The title of Jose Armas’ story, "El Tonto Del Barrio" (or "The Barrio Dummy"), can be interpreted two different ways. The first interpretation is literal and applies to the simple-minded Romero, who with the help of his community is able to function in the real world. The second interpretation is ironic; it applies to the Harvard-bound Seferino, who though he means well is so lacking in experience that he turns Romero’s world upside down and nearly gets him committed to an institution. Many readers see the second interpretation as the more interesting, but to see the story in this light is to overlook a very important element. This element is the significant role of the community that is the setting for this story. If we consider the importance of the community, Romero is justly the title character. Romero gives the community character through his positive attitude, and he is a great role model to the children in terms of his work ethic. In return, the neighbors treat Romero with kindness, loyalty, and respect.
In a successful community, everyone must work together and help one another. Sometimes there are people in the community who seem strange to outsiders. They may even seem strange to the community members. The more peculiar residents may be ridiculed and put down, but not in Romero’s community—he is both respected and well-treated, and in return he treats members of the community with consideration. In this way Romero’s situation demands the best of his community, and in demanding their best, he makes the community stronger.
Although Romero was not quite normal, he has a mature attitude towards his job, and he always made sure his work was done thoroughly: "Romero had a ritual that he followed almost every day. After breakfast, he would get his broom and go up and down the main street of the Golden Heights Centro whistling and singing and sweeping the sidewalks for all the businesses" (Armas 1139). In Romero’s eyes, this was not some trivial chore that kept him occupied during the day; this was his contribution to his community. Romero never left his job incomplete because "he took his job seriously and took great care to sweep cleanly, between the cracks and even between the sides of buildings" (1138). This set an excellent example for the children in the community. While he did all of this, Romero remained in good spirits. Most of the time, "if he did it the way he wanted, the work took him the whole morning. And always cheerful—always with some song" (1138).
Generally, Romero sets a happy tone for the neighborhood. He never had a complaint or bad word to say. Even when he was drunk, he was content. Romero "was always whistling and singing. He made nice music even though his songs were spontaneous compositions made up of words with sounds that he liked but which seldom made any sense" (1137-38). Everyone in the community loved Romero because of this, even though he was different. For example,
People would stop to say hello to Romero on the street and although he never initiated a conversation while he was sober, he always smiled and responded cheerfully to everyone. People passing the barber shop in the afternoons made it a point to wave even though they couldn’t see him; they knew he was in there and was expecting some salutation. (1138)
This also proves that Romero was well loved by his neighbors.
Although no one in the story was of blood relation to Romero, they always made sure he was safe. When Romero drank too much and "crap[ed] in his pants, . . . Tino would make him go home" (1138). Since Romero received only a small amount of money from Social Security, the community businesses always provided for him. The merchants saw to it that Romero had food and that he looked presentable. Not only was Romero taken care of physically, he was protected emotionally as well. No one was mean to Romero, "not even the kids made fun of him. It just was not permitted" (1138). In a sense, Romero was just an ordinary man who needed a bit more help; "He was a respected citizen" (1138).
The neighborhood members also worked together to make sure that Romero’s work did not go unnoticed. If Romero did not sweep one day, "someone assumed the responsibility to go to his house to see if he was ill" (1138). They wanted Romero to know that he was appreciated. Although he did not receive monetary pay, "Romero kept the sidewalks clean and the barrio looked after him" (1139).
Jose Armas is the author of several books that deal with the importance of neighborhood. From these we can see that Armas believes firmly that if more people in the inner cities were willing to work together, there would not be as many problems. By way of his Spanish heritage, he was instilled with a strong sense of community, or barrio, support. In the barrio everyone is taught to help anyone who needs it and to respect everyone, no matter how odd he or she seems. These values come through strongly in Armas’ story.
Overall, the reader can see that this community does band together to support Romero. Romero is a bit touched, but he manages to teach everyone in the town some important lessons. He exemplifies a work ethic that is probably stronger than any else’s in the community. Despite his affliction, Romero is always cheerful and full of vitality. Even though he is the "village idiot" by conventional definition, he is a blessing to this barrio.
Armas, Jose. "El Tonto Del Barrio." Harper Anthology of Fiction. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. NY: HarperCollins, 1991. 1137-1142.
Armas, Jose. Cuban Consciousness in Literature: 1923-1974. Miami, Florida: Ediciones Universal, 1978.
Loss of Pride
After reading Jose Armas’s story, "El Tonto Del Barrio," I was greatly touched by this simple yet effective story of how the community dummy is used to teach a lesson to the audience. However, after researching the I found that there had been no literary discussion concerning Armas or "El Tonto del Barrio." I was shocked to find this out, and I believe this is an interesting and important story which should be looked into. "El Tonto del Barrio" is not just a story about a college-bound young man named Seferino who tries to help the community "idiot" Romero, but it is also a story about a man who slowly deteriorates when his pride is taken away and his dignity not acknowledged.
