Rain of Gold: an immigrant saga

RAIN OF GOLD by Victor Villaseñor is a novelist’s re-creation of the lives of his  Mexican immigrant parents—their childhoods in Mexico in the early 20th century, their arduous journey to the United States and their lives up to the point of their marriage.

It was published in 1990 after 15 years of research in the USA and Mexico.  I never heard of it until I happened to come across it a few weeks ago in a free book exchange in my neighborhood.

Villaseñor’s parents—his father, the fierce, macho Juan Salvador Villaseñor, a child laborer who became a successful bootlegger, and his mother, the beautiful and good Lupe Gomez—were amazing people whose lives deserve to be recorded.

The stories of their survival, and of how they met, are sagas in themselves. In the telling, Villaseñor gives a detailed, fascinating picture of Mexican and Mexican-American life in the early 20th century. 

What’s especially interesting to me is how his parents resolved the conflict between the Mexican culture based on defense of personal honor  versus the US American culture based on achievement for personal success.

∞∞

Juan Salvador was the grandson of Pio Castro, a soldier who fought with Benito Juarez in the 1860s to liberate Mexico from a puppet government established by the French.  Pio Castro then went on to establish a prosperous and free community in the mountains of central Mexico called Los Altos de Jalisco.

But the family was pushed aside during the reign of Porfiro Diaz, and we meet Juan Salvador as an 11-year-old boy, on the road with his mother, brothers and sisters. trying to get to the United States.  They were so poor that, among other things, they ate grain found by young Juan Salvador horse droppings.

By age 13, Juan Salvador was working as an adult for a copper mining company in New Mexico.  He was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for stealing scrap copper.  While he was awaiting trial, he accepted an offer of $500 (more than $50,000 in today’s money) to his family if he pleaded guilty to a murder the rich man’s son had committed.  He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.

While on a prison work gang, he was set upon by rapists and nearly killed while resisting.  He escaped from the prison hospital and made his way to Montana, where he worked in copper mines there under a different name.

Still a teenager, he learned from a Greek-Turkish mentor how to play poker for money.  He later became a valued employee at Montana’s biggest and most exclusive whorehouse.

By age 21, he had done well for himself in Montana, but answered an appeal by his sister Luisa to rejoin his family, which had moved to California.  Her message was that individual success is meaningless unless it contributes to the building-up of a family.  

At this time, Prohibition was in effect.  He continued to do well at cards—without cheating, the author emphasized—and made some money smuggling tequila across the border with Mexico.

He found himself in jail, together with a group of other prisoners dominated by two brutal Anglos.  He put down the two thugs, and established a kind of government in the cell, with elected judges and enforcers of order, paid out of a carton of cigarettes he’d brought with thim. 

A middle-aged Mafioso in the cell was impressed by Juan Salvador and made friends with him.  He agreed, for a price, to tell him how to distill whiskey.

At that time, although Juan Salvador had learned his ABCs from a Mexican cook in prison, he was functionally illiterate.  He could not read a newspaper in English or Spanish, nor locate Europe or China on a map. 

Yet he was able to make acceptable whiskey based just on an interview of a single person, and also run a successful business which happened to be outside the law.

I am a college graduate, but such things would have been beyond my ability.

The important thing about Juan Salvador is that although he was a criminal, he was an honorable man.  He didn’t cheat anyone, he didn’t exploit anyone and he kept his word.  His family, friends and neighbors looked up to him.

He carried a gun and, although the author is coy about whether his dad actually killed anyone, he was capable of violence.  Yet he was gentle with his loved ones.  He and his equally violent brother, Domingo, gave absolute respect and obedience to their mother, Dona Margarita.

∞∞

From the book:

Juan laughed.  It never failed to amaze him how different his people were from the Anglos.  Los mejicanos never wasted anything. Instead of green grass in front of their homes, they had vegetable gardens.  And they didn’t fence in their livestock, but let them roam free so they could eat anything they could find.  Instead, they fenced in their crops.

∞∞

The author’s mother, Lupe Gomez, a six-year-old girl when the story begins, grew up in the village of La Lluvia de Oro, or, Rain of Gold.  It was a quiet Mexican village in the mountains of north-central Mexico, with beautiful forests, streams and animals that roamed freely.

