Barrio Boy

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Barrio Boy

by Ernesto Galarza


An autobiography set in Mexico, Arizona, and California between 1905 and about 1925; published in 1971.


Ernesto Galarza recalls the travels of his family from a small mountain village of west central Mexico to Sacramento, California, at the start of the Mexican Revolution.

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Takes Place

The Autobiography in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Was Written

For More Information

Ernesto Galarza was born in the small town of Jalcocotán, Mexico, in 1905. While he was still a small boy, challenges to the thirty-year reign of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz resulted in widespread revolt. Fearing separation from Ernesto’s young uncles through forced military or mining service, the family fled northward. The family—uncles José and Gustavo, mother Henriqueta and son Ernesto—rode the newly opened Southern Pacific Mexican Railroad to Mazatlén, Mexico; the border community Nogales; Tucson, Arizona; and Sacramento, California. More than forty years later, Galarza was persuaded to record his memories of his acculturation experiences, ending with his enrollment in a Sacramento high school.

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Takes Place


Porfirio Díaz had become president of Mexico in 1876. Except for four years (1880-1884) during which he gave the reins of government to his friend Manuel Gonzáles, Díaz had ruled autocratically and continuously through 1905, the year Galarza’s autobiography begins. The president-dictator was to rule for another five years thereafter.

Díaz had recognized the need for Mexico to improve its economic base and had done much to encourage foreign investments, particularly in mining and in the railroad system needed to bring the mined materials to market. By 1905 mining of silver, copper, and coal had become Mexico’s major industries. Still, small isolated villages were home to much of Mexico’s population throughout the mountain ranges that enclosed the country.

The villages and the rurales

Díaz’s plans for Mexico’s development had little effect on these small communities. No special roadways connected them to the larger towns. Most of them existed without electricity or sewage systems and took their water from nearby streams. Residents built one-room homes out of the rock and soil in the area, covered them with tile roofs, and walled off an area behind the house to keep out the wilderness beyond and protect the family animals. A typical village consisted of a few houses lining both sides of a single dirt road and, of course, some sort of common ground, a square or plaza. In such small villages there were often no church buildings and no schools. By 1910 education had become universal and mandatory in Mexico, but there was no provision for it in the mountain villages.

Occasionally the residents would walk or ride to the nearest town to petition the government for help, particularly in establishing schools. More often, contact with the government was through the rurales, soldiers of the national government who would ride horseback through the villages to demand taxes, to take rations for themselves, or to look for young men to conscript for work in the mines. Except for avoiding the rurales, the typical village resident had little to do with the national government and received little attention from it.


During Díaz’s era, a few Mexicans favored by the government grew increasingly wealthy, and the division between rich and poor grew ever more distinct. By the time of Galarza’s birth, the Mexican plantation or hacienda system was fully developed. Millions of landless Mexicans worked at the whims of hacienda managers. They were harshly treated and very poorly paid.

By 1910 Francisco Madero had become the leader of an antigovernment movement that called for government and land reform. Forces loyal to Díaz clashed with Madero’s followers, the Maderistas, and with other rebels. Within a year, Díaz was overthrown and Madero became president of Mexico for a short time. He was immediately opposed by several generals. The revolution would continue for another decade with various rebel leaders vying for the leadership. Suddenly, young male villagers were needed not only for mine work, but to fight on one of the sides of a civil war in which they had little to gain.

As tensions rose and landowners panicked, Mexicans throughout the rural areas began a massive migration, “A la capital o al norte” (to the capital city [Mexico City] or to the north) (Galarza, Barrio Boy, p. 28). In February of 1910, from Ciudad Juarez (the city of Juarez) alone, 2,380 Mexican peasants legally crossed the border into the United States. The promises of land and the ousting of Porfirio Díaz failed to stem this tide. Between 1911, when the family of Galarza began its own migration, and 1921, nearly a quarter of a million Mexicans joined in the flight to the United States.

Fleeing Mexican peasants first gathered in centers where transportation was available—the larger towns and cities. Located along the western ridges of the Sierra Madre Mountains, these towns were themselves not large. In 1911 the city of Tepic, the first stop for the Galarza family, counted just over 10,000 residents. The largest community on the path, Mazatlén, was just twice that size.

