This book had a lot of things going on. It took up politics on so many levels (Chávez and his unions, immigration, loyalty, family, etc.), and there were times when this did stretch the story a little thin for me. However, I think that for the most part, it makes a really strong point about these things by using its characters to illustrate various points. The main character, Roberto, is (for the most part) very likable. Because of this, when Roberto struggles to understand certain things (like why illegal Mexican farm workers might support Chávez and his cause intellectually, but are unable to support it in any other way) the reader comes to an understanding with him.
Villaseñor also uses an interesting formal technique: after each chapter, there is a page that has an italicized passage on it. These italicized passages relate to the story in different ways (at times, thematically; at other times, they connect directly with the plot), but they appear to be entirely nonfictional. They are certainly not related to the main characters, and are often quoting news sources, interviews, and other such narratives. These are the most overtly political passages of the novel, and the way they interact with the bulk of the novel (the fictional chapters) is really interesting. I wonder how much of the politics would have gotten through without these italicized blurbs. Because the narrative scope pulls away from Ricardo in these passages, they push the reader to really see a larger picture instead of focusing on Ricardo’s unique (and fictional) experience. In some ways, they pull the reader out of the “dream” and hit them over the head with the fact that the rest of the book is simply inspired by these realities, but not real.
Overall, I thought the book was very enjoyable. The back cover tells me that some critics have compared Villaseñor’s style to Steinbeck’s, and while I agree that it is deceptive in that it appears very simple when in fact the story itself is very complex, I also couldn’t help but wonder if someone just said that because at one point the characters end up in the Salinas Valley. At the same time, I enjoy Steinbeck and I enjoyed Villaseñor, so perhaps there’s more to that connection than I’m considering here.