How does a kid born into poverty in East L.A. wind up making it big in the business world? Robert Renteria knows—he did it. This graphic novel memoir shows how Renteria overcame abuse, drugs, gangs, poverty, and lack of formal education to find success in corporate America.
Hard work, supportive family, and sheer determination get Renteria his foot in the door of a company that supplies laundromats with equipment. Once there, his commitment, long hours of work, and personal approach with customers have him rocketing to the top of the sales force. At first, he revels in his success. Eventually, though, he begins to find life as a high-rolling businessman unfulfilling. He feels that the company is taking advantage of the customers he started out helping. So Renteria takes a huge risk: he leaves and starts his own company.
Having made that company a success, Renteria realizes he has a lot to give back to the community, especially kids now struggling with issues that Renteria once faced. This leads him to write the memoir From the Barrio to the Boardroom and then to adapt it into this graphic novel version, Mi Barrio.
Mi Barrio is a work intended to comfort, bolster, and inspire readers, particularly inner-city youth, to improve their lives through education and hard work. The book reads almost like a how-to, explaining what worked for Renteria and what didn’t, what to do and not do. He avoids a lot of action scenes that could glamorize the gangs-and-drugs days of his youth, but the approach never feels naïve—Renteria approaches the pitfalls of the street with the weariness of one who has been there and knows how hard they are to avoid. He recalls how running with a gang made kids in his neighborhood feel safer, like someone was looking out for them, but ultimately concludes, “gangbanging is not a lifestyle, it’s a ‘death-style.’”
The section of the book covering Renteria’s corporate life—almost half of the slim 55-page volume—is well-paced. Despite setbacks, like when one employer will not promote Renteria because his education stops at a GED, this is an empowering account of hard work leading to rewards and of personal commitment paying off. A good balance appears: we see the high points of corporate success, like when Renteria is able to buy his mother a new car, telling her, “You will never have to take the bus again,” and we also see him showing up early every day, making double the required number of sales calls, and going out of his way to familiarize himself with customers. The message is a strong and hopeful one: work hard and treat people right, and you can have the kind of life you want.
The art is bold and clear, black and white, and the panel layout varies enough to be visually interesting, but not enough to break up the flow of the story. It’s a very consistent style and easy to read. The drawings don’t pack a lot of action. When Renteria is running with gangs or serving in the Army, we get a panel illustrating a fight here and one showing a mission there, but most of these are representative snapshots of the lifestyle rather than blow-by-blow accounts of specific events. The effect is to keep the story moving at a steady pace through the whole book, whether Renteria is in the army or in the boardroom. Mi Barrio contains a lot of life events, from a childhood injury to a stint in the military to Renteria’s corporate adventures, and the art makes them all flow together into one quick read.
While the violence shown is minimal, abuse and gang violence are present in the early parts of the book and there are references to drugs and prostitution. Very young readers might also have trouble following the sometimes-complex events of Renteria’s life. For older kids and teens, though, this is an uplifting memoir and potentially a blueprint to follow to achieve their own success.
by Robert Renteria, Corey Michael Blake
Art by Shane Clester