Most of the traveling villagers had little money. They found housing in the poorer parts of the larger communities and earned cash how-ever possible until they were able to take the next step on their journey. Men living in these “barrios,” areas occupied by migrants from closely connected communities, hired themselves out as day laborers on the developing railroad. Women sewed and provided other services for the more affluent townspeople. Galarza’s mother, Henriqueta, for example, had gained an old foot pedal sewing machine, an Ajax, in her divorce settlement. The Ajax accompanied the Galarza family on the first legs of their journey, allowing Henriqueta to help with the family finances.

California farm labor

By the end of the nineteenth century, many impoverished Mexicans had found opportunity in the fields of Texas. Later, as the revolution gained headway, the dislocated villagers on the west side of Mexico’s mountain ranges saw hope in the valleys of California. Both Texas and California had long depended on immigrant labor to work the fields, build railroads, and to provide services in the developing cities. America initially encouraged Mexican laborers to immigrate, seeing them as less of a threat than the growing Asian labor force. Contractors—Mexican labor recruiters— replaced the hacienda managers as the source of jobs. The pattern of employment and attitudes toward immigrants had been established by the time the Galarza family left Mexico. Carey McWilliams describes the unwritten policy in Factories in the Fields:

The practice has been to use a race for a purpose and then to kick it out, in preference for some weaker racial unit. In each instance, the shift in racial units has been accompanied by a determined effort to drive the offending [undesired] race from the scene.

(McWilliams, p. 130)


(Adapted from Galarza, Barrio Boy, 1964, p. 28)

Among the first laborers in the American West were Chinese immigrants, but by the 1890s they had become too numerous and too solidly established as excellent workers for the comfort of many whites. Viewed as a threat to the white population, the Chinese were beaten, robbed, and otherwise encouraged to leave. They were in time replaced by Japanese workers in the fields, who, in turn, grew in number and effectiveness. By 1910 the Japanese had become worrisome, too; they organized to hire their own field bosses and contractors, which only added to the distrust. When the Mexican Revolution began, Japanese immigration was being discouraged. The door consequently opened wider for Mexican laborers as well as for workers from Europe and India.

At first, Mexican laborers were welcomed without restraint in Texas and California. As the numbers of immigrants rose, however, both federal and state governments attempted to control the migration. Regulations were enacted to limit the business of contract farm labor, to place perperson taxes on workers brought in by contractors, and to demand that permanent immigrants pass literacy tests conducted in English. Nevertheless, between 1900 and 1940 as many as one million Mexicans left their native land to work in the United States.


Sections of the existing towns throughout the farm areas of the American Southwest soon had populations of migrant workers that exceeded in size the towns they had come from in Mexico. Sacramento, for example, with a population of about 50,000 in 1910, included about 10,000 Mexican, Indian, and European immigrants. It was a small but growing city, destined to reach a population of 65,000 by the end of the first quarter of the 1900s. Sacramento was dominated by the capitol building and its churches—which, along with its Mexican-based name may have been the only elements recognizable by the Mexican immigrants. Most of these Mexican immigrants found lowcost and substandard housing near the Sacramento River in what was known properly as lower Sacramento, a name warranted by the area’s condition, although it was not much different in elevation than the rest of the city.

Field workers

Some, but not by any means all, of Sacramento’s Mexican residents earned their way as field laborers on the nearby farms. Here they found conditions similar to those in Mexico, where farm hands had been recruited, bossed, and sometimes harassed by managers of the large haciendas. On the haciendas peasants had been paid miserable wages, and they had been left to find their own shelter once the crops were harvested. In California, the farm laborers found giant farms organized on the hacienda pattern. The earlier large Spanish land grants in California had been taken over by American occupiers, and the hacienda boss had been replaced by independent contractors. These intermediaries between workers and landowners hired, fired, and neglected the workers in ways that resembled their mistreatment in Mexico. The major differences between the giant farms of California and the landholdings of Mexico were the absence of revolution and the abundant demand for seasonal laborers. Wages remained dismal, although better than Mexico’s hacienda pay. Mexicans working California farms could earn large wages by Mexico’s standards; some made as much as 60¢ a day.

