Painting representing St. Augustine, author of Confessions
Actor Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in 1935 film based on Crime and Punishment
We hope to learn more of Roberto deVillar's worlds in future columns. --The Editor
Welcome to my worlds
By Roberto deVillar
First of all, let me introduce myself. By birth, I am a sinner, as are all Catholics, and a perennial outsider from the moment I burst forth from the internally secure universe of my mother’s womb. Transgressions and marginality; redemption and wholeness; wanting and sharing; hiding and seeking; standing firm and finding. These and other key elements constantly are in simultaneous play with one another throughout one’s life. And as we try constantly to wrestle with the elements to find ourselves, define ourselves, make sense of ourselves, justify ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and the like, there are many times that we find ourselves pinned down by the elements. I want to share aspects of my meandering journey toward working in the fields of social justice, and include the rocks and potholes that caused me to stumble, and the forks in the road that led to unexpected detours or dead-ends. At the same time, obstacles in my path never caused me to stop wandering in the direction that I thought was a forward one, fueled by the light of my passions, guided by the whispers, howling, and silences of my mind-soul’s inner voice. So I begin, claiming my birthright, to write as an outsider and confess.
I have always found my baptismal certificate from the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, interesting. Along its left side, all the language is English. And all the names and even the month in which I was born are inserted to the right, handwritten in Spanish. My name is listed as Roberto Alejandro DeVillar, which is the same name as on my original birth certificate; then Alfonso Arturo (my father), Cecilia (my mother—known as Nina), José Alejandro (my mother’s brother and my godparent, known as Nine), Guadalupe (my father’s sister and my godparent, known as Lupe), Rev. J. Frias (officiating priest), and my birth month is written as Junio. This integral blend of language and culture, literally from day one, was a birthmark, stamped on my soul, my character, my very being, and not only accompanied me to every geographical location, every cultural setting, and every social context in which I set foot, but influenced me, as well. In my earliest days, although my parents and their siblings were what would be termed fully bilingual in Spanish and English, it was Spanish that was always spoken in the presence of my two remaining grandparents, who were Papá Bocho (Ambrosio Samudio Rodríguez), my grandfather on my mother’s side, who died when I was 7 years old; and, Mamá (Basilisa Riva Pellón), my grandmother on my father’s side, who lived for many years, passing away in 1976, at 94 years old.
The author at 1 year, nine months in San Antonio, Texas
I never got to interact with my grandfather on my father’s side, Julián M. de Villar, as he died in January, five months before I was born, or my grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamá Celia (Celia Valdez Arizpe), who died when I was a little more than a year old. Nevertheless, their names floated in the family air we breathed daily, and, in the case of my paternal grandfather, influenced my character development and sense of culture and accomplishment throughout my life. From a strict chronological perspective, I, and my brothers, associated having grandparents with the sole experience of interacting with my father’s mother, our grandmother Basilisa, our Mamá.
My Upbringing in Diverse Socialization and Cultural Contexts
The formal socialization contexts in San Antonio that I entered outside the home from pre-school to 3rd grade were Catholic. Here, nuns ruled with rulers in hand and—although this will be almost impossible to believe--strait-jackets, which both my older brother and I, on different occasions, were strapped into. I can still remember, not even being old enough to attend first grade yet, sitting down, crossed-legged, silent, as the strange, rough, canvas-like material was wrapped around my torso, locking me in by straps looped through shiny metal rings. I have neverforgotten that image or experience. It was far worse than when I was made to kneel to have my mouth washed out with soap by a nun for having uttered, I imagine, a swear word. Then there was the snarling, wild-eyed anger projecting from my brother’s face as he sat, body pulsating, imprisoned in the strait-jacket, somehow still emoting strength and pride, even in that shocking, depressing condition. I was perhaps 4 years old, but that tortuous image of seeing my brother in the strait-jacket lives still within my memory and continues to haunt me. And later, at Saint Ann’s, I vividly remember wearing with pride my khaki uniform with patches, tie and brass-buckled belt, raising my hand and waiting, without being acknowledged by the nun, until I finally summed up the courage to go up to her and asked her permission to go the bathroom. She responded: “No, it’s almost time for the bell.” I returned to my desk, and despite all the attempts a child does to stop his bladder from emptying, while sitting at my desk, I uncontrollably urinated, staining the front of my khaki pants down to the knee. I waited for everyone to leave when the bell rang, but a girl stayed behind to wait for me, and I finally got up, saying in an utterly unconvincing tone that was supposed to be lightheartedly amusing: “Oh, Paul and I were playing at recess and he threw water on me!” She didn’t say anything, her look said it all. I went outside to one of the side doors leading to the steps where the playground began, and wedged myself in a space between one of the recessed door frames and a low wall to become invisible. I then opened my tin lunchbox in such a way that its top extended across my waist, so that in case someone did see me, they could not see my urine-stained khaki pants. A nun came by, saw me, and asked why I was there, eating alone instead of being with the others on the playground. That was all it took for me to begin to wail and angrily tell her what happened. Rather than comfort me, the nun began to defend the offending nun, and I, even at 6 or 7 years old, knew that was unjust. So, I hollered, still shedding tears of anger, that the offending nun was a Jackass! And, each time the nun would open her mouth to say something, I would repeat, again and again, “No, she is a jackass!” Until the nun finally realized that I was in a fit of rage, came to me, put her arm around me and guided me up the stairs. The next thing I remember is that my mother was driving me home, saying that I would not have to return to school that day. And it was her calm, gentle, loving presence, even while driving, that enveloped me and made me feel warm and safe. That same summer, I asked my parents if I could change schools, and, even though my older brother stayed at St. Ann’s, I enrolled at St. Mary Magdalen’s.
