José Antonio Villarreal and Pocho: A Mexican American Novel and Its Tragic Plot by Roberto Cantú
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Cambridge Scholars. 2022. 131 pages.
In this monograph, Roberto Cantú critically revisits José Antonio Villarreal’s novel Pocho some sixty years after its publication and scrutinizes it with an acute critical lens to note the work’s literary continuities and discontinuities with respect to what would subsequently become Chicano literary production and literature more broadly in the United States. He reevaluates the novel to situate and recalibrate its place in Chicano/a letters. Cantú counters negative takes by some Chicano critics of Pocho, underscoring their lack of sensibility and understanding of Villarreal’s bildungsroman and the particular aesthetic, philosophical, and existentialist concerns therein.
As Ramón Saldívar notes in his work on Chicano Narrative, Villarreal’s novel Pocho “has always been somewhat of an embarrassment to Chicanos,” who decry the assimilationist tendencies of the narrative. Beyond what may be critiqued as an assimilationist bent, however, what is clear is that the novel provides a highly individualist, male-centered perspective—a trait shared with a good many Chicano novels of the 1960s and early 1970s. Angie Chabram-Dernersesian observes that cultural nationalist narratives are marked by the saliency of a Chicano male subject imbued with a hypermasculinist patriarchal ideology in which male privilege goes unchecked.
Likewise remarkable is that although Villarreal rejected being identified as a Chicano and having his work included as part of what he considered minor if not inferior Chicano literature, his novel closely follows similar Chicano narrative motifs: a glorification of Mexican Revolution heroes like Pancho Villa, and a celebration of a womanizing figure like the main character’s father, Juan Rubio.
Cantú’s intervention focuses on countering negative critiques of Villarreal’s novel by tracing the process of individuation in the work, rather than by, for example, noting the absence of a collective community perspective. Cantú presents the “identity quest” of Richard, the main character, not as an ethnic or political quest but as an individualist drive to deal with the intersection and mystery of sexuality, religion, and history in the protagonist’s lived experience. For Cantú, Villarreal presents Richard as an individual, neither a follower nor a leader; his struggle is uniquely his. Villarreal’s work is not oppositional or resistant in conception; he is much more centered on subject formation and individual agency.
Cantú celebrates what he terms Villarreal’s “stagecraft,” his “constant and ingenious” experimentation with form, highlighting the novel’s innovative-for-then fragmented structure, as it moves from a temporal/spatial division in its focus first on Juan Rubio’s participation in the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century and later on the mid-twentieth-century plot concerned with the young Richard’s life in rural California. Cantú’s literary exegesis of the novel and its “tragic plot” deploys a historical-mythical literary lens, thoughtfully referencing the work of classical Greek dramatists and philosophers; more recent European writers such as Nietzsche, Bakhtin, Sartre, and Joyce; and Mexican writers like Juan Rulfo and—perhaps especially—Octavio Paz. Cantú makes clear that the novel draws deeply from Greek mythology, popular culture, and Mexican history. In 1994 Cantú would publish a Spanish translation of Pocho.
The classical Greek motif of tragedy allows Cantú to see two parallel plotlines in the novel’s fragmented structure, that of the father and that of the son. The novel is read as a tragic Mexican American family drama, comparable to the Greek struggle involving Dionysus vis-à-vis Apollo. Following Nietzsche’s designation of these two central principles in Greek culture, Cantú notes the contradictory tensions within the Rubio family and within the broader community. More specifically, the tragedy in the novel will be linked to the dissolution of the Rubio marriage; the tragedy centers on patriarchy, not a critique of it, but a lament, as it were, of the upheaval resulting from the questioning of male privilege.
Cantú, for example, suggests that the mother/wife Consuelo “miscalculates” and plots against her husband, acts that lead to her “eventual loss of both husband and son,” although throughout the novel Juan’s infidelities are multiple. The implosion of Juan’s household threatens to negatively impact Richard’s future, an imminent tragedy, if he allows his mother’s notions of a son’s duties to hinder and preclude his life choices (here, attending university). What Cantú terms “Richard’s tragic fate” in fact centers on his personal existential dilemma following the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, his sisters’ and mother’s rebellion against the father, and his decision to join the US armed forces after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
While there are doubtless self-limiting ideologies at work in Villarreal’s novel, Cantú has done a fine job of providing a nuanced literary and culturally grounded analysis of what needs to be viewed as an undeniably seminal narrative, making clear that, despite its constraints, Pocho is a benchmark in what was in 1959 the inchoate field of Chicano/a literature. Cantú here has put in play a thoughtful critical framework that calls for a reassessment of Villareal’s work and an accounting of its rightful place in Chicano/a letters. His monograph makes a convincing argument for the need for further scholarship on Villarreal’s works.
Rosaura Sánchez & Beatrice Pita
University of Texas at Austin & University of California, San Diego