Family, religion, love, racism, and labor exploitation in America’s agricultural fields are theme woven into “… Y no se lo tragó la tierra/ … and the Earth Did Not Devour Him,” by Tomás Rivera.
Originally published in Spanish 50 years ago, the late UC Riverside chancellor’s book published 50 years in ago, captures the essence of migrant families and is primarily told from the viewpoint of a young boy. Many of the stories were either experienced or witnessed by Rivera himself as his family followed the harvest across the U.S. In honor of its 50th anniversary, the annual Tomás Rivera Conference will be extended through spring quarter. The free, virtual events will culminate with a reading featuring the winner of the inaugural Tomás Rivera Book Prize.
This year-long celebration honors the man who became a trailblazer in Chicano literature, said Alex Espinoza, ’00, Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair and an associate professor in the Department of Creative Writing. Virtual events commence Tuesday, April 13, and run through June.
“Tomás Rivera’s book was a very important part in the formation of the canon. In so many ways, it really was the first Chicano book,” Espinoza said. “Someone like Tomás Rivera, along with Rudolfo Anaya and José Antonio Villarreal, gave a literary presence to the voices and lived experiences of the Mexican-Americans in ways the literary world had never seen.”
The three authors were among a handful of Chicano writers who emerged on the scene in the 1960s and ’70s.
Espinoza said Rivera became a trailblazer among his contemporaries by including his own experiences in the narrative and writing the book in Spanish.
“He took experiences, witnessed injustices, and really turned them into something pretty potent in the book,” said Espinoza of Rivera, UCR’s first Latino chancellor, who led the university from 1979 until his death in 1984.
Rivera’s wife, Concha, helped establish an endowment and the first iteration of the conference in 1988.
During his tenure at UCR, Rivera squeezed in time to drive east into the Coachella Valley to visit the region’s migrant workers. He read to the children and sometimes taught poetry the fields, always stressing the importance of a college education.
Writing in Spanish allowed Rivera to capture the human essence, bringing life to conversations and the scorching land. He allowed the reader to feel a child’s pain at being called a thief just for being Mexican, and hear of what it’s like to see a migrant boy with a bullet in the head because he walked away from his furrow to take a water break. There’s also the story of a son declared missing in action after leaving to fight in Korea, or the tale of a father who almost died from heat exhaustion only to be brought back to life by the prayers and care of his wife, whose actions prevented the Earth from devouring him.
But not all the stories are quite so serious. Rivera also injected Spanish language colloquialisms to intertwine comedic relief: A boy drinking the glass of water his mother faithfully placed under the bed every night for thirsty spirits; a child losing sleep over counting how many sins he had to confess before his First Communion — and settling at 200 to leave wiggle room for sins he might have forgotten; farm workers talking about “Iuta” (Utah) an “alleged” state some had never heard of and others assumed was close to Japan.
Throughout the book, Rivera connects all the stories through one family’s sacrifice, maternal love, and a hardworking father who provides for his children and the woman he adores.
Life in the agricultural fields became so important in Rivera’s life that he also proudly included it as work experience in his curriculum vitae, Espinoza said.
Rivera’s love for the written word will be honored with the inaugural Tomás Rivera Book Prize, awarded to J.L. Torres author of “Boricua Passport” and “The Family Terrorist and Other Stories,” among others. Los Angeles Review of Books Press will publish Torres’ book in June 2021.
Rivera himself received the first Premio Quinto Sol Literary Award and “… Y no se lo tragó la tierra” was published by the now defunct Quinto Sol Press, an independent publishing house founded at UC Berkeley in 1967.
The Tomás Rivera Book Prize was judged by Luis Alberto Urrea, best-selling author of 17 books, including “By the Lake of the Sleeping Children” and “The Devil’s Highway”. It’s an homage for Rivera and for other Latinx writers, Espinoza said.
“I wanted a prize that would recognize and mark the 50th anniversary of this important book, and to also create an opportunity for us to start cultivating the next generation of Chicano/a Latino/a voices. I wanted to do this at UCR under Tomás Rivera’s name,” Espinoza said. “I want our campus and the legacy of Tomás Rivera to live on this way, and to cultivate all those emerging voices still out there waiting to be heard.”
Tomás Rivera Conference
Free and open the public
Register for the conference: https://www.crowdcast.io/ucr_trc
Time: all events Noon-1 p.m.