Barrio Bushido Reader Reviews

Critical Praise

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


New York Journal of Books Review

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.

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 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 various magazines.


SF Bay Guardian Review

Though a craven animal by nature, the average book critic usually can manage not to be intimidated by the average novelist-professor. But I’ll admit that when I emailed Benjamin Bac Sierra to ask whether he’d send me his new book Barrio Bushido, and he replied, “I will be lowriding to work tomorrow and can simply drop a copy off,” I got nervous. I didn’t know much about the guy, but I knew this: Mission homeboy by birth, Marine Corps combat veteran of Gulf War I by choice, graduate of UC Berkeley and UC Hastings law school, City College professor of English. A man who might want to kill me, would know how, and could conceivably find a legal and literarily significant way to do it.

Super, I thought. So he’ll roll up to the apartment and I’ll answer the door in my clunky glasses and Ben Sherman shirt and J. Crew corduroys, all, “Hey dude, yeah, sorry about gentrifying your neighborhood — but thanks for coming by to hand me your ferocious, blood-soaked epic of brotherhood and brutality and violent disenfranchisement. Um, hope I like it!”


​As it happens, I wasn’t home when Bac Sierra finally lobbed Barrio Bushido into the mail slot like the grenade that it is. I’m only a little ways in so far, but this is righteous, vital stuff. It’s about three street-tough Latino kids — Lobo, Toro, and Santo — who conspire to rip off the gangsters in their early-1990s California ghetto. As you might expect from any such story, whose heroes are a wolf, a bull and a saint, things get pretty intense. Here’s Lobo on page 16: “I mean, I guess that’s what makes these days so fucked up; people don’t know how to get their hands truly dirty. Don’t know how to feel around in the toilet bowl for that lost tooth.” He means the fake tooth he got to replace the real one he lost when a cop beat the piss out of him in a looting riot, of course.

I am glad the book includes a two-part glossary of barrio Spanish and military terms. I am beginning to understand why other writers have likened Bac Sierra to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard, Irvine Welsh, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. And I am hoping I can summon the courage to attend when, with a decorative array of lowriders and Aztec dancers, Bac Sierra reads from and discusses the book Thursday night.

Bac Sierra appears at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Admission is free.


Best of the Bay 2011: BEST HOMEBOY SCRIBE


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.


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 envelopes 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.

—        Deborah Donovan 

—    American Library Association’s Booklist



The San Francisco Chronicle on Barrio Bushido


Barrio Bushido

By Benjamin Bac Sierra

(El León Literary Arts; 271 pages; $20 paperback)

“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 varrio 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.

Article by Roberto Ontiveros 

This article appeared on page GF – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Read more:


 Robert Birnbaum’s Barrio Bushido Review


Brown, Down and Dirty

5 Apr

Since my rebellious youth I have always been drawn to outsider literature—Manchild in A Promised Land, Soul On Ice, Down these Mean Streets,Animal Factory. .On to James Baldwin, Richard Wright, John Fante and George Orwell. If there was hard boiled chicano literature I missed it but Ben Bac Sierra’s debut novel Barrio Bushido (EL Leon Literary Arts) goes a long way to filling spaces that cartoon movies like Colors left blank.

Bac Sierra whose biography is as riveting as his fiction tells of the lives of three young hispanics, Lobo, Toroi and Santo in San Francisco’s barrio, living brutal and brutalized lives in thrall to a gangster code of conduct. Louise Nayer, ( Burned: A Memoir) opines:

Bac Sierra’s novel a… 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, … resonates with a raw energy that sings off the page.

Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War) Bac Sierrea’s stable mate at El Leon, rhapsodizes


.. 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. [His] 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. 

Es Verdad.


Barrio Bushido is destined to become a local classic in the mold of East Side Dreams. No less a literary luminary than Earl Shorris describes author Benjamin Bac Sierra as a “Latino Elmore Leonard” so don’t expect flowery prose in this gritty urban novel. The author is a native San Franciscan, former homeboy (not homebody) and U.S. Marine. Along the way he earned a law degree and a master’s degree in creative writing. He currently teaches at City College of San Francisco. His worldview is informed by the streets of the Mission District. Check out his blog, but mostly check out his novel. It is already on the reading lists for many college students.



Erik‘s review

Jan 05, 11

status: Read in January, 2011

Benjamin Bac Sierra’s new book, “Barrio Bushido” walks right up to you, throws you against the wall, and demands you to pay attention. “Listen up this is not a dream, this is reality, my reality!” it seems to be saying, and then moments later he’s lulling you into a nurturing illusion that whispers, “Everything will be alright.” While engaging in a heart pounding and heart wrenching experience you can’t help but feel connected to the players on his stage, enraptured by the sense of honor and courage that guides them on. This is an emotional and colorful journey into a world many walk by, but few ever enter. It’s a world entered by pain and sacrifice, at once beautiful and poetic; moments later brutal, raw, and ruthless. This book explores a piece of the world without judgment, but with the neutral understanding given to a disenfranchised people finding a way in an unforgiving and uncaring society. Benjamin has stepped outside the box and created a truly important, relevant, and unparalleled piece of literature.

