Some of the major themes in this novel include racism, family, and hardship.
As a Mexican youth living in the violence and poverty of the barrio, Eddie is well acquainted with the racist attitudes that oppress him and his hispanic acquaintances. In the white neighborhood where he seeks work, he is eyed with suspicion, and a little white boy on a tricycle hounds him, reporting negatively on his every move. Although he struggles to improve his lot by taking classes at City College, Eddie is overcome by the difficulties of surviving in his environment, and he notes wryly about a Mexican friend,
"Lupita. Waitressing and cashier work is what you do if you got that name."
Eddie gets little support from family. His father is dead, and his mother, who, in her self-absorption, cares little about him, lives with her sister in a nearby town. Eddie appeals to her for money sometimes to help him get by, but she does not readily give him much, and when she does, she wants him to spend it on things like coffee, so that she and her sister will have some when they arrive for infrequent visits. Eddie's cousin Jesus has been killed by an unknown assailant, and Jesus's mother, Eddie's nina, pressures Eddie to continue the cycle of violence and revenge by finding and taking out his killer. Eddie wants only to escape the gang lifestyle, but his aunt is persistent, badgering him with appeals to his sense of respect and "honor," and even supplying him with a gun.
Although hardship, as represented by Eddie's imagined "buried onion," is endemic to his own people, it also afflicts the white population, who appear to have so many more opportunities and so much more material comfort and wealth. Hardship is a universal condition, and when Eddie goes into a white neighborhood, he recognizes that the residents' apparent affluence is empty. Their share of the "buried onions" is still with them, lurking beneath their tidy front yards.