As a nation of immigrants, American history cannot be written exclusively in a single perspective particularly of the dominant ethnic group. A comprehensive depiction of our history requires the inclusion and accommodation of the experience of every member of modern American society.
Tomas Rivera’s “And the earth did not devour him”, is a literary piece that provides an supplemental presentation of the US history in the perspective a beleaguered group of Mexican farmers albeit obliquely creating the impression that the US government and its business capitalist partners are the oppressors.
The story was set sometime between the 1940’s and 1950’s during which many Mexicans came to the US to work as farmers under the Bracero (manual labor) Program.
This program which was instituted by both the Mexican and US government to cover the need for workers lost during the previous world wars, became a channel for the exploitation and social discrimination of the temporary manpower imported from Mexico instead of providing for the fair treatment of Mexicans workers in the US. Many transient Mexican workers (braceros) illegally entered the US instead of returning to Mexico after the expiration of their work contracts.
This prompted the US government to deport over 3 million Mexican migrants without proper regard to their individual rights, without effectively differentiating legal and illegal migrants and without due consideration to the disintegration of family relations.
In a series of different stories often with unnamed characters, Tomas Rivera’s novel generally captures the struggles and challenges in the lives of Latino migrant workers in their employment in America.
The Struggle of the Mexican American
Mexico leads in the Latino immigration to the U.S. The sharp rise of illegal immigrants from Mexico especially with the Braceros program created political tensions between the US and Mexico. History would almost always recount the illegal immigration of Mexican farmers by reporting the series of steps used by the US government in combating illegal immigration.
For example, aside from the massive deportation of illegal Mexican immigrants (i.e. Operation Wetback) initiated by the Eisenhower administration, the US government instigated a U.S.-Mexico free trade agreement with the objective of generating jobs in Mexico in order to prevent, discourage and decrease the pour of Mexican workers illegally entering the US soil.
Strict laws that called for tighter restrictions on legal and illegal immigration to regulate the U.S.-Mexico border were implemented.
Later on, many American states adopted the English only policy which delegates English as the exclusive official language. The standardization of language was accordingly intended to warrant the integration of Mexican immigrants in the American community. (Stacy, p 609-613)
This example of historical account along with similar and related events tends to reduce the incidence of immigrant farm workers in the United States in American history as a mere issue of illegal immigration without due consideration and recognition to the unique experience and socio-political circumstances of Mexican migrant workers in South Texas.
By recording the lives and recounting the traditional trails of an immigrant population, the novel produces in an artistic yet authentic literary piece the spiritual history of a people thereby providing them a distinct cultural voice.
In light of their family’s struggle to become part of America, the protagonist in the novel undergoes intimate and spiritual moments of resolving one’s identity, family and society beyond the sheer politics of defying the dominant culture. In one instance, he even questioned God‘s wisdom in their plight.
“God could not care less about the poor. Tell me, why must we live here like this? What have we done to deserve this? You’re so good and yet you have to suffer so much” (Rivera, p 189)
The stories in the novel practically served to support and confirmed the hardships and brutalities that the immigrant Mexican farmers faced at work. In the story, “That It Hurts”, one boy was expelled from school because he was Mexican.
In another terrifying story, “The Children Couldn’t Wait”, a boy was killed because he couldn’t comply with the boss’s insistence that the workers should wait to drink water, a privilege freely endowed to cattle but not to the Mexican workers. The farmers bear long hours of intense work, modest food and deficient accommodations in their camps for a meager pay.
The children needed to join their parents in working in the fields to improve family earnings at the expense of not being able to attend school. Younger children incapable to work were left to fend for themselves which made them vulnerable to poor health conditions and other environmental risks.
While the predicament of the Mexican migrant workers is comparable to the slavery of the blacks earlier on in the history of America, the novel depicts a young man’s struggle for self identification which ended with a reaffirmation of his bicultural predisposition as well as his patrimony and allegiance with America. The novel did not necessarily represent resentment against the Anglo culture and resistance.
Thus, people should reconsider the maltreatment of immigrant workers and the discrimination of ethnic minorities in general. For instance, the novel did not directly criticize the Anglo culture but only uses it for comparative discussion of differences aimed to create a sense of pride and community among the oppressed Mexicans.
In the anecdote entitled “The Night before Christmas”, the Mexican mother tells her children that, “In Mexico, it’s not Santa clause who bring the gifts, but the three wise men. And they don’t come in the sixth of January, that’s the real date”.
(Rivera, p130) In this example, the novel is not directly criticizing American culture but is surreptitiously protesting against a social imposition of the dominant culture that utterly disregards the religious beliefs of Mexicans.
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