Readers know that Maria is very religious, and that she prays often and cooks for the family. On page 7 readers learn that in her haste to keep the Catholic ritual of crossing herself, she mixes cooking and religion. "She breathed a prayer and crossed her forehead. The flour left white stains on her, the four points of the cross." Her life is not at all about her, but about the men in her family. And it seems she is a literary counterpoint to Ultima, who is spiritually as strong as Maria is faithful to Catholicism.
On page 50 it is clear that Tony will not depend on his mother's nurturing for a long period of time. "He will be all right,' Ultima said. 'The sons must leave the sides of their mothers,' she said almost sternly, and pulled my mother gently." And as the friendship between Tony and his classmates in school grows stronger, he begins making his own mind up about what he should do and when he should do it. He in fact is asked to go fishing with his buddy Samuel, and after a brief hesitation, he explains: "I thought of my mother. I always went straight home after school, but today I had something to celebrate. I was growing up and becoming a man and suddenly I realized that I could make decisions" (Anaya, 70).
And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him
Unlike Anaya's book, the Tomas Rivera book is a series of stories that stand out in how they show the reader, they do not "tell" the reader, about the people, the culture, the challenges of being a Chicano in that period of history. They do not preach, but they give a voice to their characters. In a literary sense, his stories relate not only to migrant workers, but also to the underdog everywhere. The stories stand on their own but they all weave themes of humans confronting suffering and prejudice with the strength of hope, love, faith and family bonds. it's a terrible shame that Rivera died at such a relatively young age (48), because one can only imagine how many more wonderful stories he may have written - even though his demanding profession and his high social status as the Chancellor of the University of California at Riverside did not allow an extraordinary amount of time for serious writing.
The legacy of Chicanos in America has many stories within stories, and many of them are sad and tragic. For example, even though Mexican-Americans worked long hard hours for very little money, and were treated like the dirt they worked, they also served in the U.S. Armed Forces. In fact between 300,00 and 400,000 Chicanos went into the army to fight in World War II, and many served their country in Korea, too. And like the sons of Caucasian and African-American families, many of those men did not come home. That makes Rivera's story "The Portrait" very meaningful, both in the sense of the family that wanted to remember him, and the exploitation of that family by the man who sold them the portrait that they never received.
How sad indeed that a family still in mourning over their missing son gave a stranger the only photo they had of their son. They believed and had faith that the money they paid to the man would result in a beautiful framed portrait. The sadness is multiplied many times over when someone finds the sack of photos that was discarded, like taking a bag of garbage out to the dumpster. But the story, even though it is full of irony and tragedy and exploitation, shows in the end that a father will not stop until he achieves some justice for his family. Even though the photo of Chuy was "completely destroyed," the father tracked down the man and forced him to produce something that made the family feel better about it all. And there the portrait stood, probably a picture of the father, not the son; but it was next to the Virgin, symbolic of the importance of religion in this family, and that was the best the family could do in a difficult situation.
This is of course cruelty, and callous disregard for human survival. But a father's steady voice and leadership kept the child going. It was a good vs. evil, light vs. dark, but it was also a human family sticking together on a very hot April day against an enemy (boss) who should have been on the side of his employees.
In "Christmas Eve" the problems that beset a poor family that is barely eking out an existence are put in perspective by Rivera. This is a story that does not necessarily have a happy ending, but life's situations and circumstances don't always have happy endings - it just works out that way. Christmas is of course an important religious holiday in addition to being a commercial holiday, but sometimes the commercialism outweighs the religious aspects. This story shows the bonds of a family, even a family in desperate straights. Children nearly everywhere in the world love Christmas, they look forward to Christmas and whether they still believe in Santa Claus or not, they hope for and expect presents. Gifts are part of the season, and when all your friends get them but you don't, it leaves a cold, awful feeling for a child.
In this story Rivera sets the stage poignantly, so perfectly that in fact this is not a story about Christmas or children's desires; it's a story about family, how families work through challenges and difficulties. The theme is family but there is a theme within a theme, as is often the case with Rivera's stories. Rivera's life growing up in a migrant worker family of course has had a huge influence on his writing - writers create narrative and characters based on what they know and what they understand.
In this case, the suffering he saw as a child, moving from place to place while his parents worked in the fields with the short hoe, comes through in the struggles that the family goes through. The father in "Christmas Eve" is working eighteen hours a day in the kitchen of a restaurant, which shows the reader at least three things: father is a provider who cares not what the working conditions are; father is a man with no education and will be stuck with menial jobs his whole life; and three, father does not get to spend much time with his children since he is working all the time to put food on the table.
Meanwhile in this story, the pressure to buy toys for children is enormous; even though the children know their family is poverty stricken, they also know that their friends and kids everywhere are getting toys as gifts for Christmas. Mother tries to change things this Christmas but racism, meanness, ugly stereotyping and violence at the store prevent her from doing so. How horrible that the mother begins to believe that she may be insane, when all she has done is try to make Christmas a bit more special for her children.
But in the end, the family pulls through; "I'll bring you everything you need," father says. He adds, "I guess it's always best to have hope," and the children heard every word but "...they didn't question anything" because they are family and Latino families stick together. This is an over-riding theme throughout Rivera's book, that no matter what challenges a Mexican-American family may face, they are tightly knit and they stick together whether things turn out for the best or not.
On the subject of family, Rivera's story "Little Children Burned" stands out as a story where conflict butts up against family and the reader has no escape from the reality on display. One of the conflicts on display in this family of five is man vs. woman, father vs. mother. it's a man's world some say, but others say women have better judgment when it comes to raising children. The father wants his kids to box each other. Why? He says it gives them something to do, it may help them perhaps defend themselves one day against aggressors who don't like immigrants; and just maybe one of the boys will turn out to be a good boxer and earn big money.
The bottom line of this family story though was the horrible struggle field workers went through…
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