Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mexican Whiteboy

This one took some getting into. It's a rough read -- the author, Matt De La Pena, more or less drops you into Danny Lopez' world without a lot of background. And Danny is a kid caught between two cultures, neither one of which feels precisely like home. Hence the title.

But it could have been called Mexican Blackboy just as easily, because the story passes back and forth between Danny, who is half white, half Mexican, and Uno, who is half Mexican, half black. Both long for their fathers: Uno to live with his, away from his abusive stepfather, and Danny just to find his, who's gone off the radar, possibly to Mexico.

I chose this one to review, not because it's new -- it's from 2008 -- but because it recently showed up on a list of books for reluctant readers and boys, which are sometimes the same thing. It has a lot of baseball stuff in it; Danny is a pitcher with a golden arm but he can't control his delivery in clutch situations. He is socially awkward, never feeling like he belongs. He is too dark, too Mexican for his San Diego prep school, and among his Mexican relatives in National City, he is too light. Also, he speaks no Spanish; he is completely left out of about 50% of their conversations. Still, he chooses to spend the summer with his Mexican family.

The language in this book is very coarse, but authentic. Having grown up in the Southwest and having attended a high school that was about 15% Hispanic, the characters' voices are true-to-life as I remember them, and having taught high school for 10 years, I can vouch for the swearing -- there's a lot of it, just as you'd hear in most high school corridors. There's also drinking, pot smoking, and drug dealing (talked about, not actually done). And there's poverty. Most of the people in National City are poor. And many of them are hopeless in their poverty.

The language was hard to get over, but there is much in this story to recommend it. I found myself really bleeding for Danny, who wants so much to know his dad and can't figure out what he did to make him leave. One possibility, he thinks, is that he's just not Mexican enough for his dad. His distress runs very deep. He has more or less quit talking, fading into the background. But at the same time, he's developed a habit of digging his fingernails into his forearm to remind himself he's human. He's done it so often, his arm is scarred. And he writes long, imaginary letters to his dad in his head; letters in which he tells his dad how successful he is, how popular. None of it is true: it's his deep, deep longing for his father to want him, to approve of him. His emptiness, his fractured spirit, got to me. I wanted to deck his stupid mom, gushing on and on about her new (white) boyfriend, the successful San Francisco businessman, while totally ignoring her son's pain, his utter lostness. Her selfishness was hard to take.

There's a subplot with a girl named Liberty, another "halfie" who speaks no English. It's part of Danny's oeuvre that he longs for her and yet can't communicate with her at all, both because he can't speak Spanish and because he can barely speak around people anyway. Danny does resolve some of his issues, both with Liberty and his dad (who (SPOILER ALERT) he discovers is actually in prison). It puts a different complexion on things to know his dad isn't staying away because he doesn't love him. However, before he figures out where his dad is, there's a scene of breathtaking violence in which Danny witnesses his uncle run a man down and then beat him senseless, and then run over him again, breaking his legs. It's meant to give Danny (and the reader) a glimpse into the psyche that landed his dad in jail, although Danny doesn't understand it that way yet -- he only knows that this violence somehow reminds him of his dad. Danny is so horrified, he vomits, and frankly, I got a little queasy myself. It's a powerful, visceral scene, not for the faint of heart.

I'm on the fence with this one. On the one hand, it's authentic, it's compelling, it's got real emotional depth and is an insightful portrait of what abandonment, divorce, and parental selfishness do to kids. On the other hand, it's authentic in the roughest possible way, and that isn't a pretty thing. So I'm going to be a weenie and not come down on either side of this one, except to say that it's a high school book ONLY -- no lower. And an upper high school book at that. It's rough, but it has its merits. Just be aware of what your child might be in for if this one pops up on a booklist and consider well whether your child has the maturity to deal with it.

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