The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Benjamin Bac Sierra was born and raised in San Francisco's Mission district, then the heart of Latino culture in Northern California. Living the brutal "homeboy" lifestyle, at seventeen he joined the United States Marine Corps and participated in front line combat during the first Gulf War. After his honorable discharge, he completed his Bachelor's degree at U.C. Berkeley, a Masters in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Currently, he is a professor at City College of San Francisco.
San Francisco Chronicle
Barrio Bushido, a strong debut novel by Benjamin Bac Sierra, takes its readers to a destitute world of angel dust and Mad Dog 20/20, where teeth are lost in toilet bowls, love is a luxury that leads to fatal extortion, and brilliant immigrants who cannot afford Harvard settle rather quickly into crime.
Here is how Lobo, one of Bac Sierra's barrio boys, waxes romantic about the girl of his dreams: "We'd wake at three in the morning and start out our day after having gotten drunk off our asses the whole day before. We'd walk five miles, catch the bus, or steal a car and cruise to the beach to watch rats and raccoons duke it out for scraps of trash. We'd stroll down the shoreline listening to the splitting waves crash on the beach front, and I'd make love to her right there on the freezing sand as fantastic fog rolled in over us."
In the novel, which takes place in an unnamed California city in the early 1990s, a returning Gulf War vet wastes no time falling back into the rough life of getting plastered and hustling honeys in a neighborhood being taken over by Asian gangs, and muses that "in the barrio a brain would not get you where you wanted to go, a mind made you a fool, perfect health meant you were worried about death—but crazy meant independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of pain."
Feasting on government cheese in order to save their money for booze, Sierra's characters experience a dark epiphany: Why do they give us cheese? one asks. The answer? "They know what mice like."
Sierra, a professor at City College of San Francisco, supplies his brutal novel of street justice and homeboy pride with a lexicon of slang that includes words like "pleather" and "shank," and a plot timeline so readers might quickly find what his characters have spent chapters trying to forget.
The American Library Association’s Booklist
Bac Sierra’s brutally honest coming-of-age saga grabs from the opening pages, forcing us to confront graphic truths. The setting is the early 1990s in a barrio, where three Latino youths take on organized crime, following their primal instincts and adhering to bushido, the code of the samurai warrior. Driven by dreams of power, Lobo is the pack leader, and his credo is: “The lust for life is stronger than the despair of death.” Lobo becomes the “barrio enforcer” for Kwai Chung, an illegal who is gradually climbing into the American “old boy network.” One of Lobo’s homeboys is Toro, a Desert Storm marine who “at the ripe old age of five…gave up on life.” Santo completes the trio; he’s the fierce loyalist, who would do anything for his homeboys, including sacrificing his life. Bac Sierra’s brutal stream of consciousness envelops the trio’s harsh experiences in myth and magic realism, and his story of these “impromptu anarchists” constitutes a mesmerizing and compelling tale of the “unwritten, illogical” code of the streets.
American Library Association’s Booklist
The New York Journal of Books
Barrio Bushido is one of the most disturbing books you will ever read. It is violent and bloody and poetic, gritty and real in the same manner as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
Barrio is the story of three gang members growing up somewhere in a Latin ghetto area of California. Lobo, the wolf, is the leader of the pack and a poetic strange soul who seems to move through life in a drugged haze knowing fully that he is destined to self destruct. Toro is the bull, a tiny boy of five left alone at home while his mother cleans office buildings and homes. Toro falls out the window of his apartment building landing on the street in a diaper and learns fast there is nobody coming to rescue him. Santiago is the saint racing headlong into madness, the third pillar of the odd nefarious triad. His childhood is spent feeding his brothers and sisters while his parents sleepwalk through drug addictions and impossible economic realities.
Benjamin Bac Sierra is a writer of such intensity that one cannot help but be moved to extremes just reading the plights of these characters. Barrio Bushido is his first book. The author himself, a former homeboy and a veteran of the Gulf War, clearly knows his topic well. Raised in San Francisco's Mission district, he joined the Marine Corps at 17 and saw front line combat in the Gulf War. After honorable discharge he completed a Bachelor of Arts at U.C. Berkeley. He is now a professor at City College in San Francisco.
Mr. Bac Sierra is not an author just going through the motions of painting characters and breathing them alive. Mr. Bac Sierra's characters seem to jump off the page almost fully formed, realistic, three dimensional and fighting. He is a masterful storyteller and it is a tribute to his skill really that these incredibly violent and hard creatures also inspire empathy. They are victims of so much and yet charge through life refusing to be victimized, owning disenfranchisement in a bizarre and inspirational manner.
This author infuses his main character Lobo with a poet's voice. Lobo, despite his awful life, has found a niche and a gang and a girlfriend, Sheila, like a balm for his soul, and then the unthinkable happens and a rival gang member himself about to be killed by Lobo turns the tables on everyone and kidnaps the girlfriend. A crack in the armor exposes his weakness for all to see and then he is cornered, roped into a gigantic battle of which there cannot truly be a winner.
Lobo reminisces about his girlfriend as he contemplates his next step. While his language is always couched in violence, swear words and offensive slang, his inner dialogue is almost always lyrical.
“I was a coloured egg cracked open on Easter Sunday, a shattered window from a mighty home run ball. She was my Great Wall.”
