Satire and education in the “Land of Enchantment”

A review of The Education of Héctor Villa, a novel by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


The Education of Héctor Villa
A novel by Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Chronicles Press (Rockford, IL), 2012.
208 pages.

Toss out your glitzy tourist-bureau guide to New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment.” You’ll have a lot more fun viewing the state through the innocent eyes of Mexican immigrant Héctor Villa.

The Education of Héctor Villa isn’t great literature, but this parody of the politics, paranoia, and problems EducationHectorVilla_CWilliamson
of an assortment of outrageous but lovable characters is reminiscent of Max Shulman’s hilarious take on the1950s in Rally Round the Flag, Boys!

With humor and irreverence, Williamson pokes a satirical finger at Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, immigrants, and both the Hispanic and Anglo New Mexican cultures. The story will make you chuckle (even though you might occasionally feel guilty doing so), and some of the insights might even make you laugh at yourself. They might also increase your level of apprehension about the future of our country.

This probably isn’t a book for folks who are humorless, scrupulous, hypersensitive, or politically correct to the red bone, although its comedic veneer veils a layer of hard truth about the way things are and how they can change. On that level, readers of the novel – as well as Héctor – can gain a bit of enlightenment; Williamson has keen eyes and ears.

Gentle Héctor, an illegal immigrant descended from the celebrated Mexican hero/villain Pancho Villa, lives in Belen, New Mexico, where he earns enough fixing computers for his wife and daughter to keep several department stores in business. He loves his home, loves his wife and children, loves being an American, loves being a Republican (his son is named Dubya), and especially loves drinking and talking with his bosom friend Jesús “Eddie,” a native Rio Abajo New Mexican who hates almost everybody except Héctor.

To tell his story, Williamson concocts an interesting blend of the actual (the famous Pink Store across the border from Columbus, the rough road in to Ladrón Peak) with the fictional (a mosque in Belen, Neiman-Marcus stores in Albuquerque and Las Cruces), just as he juxtaposes actual people with invented characters.

The zany action of the novel takes the Villa family from Belen to rural southwestern New Mexico, to Las Vegas, Nevada, and even to Namiquipa, Mexico, Héctor’s hometown. Set during George W. Bush’s administration, it also gives a nostalgic backward glance at how accessible border towns were before the present level of drug violence – and how the MGM Hotel in Vegas had a popular live-lion exhibit before lion violence closed it down a couple of years ago.

Formerly history editor for St. Martin’s Press and literary editor for National Review, Williamson has been for 23 years the senior editor of books for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. In addition to The Education of Héctor Villa, the chapters of which were originally published in Chronicles, he is the author of eight other books.

Some lovely descriptive passages sprinkled throughout the novel suggest that Williamson has, like so many outsiders before him, succumbed to the beauty of the Land of Enchantment, as well as to its culture. He uses quite a bit of Spanish in the dialogue, and it’s too bad he chose not to include a glossary. Even though the meaning of many of the Spanish words is evident from the context, readers unfamiliar with ordinary street Spanish might need to have at hand a Spanish-to-English dictionary. After all, isn’t the sugar-coated education of the reader the point of The Education of Héctor Villa?

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Ann Applegarth 6 Articles
Ann Applegarth lives and writes, and teaches in Roswell, New Mexico, where she served as poet-in-residence for the High Plains Writing Project at ENMU-Roswell. Her poems have been published in print and online and anthologized in Shadow and Light: Literature and the Light of Faith. Many of her poems have been collected in Layers of Beauty (2020).