Title of work: ...y
no se lo tragó la tierra (...And the Earth Did Not Devour
Him) by Tomás Rivera
Considered a landmark of Chicano literature, Rivera's 1971 novel tells the story of a community of migrant workers in the United States in the 1940s and '50s. A compilation of stories, internal monologues, vignettes, and scraps of conversation, the novel focuses on a year in the life of a boy from a south Texas community. The boy faces bigotry, poverty, illness, and confusion about his own history and identity, but finds strength in himself and in those around him. "By discovering who he is," writes Julián Olivares in Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works, "this adolescent becomes one with his people. Through his quest, he embodies and expresses the collective conscience and experiences of his society."
Chicano literature scholar Nicolás Kanellos writes: "Tomás Rivera's ...y no se lo tragó la tierra is haunted by the nameless Chicano masses whose nocturnal voices reflect on the events narrated and record them into the collective memory of the Chicano. Rivera, in reproducing the Chicano social milieu, allows the reader to eavesdrop on the candid, all-knowing and unguarded conversations of the unidentified interlocutors who represent the collective subconscious of the Chicanos. We see through them how Chicanos interpret reality. For the most part, these nighttime speakers are not even circumstantially related to the plot; rather, they review for each other what they themselves have heard. It seems that they are one step from oral history and folklore, one step from immortalizing their subjects in a corrido or folktale."
There's a lot of beautiful poetry in Tomás Rivera's novel, you'll find. You know, even though it's a very harsh experience that the book conveys -- you know, pain, suffering, the sun bearing down on the people as they're working -- there are moments that are refreshing, and inspiring, like little fleeting swirls of beauty. Like, for example, when he goes out into the silvery night. It is magical.
From a literary point of view ... this is a very, very sophisticated book. Not only is it poetic, not only is the language poetic, but also the devices of plot construction and perspective are very, very highly literary and belong to the new novel. They belong to what people have assumed is the Latin American boom, where the reader is expected to construct the narrative. So there are all kinds of clues in the book that lead the reader to piece together who is speaking at what time, what it means, what are the relationships of the characters, so this becomes somewhat of an artistic literary puzzle.
Q & A with Nicolás Kanellos
Why is And the Earth Did Not Devour Him a good choice for high school students?
And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is a great book to teach in high school especially, because at this point in the life of a young person, they're trying to find out who they are. There are all kinds of pressures, and emotions, and growing pains that we try to make sense of -- the protagonist has to piece together his identity from bits and pieces of overheard dialogue, from personal experiences, from imaginings, from stories that other people tell. It's really like what happens in the real world, that you never get the full story.
So there are all kinds of clues in the book that lead the reader to piece together who is speaking at what time, what it means, what the relationship of the characters are -- because in fact we have about four or five different types of narrators in the book, so this becomes somewhat of a literary puzzle.
Is this book autobiographical?
That has been a mistake of some critics, and teachers of the book. They try to see in this book a biography of Tomás Rivera. Well, [like] any author, Tomás Rivera included incidents from his life, characters from his life are woven, but in no way was this a biography. Tomás was a highly literate and literary person. And he read broadly in the literatures of many languages. He got a master's degree in French from the University of Oklahoma. At every point he knew that he was constructing something that was in the mainstream of avant-garde literature at the time that he was writing. And he saw the world that way. So it was in no way an autobiography. The main character is not Tomás. It's a broad interpretation of the struggles of migrant workers, Mexican Americans, other ethnic groups that need to find themselves in a minority culture. It has epic dimensions.
To what extent is the book based on historical fact?
Many people have called this the Chicano Grapes of Wrath. And the same kinds of historical background that tell us about the dustbowl, and what John Steinbeck documented through The Grapes of Wrath, is here. We have that background. And, in fact, not only do we have that background historically, we have it today. Because all of these issues, and all of these trends in immigration, and farm labor, and unionizing labor, and poor schooling for migrant workers -- and for poor kids -- still exist in this country.
Where does Rivera fit into the Chicano literary movement?
Tomás Rivera had been writing before the official Chicano movement got underway (which historians and scholars place around 1965), when Cesar Chavez organized farm workers in California, and tried to unionize them. Along with that unionizing came the birth of the El Teatro Campesino, with Luis Valdez, who very much developed a farm worker theater and took it around the country and popularized this new kind of literature that used the language of the people. It also had a political message along with the civil rights movement and protests against Vietnam.
In the late 1960s, some professors from the University of California, Berkeley, began publishing a very, very important magazine called El Grito, and published the first really kind of academically respected anthology of Chicano literature called El Espejo, The Mirror. Then they founded their publishing house, called El Quinto Sol. So in 1970, they started giving the award for the best Chicano literature, one award per year, and the first award they gave was to And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, by Tomás Rivera.
What issues does the novel explore?
This book is much, much more about some of the more intimate, poetic, and personal moments of coming to terms with one's identity, and family, and society. And therefore looks beyond the mere, political movements, the mere politics of resisting domination from outside. It's much more a query of the community itself. What are you going to do to get outside of the vicious cycle of poor schools? What are you going to do to get outside of the vicious cycle of being treated like a beast of burden? But in a very much more poetic and intimate way, not couched in the rhetoric of party politics.
What were some of important influences on Rivera's work?
Tomás Rivera really was nurtured on the oral culture in migrant worker communities. So he knew the folk songs, and the folk tales, and the legends, and the grassroots interpretation of religion. And we see that in the book. Not only do we see it, it becomes an integral part of the plot, the characters, and the texture of the book.
