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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

Barrio Boy by Ernesto Galarza, is an autobiographical novel about a young boy coming of age during the early twentieth century in Mexico and the United States. The novel begins in Mexico with Ernesto remarking on how steadfastly his single mother works to keep them safe and well-fed. His mother, Dona Henriqueta, works as a seamstress and also cooks for their several family members. Ernesto relates one of his fondest memories near the beginning of the book: his mother making tamales by hand. Everyone in Ernesto's life is hardworking and diligent, but many are illiterate and do manual labor for very little, if any, money.

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Conflict and cultural ambiguity and confusion are pervasive throughout Barrio Boy. Ernesto's mother moves the family several times to keep them safe and away from the chaos of the Mexican Revolution. They eventually move to the United States, starting in Tuscon, Arizona, and then moving to the barrio in Sacramento, California. (Barrio means neighborhood in Spanish. In the context of the novel, the word is associated with Mexican migrant neighborhoods.)

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Ernesto's mother meets another Mexican immigrant and gets remarried. The family then moves out of the barrio and into a predominantly white neighborhood. After having two children, Ernesto's mother becomes very ill with influenza and passes away. Ernesto and his uncle José then move into a small apartment back in the barrio. Feeling listless, Ernesto regularly returns to manual labor—it is familiar and comfortable for him. Having associated physical work with only positive qualities, he takes a summer job as a farm worker. However, Ernesto begins to see that the supervisors treat him and the other workers very poorly. The supervisors deny them access to clean water and proper rest breaks. Ernesto attempts to make life better for himself and his other workers by confronting the supervisors. However, they promptly fire him. Disillusioned and frustrated, Ernesto feels culturally divided—neither Mexican nor American.

Ernesto channels his passion for laborers' rights and becomes reinvigorated to return to high school. As he rides his bike to the school, he recalls the pride that he felt when he excelled in school and begins to dream of his future.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Ernesto Galarza divides the narrative of Barrio Boy into five parts, each corresponding roughly to a place in which his family lived. The first part tells of the family’s early history and Galarza’s first five years of life in Jalcocotán, a village high in the Sierra Madre range. There, Ernesto learned his native language as he listened to tales of ancient Native Americans and ghosts, sang songs, and played in the street. He enjoyed life in this free village, where none of its dwellers were indebted to the haciendas of the faraway valleys. He learned of work in the mountains, clearing the deep forest surrounding the pueblo for growing coffee, bananas, and peppers. He also began to learn to read using the only book in the house, his mother’s cookbook.

The second part, “Peregrinations,” details the family’s movements over the next two years, from 1910 to 1912. At the first stop in Tepic, Galarza’s uncles, Gustavo and José, found plenty of work. Soon the revolutionary fighting neared the town, everything closed, and the family moved north. After his first stagecoach and train rides, Galarza found himself living in a tent city beside a railroad roundhouse, as Gustavo and José had jobs with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Galarza began to learn English from Gustavo, whose boss was a gringo, or white man. When the revolution forced the layoff of the railroad workers, the family moved further north to Mazatlán. At seven years old, Galarza joined a barrio gang and learned how to be mischievous. He also attended first grade at a barrio school, experienced his first motion picture, and became the proud owner of two new family books. Life was going well for the family until the city fell under seige. After several weeks, the revolutionaries freed the city, but it had become too dangerous a place to live and work.

In part 3, Galarza describes the family’s travels to the United States. During a temporary stay in Tucson, Arizona, he learned of electric lights inside a house, spring mattresses, and flush toilets. Yet he also experienced the muddy, run-down quarters of the Chicanos.

Part 4 brings Galarza’s family to the Chicano barrio in Sacramento. They rented a room only a few blocks from the capitol building and park. After he finished the sixth grade, Galarza’s mother remarried and the family bought a five-room house on the edge of Sacramento, in the town of Oak Park. With a new bicycle, he delivered newspapers, and with his great command of English, he thought about becoming a doctor or a lawyer. This new middle-class life, however, dissolved when both Gustavo and his mother, Henriqueta, died from an influenza epidemic. In the final part, Galarza describes how he and José moved back to the Sacramento barrio. The story ends with the author looking forward to entering high school in the barrio in 1921.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625


*Jalcocotán (hal-ko-ko-TAN). Small mountain village in central Mexico. Referred to as Jalco, this isolated and seemingly inaccessible pueblo provides the idyllic, almost edenic, setting for young Ernesto. In this small village, the only street with no name is a place that belongs to everybody. Although the living conditions are primitive—with extremes in weather, torrential downpours that cause flooding, and back-breaking labor—Ernesto’s innocence flourishes here. In the village he lives a safe, secure life and learns a set of values by which to measure his life; these values he metaphorically later carries with him throughout his journey.