The Autobiography in Focus

The contents

Galarza’s autobiography begins with his birth in 1905, chronicling the young boy’s life until about 1920, when he enters high school in Sacramento. (The dates are estimated since Galarza provides none). The story is divided into three basic parts—early life in a small Mexican village, migration to California, and life in the “barrio” of lower Sacramento. More specifically in his introduction, Galarza describes five sections: Mexican village life, his family’s uprooted wanderings in response to revolution, flight, life in the Sacramento barrio, and living on the outskirts of the barrio (Barrio Boy, p. 2).

Galarza introduces readers to his first home, established when two uncles and his mother move to Jalcocotán leaving his Lutheran father in a larger town (Miramar) and carrying mother Henriqueta’s only property from the breakup of the marriage, an old Ajax sewing machine. They live in one of a handful of similar homes built along a wide dirt street that parallels a mountain stream. It is a place where a young boy’s chief occupations are keeping out of the way of hard-working elders, running constant errands for every adult in the village, and watching the animals—a burro, dog, and chickens—at work and play. Jalco, as the town is nicknamed, numbers among the many forest villages in which a boy’s chief sources of education are the stories of his mother, observations of the adult men at work, and the few travelers that pass through the village. Galarza recalls the pre-dawn departures of his uncles going to work in nearby fields and the monotony of diet among the villagers. His account also describes the sense of community among the residents, none of whom are wealthy or even financially secure. Galarza graphically illustrates the size of the community:

Whatever happened in Jalcocotán had to happen on our street because there was no other place for it to happen. Two men, drunk with tequila, fought with machetes on the upper edge of the village until they were separated and led away by neighbors. A hundred faces peered around doorways watching the fight. When someone died people joined the funeral procession as it passed by their doors.

(Barrio Boy, p. 11)

The bulk of the narrative documents the family flight to escape conscription of the two uncles—a flight along the west coast of Mexico from Tepic to Mazatlán and then to Nogales, the last stop before the U.S. border. Along the route, there were many new sights to excite the young Ernesto, novelties such as electric lights (in a festival at Tepic), town markets, locomotives (which he had only heard of from his uncles who worked on the tracks), and the great contrast between the homes of the wealthy landowners and the poor in every city.

Another first for Ernesto is his participation as a gang member in a city barrio in Mazatlán. He also discovers the tediousness of railroad travel and its primitive accommodations; much of the trip is made in open flatbed cars. More importantly, the seven- or eight-year-old begins his education, learning to read the shop signs in Tepic and Mazatlán and enduring study sessions at home directed by his mother.

Finally in Sacramento, Ernesto struggles to understand the many American dialects he encounters there. He attends formal school for the first time, and takes his first job to add to the family income, becoming a pozolera, a soup stirrer in an open restaurant. It is a job not unlike one he might have had in Mexico. As he grows older, the family prospers enough to move just outside the barrio. Ernesto remembers his mother’s death in this new house, and tells of the peace he and his uncle found upon moving back to an apartment in the more culturally comfortable barrio. Here Ernesto grows old enough to attend high school and to begin taking jobs in the nearby fields.


The Galarzas had to adjust to a continually changing environment in more than just the physical sense as they moved from one society to the other. The flight to California was triggered and encouraged by the constant threat of the Mexican revolution. After Madero had forced Díaz’s resignation from the presidency, several contenders for the office arose. Though Madero was elected president of Mexico, his rule was challenged by Emilio Zapata, Bernardo Reyes, Pascual Orozco, and Felix Días. Travelers escaping the war often did not know who the political opponents were, only whom they themselves supported. When the moment came to flee from the revolution, there was little time to prepare for a new society.

The family also experienced shifting conditions on their way to Sacramento. Back in their own village everyone had been poor, but even in nearby Tepic they had to adjust to the wide difference between the few rich and many poor. Tepic had its own barrio in which residents from several nearby villages found a common ground—poverty—and tried to keep some semblance of their new sub-community by establishing “turf,” which the young men protected with rocks.

