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The Unforgotten Memories: A Review of Songs from the Barrio

Richard Rios’s Songs from the Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, CA is more than just one man’s recollection of his coming of age.  The book’s narrative provides an intimate, archetypal  portrait of “a people cut off from their homeland and their mother tongue, adrift and searching for a port in a foreign land,”  the organic evolution of a unique culture of a people so close yet so far from Mexico.  Written as a series of vignettes and poems, Songs from the Barrio paints an intimate portrait of economically poor but culturally rich Mexican American  neighborhood in post-WWII Modesto, CA.  Mr. Rios’s  elegant and poignant recreation takes us back to a time that will never be again, a time before modernity homogenized society.  Songs from the Barrio evokes the speech, food, and mannerisms of the Juarez barrio; the joys of swimming or fishing in the Tuolumne river; the terror of a chance encounter with the cucui, the devil,  or la llorona; the mischievous episodes of boyhood bravado; and the dreams and longings evoked from a passing train or a moonlit night or a song sung in a fading festival.

 

The heroic figure in this narrative is Mr. Rios’s mother, Guadalupe, whose courage and love nourishes her children as much as the culinary wonders she conjures in her kitchen from simple and humble foodstuff.  Abandoning tradition, she strikes out on her own when she has had her fill of her husband’s abuse.  Señora Lupe provides for herself and the youngest of her children by working in the cannery.  Despite her humble origins, she educates her children in a manner best described by the Spanish word,  formal: the Hispanic chivalric code of elevated personal conduct,  good manners, respect of one’s elders, honorable work, and cleanliness.  These lessons in character shaped Mr. Rios’s consciousness and values. Taking a cue from his mother that no job is too low if it is honest work, Mr. Rios works picking fruit as a teenager and meets an assortment of characters early in life.  It is here that he witnesses human nature at its best and sometimes at its worse: the industriousness of the undocumented workers who risk everything for the betterment of their families; but also the inequalities of life as he watches the sons of the foremen given unearned privileges. 

 

The memoir also documents the archetypal acculturation journey of first generation Americans of Mexican descent such as joining the military, going to college only to find that among many Americans one was still considered a foreigner, and ultimately the ascent into the corridors of power, in Mr. Rios’s case, the academy. It is this space between two culture that occupies the narrative, the simultaneity of being both American and Mexican  but not at the exclusion of each other; the birth of a third, syncretistic culture.  Through it all, Mr. Rios is sustained by the faith and inner-strength instilled by his mother. 

 

Mr. Rios concludes his memoir in the classic Mexican story-telling manner, reminding us that it was true what the Aztec philosophers said: that time is not just linear, but circular.  “The Last Train to Juarez” is the final chapter, a dream vision of a vanished world.  As he sits in an old train, somewhere in the fabric of time-space or perhaps a dream, Mr. Rios returns once more to the Modesto of his childhood.  From the window he watches as the train turns into the past, revealing the scenes and place and people he loves. He finally sees himself as he is pictured on the cover of this memoir and is awakened.  But awaken to when, which year, he wonders?   Thus, we are reminded of the words of the sage William Faulkner:   Only when the clock dies does time come to life.

 

This is an important book for students of Latino culture in the United States, but also for readers seeking insights into the intimacies of a period before pre-modern norms completely disappeared.  This memoir is one of the many responses to Emilio Prados’ poem “Páginal Fiel’:

 

                                                                                                Nostalgia

                Distant sea, do you know your mystery? . . .

There, upon your shore,

the smallest dream of man

does not remain forgotten[.]