Jan 01, 2011

Hapa rated it

Barrio Bushido haunts a reader with its genius creativity that envelops the philosophical, real purpose, and human, and life experience. The book takes a reader to explore the fearless but decent journey each of the characters undertook staunchly. It is a labyrinth and verge of real and surreal. The story is so subtle and sublime that it distorts the difference between the two and takes a reader to the depth of the various concepts that the book encompasses. It is fascinating to develop a story with so many interrelated ideas that took their own lead. Barrio Bushido teaches. It has many lessons and to understand them all, one has to read it. It portrays a sense of belonging, dignity, and allegiance, power within a person and what pride and burden he or she carries throughout one’s journey. It is about power, mission, fight, love, and sublime. The book petrifies with the power of the ideas, the supreme and the purpose, the realization of the ultimate self, the empowerment. I highly recommend it to all and also to reread the book not only after the first time but also in years to understand the beauty of the powerful message and the language. It is a unique book with a new approach.

J Bambino rated it

Shelves: sfm

Barrio Bushido describes the ruthlessness, chaos, pain and unforgivingness that the world has to offer. At the same time it shows how regardless of this, a certain loyalty, honor and brotherhood or Carnalismo embrace four young men and gives them a modern street nobility.

This book to me, captivated the essence of enlightenment through pain, and the trials & tribulations most minorities in the U.S. go thru pursuing the “American Dream”. It reminded me of our own San Francisco Mission District. Benjamin Bac Sierra did an excellent job of fusing together his great knowledge of the “streets” and his literary genius. Barrio Bushido has given me hope & confirmed the fact that we need more Latinos to be phenomenal writers.

Nov 21, 2010

Fion L. rated it

I’ll be honest. If I had been browsing in a bookstore, this would probably not have been the book I would’ve picked up. I would probably have reached for more Shakespeare, or some science fiction or fantasy. And I would’ve missed out.

So why did I read this? Well, Ben did a reading, and I thought, “Hey, he’s interesting and engaging; I’ll give him a shot.” (Okay, and it doesn’t hurt that a friend of mine is teaching this book in one of his classes this coming semester.)

This book made me uncomfortable. It made me squirm. But you know what? That’s okay. Because you’re not supposed to be comfortable reading this. You can’t help but be pulled along with the story anyway—with the violence and gore, yes, but also the friendship and loyalty. I’m squeamish and put down the book a couple times, but felt compelled to keep reading in spite of that.

It’s an intelligent book. You’re pushed to think—about your own life, about your own values. Heck, life in general, too. At least I was. And maybe that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to have grown up in that kind of environment, or even have experienced being in that kind of environment, to get something out of this book. (Can you tell I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers of any sort?)

Oh. And it might help to look over the glossary before reading the book. Just in case.

Last thing: warning for language, violence, gore.

But read it anyway. Maybe you’ll learn something. About life, about yourself. About whatever.

Jan 02, 2011

Andrea Young rated it

I fell hard for the home boys, Toro, Lobo, Santo and Lil Toon. I know these guys are bad, but I couldn’t help but root for them. I was sucked into the story and it transported me to the streets, homes, shops, and parks of the Mission District in San Francisco. It’s fast paced, action packed, dramatic, and filled with machismo bravado. But like I said, I was a sucker for it to the end and cried when I finished the book.

(I read the manuscript in preparation for designing the cover.)

Jan 18, 2011

Nmgagne rated it 5 of 5 stars

Barrio Bushido is a brutal family portrait of life in the the barrio, told by first hand accounts of the homeboys that lived this ferocious lifestyle. The story is relentless and compels the reader to want more -a must read!
Jan 23, 2011

Oscar Salinas rated it 5 of 5 stars

WOW! When I read the first five pages of the book I was thrusted backwards in a time machine. It brought me back to the Mission when I was in my late teens and early twenties. This is written in a whole different way than I would have expected. I knew a Lobo a Santo and a Toro.I was a Lobo, Santo and a Toro. It was very thought provoking. It really made me feel for that very moment in each of the characters souls what they were feeling and thinking. I pictured myself driving in the stolen car with Santo and Lobo from up in “Tweak Peak”. I could feel the cold air at 3am rushing in the car while we go find Toro and get him out the hospital. My aderenaline was popping during the story. When you read the book it will give you a whole new appreciation of the “thug” or the “homeboy” you see walking in your neighborhood. This reminds me everyday of the things I was feeling and thinking growing up in the Mission. Now I have three new friends that thought and felt like I did. Thank you Lobo, Santo and Toro for reminding me that I was a human being growing up with feelings and emotions not just a ruthless thug nobody wanted around.I am now 40 years old and have a career and live a healthy life. This book reminds me to give back to the very neighborhood that made me who I am today. A humble indivual, a loving father, grandfather and a caring friend. I carry this book with me everywhere. When people see the cover it always sparks a conversation with strangers. I challenge everyone to give this book as a gift to someone. Carry it with you and spread the “homeboy” movement.
Hey Ben. I thought Barrio Bushido was truly amazing. Toro, Santo and Lobo, I love how you brought them to life. The book felt real. I felt like I was able to feel for them, care for them, hate and love them all at the same time. I liked how you described “Dessert Storm” in the Toro chapter. I had several Marine friends after high school that were there serving at that time. I felt like you gave me a vicarious glimpse into what that experience was like. For that matter you gave me vicariuous glimpses at many different worlds. I like how the book focussed on friendship, duty, honor, love, raw emotion and life. I was truly moved by this masterpiece even if you did bust on henry winkler.

thanks for the amazing experience.


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