Galarza’s youth allowed him to finally abandon his village upbringing and adapt to American society with what seems from his story to be relative ease. The depth of change is suggested by the boy’s discovery of indoor toilets in a hotel in Nogales.

I was left alone in the room for M-E-N. I examined it with great care—the smooth enamel bowl with water in the bottom, the wooden lid with a large hole that looked like a horse collar, the small brown box up near the ceiling, the chain hanging from it. Pressed for time I finally decided it was safe enough to try. I buttoned up and looked at the sign, remembering what the clerk had said, making it sound very important. I grabbed the chain with both hands and pulled. A small torrent of water gushed into the bowel, swirling and disappearing down the drain with a deep, sonorous gargle. I waited a few minutes and pulled the chain again.

That night I got up several times to go to the toilet, until I was ordered to go to sleep.

(Barrio Boy, p. 185)

Galarza’s mother had some of her own adjustments—like discovering the availability of food and new ways to gather and prepare it. In the village, “she stirred the ashes in the pretil [a brick counter serving as a stove], blew on the coals, and presently was laying tortillas on the comal. She placed a pot of beans in one corner of the fire pit and took down from the shelf some cheese wrapped in a napkin” (Barrio Boy, p. 113). In Sacramento, the immigrants found that Americans put everything in cans and boxes. Galarza lists Dutch Cleanser, corn flakes, Karo syrup, and butter as items new to the villagers from Mexico.

The village of Galarza’s birth had operated on a largely self-directed basis, with neighbors coming together to make common decisions and to help one another. In Sacramento, Mexican immigrants along with other newcomers to the city were gathered in the area between Fifth Street and the river adjacent to the Japanese shop community between L and N Streets. Galarza points out a major adjustment to living in a noncooperative community—”the Americans had by no means given it [the barrio] up to us” (Barrio Boy, p. 199). The people in control, from bartenders to rent collectors, insurance salesmen, riverboat officers, landladies, police officers, and teachers were all gringos, or whites. The Mexican colonias (immigrants) learned with difficulty to address these people in positions of power in a new language, mastering such introductory English phrases as “hau-Mochee” (How much?), “hua-tinees, plees” (What time is it, please?) and “tanks you” (Thank you)—all pronounced as the various immigrants interpreted the many English dialects they heard.


Galarza recounts his experience lightheartedly and with a sense of pleasure in his original culture and in the family’s accomplishments in accepting and being accepted in the larger California society. It is a tale with which he had grown quite familiar before the creation of the book. Ernesto Galarza told the stories in Barrio Boy many times in the fifty years before the autobiography was written. In 1928 he married Mae Taylor, and the couple had two daughters. As the girls grew up, Galarza began to tell his stories to them. All the members of the family encouraged Ernesto to shape them into a book. By 1971, he had been active in trying to define and defend the rights of farm workers and had written nearly a dozen books.

Multiculturalism and civil rights became prominent issues for debate in the 1960s, and accounts of Americans who had survived the cultural clashes to become leading spokespersons for equality were popular book subjects. Galarza’s Spiders in the House had been published by the University of Notre Dame Press, and when this publisher arranged a grant under which Galarza’s autobiography could be written, the author/activist was happy to gather the memories that had entertained his daughters into the book Barrio Boy.

Events in History at the Time the Autobiography Was Written

Farm labor and the government

By the time Galarza’s autobiography was written, events had occurred that served to both confuse and aid the Mexican immigrants to the United States. Railroads had expanded, increasing the market for farm goods and the need for farm hands. During the 1920s, Mexican workers, whether helping out seasonally and returning to Mexico or establishing permanent U.S. residency, were welcomed.