Her ancestor, a Yaqui Indian named Espirito, had discovered that a yellow metal that existed in abundance in a remote canyon could be traded for supplies useful to his people.  The whole environment changed in less than twenty years.  

A powerfully-connected Mexican businessman started a mine.  Within a generation, an American mining company purchased it and began to develop the valley into a large industrial operation. Lupe and her family adjust and live to the best of their abilities for several years.

Then came the 1910 revolution.  Soldiers supposedly loyal to Pancho Villa came and burned their houses, killed many of the men and boys and raped the women.  Lupe, still a young girl, narrowly escapes, and only because the men in her family are willing to kill and to risk their lives to protect her.

Her father, Don Victor Gomez, had gone to the lowlands to find work, and lie had become more and more dangerous for the family.  Lupe’s mother wrote to Don Victor to come home immediately and take them away.  When he arrived, they decided to make what money they can by processing discarded gold ore (which was forbidden) and migrate to the United States.

The family, after many difficulties on the road of their own, were able to board a train to the United States and eventually ended up in California working the fields with hundreds of other Mexican migrants.

Lupe and Juan Salvador first met when Lupe’s family was passing through, and offered to swap a box of beans for milk from the Villaseñor family goat.  The goat was vicious and hard to manage, but the teenage Lupe surprised everyone.  She tamed the goat by offering it a handful of beans.  For Juan Salvador, it was love at first sight.

Much of the rest of the book consists of Juan Salvador’s trying to arrange to meet Lupe and her family, while concealing the fact that he was a bootlegger.  The obstacles and setbacks were many.  The events in the week leading up to their marriage, by themselves, would be material for a great romantic comedy movie.

For Lupe and Juan Salvador, marriage was a sacred bond that could not be dissolved.  For them, as much as for characters in Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope novels, the choice of a marriage partner was the most important decision of your life, and marriage was the most important event.

Family ties were also sacred and permanent.  Both had contentious, difficult relatives, but it would have been unthinkable to disown them.

Neither one would have considered getting married without the approval of their mothers.  Juan Salvador had to court not only Lupe, but Lupe’s mother, and the second courtship was the more difficult.

Outwardly, Juan Salvador’s mother, the profane and earthy Dona Margarita, who enjoyed her cigarettes and whiskey, was very different from Lupe’s mother, the prim and proper Dona Guadalupe, who disapproved of gambling, alcohol and lawbreaking.

But they were kindred spirits, and they liked each other.  They shared a conviction that life is good and God is good.  They both practiced personal religions, loosely based on Roman Catholicism, in which they conversed with God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. 

Without going into whether and in what sense these visions were real, I have to say they resulted in the mothers giving the children good advice.

∞∞

From the book:

“But, Juanito, it’s true,” insisted Epitacio.  “In the United States, people have no wrinkles on their faces, they’re so well fed.  And they keep a toilet inside their homes so they can use them constantly…they’re so full of shit!”

∞∞

Juan Salvador represented Mexican ideal of macho.  His self-respect was based on never backing down from a challenge, on never failing to avenge a wrong or an insult to himself or to his loved ones, and on being a protector and provider for his family.

This is a noble ideal.  It also is the default code of behavior for those in situations where there is no law and order and nobody to look out for you but yourself—in prison, for example, or in countries such as Mexico in the 1910s.  I have written about this elsewhere.

But like many noble ideals, it can be carried to a harmful extreme.  A few days before Juan Salvador’s marriage, his mother set him down and warned him against being consumed with hatred—hatred not only for those who’d wronged him, but for friends and neighbors he thought had let him down.

One of these unreliable friends had brought him a goat as a wedding gift, and he pulled out his gun and shot the goat in the head where they stood.  He very nearly made an enemy for life not only of the unreliable friend, but of the man’s sons, who witnessed their father’s humiliation.

Dona Margarita warned him that, unless he got his rage under control, it would ruin his marriage.  She said he would come to hate his own children, and even his wife. 

