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Alex and the Hobo

Alex and the Hobo
A Chicano Life and Story

In this innovative ethnography, anthropologist James Taggart collaborates with author Joe Taylor to explore how the story "Alex and the Hobo" sprang from Taylor's life experiences and how it presents an insider's view of Mexicano culture and its constructions of manhood.

January 2003
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222 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 10 b&w illus., 1 map |

When a ten-year-old boy befriends a mysterious hobo in his southern Colorado hometown in the early 1940s, he learns about evil in his community and takes his first steps toward manhood by attempting to protect his new friend from corrupt officials. Though a fictional story, Alex and the Hobo is written out of the life experiences of its author, José Inez (Joe) Taylor, and it realistically portrays a boy's coming-of-age as a Spanish-speaking man who must carve out an honorable place for himself in a class-stratified and Anglo-dominated society.

In this innovative ethnography, anthropologist James Taggart collaborates with Joe Taylor to explore how Alex and the Hobo sprang from Taylor's life experiences and how it presents an insider's view of Mexicano culture and its constructions of manhood. They frame the story (included in its entirety) with chapters that discuss how it encapsulates notions that Taylor learned from the Chicano movement, the farmworkers' union, his community, his father, his mother, and his religion. Taggart gives the ethnography a solid theoretical underpinning by discussing how the story and Taylor's account of how he created it represent an act of resistance to the class system that Taylor perceives as destroying his native culture.

  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • Part I: The Story
    • 2. Alex and the Hobo
  • Part II: The Life
    • 3. The Valley
    • 4. Awareness
    • 5. Social Structure
    • 6. Anastacio Taylor
    • 7. Beatríz Mondragón
    • 8. Women in Peril
    • 9. Conclusion
  • Appendix: Juana's Witchcraft Testimony
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

José Inez Taylor lives in Antonito, Colorado, where he has been a farmworker, strike organizer, roofer, construction worker, heavy-equipment operator, jailer and sheriff's dispatcher, Chicano activist, and writer. James M. Taggart is Lewis Audenreid Professor of History and Archaeology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Alex and the Hobo is a work of fiction about a nine-year-old boy's loss of innocence and transition to manhood. The author, José Inez "Joe" Taylor, created the story out of his own coming-of-age in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. The tale is set in 1942 in Antonito, a small railroad town in the valley's southwestern corner. Alex Martínez loses his innocence as he befriends a mysterious hobo and learns about evil in his community. This book presents Alex and the Hobo and describes how the author wrote his story out of his experience.

Joe Taylor turned to writing in the 1990's after a lifetime as a farmworker, a union man, a roofer, a construction worker, a heavy-equipment operator, a jailer and sheriff's dispatcher, and a Chicano activist in his community. His body, like his story, is inscribed with his experience: he lost a finger in a sawmill accident; he has no cartilage in his left knee from an old football injury; his arm trembles from a pinched nerve; he has chronic back pain from when he fell from a truck. Alex and the Hobo is one of the many works of fiction that he wrote and stored in dust-filled boxes in his backyard shed. He showed his manuscripts to Carole Counihan and me a few years after we settled in his community for a long-term fieldwork project in anthropology.

Joe Taylor explained why he wrote by referring first to his deep connection to the San Luis Valley. I've lived in this valley and I've slept, I've eaten, I've seen the harsh winters and the bad springs and the years of drought and the dust storm that flew over. He explained that he had read and heard a lot about the Anglo-Saxon pioneers but very little about the Mexicanos who inhabited the valley before them. The pioneers came in the wagons, but the mountains were already named, the rivers were already named, the families that helped them out were Mexican families so that tells you they were already here way before them.

He remarked that many have come into the valley and written about their own or others' experiences, and he had experiences of his own to write about. He mentioned the time he cut off his finger in a sawmill accident the year he graduated from high school. I cut my finger off at ten o'clock in the morning. They didn't attend to me in the hospital until about nine-thirty, ten o'clock that night. I had it wrapped and everything, and they did give me a shot in between. But that's how long it took from the time I had my finger cut off until the time the doctor attended to it and finished amputating it. On the basis of our many hours of conversation, I think he made several points by recounting this event: he suffered great pain as a worker; he was invisible to his Anglo-Saxon employer and the doctor for what seemed like a very long period of time; and he was invisible because he was a Mexicano from a humble family. He wrote Alex and the Hobo and other stories to be seen and heard.

