Author Victor Villasenor tracks difficult journeys

by Georgia Pabst

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

14 May 2012


In his best-selling book “Rain of Gold,” Victor Villasenor chronicles the lives of his parents from their early days growing up in Mexico, through the Revolution, to their travels and struggles to build new lives in California. It’s a story of spirit, love, hope and faith mixed with fight, grit and touches of magic.

On his own journey to becoming a respected and well-known Mexican-American writer and author, Villasenor faced a rocky path strewn with difficulties, disappointments and discouragement.

But once he found what he considers to be his calling as a writer, he never gave up.

Villasenor, now 71, was born in the Mexican barrio of Carlsbad, Calif., and raised in Oceanside. He spent his first five years in the care of his Yaqui Indian grandmother while his parents worked. It’s the lessons learned from his grandmother that would remain and influence him and his writing throughout his life, he said.

“She would tell me we are all five-pointed Walking Stars who come across the universe gathering stardust,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Oceanside. “She told me that God needed us to plant the Garden, not that we had lost the Garden. ... She would tell me that every day as another miracle from God.”

But then he went to school. He didn’t speak English, so he was punished and ridiculed by teachers. He grew terrified and cried a lot.

“All that I knew when I started school was systematically ripped away from me by the school and the church,” he said. “I was told my grandmother’s teachings were stupid and Indian superstition.”

Dyslexic, he repeated the third grade. It was only because his mother brought the teacher avocados and some money that he finally was passed to the next grade, he said.

A terrible student, he finally quit high school and moved to Mexico. He hiked into the mountains of Copper Canyon, and the beautiful land where his mother had grown up.

“I went to Mexico to regain understanding of my indigenous roots,” he said. When he returned to the United States he had a renewed sense of his culture, history and self. But the years in school and in an English-only society had left some scars.

The book he’s just completing, “Indigenous Prophecies,” tells the story of how he became a writer.

“I had so much hate and rage in me that if I hadn’t become a writer I would have gone berserk and killed people,” he said.

Once back in California, he looked up an old English teacher who believed in him and helped him.

So at the age of 20, at 6 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1960, he took a pen and started to write. “When I started to write I couldn’t spell or read, but I learned,” he said. “I’m not a good writer. I’m a good rewriter who rewrites 10 to 20 times. It took me l6 years to write ‘Rain of Gold.’”

Along the way he received 265 rejection letters. “The first 100 hurt. Every time I’d get a rejection, I’d fall apart. I’d get drunk and feel so hopeless. But after 100, it didn’t matter,” he said. By then he was in the grove and the rejections grew more encouraging.

His first novel, “Macho!,” was compared by the Los Angeles Times to the best of John Steinbeck. “Rain of Gold” has been published in seven languages and is used in many school systems. His book “Burro Genius,” another national best-seller, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In the fall of 2013 HBO will produce a miniseries based on “Rain of Gold,” “Wild Steps of Heaven” and “Thirteen Senses.” It’s a project he’s very excited about. “Only 20 percent read books, yet 80 percent watch movies,” he said.

He hopes that, like Alex Haley’s “Roots,” his work with its universal themes will bring about a new consciousness.

“I hope my writing will bring dignity to the Latino experience and all people because we are one human race.”

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