Barrio Boy is aptly subtitled The Story of a Boy’s Acculturation. Ernesto Galarza recounts his immigration northward from a small village in Nayarit, Mexico, to the edge of the barrio in Sacramento, California. His adjustments in a new country, a new language, a new lifestyle bring many changes for Galarza. Small town life does not prepare Galarza for the differences he encounters in the cities of Mazatlán and later Sacramento. Ernesto’s tenacity and strength, however, allow him not only to survive but also to maintain his sense of identity as a Mexican. Acculturation, then, for Galarza, is not the process of abandoning one’s culture but rather is the process of adaptation. This autobiography speaks to those who have traveled to the United States and who have faced the challenges of acculturation.
The autobiography is structured into five sections. Each part confronts Galarza’s step-by-step process from being a Mexican to becoming a Mexican American. The first section, “In the Mountain Village,” is a study in provincial Mexican life. Everyday mannerisms, traditions, and roles are poignantly played out. The lyrical description of the village and its people reads like a pastoral. One of the longest sections of the autobiography, the first section provides a clear and distinct portrait of Galarza’s life before his move north.
When the family leaves the village, life becomes much less idyllic. Being able to settle down proves difficult during a revolution. “Peregrinations,” the longest section of the book, tells this part of Galarza’s story. Galarza also speaks sincerely of the struggles of the people, whether on burros or on foot, who move northward seeking refuge.
Realizing their best hope lies in emigrating to the United States, the family, in “North from Mexico,” makes the decisive journey. Galarza details the train ride he and his mother endure. The train creates in him a discomfort and an uneasiness toward the American people, whom he finds both “agreeable and deplorable.”
“Life in the Lower Part of Town” reflects the determination of Galarza and his family to benefit from the opportunities afforded to them. He begins his journey toward acculturation as he learns English and studies in school. He also acknowledges the differences in lifestyle between the Mexican and the Anglo American. He also points out his poverty.
The acculturation of Galarza becomes complete in “On the Edge of the Barrio.” Having to learn on his own, Galarza works toward a promise of success. He participates, in his education, in society, and he becomes part of the American working class. His new identity as a Mexican American, because of his social participation, illustrates the positive balance Galarza maintains as a Mexican living in an Anglo American society.
With his life story set against the historical background of the Mexican revolution, Galarza becomes a representative of his era. In essence, Barrio Boy offers him a forum to express, to share, and to educate his readers to undiscovered events in history on a personal level. In fact, Galarza seems to want his readers to participate fully in his journey, for he provides a glossary of the Spanish words he believes he could not translate.
Historically speaking, then, Barrio Boy is significant in three ways. First, in the recounting of his migratory travels, Galarza exemplifies the immigrant who is uprooted by a social or political event. The long journey to safety and rest is poignantly depicted in the actions of his uncles Gustavo and José. Second, Barrio Boy reveals the destitute conditions of the farm laborer. Galarza learns through personal experience the disgusting working conditions and inhumane treatment of migrant workers. Galarza allows...
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his autobiography to become a voice for the oppressed farmworkers. Finally, to acknowledge that in his case the process of acculturation does not psychologically damage him illustrates Galarza’s theme for his autobiography: To be able to maintain a cultural identity in a world that focuses on individuality is a social triumph. Certainly, many times in the narrative, Galarza notes homesickness and the comfort of being surrounded by people who speak his language. Yet, he is also able to participate outside the security of his barrio. Accordingly, then,Barrio Boy is more than just an immigrant story. Galarza demonstrates the potential of many immigrant Americans who seek new opportunities.