Stubborn as a mule, or a weed

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

At the very beginning of his memoir, Victor Villasenor mentions in passing a fact that every aspiring writer ought to know and cherish -- before Villasenor’s first book, a novel titled “Macho!,” was published, he had received 265 rejection letters. Although he went on to write national bestsellers, including “Rain of Gold” and “Thirteen Senses,” it is a fact that allows us to understand why he titles his memoir “Burro Genius” -- Villasenor, like the burro, can be willful, headstrong and stubborn.

“Burro Genius” is an intense and intimate account of Villasenor’s lifelong struggle to make sense of love and loss, to penetrate the mysteries of his own family’s colorful but also troubling history, to overcome the burdens and challenges of racism -- all of which he ultimately succeeds in doing. By the end of the book, he persuades us that the editors who rejected his work failed to see the promise that has led him to produce a great and important American memoir.

Villasenor grew up on a ranch near Oceanside in the 1940s, an idyllic place where Spanish was spoken and his loving family was always around him. On his first day of public school, however, he discovered that the world was not such a gentle place. “English only!” screamed his teacher, and when one of his classmates remonstrated in Spanish, another teacher struck back: “Don’t think I don’t know your dirty spic words.” In a scene that is truly heartbreaking, Villasenor recalls how his beloved family seemed to have changed before his eyes when he came home after his first day in school, so quickly did he absorb the racist implications of his teachers’ scolding.


“My mother, who I’d always thought was so beautiful, I could now clearly see that she wasn’t,” he recalls. “Her brown skin was the color of dirt and her dark eyes were too large, and her hair was black and her lips were too big.... And my father, my God, he had a big head with curly black hair and a real thick neck like a bull, and he was so loud.”

Villasenor shows us exactly how racism works in the real world, and that’s what makes “Burro Genius” not only a poignant book but a deeply important one. Some of his experiences are comic -- he asked his mother to leave the burritos out of his lunch sack and replace them with baloney sandwiches on white bread and Twinkies. “I’d eat it real slow,” he explains, “so [the Anglo kids] could see that I was getting better, smarter, and learning how to do things right.”

Other experiences were far darker. Accused by an Anglo classmate of carrying a knife -- “My parents told me that Mexi-eee-cans always have knives!” -- Villasenor came to school the very next day with two pocketknives: “I guess I figured that, hell, since I was a no-good, dirty, bad Mexican anyway, I might as well carry two knives. Not just one. So I could then be the baddest, dirtiest Mexican of all.”

“Burro Genius” is not always so grim, and Villasenor writes with charm about the pleasures of childhood in a world that simply does not exist today. His description of the rules and tactics of shooting marbles, for example, is so unfamiliar as to seem not merely nostalgic but downright exotic. And he reminds us that “shooter” used to mean something quite different than it does today on the mean streets of Southern California. Villasenor’s favorite shooter, for example, was the one given to him by his brother, “the prettiest, clear-colored cherry-red marble that I’d ever seen.”

“Big Cherry has been in many battles,” his brother said of the marble. “Once, one damn -- I mean, blessed -- vato sneaked in a steelie on me in a game of chasies. Don’t ever play chasies with her. She’s your thoroughbred.”

Villasenor also shows us scenes of shocking violence, including more than one version of the exploits that earned his father the title and reputation of el capon, the castrator, back in the barrio. When his older brother falls dangerously ill, their father’s anger reaches all the way to heaven: “I’m not Adam! I’m not afraid of God or His threats of hell!” Still, Villasenor credits his family -- especially his father -- for both toughening and inspiring him.


“[M]i papa ... always said to me that we, los Indios, the Indians, were like the weeds,” he writes. “That roses you had to water and give fertilizer or they’d die. But weeds, indigenous plants, you gave them nada -- nothing; hell, you even poisoned them and put concrete over them, and those weeds would still break the concrete, reaching for the sunlight of God. ‘That’s the power of our people,’ my father would tell me, ‘we’re the weeds, las yerbas de todo el mundo!’ ”

“Burro Genius” is ultimately a redemptive book, a celebration of courage and tenacity. For example, when Villasenor was recruited at the last minute to appear before a conference of English teachers to promote his first book, he was swept away by memories of his own demeaning schoolhouse experiences: “I was tortured by teachers!” he shouted at his audience, breaking down into angry tears, adding: “Because, you see, real teaching isn’t just about teaching the brain