Barrio Boy

by Ernesto Galarza

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his memoir Barrio Boy, Ernesto Galarza relates the story of his youth. Born in Mexico, Galarza and his family eventually move to the United States to avoid the fighting of the Mexican Revolution (1910 to early 1920s).

Some important quotes to consider are those that highlight how Ernesto's life changed as he grew and moved to different places. Early in the book, Ernesto is roughly 4 years-old and is living with his family in a small, very rural Mexican pueblo named Jalcocotán. He recalls the feeling of wonder that he had when he would sit with his mother and read their only book.

Books were rare. My mother had one, which she kept in the cedar box. It had a faded polychrome drawing on the cover with the title La Cocinera Poblana, a cookbook which had belonged to Grandmother Isabel. We did not need it for cooking the simple, never-changing meals of the family. It was the first book from which Doña Henriqueta ever read to me. The idea of making printed words sound like the things you already knew about first came through to me from her reading of the recipes. I thought it remarkable that you could find oregano in a book as well as in the herb pot back of our house. I learned to pick out words like sal and frijoles, chile piquín and panocha—things we ate. From hearing my mother repeat the title so often when she read to us, and from staring at the cover drawing, I guessed that the beautiful girl in the colorful costume was the Cocinera Poblana. The words above her picture were obviously her name. I memorized them and touched them. I could read.

Ernesto's mother begins to teach him to read in earnest when he is six, but their lives are regularly interrupted by unexpected events. The family begin to prepare to leave Jalcocotán when they learn that the fighting from the Mexican Revolution has spread to their region. As they contemplate leaving, Halley's Comet appears.

Every man, woman, and child gathered in the plaza to stare at the heavenly kite with the bushy tail. Shooting stars we saw every night, streaking across the most unexpected places of the sky. They came in a wink and were gone in another. A comet was something else. Don Cleofas said it was bigger than the earth and that the tail was so long nobody could guess how many millions of kilometers it was from tip to tip. Jesús and Catarino and I were called down from the tapanco the first night the comet appeared. I caught the awe of the older people who were listening to Don Cleofas tell that a comet foretold something important, and serious. He said that this one meant La Revolución.

The family eventually move to the United States, first to Tuscon and then to Sacramento. Ernesto finds many things foreign and confusing in his new home.

In more personal ways we had to get used to the Americans. They did not listen if you did not speak loudly, as they always did. In the Mexican style, people would know that you were enjoying their jokes tremendously if you merely smiled and shook a little, as if you were trying to swallow your mirth. In the American style there was little difference between a laugh and a roar, and until you got used to them you could hardly tell whether the boisterous Americans were roaring mad or roaring happy.

In Sacramento, after Ernesto's mother remarries another Mexican immigrant, the family move into a suburb that...

(This entire section contains 991 words.)

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is predominantly white.

We could not have moved to a neighborhood less like the barrio. All the families around us were Americans. The grumpy retired farmer next door viewed us with alarm and never gave us the time of day, but the Harrisons across the street were cordial. Mr. Harrison loaned us his tools, and Roy, just my age but twice my weight, teamed up with me at once for an exchange of visits to his mother’s kitchen and ours. I astounded him with my Mexican rice, and Mrs. Harrison baked my first waffle.

In Ernesto's teens, his mother suddenly becomes ill with influenza and passes away. He and his uncle move back to the barrio in Sacramento where Ernesto continues attending public school. Throughout the novel, Ernesto relates how much value he and his family place on hard work. For the majority of his life, that is associated with manual labor.

It was during the summer vacation that school did not interfere with making a living, the time of the year when I went with other barrio people to the ranches to look for work.

During a particular summer break from high school, Ernesto takes several jobs as a farm laborer. At one camp, the workers' water supply is contaminated, resulting in several children becoming ill and one adult dying. Ernesto chooses to stand up for the other workers.

He heard me out, asked me questions and made notes on a pad. He promised that an inspector would come to the camp. I thanked him and thought the business of my visit was over; but Mr. Lubin did not break the handshake until he had said to tell the people in the camp to organize. Only by organizing, he told me, will they ever have decent places to live.

Rather than fix the conditions, however, the inspector comes to fire Ernesto. Rather than be deterred, Ernesto gathers with some other workers and gives a labor organizing speech and then rides his bicycle home.

At the conclusion of the memoir, Ernesto hops back on his bike.

I unhooked the bicycle, mounted it, and headed for the main high school, twenty blocks away where I would be going in a week. Pumping slowly, I wondered about the debating team and the other things Mr. Everett had mentioned.