Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Pena

I have been lucky to enough to see YA author Matt de la Pena speak twice now: once at the 2013 NCTE conference in Boston and then recently at the beginning of the month at the YA Lit conference at Louisiana State University. de la Pena was publicizing his newest YA novel The Living at NCTE, and I wasn't able to make it to the exhibition hall when he was selling and signing his other books. So I picked up The Living, and read The Living, but apparently did not review The Living here (I will!). Luckily, his other books were available for sale at Louisiana State University, and I was finally able to pick up a copy of Mexican Whiteboy, which had been on my book wishlist for years

Mexican Whiteboy focuses primarily on protagonist Danny, although the perspective routinely changes to examine the community in National City, where Danny moves to live with his Dad's family for the summer. Danny's dad is Mexican and his mom is white. Danny's identity is split between both of them, and, as a result, he feels too Mexican for the private school that he attends in San Diego, and too white for National City. de la Pena writes,
And Danny's brown. Half-Mexican brown. A shade darker than all the white kids at his private high school, Leucadia Prep. Up there, Mexican people do under-the-table yard work and hide out in the hills because they're in San Diego illegally. Only other people on Leucadia's campus who share his shade are the lunch-line ladies, the gardeners, the custodians. But whenever Danny comes down here, to National City - where his dad grew up, where all his aunts and uncles and cousins still live - he feels pale. A full shade lighter. Albino almost. (2)
But Danny has something special. He can pitch like no one else can, his long arms giving his pitch a ninety-five-mile-an-hour power. He disrupts the hierarchy of the neighborhood when he shows off what he can do when he's playing baseball, seriously pissing off Uno, who's partly in love with Danny's cousin Sofia. But Danny's not consistent. Sometimes his pitch will fly straight and do just exactly what he wants it to. But other times it's unpredictable, and he can't control what happens to the baseball as it flies towards home base. 

Part of the reason Danny's moved to National City for summer is to be closer to Mexico, where his dad is. Danny wants to save up money over the summer and book a flight down there, and show his father just how much he's turning into the kind of man he'd be proud of. We see glimpses of what Danny believes his father wants to see through the letters Danny puts in the mail, exaggerating aspects of his life in National City with his family and making up stories that he thinks will impress his dad. 

Mexican Whiteboy is a powerful book. The writing is hopeful and poetic - I underlined more phrases in this book than in any other I've read recently. The language shines; it's tactile and real and repeats itself inside your head, vocalizing the dialogue. And the characters are so likable, even when they're not doing likable things, even when they're doing the last thing that you want them to. The book is about a community as much as it's about Danny and his family, and about place and language and connection.

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