Before the rurales—special national police who maintain order in the countryside through violence and terror—enter and threaten the village’s idyllic existence, the greatest danger Ernesto faces is getting his ear pulled for being disrespectful to adults. However, after the rurales invade his sanctuary, his family flees the village to find safety and work. Uprooted, they are forced to leave many belongings behind, but they take their two most valuable items: an Ajax sewing machine and a cedar chest. Throughout their arduous travels, these tangible possessions symbolize the intangibles of their village life that give their life meaning and promise.


*Tepic (TAY-pik). Large city south of Jalco that provides Ernesto’s family with temporary security and a safe haven from the violence of the Revolution. Here, Ernesto and his family confront a series of challenges, one of the most important being the rigid social barrier separating those who have money from those who do not. However, the Ajax sewing machine provides them with some measure of economic security. They also struggle to cope with the rush of big-city activity. Since they know no one in Tepic, Ernesto goes everywhere with his mother. After a brief respite in Acaponeta, a city north of Tepic, the family moves on.


*Mazatlán (mah-zaht-LAHN). Western coastal city on the Vigia Peninsula where Ernesto’s family lives in a barrio. Although they are refugees in a new city, Mazatlán is the first place in which the family feels as if they belong, as friends belong to one another. Ernesto joins a gang that provides him with a sense of social importance and a new family. He also attends his first formal school and finds his first job. This city begins to provide Ernesto with the same constancy and feelings of safety and economic security that Jalco provided. When the Revolution reaches their front door, however, they are again forced to become refugees. This time they leave their valuable sewing machine behind, and they go north to the United States.


*Sacramento. Northern California city that is the final destination of Ernesto’s family, after a brief stay in Tucson, Arizona. While the family is free from the violence of the Mexican Revolution, they are now foreigners who face more complex challenges. Not yet economically stable, they live in a ghetto-like area of “leftover houses,” where their rooms are “dank and cheerless.” They stay in this awful place because their objective is not to make money but to “make a living.” In Sacramento’s barrio, they find no plazas or parks in which people gather and visit; even the houses are fenced off from one another.

Ernesto, too, finds new barriers to defining his own cultural identity. He attends a school in which only English is spoken, is immersed into a new culture, and has physical confrontations with boys who make fun of him. Despite these difficulties, he is sustained by his family values and the shared experiences of those who live in his barrio. As a result, he maintains his sense of self in this new, alien culture. His journey is complete.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

Flores, Lauro. “Chicano Autobiography: Culture, Ideology and the Self.” The Americas Review 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 80-91. Explores the style, characterization, and structure of the autobiography. Asserts that Barrio Boy shows how society influences the individual.

Márquez, Antonio C. “Self and Culture: Autobiography as Cultural Narrative.” Bilingual Review 14, no. 3 (September-December, 1987/1988): 57-63. Focusing on the theme of acculturation and adaptability, examines Barrio Boy as a celebration of individuality and culture. The themes of self-motivation and cultural pride are emphasized.

Robinson, Cecil. Mexico and the Hispanic Southwest in American Literature. Rev. ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977. Offers an analysis of Barrio Boy as an autobiography and social commentary. The place and contribution of Barrio Boy to the Hispanic literary tradition is also examined.

Rocard, Marcienne. The Children of the Sun: Mexican-Americans in the Literature of the United States. Translated by Edward G. Brown, Jr. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989. Analyzes the internal struggles and conflicts in Barrio Boy as well as other Hispanic novels and autobiographies. Barrio Boy is examined as the portrayal of acculturation from the immigrant’s point of view. Also examines the politics of acculturation.

Saldívar, Ramón. “Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography.” Diacritics 15, no. 3 (Fall, 1985): 25-34. Analyzing the language and characterization of Barrio Boy, examines individuality and the problems associated with moving from one culture to another. Barrio Boy is compared to other Chicano autobiographies.

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