On many occasions, he referred to the relative position of the Spanish speakers from the south and the Anglo-Saxon pioneers from the east. Manifest Destiny was the battle cry of the Anglo when he was pioneering or supposedly pioneering the West. "We dominate. The Indians have no rights. The Mexicans have no rights. We have the rights." The "Mexicans" to whom he refers are the Spanish speakers like himself whose ancestors settled along the banks of Culebra Creek and the Conejos River in the Upper Rio Grande basin during the early 1850's. He used the word "Mexican" deliberately to draw attention to the prejudicial attitude of Anglo-Saxons toward the Spanish-speaking residents of the San Luis Valley. "Mexicanos" is the preferred term for the descendents of the settlers of the Culebra Creek and the Conejos Rivers communities. A reader unfamiliar with the San Luis Valley may find the difference between "Mexicans" and "Mexicanos" difficult to grasp because, after all, "Mexicans" is the English translation of the Spanish word "Mexicanos." However, the negative connotation of "Mexicans" developed from the way the Spanish-speaking residents heard English-speaking Anglo-Saxons use the term to imply social and racial inferiority. "Mexicanos" carries a very different meaning because it rarely passes the lips of English-speaking Anglo-Saxons and appears in the speech of the Spanish speakers who observe rules of respect in polite conversation.

The terms "Mexicans" and "Mexicanos" may imply to some readers that the descendants of the Culebra Creek and Conejos River settlers came from Mexico. In fact, they came from what is now northern New Mexico, which belonged to the country of Mexico for only twenty-seven years, from the conclusion of the Mexican War of Independence in 1821 to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. Many of the Spanish-speaking settlers of northern New Mexican communities came directly from Spain and had children with Native American women--"mestizos," or offspring of mixed ancestry. They moved north into what is now Colorado, settling along the banks of the Conejos River and Culebra Creek in the early 1850's, after the Mexican government created the Conejos and Sangre de Cristo land grants in 1833 and 1843-1844. When Joe Taylor said that "the Mexicans have no rights," he was referring to the precarious position of the "Mexicanos" or Spanish-speaking settlers who were under the jurisdiction of a conquering government after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, which concluded the war between Mexico and the United States. The U.S. government "disallowed" the Conejos Land Grant in the 1860's, and Anglo-Saxon settlers from the East took advantage of the conquering country's legal and political system to nullify land grants and acquire much of the valley's best land and water during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Anglo-Saxon settlement came with the railroad, which reached Joe Taylor's town of Antonito in 1880. The arrival of the Anglo settlers set the stage for the creation of a highly stratified society based on the commercial agricultural production of sheep, potatoes, cauliflower, and peas.

Writing Alex and the Hobo

Joe Taylor wrote Alex and the Hobo from his particular perspective as the son of a Mexicano cobbler and as a worker on the commercial farms and in the mining industry around Antonito. Although a native speaker of Spanish, he wrote his story in English. In school, Joe Taylor and other Mexicano children were discouraged from and even punished for using Spanish, and he only learned to write English. Alex and the Hobo may remind some readers of the stories Tomás Rivera wrote in Spanish about his migrant labor experience in south Texas. Both writers were born in the 1930's--Tomás Rivera in 1935 and Joe Taylor in 1937--and they both wrote about the hardship of working in the fields, the marginal and precarious social position of the field-worker, and Anglo-Saxon prejudice. The two men are also different. Tomás Rivera grew up in the lower Rio Grande, became a schoolteacher, went to graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, and published stories after studying literature.

Joe Taylor wrote in comparative isolation from the intellectual currents that have shaped nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spanish American fiction. He completed Antonito High School, served in the U.S. Army, and then returned to his hometown. There, he worked for the perlite mine and was active in the union for nearly twenty years. Without knowing how to read Spanish, he lacked access to Spanish American literature and had little exposure to Chicano writers until he took advantage of the G.I. bill and enrolled in a Chicano studies class at Adam State College in 1977. Work and family kept him from completing the class, but he read Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Última, about another young boy's loss of innocence, and found a model for his own writing. Joe Taylor's Alex and Rudolfo Anaya's Antonio both lose their innocence as they learn about evil. Antonio learned about corruption as he entered the spiritual world of Última, a curer. Alex came face to face with secular officials who abused their power and betrayed the public trust.

