Barrio Boy
40th Anniversary Edition
Ernesto Galarza
(University of Notre Dame Press)
When I first read the press releases for this new edition of Galarza's book (it was originally published in 1972) it reported that the book was about Galarza's growing up in Jalisco, living in Tepíc and Matzatlán, then, ultimately, moving to Sacramento when he was ten-years-old. I figured we were in for yet another tale of poverty and stealthily crossing the border and being chased by the "migra" and then trying to live in the U. S. with creepy gringos who insulted you and made you feel crappy just for being different.

But, no. Barrio Boy is bright and cheerful and funny and wistful ... filled with paradoxes and full of its own momentum and merriment: how great it was spending your childhood in the wilds of Jalcocotán, what adventures were to be had in the streets of Tepíc, what Matzatlán looked like a century ago, what it was like to come to the United States where people laughed too loudly and had big feet and long red noses and ate these repulsive things called "sandwiches," and how, poor Americans, they didn't have mercados where people put their wares out on the ground and come from pueblos with a stream down in the arroyo where --- you could tell people --- you battled the crocodiles.

When Galzara arrived in America, he went to school where Miss Ryan took him aside daily to tutor him on the peculiarities of the English language, so that, for him,

    The main reason I was graduated with honors from the first grade was that I had fallen in love with Miss Ryan. Her radiant, no-nonsense character made us either afraid not to love her or love her so we would not be afraid, I am not sure which.

"Keeping an eye on the class through the open door she read with me about sheep in the meadow and a frightened chicken going to see the king, coaching me out of my phonetic ruts into words like pasture, bow-wow-wow, hay, and pretty, which to my Mexican ear and eye had so many unnecessary sounds and letters."

    It was as if in that closet we were both discovering together the secrets of the English language and grieving together over the tragedies of Bo-Peep.

Galarza's book is about growing up --- first in Mexico, then in America. To this reader, it is on the same artistic level as Black Boy or Call It Sleep or even Huckleberry Finn, (if we are willing to consider this last an autobiographical bildungsroman).

As with Wright and Roth and Twain, we are given a near-perfect tale of rising from absolute poverty to middle-class security, but instead of a woeful recounting, it is filled with the joy of discovery: from living in the lively muddy streets of a small village in Nayarit to surviving, wide-eyed, in the lively and noisy barrios of Sacramento.

Sacramento in 1900 was home to many cultures: Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, Jewish, Irish. It was a place where there was so much to learn: how to get about on the streets; how to hustle to get a chanza (work); how to help the old man next door to get up in the morning; how to find bits of copper and bottle caps and bottles for small change; how to take the trolley downtown; how to fish in the Sacramento river; how to serve as translator for your family and friends and even strangers as you teach yourself this strange new language,

    Prowling the alleys and gleaning along the waterfront I learned how chicano workingmen hammered the English language to their ways. On the docks I heard them bark over a slip or a spill: "Oh, Chet," imitating the American crew bosses with the familiar "Gar-demme-yoo." José and I privately compared notes in the matter of "San Afabeechee," who, he said, was a saint of the Americans but which, as I well knew, was what Americans called each other in a fist fight.

The author is a fine novelist, but he also has the eyes and ears of a poet. This, on going to sleep in his village: "I listened to the chirping all around the cottage and thought it came from the stars. They and the crickets always came together after dark, the cricket calls blinking in the silence just as surely as the stars seemed to chirp in the darkness far above us."

Or this on learning to pronounce what he has previously called a "boo-ter-flee."

    Miss Ryan called for attention. "Ernesto has learned how to pronounce butterfly!" And I proved it with a perfect imitation of Miss Ryan. From that celebrated success, I was soon able to match Ito's progress as a sentence reader with "Come, butterfly, come fly with me."

§   §   §

I can't tell you how merry Barrio Boy is but it is not a pollyanna tale of getting integrated into early 20th Century America. There is the hope that was America in 1915, but there was also poverty and filth and days of drudgery without food or money and with lost relatives (some of whom barred from entering the United States) and being treated badly by straw bosses. But Ernesto was always bien listo and when it was time for him to run errands, he ran errands; when it was time to go to school, he went to school; when it was time to learn how to dismantle a tractor, he did that; when it was time to grow up, he did that too. Very quickly.

In the winter of 1918 - 1919, he was sick --- the whole family sick --- with what was then called "The 'flu." We are offered this vignette,

    Late one afternoon José came into my room, wrapped me in blankets, pulled a cap over my ears, and carried me to my mother's bedside. My stepfather was holding a hand mirror to her lips ... She had stopped breathing. In the next room my sister was singing to the other children,

    "A birdie with a yellow bill
    hopped upon my windowsill
    cocked a shiny eye and said
    shame on you you sleepy head."
--- Carlos Amantea

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