Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
The Fifth Horseman is the second of José Antonio Villarreal’s three influential novels about the Mexican American experience that helped define the parameters of Chicano literature. Although particularly notable for its stark depiction of the social inequalities leading up to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), this work ends promisingly with the protagonist’s flight into the United States as one of a wave of refugees who were the first to embody the problematics of Chicano identity that lie at the core of all subsequent Mexican American works. Villarreal’s Pocho (1959), by contrast, treats the coming of age of Richard Rubio, whose conflicts with his Old World parents in the more progressive social milieu of the United States lead him to join the military in World War II to fight for his adopted country, thus forging for himself a coherent sense of cultural belonging. Clemente Chacón (1984) presents a similar American Dream saga, this time of a successful Mexican immigrant who feels no need to deny either his heritage or his newfound nationality; he proudly declares himself a Chicano.
An amalgam of two literary genres, The Fifth Horseman displays the influences both of American historical novels and of Mexican novels of the revolution, including Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo(1915, serial; 1916, book; The Underdogs, 1929), Agustín Yáñez’s Al filo del agua(1947; The Edge of the Storm, 1963), and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955, 1959, 1964, 1980; English translation, 1959, 1994). Villarreal largely eschews the more technically innovative styles of later novels of this type, such as Carlos Fuentes’s La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1964), and employs instead a realistic mode of narration. He describes the oppression and abuses of the prerevolutionary system of the hacienda, where native Mexican peons lived at the mercy of their patróns’ whims, forever in their debt because of the inflated prices of provisions at their supply stores.
Villarreal’s seamless blending of fact and fiction depicts Heraclio’s developing political tendencies against the backdrop of the period’s turbulent history. There were no less than ten changes in Mexican leadership over a span of twenty years. Villarreal also portrays the unique cultural flavor of the northern Mexican countryside, indulging in a spirited costumbrismo that includes the upper-class social world of the hacienda as well as the contests of daring horsemanship native to the region. The novel includes descriptions of the lavish ball thrown to welcome home the patrón’s children and of the brothers Inés as they engage in the so-called ride of death. In keeping with his naturalist bent, Villarreal throughout the novel uses an English style characterized by Spanish syntactical structures. It is as if he is reminding his readers at every turn of the linguistic crossroads at the heart of the Chicano experience.
Heraclio’s escape into California in the novel’s conclusion, an apparent abandonment of his past revolutionary goals, aptly reflects the uncertainty of his motivations and involvement in the conflict. Does he embody as an individual the momentous change in historical consciousness that rejected the autocratic oppression of the hacienda system and occasioned the inevitable bloodletting of the revolution for the sake of a greater social equality, or can his rebelliousness be more simply and readily explained by his naturally arrogant disposition? After all, from a young age, Heraclio openly flouts his brothers’ authority, and he decides that he will do only occasional work on the hacienda and shows little inclination to bow to the authority of the patrón or his family. Heraclio’s determination to uphold the ideals of the revolution stands in stark contrast to the fatalistic belief in destiny that so many other characters in the novel hold. Whereas a number of The Fifth Horseman’s ruling-class Mexicans and peons see no possibility of or express scant sympathy for significant political change in their country, Heraclio takes history into his own hands and risks his life for what he believes will be a more socially just existence for all Mexicans.
However, disillusionment with the course of the conflict gripping the nation gnaws at Heraclio. He has trouble deciding whether the plundering rapist and murderer Pancho Villa is really anything more than the marauding fugitive he was at the start, or whether this master strategist and tactician perhaps represents the revolution’s high-minded quest for greater social equality. Time after time, Heraclio heeds the call to return to battle from civilian life; on each occasion he reports dutifully to Villa, whom he considers the only true nationalist among the revolution’s bickering generals and politicians. It is telling of the nebulous duality to his actions and motives, though, that Heraclio’s loss of faith in the bloody, hard-fought campaign ultimately follows upon Villa’s decision to isolate in Zacatecas those unfortunates afflicted by the variola plague—the order essentially seals the fate of the stricken Xóchitl Salamanca, who dies from lack of medical attention. Heraclio’s behavior seems at least partially contingent on personal factors—the disaffection with Villa’s callousness and the disheartening blow of his mistress’s death—and not sheer political partisanship. With seemingly little left to fight for, Heraclio leaves his life as a ranch worker in order to kill a general who has been disloyal to Villa: He risks his life one last time for the revolution’s elusive ideals before fleeing into California and permanently renouncing the fighting and its muddled objectives.
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