Barrio Boy Summary

Ernesto Galarza

Barrio Boy

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Barrio Boy Summary

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Barrio Boy by Ernesto Galarza is a memoir about the author’s move from a small village in Mexico to a barrio in America. A barrio is the area or district of a town or city where Spanish is the dominant language. In the United States, barrios are also often rife with poverty. Barrio Boy begins when Ernesto, or Ernie, is four years old, and follows him up to high school. This book shows the influence of socio-political factors on young Ernie’s future.

Born in Jalcocotán, a mountain village, Ernie’s life is one of routine. He writes about cooking tamales and the way he interacted with the adults in his life. This sets a foundation with which his future experiences are compared and contrasted. The major influence that triggers changes in Ernie’s life and routine is the rising tension between the working class and the Mexican government. The revolution is conveyed through his eyes, meaning the fighting takes place in the background. He only learns of the dangers his family faces by overhearing adults talking about it. He does not understand the forces driving the revolution, but he does understand the result for him and his family.

Where they had formerly supported themselves by farming, they now have to work for wages. With this shift, they leave Jalcocotán. They travel through Tepic, Acaponeta, Casa Redonda, Mazatlán, Nogales, and Tucson. Eventually, they find their way to Sacramento, California. Each time they move to a new town, they have to adjust to new cultural norms and a new lifestyle. Ernie shows this by describing his family’s new daily routine. No longer do they make tamales every day. Instead, they shop and they work. These adjustments are challenging for the Galarza family, and ultimately lead to their biggest challenge: adapting to American culture without leaving their own Mexican culture behind.

Though they leave the dangers of the revolution behind when they cross the Mexican-American border, the challenge of living in America proves just as difficult. Americans do not understand them, and Ernie’s family does not understand what is culturally acceptable and what is not. Through Ernie’s observations of life in America, he decides that he wants to pursue an education. He succeeds by developing his work ethic and learns that everyone has the right to dignity. For a little while at the end of the book, Ernie lives in suburbia, but eventually he returns to the barrio.

There are several prominent themes in Barrio Boy. The first is the clash between laborer and employer. The lack of balance of power between these two groups drives much of the narrative, coming into play again and again. At the start of the story, Ernie notices that laborers have virtually no power. Employers can pay low wages and impose horrible working conditions, and there is nothing the laborers can do to stop them or drive change. After the Galarza family moves to the city Tepic, Ernie observes that sugar mill workers, such as Gustavo, get one day off each week. In Mazatlán, one employer would rather try to shoot Gustavo than pay him for work he has done. While working in Sacramento, Ernie experiences first-hand the poor conditions of the work camps, where even asking for fresh water could land a worker in trouble.

Hierarchy in social structure is another important theme in Barrio Boy. At the beginning of the book, in Jalcocotán, age and gender determine power. The elders are granted the most influence, and males have more influence than females. At home, mothers have control over how the household chores are done, and have influence over children under a certain age regardless of whether the children are male or female. As the Galarza family moves from town to town, Ernie observes different hierarchies depending on the situation. Ultimately, these experiences and observations lead to his understanding of how to organize within a labor union.

The third major theme in Barrio Boy is industrialization. Ernie uses the rail line as a symbol of this theme. Initially, the rail line provides the Galarza family with opportunity. They are able to find employment with the rail line and travel from town to town with more ease to find new opportunities when the ones they have found dry up. On the other hand, the rail line also transports soldiers and weapons, making the revolution and accompanying violence widespread. This increases the danger for the Galarzas as long as they are in Mexico. Throughout many countries, industrialization led to the organization of labor unions that changed the way laborers lived and worked for the better. Barrio Boy not only shows the changes families and individuals like Ernie experience, but also the changes that cultures and nations experience.

Barrio Boy is a story of adaptation and learning for Ernie Galarza and his readers.