Galarza, Ernesto

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Galarza, Ernesto 1905–1984

Ernesto Galarza was born August 15, 1905, in Jalcocotán, Nayarit, a small state on the central Pacific coast of Mexico. When he was eight years old, his family migrated to the United States. His family, like thousands of others, was motivated to migrate because of the social and economic instability brought about by the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917). These migrants were drawn to the United States by the need for cheap labor in agriculture and other U.S. industries. In his autobiography, Barrio Boy (1971), Galarza describes the difficulties on the trek north to California, his cultural assimilation, and his early experiences working in the fields. Despite these difficulties, however, Galarza excelled in school and eventually earned a Ph.D. in history at Columbia University in 1944.

Galarza distinguished himself as an activist and scholar in the areas of labor, community development, and education. Before becoming a labor organizer, he served for eight years as director of the Office of Labor and Education at the Pan American Union (PAU) in Washington, D.C. During that time, he wrote about a dozen short studies on topics ranging from educational conditions to militarism in Latin America. In 1948 he left the PAU to become an organizer in California for the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU), which was later renamed the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU). He focused his efforts on organizing agricultural workers and defending their civil rights. After participating in more than a dozen strikes, he came to realize that one of the major obstacles to unionizing farmworkers was the 1942 Mexican Farm Labor Program Agreement. Known as the Bracero Program, this agreement granted Mexican laborers (braceros) temporary work contracts in U.S. agriculture. In 1956, after conducting meticulous research on the living and working conditions of braceros, he published Strangers in Our Fields, which turned public opinion against the Bracero Program and led to its eventual termination in 1964. His book Merchants of Labor, published in 1964, is a seminal study of the bracero labor system; it exposed the collusion between growers and the government in exploiting braceros.

After withdrawing from labor organizing in 1960, Galarza shifted his attention to urban issues confronting the Mexican community. In doing so, he devoted himself to defending the civil rights of Mexicans and played a key role in creating community organizations. He was also involved in a very important mobilization to prevent the destruction of Alviso, a barrio north of San Jose, California. However, although the community struggled to prevent the city of San Jose from annexing Alviso, the city prevailed. In 1968 Galarza established the Southwest Council of La Raza, which he initially envisioned as a grassroots organization for community development. Eventually, it evolved into the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which in the early twenty-first century is the most important organization advocating civil rights and socioeconomic advancement for Latinos.

In the early 1970s, Galarza founded and directed the Studio Laboratory, a resource center for bilingual education teachers in San Jose. The goals of the center were to change the curriculum, train teachers, and encourage parent involvement. He organized parents to demand quality bilingual education for their children and was a pioneer in the development of bilingual/bicultural materials. He wrote more than a dozen books for bilingual children, emphasizing Mexican cultural values and nature. In 1971, for example, he published Historia Verdadera de una Gota de Miel (The True Story of a Drop of Honey). Galarza died in San Jose in 1984.

SEE ALSO Braceros, Repatriation, and Seasonal Workers; Braceros, Repatriation, and Seasonal Workers; Chávez, César Estrada; Day Laborers, Latino; Farmworkers; United Farm Workers Union


Galarza, Ernesto. 1956. Strangers in Our Fields. Washington, DC: Joint United States-Mexico Trade Union Committee.

_____. 1964. Merchants of Labor: The Bracero Story. Santa Barbara, CA: McNally & Loftin.

_____. 1970. Spiders in the House and Workers in the Field. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

_____. 1971. Barrio Boy: The Story of a Boy’s Acculturation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

_____. 1971. Historia Verdadera de Una Gota de Miel. San Jose, CA: Editorial Almaden.

_____. 1974. “Alviso: A Town Besieged by ‘Progress.’’’ In Action Research: In Defense of the Barrio, Interviews with Ernesto Galarza, Guillermo Flores, and Rosalio Muñoz, collected by Mario Barrera and Geralda Vialpando. Los Angeles, CA: Aztlan Publications.

_____. 1977. Farm Workers and Agribusiness in California, 1947– 1960. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Roberto M. De Anda