Raymond Barrio’s social protest novel The Plum Plum Pickers is a widely anthologized work of Chicano fiction, and selections from it appear in many high school and college-level textbooks. Barrio, however, is not literally Chicano; his parents immigrated to the United States from Spain in 1920. His father, Saturnino Barrio, who was born in Seville, died after exposure to poisonous fumes in a chemical factory in New Jersey; his mother, Angelita Santos Barrio, was from Algeciras. In unpublished correspondence Barrio explained that he and his brother lived with foster families while their mother pursued her career as a Spanish dancer, giving him a very American Protestant education despite a Catholic birth and upbringing. Barrio met Yolanda Sánchez in Mazatlan, Mexico, and they married in 1957. The couple had five children.
Barrio lived in California from 1936 until his death (excluding time spent in military service in Europe from 1943 to 1946). He held academic degrees from the University of California at Berkeley (B.A., 1947) and the Art Center College of Los Angeles (B.F.A., 1952). Barrio taught a variety of courses (art, creative writing, Chicano studies and literature, and Mexican art) in eight California institutions (San Jose State University; Ventura College; the University of California, Santa Barbara; West Valley College; De Anza College; Skyline College; Foothill College; and Sonoma State University). In 1964 he was awarded the Creative Arts Institute Faculty Grant by the University of California.
Although Barrio has asserted that his vocation was art and his avocation writing, teaching provided his family’s financial security. His early publications focus on art, and many of his works are self-illustrated, with sparse text that includes humor and wordplay. When his novel The Plum Plum Pickers was turned down by every publishing house to which it was offered, Barrios published it himself. In less than two years it had sold more than ten thousand copies, and it quickly became an underground classic.
The Plum Plum Pickers is primarily a study of the exploitation of migrant laborers by Northern California agribusiness. Barrio illustrates the lives of Mexican, Anglo, and Chicano farmworkers, revealing the attitudes of the corrupt, ruthless overseers and exposing a system driven by the growers’ relentless desire for economic power and control. More than an examination of migrant life, The Plum Plum Pickers is an indictment of the economic system that perpetuates the exploitation of the migrants, the Chicanos, and the illegal aliens who are often recruited to do the picking.
Barrio has been praised for his skillful prose and deft use of realistic dialogue to reveal the hypocrisy and rationalizations of the landowners and the company men. Barrio is concerned with such gross inequalities in a capitalist system, and he bases many of his characters on the real lives of people he has known. The Plum Plum Pickers was inspired by Barrio’s friendship with a migrant family he met in Cupertino, California, in the Santa Clara Valley, the setting of the novel. Thus the story provides a personalized, sensitive, and realistic portrayal of many of the exploited characters he creates. Ultimately...
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