First, to understand how Romero deteriorates, we must look at how life for Romero was before Seferino tried to pay him wages for sweeping. Romero seemed happy, and he was always whistling and singing. In the first line of the story Armas even states, "Romero Estrado was called El Cotoro (The Parrot) because he was always whistling and singing" (1137). Armas at first makes no obvious remarks that Romero was a moron who should be avoided; in fact, the story discusses only the respect that people of the town had for Romero. Romero is even called "a respected citizen" (1138). It is interesting to note that Armas mentions that "Not even the kids made fun of him. It just was not permitted" (1138). This point lets the audience know that Romero was respected enough that even parents taught their children to respect him despite his faults. It is apparent that the town knew Romero was a little "touchy" (1138), but the citizens choose to overlook his faults.
The citizens of the town and Romero had an "unspoken contract" (1138). Romero swept the streets and the people of the town watched out for him. It is also important to state that Romero swept the streets with great pride, and he "took his job seriously and took great care" (1138). Armas demonstrates Romero’s stringent work ethic in telling the story about the one stray bottle left when he was cleaning the streets. When someone pointed out this stray bottle, Romero became offended and took care of it immediately. Armas states, "there was no reason" (1138) to criticize Romero’s work hinting that Romero not only did his job, but did his job well. And in turn the people of the town made sure that Romero was taken care of. Someone always "assumed the responsibility to go to his house and see if he was ill" (1138), or the barber "would trim his hair when things were slow" (1139). Romero even received food from both The Tortilleria America and El Centro Market. Overall the arrangement between the town and Romero worked fine, and it had "worked well for along time" (1139).
The problem arose when Seferino decided that Romero should be paid for his work. Although his intentions were probably good, Seferino’s plan had the opposite effect on Romero. From the moment Seferino decided to help out Romero, Seferino looked down on and pitied Romero. Seferino believed it was "degrading the way Romero had to go around getting scraps and handouts" (1139). Seferino believed by paying Romero he would be able to maintain some dignity. In the story Seferino states, "everybody should be able to keep his dignity no matter how poor" (1140). Where Seferino’s father did not see a problem with the way the town had watched after Romero, Seferino did. But Seferino did not take into account the unspoken contract mentioned earlier.
Seferino also seemed to take for himself the pride Romero had held so high for his work. There is a point in the story where Seferino is watching Romero sweep and Seferino watches with pride. When Romero was done, Seferino told him he had done a good job, and Romero beamed. This I feel is an interesting point. When Romero beamed, he beamed at the compliment. He thought the pride was all his. When Seferino watched with pride, he felt the pride in helping Romero, someone Seferino believed to be so low. Thus, the pride Romero once had to himself he was now forced to share with Seferino.
Seferino then began to equate money with power and position; thus, Romero mistakenly thought he had rank and economic power. Problems soon began. Seferino, once again, feeling that Romero’s situation could be "improved," tried to change Romero into a business man. "Romero asked for credit at the grocery store" (1140), and he began dressing better. Seferino believed he "was now becoming a man" (1140). So, it should not have surprised Seferino when Romero asked for a raise. True, in many circumstances, the second week of a paid job is not the best time to ask for a raise, but Romero saw no problem in asking. When Seferino rejects not only Romero’s raise and but the reasoning behind his asking for one, the most damage is done. Seferino’s harsh comments destroyed Romero’s pride. Seferino does not talk about Romero’s great work, but rather declares "he was just helping him out, and to forget the whole thing" (1141). Consequently, Seferino’s condescending tone with Romero and his statement that he was just doing "poor" Romero a favor were enough to drive Romero into his bizarre behaviors.
The town’s view of Romero after his downfall is the exact opposite of the view it has of him at the beginning of the story. After Seferino looked down upon Romero, the town members also began to look down upon him. The change in Romero was even more dramatic: he "did not sing anymore," he stole a bottle of whiskey, and "he didn’t shave and clean like he used to" (1141). These are all signs that Romero was deeply affected by Seferino" comments. As Romero’s behavior worsened, the reaction of the community became stronger. The women were afraid of him. Most interesting, "one of the kids complained Romero had kicked his puppy." This line demonstrates just how much respect Romero had lost. Finally after a town member states "he’s really crazy" (1141), people begin talking of having Romero committed and actually pass around a petition for him to be committed.
However, before Romero is committed, Seferino leaves for college and Romero’s behavior changes. Barelas, Seferino’s father, believes Romero will come around, and he does. "One day Romero began sweeping again, his spirits picked up and his strange antics began to disappear" (1142). Why did Romero suddenly change?
I believe that after Romero found out that Seferino looked down upon him and pitied him, he then realized that everyone in the town saw him as the town idiot. Romero was happy before anyone tried to change him. He returned back to his old self after Seferino left. Then Romero no longer had to see Seferino and be reminded of this unhappy period when he almost lost his pride.
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