Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Having its origin in Barrio’s friendship with a migrant family that he met in Cupertino, California, The Plum Plum Pickers failed at first to reach publication. Although Barrio wrote at the time that César Chávez’s movement to unionize farmworkers was making national news, every major publishing house to which he submitted the novel rejected it as too didactic, too narrow in its topic, or too regional in its significance. He was forced to publish it himself. Only after the novel had sold more than ten thousand copies through five printings in less than two years did Harper and Row inquire about purchasing publishing rights. The novel emerged as an underground classic, its impact spreading largely by word of mouth.

The Plum Plum Pickers serves as a foundation in the development of the Chicano novel over the next twenty-five years. The first Chicano novel to explore social issues through literary innovation and experimental techniques, its forerunners are the North American proletarian novels of the 1930’s, the literary extravagance of the Beat poets in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the early 1960’s Magical Realism of South American writers. Now widely acclaimed and more anthologized through brief excerpts than almost any other Chicano fiction, the novel is one of the first issued in the Chicano Classics series published by the Bilingual Press. Despite its favorable reception in brief reviews, the novel has received scant in-depth analysis and focused critical attention.

Barrio has continued publishing, though none of his subsequent works has gained the reputation of The Plum Plum Pickers. His interest in the visual arts resulted in a collection of essays on art, Mexico’s Art and Chicano Artists (1975). In The Devil’s Apple Corps: A Trauma in Four Acts (1976), he cast Gore Vidal as the public defender in a mock trial of Howard Hughes, perhaps the industrial parallel to the fictional Turner. Barrio makes it clear that he remains a harsh critic of those who exploit the rank and file of American workers. His editorials in A Political Portfolio (1985) consistently attack exploitive figures from all professions; among the pieces in this collection are three selections from the novel Carib Blue (1990). That novel further develops, in broader contexts, the potential for aesthetic experimentation to reveal the exploitation behind the masks of the practical approaches to resolving social issues.