Alex and the Hobo is an important cultural document because it is an insider's view of a culture, something that anthropologists desire but rarely find. The story went through no censorship before he turned his manuscript over to me for typing and light editing. Although he is a well-known and highly respected man in his community, almost no one in Antonito has read Alex and the Hobo. Joe Taylor penned his story several years before Carole Counihan and I arrived in his community, and so he created it beyond the reach of our "anthropologist-informant" relationship, which might have carried the baggage of Manifest Destiny. Chicano scholars have justifiably criticized the work of anthropologists and folklorists who have entered or perhaps intruded into the Upper and Lower Rio Grande basins and written with ethnic and class prejudice, which I have tried to avoid by keeping the focus on Joe Taylor's words.

Joe Taylor's story is a very personal account of his town's history. He created all of the characters, including the corrupt officials, out of the composite characteristics of people he actually knew. His story is a product of his particular "historical imagination," a phrase that John and Jean Comaroff use to describe historical narratives, including those written by academic historians as constructions of the past. The difference between Joe Taylor's narrative and that of an academic historian is one of perspective. Alex and the Hobo and Joe Taylor's account of how he created it offer a valuable perspective that is complementary to that of Sarah Deutsch in her comprehensive description of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico history from 1880 to 1940. Deutsch presented an exhaustive account of the economic, social, and political forces affecting gender relations for Spanish-speaking women and men like Joe Taylor and his ancestors. Alex and the Hobo, set in 1942, presents the meaning as well as a recollection of past events. As a work of fiction, the story conveys what it means to be a Spanish-speaking boy at the economic margins of a class-stratified and Anglo-dominated society. Such statements are comparatively rare in the historical record.

Allusion in Alex and the Hobo

In our conversations as well as in his story, Joe Taylor frequently resorted to allusion when presenting his meaning of the past. Understanding his allusions makes Alex and the Hobo a much richer experience, particularly for readers who came of age at a different time and in a different place. His allusions take several forms--cultural, social, and historical--which are laid out in more detail in the chapters following his story. His cultural allusions refer to beliefs that he inherited as a member of a Spanish-speaking community and that he took for granted and did not always make explicit. His social allusions are to the specific people he knew in the past. His historical allusions are to his understanding of how Anglo-Saxons have transformed his valley.

Cultural, social, and historical allusions converge in the core meaning of Alex and the Hobo. Joe Taylor explained that his story is about a boy who loses his innocence as he finds out about corruption in his community. The term "innocence" has many cultural connotations that did not become apparent until late in our dialogue, when we discussed his religious beliefs about innocence and sin. He said that innocence is a time in childhood when everything is pure and simple and beautiful and wonderful. He explained: if you're innocent, you cannot commit a sin. To lose innocence means gaining awareness of sin and understanding that one lives in a world of corruption.

He spoke in the second person when he explained what he meant. Well, you learned a lot out in the field. As far as innocence is concerned, one part can be lost pretty quickly while another takes a little longer. You were there with a bunch of girls and a bunch of boys. You were left alone. You had no supervision except what they told you at home. And there were older girls trying to explore sexuality. A few men took their bottles to work. When you befriended one of them, which I did a lot of times, he'd give me a drink of wine. You would go on over there and you'd say: "Well, I'm going to take a basket of peas back home. I'm going to hide it under all these clothes." So you'd hide a basket of peas under all these clothes, and everybody would help you, and that's stealing. The Ten Commandments were being broken little by little.

Alex likewise lost his innocence by witnessing sex, drinking, stealing, and the abuse of power. Losing innocence is an important step in making the transition from boyhood to manhood. Alex takes the next step by standing up to corruption when he foils the plot of the marshal, the judge, and the bookkeeper/insurance man to blame the hobo for a crime he did not commit. I asked Joe Taylor why he wrote about corruption, and he said he saw it as part of the class system. He defined corruption as the abuse of power. I do not like that. I hate that. One example he brought up on several occasions was an employer who abused his power by exploiting his workers. He said: I would hate, for my own greed, for my own benefit, to use somebody else's sweat, somebody else's work to become rich.