The Great Depression changed this tolerant attitude. With about one-third of the labor force in the United States out of work by 1933, jobs became a precious commodity. The thousands of non-Mexicans who became idle made the imported workers less essential. The Depression had also severely decreased consumer spending, resulting in a loss of marketability for agricultural commodities in general. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt began federal programs to pay farmers to destroy some crops, such as cotton, early in the 1930s. The reduced harvest

shrank the number of farm labor jobs and, accompanied by the increase in job-seeking Americans, made the import of Mexican farm workers very unpopular. Terrible weather conditions throughout the Plains states exacerbated the problem. As fierce dust storms destroyed small farms, white farm owners transformed themselves into migrant workers. These new migrants competed with Mexicans for desperately needed jobs, and this competition fueled the fire of antagonism toward the Mexican laborer.

Labor unions

At the same time, activists were attempting to organize the migrant farm workers into a group represented by a labor union. Ernesto Galarza, having graduated from Occidental College and earned his master’s degree at Stanford University (he would later earn a doctorate at Columbia University), became active in union work, first speaking for the Mexican workers through the Pan American Union and then working in California with the United Farm Workers and the National Agricultural Workers’ Union.

World War II

The wartime demand for soldiers and factory workers drained the nation of laborers, restoring the Mexican farm workers’ welcome status in California. This time the welcome was endorsed by the federal government, which organized farm owners and contractors to import and provide for thousands of farm workers. The temporary measure instituted in 1942, called the Bracero Program, provided needed farm workers and endured until 1964.

The conditions of the Bracero Program made Mexican workers particularly attractive. They were brought to the fields when needed and returned to Mexico when the work was done. Mostly young men, they migrated alone, leaving their families in the growing cities on the Mexican side of the border. Thus, the contractors and farm owners did not have to deal with helping families move or provide much in the way of benefits and housing. While eagerly recruited, the Mexican farm hands were often treated shabbily.

Ernesto Galarza and other Mexican leaders renewed the battle for better farm labor treatment, now directing their attention to abolishing or reforming the Bracero Program. Galarza particularly took up the Bracero cause, championing Mexican immigrants, whom he characterized as “folks with plenty of nothing” (Galarza, Merchants of Labor, p. 17). New vigor for the cause came in the 1960s. César Chávez came to Oxnard, California, to develop a Community Service Organization that would aid farm workers in times of legal and medical need. He remained to direct a powerful farm labor union. Gathered under a flag bearing a black eagle, the National Farm Workers Association took aggressive action to aid the migrant farm workers and to improve the living conditions in the city barrios. In the years just before Barrio Boy was published, Chávez led strikes against exorbitant rent increases in public housing in Tulare County, against contract-breaking low wages among flower workers in MacFarland, and against the grape growers. Galarza himself had led such labor actions on a smaller level since 1951, the year he organized a strike among tomato workers.

Barrio Boy was just one of the books Galarza wrote to reveal the plight of the Mexican farm worker and migrant laborer in general. He had begun with Strangers in Our Fields, a report of the Joint United States-Mexico Trade Union of 1956. Galarza followed that with Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story (1964) and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest: A Report of the Ford Foundation (1966), before writing Spiders in the House and Workers in the Field (1970) and Barrio Boy (1971).

Reception and recognition

Barrio Boy was just one of many books published in this era of multicultural consciousness, the arts teaming with legislative action and new organizations in an effort to publicize and correct racial and economic injustices. Galarza contributed greatly to this mass of literature, following Barrio Boy with four other volumes for adults and a dozen books for children. In this body of new literature, Barrio Boy became a classic in the newly formed ethnic studies programs of the universities.

For his many years of service and his prolific writings, Ernesto Galarza has been recognized as a leader among Mexican writers. He was named an Officer of the Order of the Condors from the Republic of Bolivia, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Occidental College (1971), received a community service award from Santa Clara County, and was presented with a Chicano Studies Diploma from Stanford University.

For More Information

Altman, Linda Jacobs. Migrant Farm Workers: The Temporary People. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.

Brenner, Anita. The Wind Swept Mexico. New York: Harper, 1943.

Galarza, Ernesto. Barrio Boy. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971.

Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin, 1964.

Galarza, Ernesto. Spiders in the House and Workers in the Field. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1970.

McWilliams, Carey. Factories in the Fields. 3rd ed. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Peregrine, 1971.

Shorris, Earl. Latinos: A Biography of the People. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

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Barrio Boy

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