Matt de la Peña’s angst-ridden journey into the
world of Californian chicanos hits the youth market with precision
Matt de la Peña
2008, Delacorte Books
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
IT IS RARE for an author to achieve such a perfect strike with a book for teenagers, but Mexican WhiteBoy does so with a plot so well crafted and language so street that it will lure even the most reluctant young readers away from their many distractions.
Like the baseballs the central character Danny can pitch at speeds that leave his opponents wincing, Matt de la Peña’s angst-ridden journey into the world of Californian chicanos and the half-Mexican, half American who is both but neither is a triumph of targeting.
An outsider at his private school in northern San Diego County, where he is seen as little more than a wetback, Danny spends the summer with the Mexican side of his family in National City, where he is seen as an exotic if poorly understood prize of integration.
He feels comfortable in neither world, but wants to increase his proximity to his Mexican father’s roots. He needs to do so, as his identity crisis, exacerbated by his father’s inexplicable absence and a gallivanting mother, is having a damaging effect on his personality.
Against a backdrop of laconic silence and self-harm that the alienated youth is creating for himself, De la Peña paints a vivid and colourful picture of a Mexican American community distinguished by its rich language and close familial ties.
An authentic vernacular peppered with Spanglish and the rough edges of the immigrant clan create an atmosphere that rapidly seems warmly familiar. The growing tension generated by Danny’s frustrated talent and the rivalries, friendship and love that he provokes have you rooting for him within pages.
But De la Peña has done more, exploring the genuine conflicts faced by individuals who share Mexican and American heritages. This book represents an example of how writers with Mexican roots are moving beyond a focus on their spiritual homeland to issues that concern empowerment and control in their new environment.
If the colour dimension seems overplayed to those outside the US, it remains very real in California where colour is a metaphor for both ethnicity and class.
Danny’s growing maturity is accompanied by the emerging sense that he does not have to reject either culture, and nor do those around him wish him to. It is also based on a recognition that they cannot change their status, but that he may be able to.
His friend Uno, for example, is half black and half Mexican, and eventually trades envy and resentment for excitement at the possibilities and prospects life has to offer. His love interest is the same as him, yet a polar opposite: the daughter of an American man and a Mexican woman now growing up in the US without a word of English.
Moreover, De la Peña demonstrates great skill in his ability to capture the competitive strain of baseball and the game’s excitement. It is one mainstream game in which Latinos have excelled in comparison with sports such as American football, representing a perfect milieu for this kind of tale. A film adaptation of De la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie (2007) premiered in 2008 starring Rosanna Arquette and Ludacris among others.
Mexican WhiteBoy is a subtly clever novel comprising several layers of meaning that will challenge young people to look at themselves as they try clumsily to fit into the adult world.
Like his character, De la Peña shows considerable promise as a writer, and readers will await with considerable anxiety the next fast ball.