She said it would also cause him to abandon his long-range goal of saving his money, acquiring his own land and creating a future in which his children did not have to suffer as he did.

She made a useful distinction between rage and hatred on the one hand, and “getting mad” on the other.  Rage leads violence, anger can lead to doing something about the situation that provoked your anger.

In the USA in that era, a poor person who saved his money, kept his temper and planned for the future could get somewhere.  It was extremely hard, but possible.

Juan Salvador was a target of racism.  He was refused service in restaurants because he was Mexican.  He was beaten by former Texas Rangers with gloved fists wrapped in barbed wire.  Mexican-American immigrants in general were despised and exploited.

But they did have the advantage of secure property rights.  That which they acquired legally could not be taken from them.

That was not true in Mexico in that era, where anything who had could be taken by bandits, revolutionaries or a corrupt  government.  (It also was not true of African-Americans in that era, especially in the South.  Anything they had could be taken by a white person who wanted it, or who thought it was too good for a black person to own.)

So Juan Salvador and Lupe were able to realize their dreams.

∞∞

From the book:

My parents had a big adventurous life after they were married.  And, yes, it was hard—no doubt about that—it was very difficult at times, but it was real and good, full of ups and downs, but always a challenge, always a rain of gold with the spirit of God breathing down their necks, giving their hearts wings, hope of a better day.

LINK

Rain of Gold by Victor VIllaseñor for Literal magazine (the introduction to the book)

 

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3 Responses to “Rain of Gold: an immigrant saga”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    What an amazing story!

    It is a pity that “personal honor” is no longer in vogue. I think it still exists, just in a much watered-down form. Affluence seems to erode it away. It is the only thing that keeps people in line when the police aren’t right at hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fgsjr2015 Says:

    I’ve observed over the last few decades the strong work ethic exceptionally practiced by new immigrants, and migrants, is demonstrably notable in the produce harvesting sector; it’s one of typically hump-busting work that almost all post second or third generation Canadians won’t tolerate for themselves.

    Every time I observe them I feel a bit guilty, since, considering it from purely a human(e) level, I see not why they should have to toil so for minimal pay and not also I?

    I can truly imagine such labourers being fifty to a hundred percent more productive than their born-and-reared-here Canadian counterparts.

    To be clear, however, I’m not implying that a strong work ethic is a trait racially genetically inherited by one generation from a preceding generation, etcetera. It’s an admirable culturally determined factor, though also in large part motivated by the said culture’s internal and surrounding economic and political conditions.

    I’ve also found that Canadian (or Western) ‘values’ assimilation often means the unfortunate acquisition of a distasteful yet strong sense of entitlement.

    Not to be misunderstood, I don’t favour importing very-low-wage labour from abroad while residents here remain unemployed, something I see as an unethical yet government-sanctioned business practise. Still, I too often hear similar complaints that are actually based on thinly veiled bigotry.

    As for the temporary foreign workers, I believe that once they’ve resided here for a number of decades, their strong work ethics and higher-than-average productivity, unfortunately, gradually diminishes as these motivated labourers’ descendant generations’ young people become accustomed to the relatively slackened Western way of life.

    One can already witness this effect in such youth getting caught up in much of our overall urban/suburban liberal culture—e.g. attire, lingo, nightlife, as well as work.
    I’m not equating it to the slavery the above post is revealing/describing, but I’ve observed over the last few decades the very hard work that foreign temporary worker migrants perform here in Canada, notably in the produce harvesting sector.

    It’s one of typically hump-busting work that almost all post second or third generation Canadians won’t tolerate for themselves.

    Every time I observe them I feel a bit guilty, since, considering it from purely a human(e) level, I see not why they should have to toil so for minimal pay and not also I?

    I can truly imagine such labourers being fifty to a hundred percent more productive than their born-and-reared-here Canadian counterparts.

    To be clear, however, I’m not implying that a strong work ethic is a trait racially/genetically inherited by one generation from a preceding generation, etcetera. It’s an admirable culturally determined factor, though also in large part motivated by the said culture’s internal and surrounding economic and political conditions.

    (Frank Sterle Jr.)

    Liked by 1 person

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