09/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT LOOKED LIKE A WRITER'S DREAM. VICtor Villaseñor's masterwork, the true saga of his family's migration to California during the Mexican Revolution, had been purchased by G.R Putnam's Sons for a $75,000 advance and was scheduled for publication in the spring of 1989. It had already been selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate. There were just a few little catches: Putnam wanted Villaseñor to slash the 540-page manuscript by 75 pages, change the title; from Rain of Gold to Rio Grande and call it fiction in hopes of boosting sales.
The Mexican-American author blew his top. At lunch in Manhattan with Putnam's CEO Phyllis Grann, he bent his fork out of shape and shouted, "I want a divorce! You've been an unfaithful mother to my book!" He got what he wanted—an agreement from Putnam that he could buy back his baby. It proved to be the right decision. Públished at its original length last year by tiny Arte Público Press of Houston, Rain of Gold received glowing reviews ("One of the best...books of this or any year," declared Alan Ryan of USA Today) and won Villaseñor plenty of attention. NBC hired him to develop a miniseries about Mexican-Americans, and Dell Books reportedly paid $250,000 to put out a paperback edition of Rain of Gold, which reaches bookstores this month.
For Villaseñor, 52, who remortgaged his Oceanside, Calif., home to rescue Rain of Gold from Putnam's clutches, all that success is mere gravy—what matters is that he did things his way. Rain of Gold simply couldn't be called Rio Grande. "They wanted a 'Mexican' title for a Mexican book, but Rio Grande is a John Wayne movie," he says. And the book had to be billed as nonfiction, he explains, because "I wanted my children to see examples of real Mexican heroes. I grew up thinking Mexicans could only wash dishes and work in the fields." (Putnam, for their part, claims that Villaseñor sold them the book as fiction and agreed to all their suggestions before suddenly changing his mind.)
Villaseñor's intense pride in his heritage developed late. The third of five children, he was raised in Ocean-side, where his mother, Lupe Gomez, and his father, Juan Salvador Villaseñor, had settled after separately fleeing their war-torn homeland—Juan in 1916 and Lupe in 1922. Juan Salvador amassed a fortune in the U.S. as a liquor-store magnate, and Victor grew up on the family's 166-acre ranch. But even for Mexican immigrants of means, discrimination was a fact of life. "On my first day of school," Victor remembers, "the teachers smacked me on the head when I spoke Spanish and said, 'None of that Mexican stuff.' "
The incident filled him with rage and self-loathing, feelings that intensified when his dyslexia made reading nearly impossible. He muddled through until the 11th grade, then headed for Mexico—and was reborn. "For the first time, I saw Mexicans who were doctors, lawyers—heroes," he says. He also began teaching himself to read, slowly and by sheer determination, and by the time he returned to the ranch at 20, he had a calling. "Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man made me realize a writer could write about anything and make the reader identify with it, he says.
It wasn't an easy road. Villaseñor spent years living with his parents, whose wealth was wiped out by one unlucky investment. He took courses at the University of San Diego and earned a little from construction jobs, but nothing from his writing—nine novels and 65 short stories brought 265 rejections before he sold his novel Macho! in 1970. The story of a migrant farm worker, it got excellent reviews and sold well enough to allow Villaseñor to build himself a house on his parents' property. It also brought him a wife. In 1975 he married his editor's daughter, publicist Barbara Bloch. The couple have two children, David, now 16, and Joe, 14.
Villaseñor's second book, a non-fiction account of a celebrated mass-murder case titled Jury: The People vs. Juan Corona, was optioned for the movies, and he wrote the screenplay for the 1982 PBS film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. But his heart was in the family history he researched and wrote for 12 years, beginning in 1976. A sequel, for which Villaseñor has received a six-figure advance from Dell, is due out in 1994.
Writing Rain of Gold, Villaseñor says, "has taken me through my rage." It has also eased the financial tensions at Kancho Villaseñor. A passionate family man, Victor enjoys horseback riding with his sons, but he makes sure to write most days. He figures he owes that much to fans like the Mexican-American girl who contacted him after reading Rain of Gold. "For once in my life I felt the necessity to be proud of my country, my people, and to know that I have someone great to look up to...." she wrote. "You."
DAVID CRAIG in Oceanside