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An Excerpt from “Barrio Boy” by Ernesto Galarza

Barrio Boy is the remarkable story of one boy’s journey from a Mexican village so small its main street didn’t have a name, to the barrio of Sacramento, California, bustling and thriving in the early decades of the twentieth century. With vivid imagery and a rare gift for re-creating a child’s sense of time and place, Ernesto Galarza gives an account of the early experiences of his extraordinary life—from revolution in Mexico to segregation in the United States—that will continue to delight readers for generations to come.

Barrio Boy began as anecdotes I told my family about Jalcocotán, the mountain village in western Mexico where I was born. Among this limited public (my wife, Mae, and daughters, Karla and Eli Lu) my thumbnail sketches became best sellers. Hearing myself tell them over and over I began to agree with my captive audience that they were not only interesting, but possibly good.

Quite by accident I told one of these vignettes at a meeting of scholars and other boring people. It was recorded on tape, printed in a magazine, and circulated among schools and libraries here and there. I received letters asking for reprints and occasionally a tempting suggestion that I write more of the same, perhaps enough to make a book.

Adding up the three listeners in my family and the three correspondents made a public of six. I didn’t need more persuasion than this to link the anecdotes into a story.

But a book is more than a family affair. To make it a public affair I needed more weighty excuses. I thought of two—one historical, the other psychological.

What brought me and my family to the United States from Mexico also brought hundreds of thousands of others like us. In many ways the experiences of a multitude of boys like myself, migrating from countless villages like Jalcocotán and starting life anew in barrios like the one in Sacramento, must have been similar. So much for the historical.

Now for the psychological. Of those boys, the ones who are still living are grey-haired, slightly cantankerous, and in all probability creaking at the joints, like myself. But the worst thing that has happened to them is that some psychologists, psychiatrists, social anthropologists and other manner of “shrinks” have spread the rumor that these Mexican immigrants and their offspring have lost their “self-image.” By this, of course, they mean that a Mexican doesn’t know what he is; and if by chance he is something, it isn’t any good.

I, for one Mexican, never had any doubts on this score. I can’t remember a time I didn’t know who I was; and I have heard much testimony from my friends and other more detached persons to the effect that I thought too highly of what I thought I was.

It seemed to me unlikely that out of six or seven million Mexicans in the United States I was the only one who felt this way. In any event, those I knew and remember and tell about had an abundance of self-image and never doubted that it was a good one.

That is all there is to the plot of Barrio Boy: our home “In the Mountain Village”; the “Peregrinations” of a family uprooted by a revolution; their escape as refugees, “North from Mexico”; their new “Life in the Lower Part of Town” in a city in California; and their joys and tribulations “On the Edge of the Barrio.”

This, then, is a true story of the acculturation of Little Ernie.

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