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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Tomas Rivera (1935-1984)

[5979] Dorothea Lange, Pinal County, Arizona. Mexican Boy Age 13, Coming in from Cotton Field at Noon (1940), courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration [CTL#NWDNS-83-G-41839].

Tomas Rivera was born in Crystal City, Texas. During his childhood, he accompanied his parents, who worked as farm laborers, on their journeys in the Midwest, from Missouri to Michigan to Minnesota. Rivera worked as a migrant farm laborer himself in the 1950s. He graduated from Southwest Texas State University with a degree in English and earned his Ph.D. in romance languages and literature from the University of Oklahoma. He was a professor of Spanish and held administrative positions at various universities, including the University of Texas at El Paso. Rivera’s works include . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/ . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971); The Harvest (1989), a short story collection; and The Searchers(1973), a volume of collected poetry. This Migrant Earth (1987) is an English translation by Rolando Hinojosa of . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/ . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him.

A number of Rivera’s works explore the world of the migrant worker in America. Rivera did not view his writing as political but rather as a universal statement about the human condition. . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/ . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is considered a milestone in the Mexican American literary canon. It is written in South Texas Spanish and does not follow a chronological storyline but presents a series of stream-of-consciousness vignettes and tales that are loosely united by an anonymous child-narrator reflecting on the lives of migrant workers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Somewhat Faulknerian in style, it deftly portrays the economic and cultural conditions experienced by Mexican American migrant workers in the years following World War II.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students brainstorm in small groups about migrant workers, keeping notes that they can use to present a report to the class. Collect the information from the groups and display it on a chalkboard or screen so that you can discuss it as a class. After they have read Rivera’s novel, ask students to revisit their compiled information and make revisions. What changes in facts and opinions occur? Discuss those changes.
  • Have students compare different translations of the opening or closing paragraphs of . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/ . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him. What differences do they find? Discuss the problems of reading translated works.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is most shocking about the chapter “The Children Couldn’t Wait”? What does this chapter say about the values and views of those who hire migrants? What broader social views are reflected in it?
  2. Comprehension: The final chapter, “Under the House,” seems to bind these discordant stories into a whole. Try to identify which italicized quotations go with which story. How does this chapter help unify the work?
  3. Comprehension: … y no se lo tragó la tierra/ … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him demands that readers make connections among the twenty-seven episodes. Why is it important to the author that readers make these connections? Why might Rivera want readers to feel uncomfortable and somewhat lost until after they’ve experienced these bits and pieces of tales and conversations?
  4. Context: Rivera’s … y no se lo tragó la tierra/ … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is very fragmented in style, somewhat in the nature of works by the U.S. and European modernists. What elements of literary modernism does Rivera’s book embrace? How does it differ from other modernist works you have read?
  5. Context: Have students imagine how Rivera’s … y no se lo tragó la tierra/ … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him could be made into a film. What would such a film be like? What changes would need to be made in the plot or structure of the work to make it a viewable film? If possible, show the class the 1994 film by Severo Perez, And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him, based on the book.
  6. Exploration: … y no se lo tragó la tierra/ … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him makes clear the extent of child labor that goes on among industries and farms that hire migrant workers. Research U.S. and international child labor laws. Which other works from this unit demonstrate child labor abuses?

Selected Archive Items

[5864] Dorothea Lange, Mexicans, Field Laborers, on Strike in Cotton Picking Season, Apply to Farm Security Administration for Relief. Bakersfield, California (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018627].
The Farm Security Administration (1937-42) was formed under the Department of Agriculture. It provided low-cost loans and assistance to small farmers and sharecroppers, constructed camps for migrant workers, restored eroded soil, and put flood prevention practices into effect.

[5979] Dorothea Lange, Pinal County, Arizona. Mexican Boy Age 13, Coming in from Cotton Field at Noon (1940),
courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration [CTL# NWDNS-83- G-41839].
Dorothea Lange’s full caption for this image reads, “Pinal County, Arizona. Mexican boy age 13, coming in from cotton field at noon. He picked 27 pounds of Pima cotton (earnings about $.45) during the morning. Note stamped work ticket in his hand.”

[6138] Anonymous, Mrs. Lionel Sanchez with Child during Migrant Hunger Strike (1970),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
This Hispanic American woman feeds her daughter from a bottle during a strike of Colorado migrant workers. Author Tomas Rivera worked as a migrant farm laborer in the 1950s; his novel And The Earth Did Not Devour Him is narrated by a child laborer.

[6364] Russell Lee, Mexican Woman Cutting Spinach, La Pryor, Texas (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-012046-M3].
Agricultural worker in Texas. Author Tomas Rivera, who was born in Texas, experienced and wrote about migrant agricultural work.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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