He linked corruption to sin in a clear moral vision that he traced to his religion and to his family. Despite the clarity of his vision, he also described a morally complicated world, conveying moral complexity in Alex and the Hobo and in his life story. Alex, he said, went through great anguish as he decided what to do after he learned of the plot to kill the hobo to cover up a crime committed by one of the powerful members of the community. Alex suffered great anguish because he knew his parents liked and supported the town marshal, one of the co-conspirators in the plot. Alex worried about what would happen to his parents if he went against the marshal, and he felt nausea in the pit of his stomach as he acted to prevent an injustice.

Alex and the Hobo as an Act of Resistance

Alex's moral dilemma is an example of what Antonio Gramsci meant when he said that resistance is "hard to think." However, resistance is not impossible to think: Alex did act to save the hobo, and Joe Taylor did write his story. He is a good example of what Antonio Gramsci meant by the term "organic intellectual," a person who may lack formal academic training but who can articulate the interests of his class. Two sources of Joe Taylor's resistance are his class and ethnic consciousness. As our dialogue and friendship developed, I became increasingly aware that he, like men and women in other parts of the Southwest, was critical of the class system because it was destroying his culture. In this respect, he resembles the elders of Córdova, New Mexico, who lament the erosion of their culture as their children and grandchildren become more individualistic, embrace commodity fetishism, and turn away from the Mexicano community. Joe Taylor took me to interview men and women in the area who told how they were experiencing economic and cultural pressure. They couched their experiences in terms of witchcraft, a system of thought used to explain evil. One man told of how a diabolical Anglo miner, described as a "psychological vampire," tried to bribe him into giving up his daughter by offering him a gold mine. He spoke in terms of devils and vampires; but he was also talking about larger issues of colonialization and domination. One woman believed a witch had caused her husband to drink heavily, her son to attempt suicide, and her daughter to run wild. At the time, she was struggling with great economic hardship because her husband had just lost his job.

These "informants" were among the visitors to Joe Taylor's secondhand store, now located in his home in Antonito. Some had spent time in the Conejos County jail when he worked for the sheriff's office as a jailer and dispatcher. He had taken them under his wing, given them advice, and they reciprocated by giving him their trust and loyalty. Many regard him as a father figure and value his advice because of his clear but complex masculine moral vision, his perspective on being a man in his culture and community.

Interpreting the Creation of Alex and the Hobo

Our dialogue began when I walked into his secondhand shop on Antonito's Main Street in June of 1998, looking for someone who knew folktales like those Juan B. Rael had collected in the same area in 1930. Joe Taylor obliged by telling me several Spanish folktales he had learned from his father, Anastacio Taylor, and his mother, Beatríz Mondragón. Our dialogue has continued through the final stages of preparing this book for publication. I recorded and transcribed all of our conversations, and the transcriptions reveal how we gently struggled with each other as we pursued our own, sometimes quite different, aims. I wanted him to be what anthropologists call a "key oral informant," who would explain his culture to me so I could write a scholarly paper (an ethnography). For his part, he persuaded me to take his writing seriously.

Our dialogue yielded a wealth of information on the creation of Alex and the Hobo, all of which had to be organized so readers would not get lost in the details. In organizing this material, I ran the risk of imposing an alien meaning on another man's life and story. However, readers of the first draft of this manuscript, who included some in Antonito, asked for more direction, more interpretation. Joe Taylor and I developed a more coherent framework by practicing what Elaine Lawless has called "reciprocal ethnography." I gave him all that I wrote about him, and he diplomatically and thoughtfully offered his critiques. I found that short papers worked well to gauge his reactions to my interpretations of what he had written and told me in oral interviews. He found some more convincing than others, and I tried to incorporate what he liked best when organizing the chapters that follow his story. He expressed the most enthusiasm about a paper that examined food symbolism to describe how Alex made the transition to manhood by moving from the world of his mother to that of his father and other men. That paper combined the approach to masculinity I used for Spain and Mexico with the method of food-centered life history that Carole Counihan applied to understanding the subjective experience of being a woman in Italy and the United States.

