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Tomas Rivera was a key figure in the emergence of the so-called Chicano Renaissance, a period beginning in the early 1970s, when the literature and poetry of Chicanos — citizens of the United States of Mexican ancestry—began to develop a unique identity, earning recognition from critics as a literary movement in its own right. Rivera was the first writer to document the experiences of Mexican American migrant farm workers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up a Migrant
Born in 1935 in Crystal City, Texas, Rivera was the son of migrant farm workers; both his parents were Mexican immigrants. The life of the migrant farm worker was and remains a hard one— pay is among the lowest of any occupation in the United States, and working conditions are often extremely harsh and difficult. Growing up, Rivera accompanied his parents on their seasonal progress across America as they followed crop yields through spring, summer, and autumn, across the vastness of Texas and up into the Midwest states of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Dakota. Rivera would later recall one of his earliest memories, that of waking up on a farm in northern Minnesota where his parents and relatives worked in the beet fields. The time would have been around the late 1930s, when an estimated four million agricultural migrant laborers moved across America’s farmlands, season to season.
Children of migrant workers were often put to work. Furthermore, many schools would not admit migrant children due to a lack of a local residence. Despite the semi-nomadic lifestyle and the obstacles against him, Rivera’s parents made sure their son received a full education; after graduating high school, Rivera attended Southwest Texas State College, earning a degree in English in 1958. After graduating, he became a teacher of English and Spanish in the public schools of San Antonio, Crystal City, and League City, Texas, from 1957 to 1965. As he earned a living with teaching, Rivera also pursued higher education for himself, eventually earning a master’s degree in education in 1964. Now qualified to teach at college level, Rivera became an instructor in English, French, and Spanish at Southwest Texas Junior College, Uvalde, from 1965-1966. In 1968, he became an instructor in Spanish at the University of Oklahoma, Norman; the following year he earned a doctorate in romance languages and literature from the same university. He immediately became associate professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, a position he held until 1971, when he became professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Rivera became an early figure in the emerging Chicano literature movement with the publication of his 1971 novel,… And the Earth Did Not Part. The book drew upon Rivera’s experience as a migrant worker and was the first such work to address that lifestyle in American literature. Before the book was even published, in fact, it had won the first Premio Quinto Sol prize from the Chicano publishing house, Quinto Sol. The following two authors to win the prize, Rudolfo Anaya and Rolando Hinojosa, along with Rivera, quickly became major voices in the Chicano Renaissance.
Rivera was also a poet, and he published Always and Other Poems in 1973. In addition to his fiction and poetry, he also wrote nonfiction essays in scholarly journals on Chicano literature. Through such essays as ”Chicano Literature: Fiesta of the Living” (1979) and ”Into the Labyrinth: The Chicano in Literature” (1971), he was one of the prime movers in the promotion of Chicano authors and in the creation of the concept of Chicano literature, as well as in the establishment of Chicano literature as worthy of academic attention. Some of Rivera’s works were published posthumously. These include the short story ”The Harvest” (1989) and The Searchers: Collected Poetry (1990).
Rivera’s academic career culminated with his accepting the position of Chancellor at the University of California, Riverside, in 1979. Rivera was working on a second novel entitled The People’s Mansion when he died of a heart attack in 1984.
Works in Literary Context
Rivera’s first and only novel, . . . And the Earth Did Not Part, was a milestone in Chicano literature. Describing the experience of the Mexican-American, Rivera’s book set the stylistic blueprint for a decade’s worth of Chicano writers and helped touch off what would eventually become one of the major literary movements of the latter part of the twentieth century.
At the end of the 1960s, there was only one Chicano publisher, Quinto Sol Publications, located in Berkeley, California, and founded by University of California professor Octavio I. Romano in 1967. Getting its start with one of the longest running and most successful Chicano literary journals, El Grito, in 1969, Quinto Sol issued the first anthology of Chicano literature, The Mirror. The stated objective of the collection was to feature writings ”by Chicanos without any obligation to be largely and submissively grateful to Anglo-American foundations and editors.”
