Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood is the story of one teenage boy’s coming-of-age, but at the same time, it’s so much more than that. Denise Chávez explains, “Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood is our American Graffiti. No, that’s not right. It’s our Mexican Graffiti.” It’s a statement about life—life as a Mexican teenager living in a small town in the United States in the late 1960s. Sammy Santos lives in the Hollywood barrio of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The novel is the story of his senior year of high school—the year he must deal with the violent death of his girlfriend, the reality of the enduring poverty of his family, the racist policies of his high school, and the consequences of the Vietnam War. While set in the 1960s, it’s a book that I believe will speak strongly to our students today. In fact, I wish I had read this book sooner, before my years as a middle school teacher. I saw older versions of my students in its pages.
Unfortunately, many of our students will never hear about this book, much less be given the opportunity to read it. Its drawback? An unflinching author who doesn’t withhold the painful details. While doing research on the novel I came across the following discussion about it on the blog A Literary Odyssey.
“This is a book I would love to teach to students, but probably will never be able to. Why? This book is too honest about the lives of teenagers and the darker side of life and humanity. It also contains a lot of profanity, but what I believe to be necessary profanity. It would not have as much power over the reader as it does without it.”
Now that I’ve read the book, I understand. Sadly, it’s probably true. Many teachers won’t ever use this book. Perhaps we’re too afraid to deal with the content, too scared that it may give voice to feelings our students already have, or that we don’t know how to handle these ideas or feelings in our classrooms. My hope, however, is that as more of us learn about it, discuss it, and suggest it, more teachers will consider taking a risk, and using it in their classrooms.
The content is heavy, the language isn’t always what one may consider ‘appropriate’ for school, and it’s a long book. Yet, (or maybe because of this), it’s one of those rare books that may engage many of our students who feel school literature has nothing to offer them. For many students, what we teach in school is neither real nor authentic. Our students can’t find themselves reflected in it. That’s not the case here.
It’s a moving novel. Sáenz is able to get into the head of a teenage boy, and then communicate those depths of emotion—the conflicted feelings of anger, hopelessness, love, and resistance. He has a gift for creating characters that one really cares about, fostering a surprising attachment in the reader.
This makes Sammy & Juliana an excellent book to use to explore the art of character development with students. His characters struggle, and they break your heart. Not all of them make it, yet they fight to survive in one way or another. They might not be stereotypical role models, but I think they are role models nonetheless. They have to grapple with things that we like to pretend our students don’t know about: abuse, drugs, sex, war, racism, homosexuality, and tolerance. That’s what the reader gets to see—these characters struggling, grappling and trying to make sense of the world they find themselves in.
The resources offered here (check out our Educator’s Guide for the book coming tomorrow) are meant to encourage teachers to introduce this book to their students. Perhaps we cannot all use this book in its entirety, due to time constraints if nothing else, but I hope that some will consider teaching at least one of the five sections, giving students the opportunity to decide for themselves if they will finish it.