A native of the tiny mountain village of Jalcocotán, Mexico, Ernesto Galarza '27 came to the United States at age 8, speaking no English.
His acclaimed memoir of his childhood in Nayarit and in Sacramento, Barrio Boy, has been reissued by the University of Notre Dame Press.
The 40th anniversary edition of Galarza's book, now a standard text in high school and college classrooms, has become so popular that it is has the achieved the dubious honor of being the subject of study guides and essays available for purchase online.
An influential civil rights and labor activist, scholar, teacher, and writer, Galarza was a pioneer during an era when Mexican-Americans had few public advocates. Based on his own bitter experiences as a teenage farm worker, he helped build the first multiracial farm workers union, setting the stage for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Today he is regarded as one of the founders of the field of Chicano studies.
As Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, notes in a new introduction, Galarza wrote his memoir - one of the first of its kind - to prove that el complejo de inferioridad, the inferiority complex or lack of self-image from which Mexicans in the United States supposedly suffered, is a myth.
"I, for one Mexican, never had any doubts on this score," Galarza wrote in his own brief introduction. "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 I thought too highly of what I thought I was."
The result, said The New York Review of Books when Galarza's memoir was first published, is "a long and vivid memoir of his childhood. The only disappointment in the book is that it does not go on for another couple of volumes to recount its author's rare career in redefining America."
Galarza (1905-1984) was recommended for admission to Occidental by several of his high school teachers in Sacramento, including one who was an Oxy alumnus. By then an orphan, Galarza "is willing to do anything - scrub floors, mow lawns, wait on tables, act as an interpreter, and he is a good, reliable worker," the alumnus wrote.
"Gully," as he was known to his classmates, majored in political science and was a star on Oxy's formidable debate team, once debating the issue of whether Congress should be given the power to regulate child labor - a topic he knew intimately.
"Ernie...manifested a concern over injustices in society," remembered classmate Ted Henderson. "Not to the same degree, of course, that he did in later years, but there was, nevertheless, an indication of a genuine sense of commitment to doing what he could to reshape society and to make it a better place for all of us to live in."
Galarza graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Occidental, and earned a master's degree from Stanford and a Ph.D from Columbia-the first Chicano graduate student at both. His first book, The Roman Catholic Church as a Factor in the Political and Social History of Mexico, published when he was 23, was based on his senior thesis.