Aside from being strapped in strait-jackets, having my mouth washed out with soap, and suffering the consequences of restricted bathroom use, it was also quickly transmitted within these various Catholic settings that we are all sinners and need to repent. Thus, Catholic school is also where I learned to confess.
The Why of Confession: Many Paths, One Goal
Confessions are, of course, two-sided. On the one hand, the confessor wishes to relieve the self of the weighty burden of guilt, of pain, of suffering, of mental torment, and so on, brought on by the internally conscious judgement that one’s action or actions have violated egregiously the moral rules, guidelines or expectations of a community in which membership is claimed. On the other hand, the confessor takes this humiliating step, in which at least one other person is present, for the explicit sake of redemption, of being forgiven for one’s transgressions, however severe, and being reborn, so to speak, to go out and sin no more—which, as we all know, is an impossibility and the paradoxical bane of Catholics and other Christians. As sinners, we all inhabit two spaces simultaneously; that of the sinner—either actual or inevitably prospective—and the searcher who seeks forgiveness through confession for the sins committed and confession’s product, redemption. It is the same if one reads the eponymously titled autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine (circa 400 AD), or the tortured, tormented fictional tale of the murderous Raskolnikov, the young, feverish killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866; spellings include Dostoyevsky/Dostoevsky). The opportunity for redemption can be personally experienced (St. Augustine) or societally imposed, as in the case of Raskolnikov, whose mental anguish ultimately leads to his confession and redemption, albeit in the literal purgatory of Siberia. Thus, the path leading to redemption is rarely smooth and may not even be successful, as in the case of Eugène Marais, the Afrikaner polymath who, alone in his hovel, observed, documented and wrote about apes for three years in their native context—resulting in his The Soul of the Ape (1969, English edition, but actually written in the 1920s)—while musing about his ingestion of morphine to which he was addicted and led him to clearly understand that ever-greater amounts of morphine were required to achieve the same level of momentary mental elation. I read Soul of the Ape in Heidelberg, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army, at some point during the time I was stationed there (1970-1971). Marais clearly understood that there would come a time when the amount of morphine required would surpass the body’s ability to withstand it, but he did not live to witness and attest to that principle. At 65, he took a shotgun and shot himself first in the chest and then the head. Marais’ anguish and insights did not lead to confession and, therefore, there was no redemption, only despair and the emptiness of a tragic death. Drug addiction, nevertheless, is not an insurmountable barrier to the quest and realization of redemption. Thomas De Quincy’s autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), was immensely popular with the public for decades in England and abroad, describing as it did the vast pleasures and marginal pains of addiction. The necessity of redemption was presented as an almost reluctant conclusion by the author-eater. De Quincy considered redemption justified for the sake of, if nothing else, being able to continue to meet one’s professional responsibility and the demands of productivity. He also found it essential to remain in an appropriate physical and mental condition sufficient to appear coherent to others and to engage in sustained social interactions. In a manner that gives the impression of deception or hypocrisy, or both, De Quincy used confession, forgiveness and redemption as a means to continue to ingest opium as a controlled substance, while eloquently claiming or charmingly suggesting that his use was in the past. His was a cycle of perpetual sinning and seeking forgiveness and redemption in order to sin once more, allowing him literary success, moderated opium use, and selective redemption. When I first read Carlos Castaneda’s (I am spelling his last name without the tilde-ñ, as that convention has been used in his books; others may prefer to spell it Castañeda) The Teachings of Don Juan, I completely missed the point of its subject matter. Yes, I know that there was a subtitle, but I overlooked it because I was in the library at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, after Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and now involved in learning Morse code. Since May 1969, I had been experiencing life in the Army as a draftee during the heavily contentious Vietnam War.
