“Perico, or parrot, was what my Dad called me sometimes. It was from a Mexican saying about a parrot that complains about how hot it is in the shade, while all along he’s sitting inside an oven. People usually say this when talking about ignorant people who don’t know where they’re at in the world.”
Often, and gloriously so, we find a book that is so beautifully and powerfully written it leaves the reader feeling like they were punched in the stomach and then given chamomile tea as an apology. Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida accomplishes this Herculean feat. Written by Chicano poet and author Victor Martinez, Parrot will grip you from sentence one (it drew you into this blog post didn’t it?!), shake you a few times and turn you right side up like your favorite roller coaster.
Following Manny, his narcissistic brother Nardo, alcoholic father, scared and protective mother and daring sister, Parrot brings us abruptly face-to-face with issues that we may not want to admit are happening to some of our school kids…that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Roses don’t bloom simply because we think they should and our teenagers aren’t living in bubbles of happiness simply because we want them to be “kids” as long as possible. They are dealing with racism, stereotypes, drugs, gangs, alcoholism, dysfunctional families and identity. Manny’s outlook delineates many of those feelings, “I wasn’t like Nardo. I suppose years of not knowing what, besides work, was expected from a Mexican convinced me that I wouldn’t pass from this earth without putting in a lot of days.” What does this sentence say about racial stereotypes that teenagers are exposed to on a regular basis? What was your first thought when you read that sentence? What do you think your high school classroom would say about it? How many of them would secretly identify with Manny as he intelligently weighs the pros and cons of joining a gang to get respect–in a neighborhood where respect is predicated on gang membership and obedience–and to be “more than the penny” that his father thinks he is?
As Manny tries to wrestle his father’s violent abuse, his mother’s fear of leaving, and his brother’s complete oblivion to their situation, we slowly get to see him transfer from victim to victor. We get watch as his mind makes the decision to gain strength from his situation, to not allow it to take him hostage, but rather to use it to determine life on his own terms, to be that,”thousand dollar person.” It is a truly great author who can paint a picture so vivid and lush that as we read, we can literally see Manny’s wheels turning, we can see him taking bolder steps, rolling his shoulders back, taking charge. What do you think reading that would do for that one kid in your class who’s “friend” is dealing with these issues? What if it lit that spark and gave them the strength and power to take bolder steps, to say something, to break free of the oven?
I’d love to write only easy to read books on this post. I’d love to live in a world where that was possible. But we all know it is just not so. Rather than deny the reality in which we live, we can use the tools available to us; books are a tool to open up dialogue where otherwise there may be silence. They allow us to discuss issues of salience in a “round about way” talking about the characters’ experience when maybe we’re discussing our own. Victor Martinez has done an incredible job writing for an audience that may just be waiting to open up. His prose is strong, forceful, imaginative. The vingettes of Manny’s life weave a patchwork quilt of experience, struggle and decision.
This Pura Belpré and National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction winner is a difficult but incredibly important and useful read. I simply cannot recommend it enough.
-Drinking some much needed Chamomile,