RIVERA, TOMÁS (1935-1984)
Tomás Rivera is one of the most important writers who emerged from the Chicano movement of the 1960s. A member of a Mexican American migrant farmworker family, he was born in Crystal City, Texas, on December 22, 1935, and grew up in Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North and South Dakota. His novel, short stories, and poetry portray the experiences of Mexican American families who traverse the Great Plains and Midwest in search of work as farm laborers. Notable about Rivera's work is his commitment to capturing the humanity of workers who must endure inhumane living, working, and traveling conditions. Although some of his narratives and poems are set specifically in Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas, most settings are unidentified, which seems an appropriately general way to represent the common experiences of migrant workers spread throughout the Great Plains, Midwest, and West.
In the novel . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (. . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, 1971) and the short stories collected in The Harvest (1989), Rivera presents Mexican Americans' migratory experiences as haunted by racism and desperate struggles to survive. It is through these portrayals, though, that Rivera manages to present Mexican American migrants as uniquely strong people who refuse to let adversity break their search for better lives.
An important theme in Rivera's work is the devastating effect that migrants' constant mobility has on their sense of home and on their ability to maintain a sense of community among themselves. The poem "The Searchers" (1976) is a powerful meditation on how migrants' meandering precipitates a feeling of alienation from the land they travel over, sleep on, and work on.
Rivera also published several critical essays about Chicano literature, and two years before his death he published "The Great Plains as Refuge in Chicano Literature" (1982). In this essay he elaborates on the conflicting meanings that the Great Plains and Midwest have held for Mexican Americans since the late nineteenth century. He indicates that in the 1880s, Mexican laborers began streaming into the Great Plains and Midwest–which they dubbed simply El Norte (the North)–in search of economic opportunity as well as an escape from the particularly cruel treatment they received as laborers on ranches in Texas. In El Norte, Texas Mexicans and Mexican immigrants worked as cowhands, sheep shearers, and railroad hands. Ultimately, Rivera captures the contradictory meanings that the Great Plains and Midwest held for migrant workers when he points out that they were places where Mexicans encountered exploitation, respect, disillusionment, exhausting work, and the prospect of a new life, all at the same time.
Tomás Rivera died in Fontana, California, on May 16, 1984.
Phillip Serrato Sullerton College
Lattin, Vernon E., Rolando Hinojosa, and Gary D. Keller, eds. Tomás Rivera, 1935–1984: The Man and His Work. Tempe AZ: Bilingual Review Press, 1988.