Places: Barrio Boy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1971

Type of work: Autobiography

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: 1910-1920

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Jalcocotán

*Jalcocotán Barrio Boy (hal-ko-ko-TAN). Small mountain village in central Mexico. Referred to as Jalco, this isolated and seemingly inaccessible pueblo provides the idyllic, almost edenic, setting for young Ernesto. In this small village, the only street with no name is a place that belongs to everybody. Although the living conditions are primitive–with extremes in weather, torrential downpours that cause flooding, and back-breaking labor–Ernesto’s innocence flourishes here. In the village he lives a safe, secure life and learns a set of values by which to measure his life; these values he metaphorically later carries with him throughout his journey.

Before the rurales–special national police who maintain order in the countryside through violence and terror–enter and threaten the village’s idyllic existence, the greatest danger Ernesto faces is getting his ear pulled for being disrespectful to adults. However, after the rurales invade his sanctuary, his family flees the village to find safety and work. Uprooted, they are forced to leave many belongings behind, but they take their two most valuable items: an Ajax sewing machine and a cedar chest. Throughout their arduous travels, these tangible possessions symbolize the intangibles of their village life that give their life meaning and promise.


*Tepic (TAY-pik). Large city south of Jalco that provides Ernesto’s family with temporary security and a safe haven from the violence of the Revolution. Here, Ernesto and his family confront a series of challenges, one of the most important being the rigid social barrier separating those who have money from those who do not. However, the Ajax sewing machine provides them with some measure of economic security. They also struggle to cope with the rush of big-city activity. Since they know no one in Tepic, Ernesto goes everywhere with his mother. After a brief respite in Acaponeta, a city north of Tepic, the family moves on.


*Mazatlán (mah-zaht-LAHN). Western coastal city on the Vigia Peninsula where Ernesto’s family lives in a barrio. Although they are refugees in a new city, Mazatlán is the first place in which the family feels as if they belong, as friends belong to one another. Ernesto joins a gang that provides him with a sense of social importance and a new family. He also attends his first formal school and finds his first job. This city begins to provide Ernesto with the same constancy and feelings of safety and economic security that Jalco provided. When the Revolution reaches their front door, however, they are again forced to become refugees. This time they leave their valuable sewing machine behind, and they go north to the United States.


*Sacramento. Northern California city that is the final destination of Ernesto’s family, after a brief stay in Tucson, Arizona. While the family is free from the violence of the Mexican Revolution, they are now foreigners who face more complex challenges. Not yet economically stable, they live in a ghetto-like area of “leftover houses,” where their rooms are “dank and cheerless.” They stay in this awful place because their objective is not to make money but to “make a living.” In Sacramento’s barrio, they find no plazas or parks in which people gather and visit; even the houses are fenced off from one another.

Ernesto, too, finds new barriers to defining his own cultural identity. He attends a school in which only English is spoken, is immersed into a new culture, and has physical confrontations with boys who make fun of him. Despite these difficulties, he is sustained by his family values and the shared experiences of those who live in his barrio. As a result, he maintains his sense of self in this new, alien culture. His journey is complete.

BibliographyFlores, Lauro. “Chicano Autobiography: Culture, Ideology and the Self.” The Americas Review 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 80-91. Explores the style, characterization, and structure of the autobiography. Asserts that Barrio Boy shows how society influences the individual.Márquez, Antonio C. “Self and Culture: Autobiography as Cultural Narrative.” Bilingual Review 14, no. 3 (September-December, 1987/1988): 57-63. Focusing on the theme of acculturation and adaptability, examines Barrio Boy as a celebration of individuality and culture. The themes of self-motivation and cultural pride are emphasized.Robinson, Cecil. Mexico and the Hispanic Southwest in American Literature. Rev. ed. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977. Offers an analysis of Barrio Boy as an autobiography and social commentary. The place and contribution of Barrio Boy to the Hispanic literary tradition is also examined.Rocard, Marcienne. The Children of the Sun: Mexican-Americans in the Literature of the United States. Translated by Edward G. Brown, Jr. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989. Analyzes the internal struggles and conflicts in Barrio Boy as well as other Hispanic novels and autobiographies. Barrio Boy is examined as the portrayal of acculturation from the immigrant’s point of view. Also examines the politics of acculturation.Saldívar, Ramón. “Ideologies of the Self: Chicano Autobiography.” Diacritics 15, no. 3 (Fall, 1985): 25-34. Analyzing the language and characterization of Barrio Boy, examines individuality and the problems associated with moving from one culture to another. Barrio Boy is compared to other Chicano autobiographies.
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