Barrio Boy

by Ernesto Galarza

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.)

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.

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