The approach to masculinity for interpreting Alex and the Hobo begins with Joe Taylor's verbally expressed meaning. One strand in his "web of meaning" is his class and ethnic consciousness. He echoed Marx when he asked me to ask him if he was a rich man. I obliged, and he replied: I am rich in my own way. I am rich because I'm at peace with myself. I'm at peace with the community. I'm at peace with nature over here. His words resemble those of Marx, who described the human condition without estranged or wage labor as a time when humans will be at peace with themselves, with each other, and with nature. Joe Taylor said that he never read Marx, although he could have learned about Marx's critique of capitalism while working to establish the Raza Unida Party in Conejos County, while taking the Chicano studies course at Adam State College, or while working for the union.

As our conversations continued, Joe Taylor turned to the influence of his family and his religion on the moral vision that guided writing Alex and the Hobo. I asked him why Alex took his first step toward manhood by standing up to corruption, and he replied: That's the way his parents wanted him to be raised, and that's the way the Church wanted him to be raised. We talked at great length about what these words meant, first discussing his father, who died in 1983, and then his mother, who died in 1950, when Joe Taylor was only thirteen years old. It became clear that the particular form of his masculine moral vision developed as he made his first steps toward manhood. As in the case of many boys, taking those steps involved moving from the world of his mother to that of his father, a transition that took place around the time that he and his family moved across the San Luis Valley to Antonito.

Culturally sensitive studies of masculinity reveal that boys become men by moving from the mother to the father in many different ways, depending on a number of variables: the prevailing conception of manhood; the boy's relationship with the mother; the role of the father; the social structure in which the transition takes place; the historical forces impinging on the lives of the boy, his parents, and other actors in his social field. We spent a great deal of time delving into the recesses of his memory to discover just how he made that transition. He provided many recollections of his father, his mother, and his church, and I gradually realized that the moral vision he conveyed in Alex and the Hobo was heavily based on the concept of sin that he learned as a child. Joe Taylor was raised as a Catholic, he served as an altar boy, and he takes his religion very seriously. He and his sister revealed that his loving mother and grandmother laid the foundation for his concept of sin during his early infancy. His father, a more remote emotional figure, nevertheless played a complementary role, adding to Joe Taylor's moral education by providing him with tools for standing up to corruption.

Our dialogue about his childhood provided many clues that enable us to see how Alex and the Hobo is an intimate verbal portrait of Joe Taylor himself. The story contains his memory of how he formed the core of his masculinity, which is a convergence of the concept of sin that he learned from his mother, the moral examples set by his father, and the class and ethnic consciousness he acquired from bitter experience throughout his life. We used several approaches to unlock his memory to discover that core. He recalled his mother's love when talking to Carole Counihan and me about food, sometimes in our kitchen and sometimes in his. He spoke about food from the perspective of a man who consumed food prepared in the kitchen by women, and he associated feeding others with expressions of love. He spoke about his transition from the world of his mother to that of his father by recounting his experiences of producing food in the fields around Antonito. Some of his memories of working in those fields when he was the age of Alex contain the seeds of his ethnic and class consciousness.

In the chapters that explain how Joe Taylor created his story, I shall describe how he developed his masculine moral vision as he moved from the world of his mother to that of his father. As in the case of many men, that move took place over his entire life and involved many dimensions of experience: the meaning of manhood, his historical experiences, his position in the class structure, the organization of parental labor in his family, the particular personalities of his father and mother. The chapters following his story will explore each of these dimensions of his life in reverse chronological order, beginning with the moment he wrote Alex and the Hobo and ending with his relationship with his mother. In between are his participation in the Chicano movement, his work with the union, his proofs of young manhood on the football field and in the streets, and his boyhood moral education in his father's cobbler shop.


“To me, the book is a fine, heart-warming example of collaboration between an outsider anthropologist-folklorist and an insider community inhabitant.”
Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“This book represents a significant contribution to the discipline in that it raises important issues of ethnographic authority and authorship.... Indeed, it could serve as a model for new ways to write ethnography.”
Miguel Díaz-Barriga, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Swarthmore College