José Antonio Villarreal Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The parents of José Antonio Villarreal (VEE-yah-ree-AHL) were born in Mexico and moved to the United States in 1921. His father fought for Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Villarreal’s family served as migrant workers in the fields of California before settling in Santa Clara in 1930. As a child he read such works as classical mythology, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749). He has cited James Otis’s Toby Tyler, Or, Ten Weeks with a Circus (1881) as his favorite childhood book.

Villarreal received a B.A. in English from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught at various universities, including the University of Colorado, the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Texas-Pan American, the University of Santa Clara, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Villarreal has the distinction of having written what is considered to be the first Chicano novel, Pocho, published in 1959, before the Civil Rights movement began in earnest. Villarreal maintains his individuality within the Chicano movement; he acknowledges his cultural debt not only to the Chicano culture but to the mainstream cultures of the United States and Mexico as well. He considers Chicano literature to be a part of American literature and compares Chicano writers to the regional writers of the southern or western United States. He acknowledges Mexican literature as an influence on his writing but feels that, except for the difference of language, the literatures of Mexico and the United States are very similar.

Villarreal considers the...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

José Antonio Villarreal’s early life strongly resembles that of Richard Rubio, the hero of his first novel. Both had fathers who fought in the Mexican Revolution; both were born and raised in California. Villarreal also enjoyed, in childhood innocence, the few pleasures of the nomadic life of the migrant farmworker: living in tents, listening to Spanish stories around a campfire, absorbing Mexican lore and culture that was invisible in the white world. Like Richard, Villarreal learned English quickly but retained his fluency in Spanish. Love of language and books led him to early discovery of his desire to become a writer. Circumstances took both into the Navy in World War II. Although Pocho appears autobiographical in many ways, it is sometimes criticized as unrealistic in its portrayal of Richard’s conscious intention to be a writer and as inattentive to the racism and injustice of American society. Villarreal rejects such pronouncements by declaring himself an American writer, not a Chicano writer. To the creator of Pocho, Richard’s ethnic and ideological identities are only part of a greater quest for his identity as a man, an artist, and a human being.

Villarreal was graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and since 1950 he has continued to write while supporting a family with a variety of jobs, including technical writer, magazine publisher, and teacher at a number of universities in California, Texas, and Mexico. During the Chicano movement of the 1970’s, Villarreal published The Fifth Horseman, a novel that explores the Mexican Revolution sympathetically, suggesting its ideals are worthy of preservation in Mexican identity, although its excesses ought to be condemned.

Professional recognition and financial success have come hard to Villarreal, and perhaps as a result, the themes of work, money, and social mobility have become more dominant in his examination of the processes of acculturation. For example, Clemente Chacón, set in 1972, contrasts the life of the young insurance man Clemente, who hustles desperately to succeed in American business and society, with the life of the adolescent Mario Carbajal, who hustles desperately simply to survive another day in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Exploitation of the poor and amoral ambition are qualities of both these characters and of their societies. Villarreal’s creative focus on individual lives rather than on social institutions suggests that ultimately each person’s choice is the origin of good or the origin of evil.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alarcón, Daniel Cooper. The Aztec Palimpsest: Mexico in the Modern Imagination. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997. Discusses images of Mexico in Pocho.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. Includes an interview with Villarreal that is an excellent source of information about the author’s childhood and education; the interview also offers valuable insights into Villarreal’s attitudes toward Chicano literature and literature in general.

Leal, Luis. “The Fifth Horseman and Its Literary Antecedents.” Introduction to The Fifth Horseman. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. This essay makes many references to Mexican and American novels about the Mexican Revolution that serve as sources or background for The Fifth Horseman.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Includes a subchapter entitled “Pocho and the Dialectics of History,” which explains how the protagonist must ignore history in order to assimilate in the United States.