Recently finally available in DVD (11/11/08), Severo Pérez' film...and the Earth Did Not Swallow Him (1994) is based on one of the most highly regarded and discussed novels in Chicano literature. Tomás Rivera's ...y no se lo tragó la tierra/ ...and the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1972) is still generally acknowledged by many critics and serious readers as the classic Chicano novel. Originally written in the Spanish characteristic of South Texas and also translated into English, Rivera's novel continues as an indispensable presence within the Chicano literary landscape.
Perez' film, originally made as a highly-rated American Playhouse PBS production has taken some time to be released in DVD. One can only wonder about this matter because its high quality is not an issue. The film, and now DVD, however, remains, so far as I know, the only cinematic adaptation of any Chicano novel and clearly is a tribute to Earth's incredible staying power. This cinematic version also strikes an exceptionally deep-rooted nerve that is, I maintain, both specifically ethnic, yet also generally universal. Doubts about Earth perhaps might have arisen because it is too "ethnic," too alien from a basic American mainstream, too much a "foreign" art indie, too limited in economic resources. Yet, Perez in his version of art, in my opinion connects very effectively, artistically, and creates a sharply-etched portrayal of a Chicano migrant collectivity that focuses on daily family life. As far as a production done with relatively limited economic resources, its lovely cinematographic work and haunting music go much beyond its available funding. Simply viewing the film makes manifest this film's (or DVD) artistic value.
.and the Earth did not Swallow Him portrays in a neo-naturalistic way the plight, the suffering, and the despair of Chicano migrant laborers as they follow the crops northward from South Texas to Minnesota in 1952. The local priests bless the beat-up, overstuffed vehicles of these Chicano laborers who can no longer find work in the area and must follow the agricultural trail of the migrant worker northward. This Chicano collectivity, like the depression-era Joads in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, forms an epic tide, driven by economic need, a survival instinct, and anguished despair, and ultimately a barely flickering faith. A tribute to these people of the earth, a collective hero, the DVD is centered on a focal family, and most especially emblematic is a young protagonist within the family, a boy, perhaps twelve or so. This work then, also, functions as a bildungsroman. Ultimately, the viewer's sense of identification is generated through the experiences, subjectivity, and the struggles of the protagonist. Poverty, alienation, child labor, illness (sunstroke and a pregnancy death), discrimination, school absenteeism (the boy's escapism from the bullies of discrimination is spent lying down in a lovely, peaceful cemetery) are laid bare as matter of factyet, also symbolically. Worse still, the problematic conflict between the youngster and his mother goes beyond socio-economics and political conflict, into deeper realms of psychology and metaphysics. In a desperate but artistically rendered struggle, the youth battles his mother, an archetypical Mexican-American traditionalist, a representative of god's will, content with prayer, resignation, consolation, and acceptance. The rebellious youth cannot believe in a god that would permit such evil and suffering to be visited upon them. How can God be so cruel, he asks, since his little sister is certainly purely innocent, as to come down with serious illness in the fields? At this point, the boy must overcome obstacles even more daunting than poverty and discrimination. The issues now include death, doubt, and despair, and lack of meaning. And he has few resources available to himstrength of character, his own will power, his intelligence, and a powerful survival instinct. In this desperate, but artistically rendered struggle, the unnamed youngster, the central figure, feels the necessity of his enduring, of his achieving a heightened sense of meaning, and, the viewer hopes, a renewed and strengthened Life Force that can serve as an inspiration to Chicanos and others.
This stark battle makes use of a plot device just touched on by the original work to tie the episodic work together: missing immigrant laborers from Mexico who leave no trace upon their death, although this DVD deals not with Mexican but Mexican-American migrant laborers A highly existential work: anguish and despair; a quest; a focus on a Project; and redemptionall under the auspices of free will in spite of the deterministic socio-economic and religious circumstances.
Perez has a long list of credits basically as a documentary filmmaker. His many awards are confirmatory. The producer Paul Espinosa is also well-known and has been likewise honored for his work. The 1994 film, in fact, won and deserved a number of awards: first place, audience favorite at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 1995; first place at the Cairo Film Festival; and a number of other well-deserved awards.
In my opinion this film and DVD, Earth, by Perez is the best Chicano film that has been made.
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