In Jose Antonio Villarreal’s novel Pocho, Richard Rubio is the only son of Juan Manuel Rubio, a highly-regarded former officer in the Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa’s army. After the failure of Villa’s revolt, Colonel Rubio is forced to flee to the United States, where begins life anew with his wife, as migrant laborers – a significant step backward in society’s socioeconomic structure. As Villarreal, whose father was the model for Juan, having actually fought with Villa, describes the transformation from the position of prestige to position of subsistence existence:
“Lettuce harvests in Salinas, melons in Brawley, grapes in Parlier, oranges in Ontario, cotton in Firebaugh -- and, finally, Santa Clara, the prune country. And because this place was pleasing to the eye, or because they were tired of their endless migration, Juan Rubio and his wife settled here to raise their children. And, remembering his country, Juan thought that his distant cousin, the great General Zapata, had been right when, in speaking of Juan, he once said to Villa, 'He will go far, that relative of mine.”
This is a powerful passage, and it sets the tone for the story to follow, much of which centers on Richard.
Richard is born at the end of the first chapter, and the following eight chapters center on his life, as he grows up a “pocho,” or American-born child of Mexican immigrants. The bulk of Villarreal’s story focuses on Richard’s growth and maturation. Richard, the American-born son, grows up poor, but with an awareness of the social and economic conditions under which his and the other families of “pochos” are forced to live. The cultural distinctions between Americans (read: Caucasion) and those of Mexican ancestry is a driving theme throughout Villarreal’s novel, and the real-life clashes born of racial distinctions and discrimination are employed by the author to illuminate those distinctions and to provide Richard a sense of identity otherwise hidden beneath the degrading conditions under which the migrant laborers lived. Commenting on the zoot-suitors, the young, rebellious Mexican-American youth who wore suits and ties that set them apart from whites and from other Mexican-Americans, Richard observes,
“They had a burning contempt for people of different ancestry, whom they called Americans, and a marked hauteur toward Mexico and toward their parents for their old-country ways. The former feeling came from a sense of inferiority that is a prominent characteristic in any Mexican reared in southern California; and the latter was an inexplicable compensation for that feeling. They needed to feel superior to something, which is a natural thing. The result was that they attempted to segregate themselves from both their cultures, and became truly a lost race.”
Richard is the vehicle through which Villarreal observes and comments on the racial and class distinctions that divided communities that should have been united behind single democratic principles of equality and liberty. His is the most important voice in the book, but his father, Juan, is the key to the past the sight of which Richard does not want to lose.