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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Tomás Rivera
(1935 - 1984)

The son of Mexican citizens who migrated to Texas in the 1920s, Tomás Rivera was born in Crystal City, Texas, in the agricultural region called the “Winter Garden.” Rivera’s parents worked as farm laborers in the 1930s and ’40s and throughout Rivera’s childhood were a part of the migrant stream that took Mexican workers from south Texas into Oklahoma and Missouri and then into the vegetable fields of Michigan and Minnesota.

Rivera’s working-class background provided the basis for his writing. He too worked as a migrant farm laborer through the 1950s, even during his junior college years in Texas. On graduation from Southwest Texas State University with a degree in English, Rivera faced the realities of life in the Southwest. Unable to find work as an English teacher because he was Mexican American, he returned to Southwest Texas State to earn a master’s degree in English and administration. He then received a doctorate in Spanish literature at the University of Oklahoma in 1969. After a few years of teaching, Rivera became vice president for administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio and, later, executive vice president at the University of Texas at El Paso. At the time of his death, he was chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.

... y no se lo tragó la tierra/ And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971) is a milestone in Mexican American literary history, set explicitly within the social and political contexts of the agricultural laborer’s life in the years after World War II. Winner in 1970 of the first Quinto Sol Prize for literature, the most prestigious literary award in the early years of Chicano literature, Rivera’s novel, from which the present selections are drawn, became a primary element of the new Mexican American literary history.

In the original South Texas Spanish, Rivera’s prose is tight and lean, the vocabulary and syntax rigorously controlled and set within the world of the Chicano migrant farmworker. Like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Rivera’s narrative is not expository. In documenting the life of the farmworker and trying to keep its significant place in contemporary American history alive, Tierra offers a complex narrative of subjective impressions purposely disjointed from simple chronology. “The Lost Year” is the first half of the frame story that brackets the twelve sections of Rivera’s novel. The selections in the book, including the titular chapter, “...And the Earth Did Not Devour Him,” and the penultimate chapter, “When We Arrive,” depict crucial moments of dawning self-consciousness and collective solidarity. The links between the chapters follow a stream-of-consciousness thread, bereft of traditional narrative causality, relating the seasonal events in an allegorical year of the life of the anonymous migrant farmworker child.

In a 1980 interview, Rivera situated his work squarely within the Mexican American’s struggle for social and political justice: "In...Tierra...I wrote about [the life of] the migrant worker in [the] ten year period [between 1945 and 1955]....I began to see that my role...would be to document that period of time, but giving it some kind of spiritual strength or spiritual history” (Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview, 1980:148). Written during the period 1967–1968, at the height of the politicization of the Chicano labor struggles and the takeover of political power in Crystal City by Mexican Americans of the radical La Raza Unida party, Rivera’s stories have a sense of political urgency. They also present the anguish of spiritual alienation and the reality of economic and social injustice. Rivera’s narrator, born into a world of absence and loss, seeks to discover his identity and to inscribe his name and that of his community in the text of history. The characters of Rivera’s stories are not the pragmatic subjects who populate the myth of American individualism, nor are they romanticized symbols of the worker engaged in a worldwide struggle. Rather, his characters are rooted in the reality of south Texas social and economic history, lived out and embodied in the form of the community of la raza (the people).

Ramón Saldívar
Stanford University

In the Heath Anthology
from . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971)

Other Works

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Photo Essay
A biography in photographs.

The Handbook of Texas Online
A biography and selected bibliography.

Tomás Rivera
A biographical sketch.

Secondary Sources

Hector Calderon, "The Novel and the Community of Readers: Rereading Tomas Rivera's . . . y no se lo trago la tierra," Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, ed. Hector Calderon and Jose David Saldivar, 1991

Brooke Fredericksen, "Cuando lleguemos/When We Arrive: The Paradox of Migration in Tomas Rivera's . . . y no se lo trago la tierra," Bilingual Review/Revista Bilingue 19, 2 (May) 1994:142

Paul Guajaro, "A Late Harvest: A Review of the Collected Stories of Tomas Rivera," Bilingual Review/Revista Bilingue 17, 3 (September-December) 1992

Jose Limon, "Culture and Bedevilment," in Dancing with the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican American South Texas, 1994

Jose R. Lopez-Morin, "Redefining Epic and Novel Through Rulfo's Pedro Paramo and Rivera's . . . y no se lo trago la tierra," Mester 22-23, 2-1 (Fall-Spring) 1993-94: 63-69

Julian Olivares, ed., International Studies in Honor of Tomas Rivera, 1985

Tomas Rivera, "Letters from Tomas Rivera and Camilo Jose Cela," Bilingual Review/Revista Bilingue 19, 3 (September) 1994

Ramon Saldivar, Chicano Narrative, 1990:74-90