Macho! by Victor Villaseñor, (1973) was written almost fifty years ago, but many of its pages, could be drawn from today.  From the mountains and the plains of Mexico, for generations, men –and now women and children– have trekked hundreds and thousands of miles to work in American agriculture. Though they spread out to almost every state of the Union, California is a major draw:  it is close, the crops are nearly year-round, and more is grown there than anywhere else.

Villaseñor, who grew up American, of Mexican immigrants — a Pocho, as the novel, and reality, would have it– brings a young, 17-year-old, Roberto, from high in the Jalisco mountains to the Central Valley of California, under the tutelage of a tougher, more experienced Juan Aguilar.  Roberto is the picture of innocence, never having been far from his Tarascan village, his parents and seven brothers and sisters, and their mud and stick home.  Aguilar is a road-tested migrant, a Norteño – a man who has been north and has in some sense, been cross-culturated, and so, now, outside the closer circles of trust in the villages.  He knows the shady immigration lawyers of Mexico, he knows the ways of the gringos in the north.  He is familiar with the pistol and the knife and is quick to use them.  His only law is survival.

On the way north they are tested, among other migrants – in foot racing, horse-racing, cock-fighting, and eventually in a fight a la prueba.  When they don’t make it at one crossing they go to another.  They run from La Migra, they are sprayed by a crop-duster, they are carried in a closed-in truck and nearly die; some of their compadres do.  Eventually, in the company of a young, experienced worker, they find work  with a decent grower, one who provides barracks-like accommodations, daily showers, and good meals.  They pick tomatoes, and later, melons. Those who know the Central Valley of California will be tickled by the appearance of Acampo, Huron, Firebaugh, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Weedpatch.

As a novel about migrant agricultural workers in the 1960s California, Caesar Chavez is of course –must be–  featured.  He doesn’t appear as a character, but as a reference point, and not as many American readers might think, to be highly praised.  In fact, for many of the workers, the “illegals”, he disrupts their patterns of work and livelihood and brings the threat of la migra.

One morning, as the sun is beginning to rise,  a caravan of cars roars to a stop where the workers have begun to pick tomatoes.  Fear of the migra churns in their bellies; some make ready to run. But, it is not law enforcement. Organizers for Caesar Chavez’ union line the road, urging the men to join the strike, the huelga

A Mexican girl was on top of the old van.. She word black pants and black boots and had one hand on her hip and another on the bullhorn, and she was screaming, cursing, and laughing … she was not asking them nicely to stop their work and come and join them.  No! She was yelling at them, saying they were cowards, not men, if they allowed a patrón to rob them of their dignity.

The call to strike disrupts the work day so effectively that Aguilar, Roberto and a few others head south towards Fresno, looking for work where there are no Chavistas. For the entire summer they crisscross California, following the work and rumors of work. Eventually, after many week’s wages have been sent home, Roberto, in the one stable place they know, gets a letter from his sister: his father has been killed, and all the money misspent. There is nothing for Roberto to do but to go home, and take revenge, in the way of the mountains. Aguilar, always ready for a fight, goes with him.

Macho! has something of the the qualities of an adolescent boys’ adventure story, or the always popular Mexican corrido, with colt 45s, knives and machetes, a last stand behind the body of a dying horse, crude taunting between young men and warm interest between young men and women. In fact, two of the girls display strong voices (mid 1960s), determined to break free from fathers and small-town constraints. It also has elements of tall-tale story telling with a “farting mule” that outruns the best horse in the town.

Villaseñor does an excellent job of carrying out elements of multi-cultural English, the shortcuts and mishearings, the on-the-fly translations that appear in immigrant communities around the world, some with a kind of Hemingway “For Whom the Bells Toll” flavor.

“Is it not bad enough that I broke customs tonight?” (To Sister)
“You are a devil of self importance.” 
“He went over to the table and was greeted well.” 
“You are a good boy, of the old style.

And for those at home in home-spun Mexican Spanish, or those interested in picking up on it, there are plenty of chingasos , pendejos, and cabrones, and food enough to make a menu — chile, frijoles, menudo y carne asada.

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While the lives and travails of the Mexican workers provide the plot, the  excitement and character details, social and cultural background also get attention. The differences between hard-scrabble lives in Mexico and the wealth found in the U.S. are nicely brought together. Even without getting much beyond the first rungs of the ladder — a used pick up truck, beer in the evenings, daily showers– the men respond to the (sometimes deadly) attractions. Once you go North you are never the same.

The emotional current Villaseñor follows, however, is that of tough, ready-to-fight manliness. Whether in the Jalisco village, or in a bar fight in California, the question is how to be a man.  How does one look death in the eye and not blink?

Everyman protecting his own house, his own home, and his own women.  And if he fails but gets killed in honor, he can rest n peace, for his relatives–brothers and cousins–will carry on and see honor kept ALIVE unto death.”

The first lesson Aguilar gives to Roberto is the handshake of a man – none of “that soft Indian stuff.” Even for Roberto, however, the code is written: vengeance. A man must settle a man’s affairs. What starts as a fist-fight can become a fight to the death, a la prueba. The strong tug of “macho” is always present.

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In an interesting departure from any novel I have seen, each chapter ends in a short coda, a paragraph or two of events, people or authorial opinion outside the narrative but related to the story at hand.

IN 1963 the U S Congress stopped the Bracero Program, gave one year’s extra grace in some cases, and by 1965 all was stopped.  Definitely  Or so the legal world thought. 

In Mexico, Chavez was a hero to the students and intellectuals, but to most of the worker he was not well thought of. Not only was he stopping so many Mexicans from earning money in los Estados Unidos so they could take it home to Mexico–where a strong middle class was arising because of these tens of millions of dollars–but also he was not un macho. No, he didn’t drink or swear or have beautiful women pulling at his pants.

Though in another chapter coda, we are told that some men join Chavez, not because they believe in la causa, but because “he was one of them and he was not afraid … no, he was brave.”

As always, in reading contemporary fiction, one wonders how much is reportage, accurate perceptions of events known, and how much invented, contrary to fact or simply because the sound and images are good. So with Macho! I have no idea whether the men from the mountains of Jalisco live by a code of revenge, or not. From my own experience, I doubt that many farmworkers in California joined Chavez without knowing why. I do know that Victor Villaseñor is a good story teller, and there are plenty more where this came from.

– Rain of Gold, Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1991 ISBN 1-55885-030-9.
– Wild Steps of Heaven, New York: Delacorte Press, 1996 ISBN 0-385-31566-X.
– Thirteen Senses: A Memoir, New York: Rayo, 2001 ISBN 0-06-008686-6.
– Burro Genius: A Memoir, New York: Rayo, 2006 ISBN 0-06-052612-2.
– The Frog and His Friends Save Humanity (La Rana y Sus Amigos Salvan a la Humanidad), (Spanish translation Edna Ochoa), Houston: Pinata Books/Arte Publico Press, 2005 ISBN 1-55885-429-0.
– Lion Eyes, Random House Digital, Inc., 2008 ISBN 978-0-345-47617-3.
– Crazy Loco Love, Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2008 ISBN 978-1-58270-272-8.

You can get in touch, virtually, and actually if you wish. https://www.victorvillasenor.com/