Discuss the issues Rivera's book brought to light, and how he treated them.
Now, some of the issues brought up obviously are shocking. Children that get shot because they want to go have a drink of water. Kids that could burn to death in their house because they have to be left alone while their parents are out working the fields. These are tragedies. And they go beyond just pointing fingers. The book is full of irony. And those, those unidentified voices in the dialogues at the end of the chapters that kind of represent the collective conscious in the book -- they're injecting the irony.
For example, in one chapter, the boxing gloves the kids were using to play with when they were at home, when they were alone, didn't burn in the fire, but the little bodies burned. So one of these little anonymous voices says, "Well, they sure make boxing gloves durable these days, don't they?"
So it questions the values of the society -- materialism, you know, we make these kinds of things to last, but we can't make kids last and aspirations and hopes last.
What was Rivera saying about religion?
Tomás Rivera was very, very much concerned about what kept migrant workers within that vicious migrant cycle, not being able to break out of it. Besides the working conditions -- migrant work having been a conscious replacement for the system of slavery in the nineteenth century -- he looked inward, he looked at Mexican American society, and he saw some of the traditional binds that religion tends to place on people, especially religion at the grassroots level, where priests find it more important, for instance, to raise money to build a church, than to deal with the needs of a community. Or the rote learning that goes on in catechism, that teaches young people that their bodies are bad, that sex is bad, that there is evil and filth involved in the sexual act. Rivera is trying to raise the level of consciousness of the readers and the community, because this book ultimately was aimed back at the community.
So when this young man struggles to find out who he is, he runs smack dab up against those teachings, about good and evil and death and heaven and sin, and he has to find his way through that maze. And the kind of message that we get through all of this meandering through these principles and teachings of the church and the nuns and what have you, the book becomes very, very much an existential tract, where Tomás is telling us people have to forge their own lives. They have to get outside of those vicious cycles.
So, when he questions the idea of good and evil, and he takes us all the way back to the garden of Eden and original sin, he is really is examining theology on a grassroots level. What is good? What is evil? What responsibility does man have for his own life? Is there a devil out there forcing man to do evil? Is there a God out there enticing man to do good by promising heaven?
Any religious belief, any philosophy, any ideology, whether it's just rote, it's just passed on from generation to generation without questioning, ultimately entraps people, and that's what this is about. What is it in the spiritual or religious background of migrant workers that kind of leads them to accept their lot in life? And Tomás Rivera was like that protagonist who crawls out from under the house after discovering how society works, and says, "I don't have to be trapped by that. I can free myself. And if they call me crazy, that's OK, too, because I don't fit into that society, and I can climb up into that tree and observe all of this, and I can become a writer, and analyze it, and teach other people about it. That can be my role, to free myself."
In a book that's so small, so readable, and so poetic, there are the many, many very deep, philosophical, theological issues. And, it's fun to deal with them, as long as we have an open mind, and can have an open discussion about them. And that's for every teacher in his or her own classroom to arbitrate.
Information about key references
On August 4, 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments instituted the Bracero Program, a set of labor laws intended to provide fair treatment for Mexican nationals recruited to work in the United States. (These laborers were, in part, taking the place of U.S. workers lost to World Wars I and II.) The program failed to protect the Mexican workers fully, however, and those workers were often badly exploited.
Migrant Farm Labor
Many Mexicans and Mexican Americans provide labor for farmers throughout the United States, particularly in the West and Midwest. The work is seasonal, exhausting, and pays very low wages. In spite of heroic efforts by the United Farm Workers, under the direction of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, to improve working conditions, many migrant workers still toil under oppressive conditions similar to those experienced by the boy and his family in Rivera's novel.
Rivera's storytelling style has been called "fragmented" because he attempts to cover a large range of experiences without the constraints of a chronology. Similar to stream of consciousness, the structure of the novel seeks to mimic the way in which memory works, and to present the feelings of disorientation-- and loss experienced by many of the migrant workers.
Although the protagonist of Rivera's novel comes from a very pious family, he is compelled to curse his religion and its divinities because he cannot believe that God would allow him to experience such suffering.
Suggestions for applying other theories to ...y no se lo tragó la tierra (...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him)
Because Rivera's experimental novel is, in part, an exploration of early adolescent development, it can yield rich personal responses from students. A reader-response approach might involve students creating a visual timeline of the novel and recording their personal reactions to the events along the timeline. Students should discuss the similarities and differences between those responses.
A cultural studies approach to Rivera's novel might include an intertextual reading about agricultural issues in the United States. For example, the class can be divided into groups of three or four students. One group might read about the Farm Aid concerts made popular by Willie Nelson, John Cougar Mellencamp, and others during the 1980s; another group might read about César Chávez’s activism in the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps beginning with Rudolfo Anaya's eulogy to Chávez; and another group might explore the current debate over organic produce laws. Other possible topics include the legal plight of African American farmers in the South, corporate farming and agribusiness, and protests by vegans over additives in produce. Students can read about various topics and engage in conversations in which they are required to show links between them.
Many critical activities can be developed from the novel. Teachers can engage students in learning about contemporary working conditions for migrant workers. For example, students can create news releases on migrant conditions in their area or produce short documentaries on local conditions. Students can also conduct research and/or interview people committed to improving labor conditions for migrant workers. The rich folkloric encounters in the novel provide an impetus for students to research and replicate rituals, art, and stories as a way of learning about culture and history.
© Annenberg Foundation 2013. All rights reserved. Legal Policy.