Victor Edmundo Villaseñor (VEE-yah-sehn-YOHR) is one of the significant chroniclers of the Mexican American experience; his novel Macho! was, along with Richard Vásquez’s 1970 novel Chicano, one of the first Chicano novels issued by a mainstream publisher. Villaseñor was born to Mexican immigrant parents in Carlsbad, California. His parents, Lupe Gomez and Juan Salvador Villaseñor, who had immigrated with their families when young, were middle class, and Victor and his four siblings were brought up on their ranch in Oceanside. Villaseñor struggled with school from his very first day, being dyslexic and having spoken Spanish rather than English at home. He dropped out of high school, feeling that he would “go crazy” if he did not, and went to work on his parents’ ranch. He briefly attended college at the University of San Diego, where he discovered that reading books could be something other than drudgery, but left college after flunking most of his courses. He became a boxer for a brief period, then went to Mexico, where he suddenly became aware of Mexican art, literature, and history. He began to be proud of his heritage, rather than confused and ashamed, meeting Mexican doctors and lawyers—“heroes,” he says—for the first time. He read extensively.
Returning to California at his parents’ insistence, Villaseñor worked in construction beginning in 1965 and painstakingly taught himself how to write. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was particularly inspirational. He wrote extensively, producing many novels and short stories. They were steadily rejected until Bantam Books decided to take a chance and publish Macho! in 1973. The novel’s protagonist is a young man named Roberto García, and the novel covers roughly a year in his life, first in his home village in Mexico, then in California, then in Mexico again. Somewhat unwillingly, Roberto journeys northward with a group of norteños from his village to earn money working in the fields of California. Roberto’s personification of—and finally, inability to fully accept—the traditional social code of machismo; his conflicts with others, notably fellow norteño Pedro; and the larger labor struggle between migrant workers and landowners in California provide the central action of the book. Macho! received favorable reviews. The year of its initial publication Villaseñor married Barbara Bloch, the daughter of his editor; they have two sons, David and Joe. Villaseñor built a house on his parents’ property, and as his sons grew older he enjoyed horseback riding with them.
Villaseñor’s second major published work was nonfiction. Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona details the trial of a serial killer. Villaseñor had read about the case after Macho! had been accepted for publication, and it captured his interest—Corona had been arrested for murdering twenty-five derelicts. Villaseñor extensively interviewed the members of the jury that convicted Corona and thoroughly examined the complex and controversial trial. (The jury had deliberated for eight grueling days before reaching a verdict.) After the book’s publication, he received some criticism for his interpretations of the events.
Villaseñor subsequently wrote the screenplay for The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, based partly on writer Américo Paredes’s account of the adventures of Cortez, a real-life figure, eluding the Texas Rangers around 1900. Villaseñor tells the story using multiple points of view, effectively relating the story of a man driven by circumstances into the life of a bandit while showing the prejudices and racism of the times. Written for television, the film won an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities; it was also released to theaters.
Rain of Gold , published in 1991 after more than ten years of research and writing, is the multigenerational story of Villaseñor’s family. It begins in the days before the turbulence of the Mexican Revolution and continues...
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