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Macho! Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

This fictional account of approximately a year in the life of a young man dramatizes the real plight of the migrant Mexican farmworker attempting to enter and work in the United States. Macho! is divided into three major parts, each labeled as a book and further subdivided into chapters. Books 1 and 3 are short, with the action set in the rural Mexican village of the principal characters; book 2 chronicles the odyssey of the protagonist, Roberto Garcia, into the violent underworld of the illegal migrant farmworker. Although the omniscient third-person narrator occasionally reveals thoughts of other characters, the narrative perspective is almost entirely Roberto’s.

In addition to the main fictional narrative, each chapter begins with a brief quasihistorical preface, designed to inform and to persuade the reader. The first and longest of these prefaces describes the dramatic 1943 appearance of the volcano Paricutin one hundred miles from Roberto’s village and the volcano’s far-reaching effects. Through these prefaces, Villaseñor suggests that the natural threat of Paricutin, a blessing in disguise for Roberto’s community, has been replaced by the less visible, more insidious threat of airborne industrial pollution. The threat of pollution lingers before being dismissed summarily, like dirt in the wind, at the story’s end. Most of the novel’s remaining prefaces indict American agribusiness interests for exploiting cheap Mexican migrant farm labor and chronicle César Chávez’s challenge to the status quo during the tumultuous 1960’s.

The novel itself begins well into Roberto’s seventeenth year, during the planting season of his native Mexican village. Roberto’s father has over the past year begun drinking heavily, leaving Roberto, as the eldest child, to support his mother and seven younger siblings. Although Roberto is humiliated by his father’s weakness, he can do nothing to change it; he must simply work hard and well, for his culture does not allow him to complain—or even to think about complaining. It would not be respectful or manly. It would not be macho.

Roberto’s strength of character is revealed immediately, not only through his uncomplaining silence in response to his father’s behavior but also by his interaction with the nine older men he works with and oversees. For example, on the morning the story begins, Roberto, on his way to the fields, falls into an irrigation channel with his horse and nearly drowns. Arriving for work but a few minutes late, dripping wet, he denies, when taunted by one of the other men, that anything untoward had happened. A man’s personal condition should be of no concern to another. Yet his responses to the older man must tread carefully between nonservile amicability and nonprovocative bravado. Too much servility would cost him his job (not to mention his self-respect); too much arrogance would cost him his life.

The need for balance between servility and arrogance, dependence and independence, is emphasized again and again throughout the novel—along with the impossibility of maintaining perfect balance in a world of violent passion and conflict. Moving Roberto and the other norteños into an American setting adds further conflict, in the form of different cultural expectations, while simultaneously placing them in the middle of the ongoing farm-labor conflict.

In addition to the obvious intercultural conflicts of the novel are the conflicts between the traditional local farmers and the village norteños, who at great risk become temporarily wealthy (by local standards) by leaving the community and journeying north to work on U.S. farms. Although the norteños dissolute and violent lifestyle does not appeal to Roberto, a persuasive offer from the norteño leader, Juan Aguilar, to travel north in the coming work season and thus provide for Roberto’s family draws Roberto reluctantly away from his home and traditional way of life.

As book 2 begins, the novel explodes into...

(The entire section is 1,557 words.)