It’s Valentine’s Day weekend – here in Mexico the day of hearts and flowers takes on another facet of love . February 14 is El Día de Amistad y Amor (the Day of Friendship and Love).
It’s the perfect time to share with you the love story of my friends and my favorite extended Mexican-American family, the Villaseñors. While we’re at it, let’s ask my connection to this family, Victor Villaseñor, if he will honor us by being our Valentine. Honoring him on Valentine’s Day is the least we can do for him; he’s devoted so much of his life ensuring we get to know and learn from his family.
In the nearly 20 years that I’ve known and loved the Villaseñors I’ve learned so much about Mexico and how Mexican families live, love and interact. I think of the various members of this family so often; I smile remembering the stories of their escapades, and a grieve a bit as I remember the old ones who are gone.
These folks live so vividly in my mind and heart that sometimes I forget that my connection to them is through the stories that California native Victor Villaseñor has recorded and told in a series of books beginning with his 1991 best -selling triumph, Rain of Gold, in which we met and fell in love with Victor’s Mexican parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Don Victor continues telling the family stories in Wild Steps of Heaven and Thirteen Senses. He tells the story of his own angry adolescence and how he found his way in Burro Genius.
In 2009 HBO planned to begin filming the rich story of this family as recorded in these books for a 10-hour mini-series. Strikes and lay-offs have delayed the production; Don Victor hopes that the mini-series will be completed in 2010. (You can help get this project back on track by sending emails and letters to HBO. Find the names and emails of the appropriate HBO officials at Don Victor’s website.)
Finally diagnosed with severe dyslexia at age 44, Don Victor had failed third grade, twice, and was belittled and battered by teachers simply for being Latino and for speaking Spanish, the language he’d heard at home. Finally as a frustrated and angry teenager, he dropped out of school and fled to his father’s birthplace in Los Altos (the highlands) of Jalisco. There as he met old family friends and relatives, he heard again the stories he had considered just legends and his father’s far-fetched imaginings.
Realizing the truth in the reporting of these other storytellers, he began a journey to regain pride in his Mexican heritage and finally in himself as his own storytelling unfolded and revealed his extraordinary talents.
In a recent video, Don Victor confirmed the need of all people to know their family stories, saying, “Once you have roots, you can’t be destroyed, not anymore.”
Don Victor (with a file of 265 manuscript rejection slips for other material) turned down Putnam’s 1990 $175,000 advance for Rain of Gold when they insisted his family autobiography be published as fiction. His decision was reinforced when he was surprised by a late-night phone call from a stranger who said, “As long as our stories are considered fiction, we’ll continue to be held back without respect.” As their conversion continued, Roots author Alex Hailey encouraged Villaseñor to print the book through Arte Publico Press at the University of Houston.
USA Today’s January 1992 Rain of Gold reviewer got it—the importance of family stories: :
The story begins at the time of the Mexican Revolution, in 1911, with a 6-year-old girl named Lupe. She will, in later life, be Villaseñor's mother. Beset by poverty and banditry, her family slowly painfully, makes its way north. The United States seems to promise security and adequate food. Meanwhile, in another Mexican state, the family of 11-year-old Juan Salvador is also struggling northward. For both families, the only resources to carry them the distance and across the border are determination and wits.
Once in the United States, the struggle is different and even greater. Villaseñor's tale includes gambling and bootlegging, crime, prison and escape, young machos and younger maidens, love, revenge, births, deaths, and the countless twists and turns of chance that eventually bring Lupe and Juan to the altar.
These lives pose the great American dilemma: how to become something new and yet retain all the wealth of one's past. Villaseñor re-creates them with vivid passion in a rough-hewn voice that is as honestly American as it is genuinely Mexican. And the family photos he includes look just like the ones in my own closet.
Villaseñor's grandparents came from the mountains of Jalisco and the jagged barranca country of Chihuahua. My grandparents came from the back streets of Copenhagen and Dublin. But Villaseñor has written my family history, too. And yours.
Rain of Gold is one of the best - and most American - books of this or any other year.
We’re sure that Putnam noticed when Rain of Gold not only hit the New York Times Bestsellers list, but also earned the author a Pulitzer Prize nomination and then when rights were purchased by HBO, as well as when Thirteen Senses was printed 10 years later by Rayo, a HarperCollins imprint.
Thirteen Senses begins in the living room of the large Oceanside, California, ranch house Salvador has built for his family. It’s 1979 and Lupe and Salvador are renewing their wedding vows on their 50th anniversary. All proceeds according to plan until Lupe unexpectedly stops the service, refusing to repeat the word ‘obey.’ After a bit of negotiation she agrees to vow to “”love and cherish,” the words repeated by her husband. The priest, disconcerted by a simple reaffirmation of vows gone astray, asks the 75-year-old Salvador if he’ll agree to this slight departure in the ceremony. His response reflects the tone of this family and of their long relationship for the reader:
”Look, “he said, turning to the priest, “I know you’ve never been married, Father, so you really don’t understand what is going on. But believe me, to tell any woman, who’s alive and breathing, that she must obey is so ridiculous that only men who’ve never married in one hundred generations would have come up with such an ignorant idea! Of course, she doesn’t have to obey me! She never has in fifty years, so why in hell would I be stupid to think that it is going to be any different now?”
When Wendy L. Smith reviewed Thirteen Senses in the San Diego Union, she wrote:
If, as one critic said, Victor Villaseñor’s 1991 Rain of Gold made one feel “like a family member quietly watching from a corner stool,” then Thirteen Senses gives one the feeling of dancing at a loud, loving party, full of lusty shouts, singing and gifts of food. With the sensual volume turned way up, Thirteen Senses makes Rain of Gold seem tentative in comparison.
“Was it love?” are the book’s first words. The rest of the book is a yes that resounds from the heavens as if answering all questions. This portrait of the early married life of the author’s parents, Lupe and Salvador, is a study in passion. However, Villaseñor does not satisfy himself with a narrow definition of romantic love; Thirteen Senses considers love of God, of children, of nature, of one’s people. Even greeting Lucifer with love is not out of the question.
Villaseñor so values his ancestors’ lives and philosophies, as well as the strength of a good story, that his charming, colorful and powerful renderings become monuments to his heroes. He takes his father’s words to heart: “a good story could save our life.” The proof is his people, survivors of tragedy, oppression and racism – culture and sense of humor intact.
Not only can you read about Victor Villaseñor’s family in his books listed on his website, you can become his friend on Facebook. Be sure to watch the videos on his page – in his delightful storyteller’s way, he’ll tell you why goats are better than horses, cows or pigs, and how his father determined the size of the Oceanside house (it had to be built bigger than cowboy star Tom Mix!). You’ll enjoy watching him tell other stories about his parents and the family home and learning about his effort to transform the celebration of Thanksgiving into a world-wide celebration of peace.
Lake Chapala residents: Rain of God and Thirteen Senses are in the Mexico Collection at the Lake Chapala Society Neill James Library. All of Victor Villaseñor’s books are available on Amazon and other popular online booksellers and from your local bookstores, in English and in Spanish.