In Latino Family Portrait, Strokes of Genius, Excess
By Victor Villasenor
$26, 510 Pages
Gifted storyteller, mystic and blowhard Victor Villasenor goes to his usual extremes in this memoir, which continues the family history begun in “Rain of Gold” and “Wild Steps of Heaven.” It’s a magical-realist adventure saga, a marriage manual and a primer on the spiritual beliefs of the author’s paternal grandmother: Catholic faith leavened with Yaqui shamanism. And all of it, he says, is true.
Readers of the first two books know that the Villasenors, especially during the Mexican Revolution, were blessed and cursed with more inspiring and tragic events, more peaks and abysses of emotion, more revelations about the meaning of “life, la Vida, " than most families. This didn’t change after they fled to Southern California.
In 1979, Villasenor says, his father, Salvador, and his mother, Lupe, renewed their vows on their golden anniversary. Lupe startled the family by refusing this time to pledge that she would obey her husband--a man who, when he was 25 and she a bride of 18, had hid from her that he was a bootlegger and gambler who drank and carried a gun. Her nave obedience, she said, only contributed to their early troubles.
Amused by her rebellion, wondering at the sources of a love that, despite those troubles, had lasted a half-century, Villasenor was moved, after his parents’ deaths, to re-create a time when only ranches and dirt roads lay between Los Angeles and San Diego, and when discrimination against Mexicans was open and blatant. In just three years after their marriage in Carlsbad in 1929, he says:
* Salvador couldn’t keep his secrets from Lupe for long but did stay a jump ahead of the law and gangland rivals. Bribes, smooth words, a fast car, baby pigs castrated as threats, a Chinese doctor smuggled over the border in a boxcar full of lettuce--all contributed to his macho reputation and the survival of his illicit empire until his distillery blew up, nearly killing him.
* Lupe got pregnant immediately, had a baby girl, got pregnant again and learned to love her husband despite his imperfections, then to stand up to him. She saved him from the distillery fire and, in time, led him to appreciate her greater wisdom--for a woman, according to her mother-in-law, Dona Margarita, has seven senses to a man’s six, and the task of each married couple is to grow spiritually until both possess all 13.
* Dona Margarita, a “little Indio bag of bones,’ could change herself, like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, into a hawk, an owl or a she-fox, send telepathic messages and make whiskey barrels disappear in front of a lawman’s eyes. She repeatedly intervened to help Salvador and Lupe, and, finally, at a Catholic church in Corona, arranged a grand reconciliation between God and the Devil, at which thousands of angels appeared “to those who had Eyes to See.” As always with Villasenor, the skeptical reader longs to separate the good stuff from the clumsiness and the excesses. Dona Margarita’s wisdom is persuasive, but do we have to swallow the angels? This book consists of 200 pages of sermons larding a 300-page love story that has sex, humor, violence, colorful characters and insightful psychology, a story that balances prison riots and Depression panic with tender domestic scenes. Why not just toss the sermons? But Villasenor insists on being taken whole. His motives are both more and less than literary; his method is to squeeze the skeptical reader in a warm but intimidating abrazo and bellow in his ear, as on page 506: “Remember, we are all WONDERFUL, meaning Beings who are Full-of-Wonder. Life on this planet is just Awakening. And we are so incredibly Good and full of Love, Heart, and Soul--Reflections of GOD in CO-CREATION are WE!”