjoyed horseback riding with them.

Villaseñor’s second major published work was nonfiction. Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona details the trial of a serial killer. Villaseñor had read about the case after Macho! had been accepted for publication, and it captured his interest–Corona had been arrested for murdering twenty-five derelicts. Villaseñor extensively interviewed the members of the jury that convicted Corona and thoroughly examined the complex and controversial trial. (The jury had deliberated for eight grueling days before reaching a verdict.) After the book’s publication, he received some criticism for his interpretations of the events.

Villaseñor subsequently wrote the screenplay for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, based partly on writer Américo Paredes’s account of the adventures of Cortez, a real-life figure, eluding the Texas Rangers around 1900. Villaseñor tells the story using multiple points of view, effectively relating the story of a man driven by circumstances into the life of a bandit while showing the prejudices and racism of the times. Written for television, the film won an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities; it was also released to theaters.

Rain of Gold, published in 1991 after more than ten years of research and writing, is the multigenerational story of Villaseñor’s family. It begins in the days before the turbulence of the Mexican Revolution and continues through life after migration to the United States in the early twentieth century, and it is told with some dramatic fictionalization. It was dubbed the “Chicano Roots” by those who compared it with Alex Haley’s story of his African American family’s history. Rain of Gold tells readers much about Mexican history and about anti-Hispanic prejudice in the American Southwest. The book was almost published two years earlier by G. P. Putnam’s, but Villaseñor became unhappy with the company at the last minute for insisting that the book be called “Rio Grande” (“a John Wayne movie,” he scoffed) and wanting to cut its length and call it fiction in order to boost sales. The company agreed to let him buy back his book, for which Villaseñor remortgaged his home. Published in its original form and with the original title (a translation of La Lluvia de Oro, his mother’s birthplace in Mexico) by Arte Público, it was well received and was widely considered Villaseñor’s masterwork.

Wild Steps of Heaven recounts the history of Villaseñor’s father’s family in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, before the events covered in Rain of Gold; Villaseñor considered it part two of a “Rain of Gold” trilogy, and he planned to follow it with the story of his mother’s family. He draws on stories told by his father and members of his extended family, relating them in a folkloric style that sometimes verges on Magical Realism. Walking Stars: Stories of Magic and Power, published two years before Wild Steps of Heaven, consists of stories for young readers that attempt both to entertain and to inspire; each of the stories, most based on events in the early lives of his parents, concludes with notes in which the author discusses the stories’ meanings, emphasizing the spiritual magic that people’s lives embody.

BibliographyBarbato, Joseph. “Latino Writers in the American Market.” Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1991, pp. 17-21. Discusses the publishing of Rain of Gold and includes an interview with Villaseñor.Guilbault, Rose Del Castillo. “Americanization Is Tough on ‘Macho.’” In American Voices: Multicultural Literacy and Critical Thinking, edited by Dolores Laguardia and Hans P. Guth. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield, 1992. Focuses on the concept of macho, central to Villaseñor’s first book; also has an interview with Villaseñor.Kelsey, Verlene. “Mining for a Usable Past: Acts of Recovery, Resistence, and Continuity in Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold.” Bilingual Review 18 (January-April, 1993): 79-85. Extensive review and close reading of Villaseñor’s book.Tatum, Charles M. Chicano Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Includes a discussion of Villaseñor.
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