Ernesto Galarza

“Before Cesar Chávez, there was Ernesto Galarza” (Dick Meister).

Ernesto Garlarza was born on August 15, 1905 in Jalcocotan, Nayarit, Mexico. He and his family were forced to immigrate to the United States in 1910, fleeing the Mexican Revolution. They travelled for three years until they reached Sacramento, California.

At the age of twelve, Galarza lost his mother and one uncle to influenza. Another uncle provided financial assistance and Galarza worked after school and during the summers as a farm laborer and in canneries to fund his education.

In 1924, Galarza attended Occidental College on a scholarship and in 1927, he received a fellowship from Stanford University where he earned his Masters degree in Latin American History and Political Science in 1929. In 1932, he earned his PhD from Columbia University in Latin American History.

Ernesto Galarza became an activist and a labor organizer. “…because he had gone to school to learn English, the Mexican workers asked him to protest over polluted drinking water that had taken the life of one baby in the camp and was making others sick” (Arizona Republic). As a social activist he spent his time advocating for the rights of agricultural workers and he helped organize numerous worker strikes. In 1964, Galarza published Merchants of Labor: The Bracero Story, which helped end the Bracero Program.

Galarza’s teaching excellence earned him several honorary positions such as, Distinguished Visiting Professor at San Jose State University, visiting professor of Community Development at the University of California San Diego, Honorary Fellow at U.C. Santa Cruz, and California Associate in Mexican-American Problems.

Galarza’s mother tongue is Spanish. He learned English at the age of 12. He authored: Strangers in our Fields in 1956, Merchants of Labor in 1964, Spiders in the House and Workers in the Fields in 1970, Barrio Boy in 1971, Farm Workers and Agribusiness in Californiain 1977, and Tragedy at Chualar in 1977.

In Strangers in our Fields, Galarza drew attention to the conditions experienced by braceros. The book concluded that workers were lied to, cheated and “shamefully neglected.” The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the program, Lee G. Williams, described the program as a system of “legalized slavery.” The bracero program is now widely believed to have contributed greatly to patterns of unauthorized immigration to the United States from Mexico.

In Merchants of Labor, Galarza wrote in the style of a historian, where he examines how prejudice, with its manifold social implications, shaped the labor force in the field. Starting with the Chinese moving to the Japanese, to the Filipino, ending with the Mexican bracero, Galarza spoke for all those working in the fields.

In his book, Spiders in the House and Workers in the Fields, Galarza discusses Mexican-American labor history, leading up to Joseph DiGiorgio, the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation, and the union organizing and strike attempts in 1949-1950. He discusses the bracero program, illegal immigration of Mexicans, and the political maneuvering to break the strike.

Barrio Boy is the true story of Galarza’s cultural transition from a small Mexican village to a barrio in the United States. It was constructed from memory as the story circulates among a small audience and it is suggested to him that he write a book. Galarza cites two reasons for pursuing this suggestion: historical and psychological. He acknowledges the importance of his experience historically, since many families have migrated from small Mexican villages and landed in the United States. Through the psychological side the author desires to communicate his confidence in his self-image as a Mexican immigrant.

In Farm Workers and Agribusiness in California, Galarza uses his labor activist and scholar experience to write an account of agricultural labor in California during the decade and a half prior to the emergence of Cesar Chávez.

Tragedy at Chualar, is a historical story of the bus crash which killed 32 braceros outside of Salinas, California in September 1963. Ernesto Galarza was California’s labor activist, union organizer, author and critic of the Bracero Program.

Galarza’s papers and archives are housed in the Department of Special Collections at Stanford University.


Works Cited

Galarza, Ernesto. Barrio Boy. 40th Anniversary ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: U of Notre Dame, 2011. Print.

Ernesto Galarza Papers, Special Collections M0224, Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.

“Galarza, Ernesto. OAC.” Galarza, Ernesto. []. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <>.


“Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies.” Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <>.

By Lorenzo Chavez

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