Chicano authors were drawing the attention of mainstream publishers around this time, but they were not seen as a cultural movement—rather, they were seen as part of the general radical youth movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As such, there was little being done on the part of the big publishers to seriously promote any one Chicano author. Therefore, it was up to individual Chicano writers to make names for themselves, which they did through the media of small magazines and alternative presses.
It was partially in response to this situation that the Premio Quinto Sol award for Chicano literature was created. In 1970, the first award went to Rivera for … And the Earth Did Not Part, a work that virtually defined Chicano fiction for years to come. Centering on a year in the life of a fourteen-year-old migrant worker, the story is told through vignettes, inviting the reader, in the tradition of Latin American literature, to engage with the story and actively piece together details of the characters and their backgrounds. The contrast of the injustice and horror of the migrant lifestyle against the tight bond of la familia, which is shown to be the one thing that keeps Chicano culture intact, forms the central theme of the book.
The path blazed by writers like Rivera would lead to a virtual explosion of Chicano and Chicana writers in the decades to come. By the mid-1990s, Chicana writers were the most visible of any single ethnic literary grouping in America. Mainstream magazines regularly ran features on writers like Sandra Cisneros, and mainstream publishers had long since begun paying attention to Chicano literature. The Chicano Renaissance has since given way to a larger, pan-Latin sensibility. Although country and culture of origin—from Chicano to Dominican to Mexican to Cuban or Puerto Rican and beyond—still form the primary backdrops for individual authors’ stories, there is a sense of ”Latino literature” now that did not exist when Rivera published his first book in 1971.
Works in Critical Context
According to Patricia De La Fuente, writing in Western American Literature, ”Rivera possesses that rare ability in writers to convert everyday episodes in the lives of ordinary people into small masterpieces of sparse yet often lyrical prose.” Critics have praised Rivera’s writings, both his poetry and fiction, for their focus on the roles of ritual and cultural memory as central to the Mexican migrant farm worker culture of the mid-twentieth century.
… And the Earth Did Not Part
Writing in The Modern Language Journal, William H. Gonzalez wrote that … And the Earth Did Not Part ”is final proof of the literary wealth which is beginning to emerge from the ranks of the Chicanos.” Gonzalez continues, ”Tomas Rivera has masterfully captured the simplicity and feeling of his people in the fight for existence . . . .” In a review published in The South Central Bulletin, Don Whitmore observes that ”[i]n a seriously committed fashion and with gut language, Rivera manages to depict this struggle to maintain dignity amid alien forces.”
- ”A Place on Identity’s Bookshelf.” The Hispanic American Experience. Woodbridge, Conn.: Primary Source Microfilm, 1999.
- ”Chicano Novelists: Tomas Rivera, Rudolfo Anaya, and Rolando Hinijosa.” DISCovering Multicultural America. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- ”The Harvest.” Short Stories for Students. Vol. 15. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2002.
- Kanellos, Nicolas. ”Chicano Literature.” Hispanic American Almanac. Edited by Sonia G. Benson. Third ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Lattin, Vernon E., Rolando Hinojosa, and Gary D. Keller. Tomas Rivera, 1935-1984, The Man and His Work. Tempe, Ariz.: Bilingual Review/Press, 1988.
- Olivares, Julian, ed. International Studies in Honor of Tomas Rivera. Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico Press, 1986.
- ”Rivera, Tomas (1935-1984).” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. 1. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
- Sommers, Joseph. ”Interpreting Tomas Rivera.” Modern Chicano Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Joseph Sommers and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979.
- Gonzalez, William H. The Modern Language Journal Vol. 57, No. 4 (April 1973): 229.
- Whitmore, Don. The South Central Bulletin Vol. 33, No. 3 (October 1973): 160-161.
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