While these characters are brilliant and real and the plot rings true in some sad areas of the world, this is not a book for everyone. It is unflinching in its laser sharp look at life in a place where survival depends on killer instincts. Many will not get through this book and others will not look be able to see past the misogyny and violence. But in many ways this story is an important social statement on a time and place in history that demands attention and should be read. This is the author's first novel, and it is a brave one for sure. Because it is so closely tied to his own life experiences, it will be interesting to watch and see where Benjamin Bac Sierra takes us next.
Reviewer Paula Schuck <http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/users/paula-schuck>
is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose work as an investigative
reporter appeared in the London Free Press. As a freelance journalist she
has contributed to newspapers such as Canada's Globe & Mail, as well as
I read BARRIO BUSHIDO in short doses, braving the pain and suffering and violent life of its young characters and their/our world. Suspense pulled me onward; I had to know how crimes, wars, hopes come out, but more importantly--Will the author be able to pull off a novel with meaning, or will this be another nihilistic thriller? On the level of world politics, is there homecoming for the Iraqi war vet? Benjamin Bac Sierra has taken upon himself the labor of Dostoevsky writing CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Is there redemption for those who've lost God's love? The reader feels the joy of murderous combat, and the heartbreak of compassion.
—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
Barrio Bushido tells the story of three young Latino men in the 1990s struggling to live by the homeboy code in a California neighborhood rife with poverty, drugs and violence. Bac Sierra uses a generous narrative voice and surreal absurdities to illuminate harsh realities, creating a world that straddles the line between myth and actuality. Barrio Bushido brings a Latin American literary tradition to American soil, situating Bac Sierra among magical realists such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
—Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts
"A Latino Elmore Leonard."
—Earl Shorris, author of The Life and Times of Mexico
As if delivered in a single, sustained breath line, Benjamin Bac Sierra's Barrio Bushido alternates rhythms of waiting and combat, reverence and mayhem, the sacred and profane. As in vertical time, the end is in the beginning, no spoiler alert sparing us from the weight of its final chord. Irresistibly, we are bound to Lobo, Toro, and Santo; since we cannot save them, we go down with them. Read this: dare to know.
—Sandra Park, author of If You Live in a Small House
Feral and poetic, Barrio Bushido, is a cautionary tale about the dangers that lurk behind brotherhood and honor, love and loyalty. A gritty, relentless, unforgiving portrayal of the equally unforgiving world of the barrio.
—Nami Mun, author of Miles from Nowhere
With energy that explodes on the page Barrio Bushido is rough, raw, uncompromising, and unflinching. Ben Bac Sierra has created three modern day musketeers that define the country we will live in for the next hundred years.
—Alejandro Murguia, author of This War Called Love
Benjamin Bac Sierra moves from lyrical beauty to savage brutality with all the grace of the symbolic matador who haunts his gripping novel of criminal life in a California barrio. Bac Sierra's voice gets inside your head and stays there, binding the reader to the compelling narrative as tightly as the novel's characters are bound to the twisted code of criminal honor that leads to their tragic downfall.
—Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Ben Bac Sierra sears the pavement with his bleeding-edge account of the barrio and its three most vital inhabitants: Lobo, Toro, and Santo. As rough as asphalt, as true a vision as you can find, Barrio Bushido demands to be read.
—Seth Harwood, author of Jack Wakes Up
"A truly poignant lyrical novel. Ben Bac Sierra gives a steely eyed lesson in barrioology as only a true homeboy can. A must read."
—Professor Pedro Ramirez, San Joaquin Delta College; California Statewide Puente Leadership Conference
Bac Sierra's novel about three homeboys living in a California barrio speaks of the wounds of poverty and racism and of the world of crime and heartbreak. Ultimately the novel is about what both bonds and separates us from our friends, families, and homes. Written in gritty and evocative language, Barrio Bushido resonates with a raw energy that sings off the page.
—Louise Nayer, author of Burned: A Memoir
BEST OF THE BAY 2011, San Francisco Bay Guardian
Awash as it is in traffic-stopping murals and radical neighborhood galleries, the Mission hasn't produced a lot of novels recently from its native sons and daughters. So when born-and-bred Missionite and City College literature professor Benjamin Bac Sierra's debut effort Barrio Bushido turned out to be a magical realistic, drug-and-violence-driven, sophisticated lyrical achievement, the 'hood rejoiced in its son. Bac Sierra's readings at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts turned out a capacity crowd, and a retinue of candy-painted, hydraulic-powered low-riders lined the curb outside. With Bac Sierra as a role model, maybe the barrio won't have to wait long for another of its own to follow suit and publish something great.
By Benjamin Bac Sierra
Published: Feb 1, 2011
About Barrio Bushido
Set in the barrio of an unnamed California city in the early 1990's, Barrio Bushido narrates the story and fate of three adolescent Latinos who join forces to rob organized crime gangsters. Lobo (wolf) hunts, scheming for street stardom, manipulating his homeboys for his Machiavellian goals. Unlike Lobo, Toro (bull), an ex-Marine, does not plot; he charges full-force at the red cape of life. Santo, the saint of the gang, venerates homeboy, not Christian, ideals. A genuine cholo, he never admits that paranoia and pressure take him to the brink of madness.