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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Paralleling the narrative plot is the novel’s larger political conflict, one which directly affected—and still affects—all United States farmworkers, legal or otherwise. The battle had presumably been resolved in 1963, when legal importation of braceros (migrant farmworkers) from Mexico into the United States was stopped, largely because of the efforts of farm-labor organizers such as César Chávez. Yet the end of the bracero program had what should have been predictable results: an increase in the demand for cheaper Mexican workers by American agribusinesses and an increase in the incentive for Mexicans to enter the United States illegally. Men south of the border grew so desperate for work in the United States that they fell easy prey to those who promised to get them across in any way possible—in many cases, to be deported soon anyway.

As political lines were being nobly drawn, the issues for the starving Mexican workers remained so basic that political ideologies were irrelevant. One must work to eat. Who among the poor Mexicans ever heard of refusing to work in order to improve their working conditions? If offered a fair wage, why not take it and perform uncomplainingly? For to the Mexican worker, American wages, no matter how low, were always better than Mexican wages. Is it Roberto’s fault that he was born a poor Mexican farmer? Can it be expected that he should see an American problem through American eyes? He is by circumstances concerned, above all else, with providing food for his family. Abstract ideological concerns are for him a luxury beyond comprehension. The reader accepts Roberto’s limited understanding but also sees the larger context as a moral dilemma of which Roberto is unaware: that better pay and working conditions for American workers, however much needed, may penalize humans born elsewhere (in this case, Mexico).

Villanseñor’s resolution of Roberto’s plight may not completely satisfy those who...

(The entire section is 489 words.)