The author with his mother and older brother, Art, in San Antonio, while his father was serving in WWII
Why did I miss the point of the title? Well, stay with me now, having spent my late elementary through high school years in Seville, Spain, and five years in Mexico, City, earning my B.A. and working, I naively thought that I was checking out a book on the character Don Juan Tenorio! You know, Zorilla’s (1844) work, or that of Tirso de Molina (1630), or perhaps George Gordon Lord Byron’s (1819-1824) “Don Juan” poem–pronounced for purposes of rhyme, “Don Joo-un.” All of them were essentially, to greater or lesser degrees, about the perennial triad of sin, forgiveness and redemption, and in Seville, no less! I share all the above thoughts that came to my mind to say that I was desperate for a Spanish-related cultural injection—a cultural fix—so I confess my error and beg forgiveness. Nevertheless, as we are prone to sense or know, coincidences are merely unforeseen experiences that were meant to take place. Thus, not at all coincidentally, reading The Teachings of Don Juan was a major cultural fix for me, for it altered my mind in ways I had not experienced previously. Moreover, it was a transformative experience for me, for I internalized immediately two life-long lessons:
First, to respect and honor as a legitimate cultural value and behavior the ingestion of mind-altering natural elements by groups, within their native context, for purposes integral to the group’s codified well-being; and,
Second, to avoid ingesting those types of drugs outside a legitimate cultural context and without a competent guide a la Don Juan.
I didn’t see the United States—the dominant cultural model or any of its less-dominant groups—as having a legitimate cultural context or knowledge-base for drug ingestion and never felt the need for drug use for recreational or “psychology-of-insight” purposes. I had made a marked distinction between cultural values and behaviors associated with the belief system of a group, as opposed to individuals who belonged to a group culture but whose practices did not emanate from or reflect the core values of that culture. This is, of course, the time for full disclosure: I do drink red wine moderately, beer occasionally, tequila reposado—or at times, añejo/añejado—if either is in front of me, and, albeit rarely, I enjoy a straight—no ice, no water—bourbon/whiskey, never the Jim Beam taste, if the occasion arises, which it very rarely does. As this statement regarding alcohol consumption is not a confession, I do not seek or care about redemption or forgiveness, or consider my way of being, in this case, a sin. My sin, as will become clear, was one of massive professional blindness and ignorance toward the very group that I had returned to the United States to work for and with, in pursuit of a deeply-rooted and life-long sense of social justice. I had a modicum of, but not directly relevant, academic preparation in the study and intellectual pursuit social justice, having graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, Social Sciences, from the Universidad de las Américas. My cultural context, both in Seville, Spain, and Mexico City, Mexico, was far from the context in which I desired to participate in and contribute to. I just didn’t realize it at the time—that is, all my life up to then. In the 1960s, the university was located a short distance from the exit of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, the massive, mega-élite, mansion-dense neighborhood—specifically at kilómetro 16 de la Carretera México-Toluca. Ambassadors, Cantiflas, politicians, bankers, and others considered the crème-de-la-crème resided in this élite colonia, and so did I, but as a student, in a beautiful residence where they took in student and professional boarders. At that time, mid-1960s, our university campus was, as I remember, characterized mainly by deep ravines and panoramic views of tree-dense, rolling hills—especially visible from the massive terrace of our small campus, itself, a converted country club. Its student body was a mixture of high-wealth, native-born students, in the main from Mexico City, with groups of foreign students, from the United States, Canada and Europe. The campus was, in part, an extension of the relaxed life-style of the rich and famous, where high-end cars were visible, driven by students in tailor-made suits or casually fashioned outfits. At the same time, there were the American students who would come for their “quarter abroad” programs, wearing chinos, sockless loafers and madras shirts—who never really fitted in and whose presence appeared more decorative than substantive. They were like silent, colorful, moving units amidst a socio-cultural context that at times saw them but did not engage with them. There were more serious foreign students, who either could not or preferred not to adapt to the Mexico City culture and left soon after arriving; or native students, who decided to transfer to the internationally prestigious Colegio de México, a highly regarded research university that specialized in the social sciences. There were also those who came looking like the perfectly groomed upper-middle class students they were back home and soon after experimenting with easily accessible pharmaceutical and other mind-altering substances, abandoned their grooming, previous dress codes, and normative behavioral façades, preferring to, as Timothy Leary so famously declared: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” It shocked me, literally, to have embraced friends, socialized and laughed with them, only to see them fade into themselves and ultimately disappear from campus. I knew it was due to their drug use, but I did not probe deeper than that and it did not touch me or my particular group of friends—at least not during the time we were completing our undergraduate degrees. This early, indirect experience with the effects of drugs on a few of my friends and other students visible to me led me away from any intellectual arguments in their favor and, as I mentioned above, after reading The Teachings ofDon Juan, I confess that my personal attitude toward recreational use of mind-altering drugs or their use outside of an authentic context native to the culture solidified even more. Ultimately, regardless of where I had lived; what I had experienced; what I had read for pleasure or studied formally; the Spanish I had been exposed to from birth and developed in Spain and Mexico; the values, principles, thoughts, desires and dreams I had of working within the arena of class struggle, of social justice, and of societal change were not sufficient in preparing me for the setting in which I would soon enter: the Chicano context of San José, California.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, haswritten and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, and so far almost exclusively about his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the U.S. from Spain, he earned a B.A. degree in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San José State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-1974) and Economic & Social Opportunities, Inc. He has traveled widely, engaged in international corporate affairs, but returned to complete a doctorate at Stanford University (1987). From 1987 to 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.