Danny’s tall and skinny. Even though he’s not built, his arms are long enough to give his pitch a power so fierce any college scout would sign him on the spot. Ninety-five mile an hour fastball, but the boy’s not even on a team. Every time he gets up on the mound he loses it. But at his private school, they don’t expect much else from him. Danny’s brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico. That’s why he’s spending the summer with his dad’s family. Only, to find himself, he may just have to face the demons he refuses to see–the demons that are right in front of his face. And open up to a friendship he never saw coming. Set in the alleys and on the ball fields of San Diego County, Mexican Whiteboy is a story of friendship, acceptance, and the struggle to find your identity in a world of definitions.
This was one of those books that I didn’t like the first time I read it, but I loved the second time through. In all honesty, my first impression may be due more to secondary factors influencing my experience than the book itself. Since I always read everything at least twice before writing a guide, I thought I’d listen to the audio version of the book the first time through while driving back from Tucson. The audio version does not do de la Peña’s writing justice. I only made it through about 40 pages before I had to turn it off, and unfortunately I think this really tainted my opinion of the book. I waited a few weeks before starting the guide, and as I read the book a second time through, it was like an entirely different experience. I could go into more detail about why I think this is, but for the sake of time I won’t. I mention it here only because I hope that if you read it once and aren’t entirely sold, that you’ll give it a second chance. It’s a book that engages with issues that we rarely see in our classroom literature (I’ll talk more about this below). It’s also a book that is resoundingly well-received by students. Over and over we hear from teachers across the country who all say it’s one of their students’ favorite books.
At its core, this is the story of one boy’s experience of coming to terms with his identity as he comes of age. I think the majority of us struggle with our identity and who we are at some point in our lives. But for some of our students the struggle can be quite painful and complex, and de la Peña’s story reflects that. It is the way in which de la Peña weaves discussions of racial identity into his story that makes it such a significant text for our classrooms. Both of the main characters, Danny and Uno, struggle with their racial identity. Danny is half-white and half-Mexican, while Uno is half-Mexican and half-Black. Both young men struggle with how to accept who they are, and their struggle is made even more complex by the communities in which they live. When Danny is in San Diego, he’s the Mexican who’s not white enough to fit in, and in National City he’s too white to be Mexican. Uno is also half-Mexican, but he, his friends, and his step-father only ever identify him as Black, which becomes even more significant as he is the only young Black man in the community. De la Peña paints a realistic portrayal of the struggles Danny and Uno face as they grapple with their own internal conflict over who they are, and the external conflict of navigating who society expects them to be. Interestingly, Mexican WhiteBoy was one of the books banned by the Tucson School District because it contained critical race theory. Yet, it is the critical race theory that I believe makes it such an essential read for all of our students.
As Danny attempts to deal with everything going on inside and around him, he resorts to hurting himself. Throughout the book Danny copes with difficult situations by digging his nails into his arm until he breaks the skin. Self-harm has become an increasingly relevant issue for those who work with teenagers and young adults, but often it’s gendered. If we find it in literature, it’s typically about females who cut themselves. While studies show that the majority of young adults who use self-harm to cope are female, there are males who struggle with this as well. de la Peña ‘flips the script’ by writing about a young man with exceptional athletic ability who hurts himself.
Rage, anger and violence are other themes that run throughout the book. As incredibly destructive forces in the lives of the characters, the book provides the opportunity to discuss alternative ways to deal with such powerful emotions, rather than resorting to violence.
It is certainly a book for a more mature audience, such as high school readers. There are references to drugs, sex, underage drinking, strong language, and violence. Other reviews have said this book really isn’t appropriate for classroom use, but I disagree. While it may not be the right choice for every classroom community, I believe that more often than not students will find it both powerful and engaging. Our students are bombarded on a daily basis with messages about race, identity, drugs, alcohol and violence. Using this book provides not only a story that they may see themselves reflected in, but also the space to make these topics part of the ‘official’ curriculum. It is in spaces like this that we, as educators, can hear what our students are struggling with and help them to navigate these difficult teenage years.
Mexican Whiteboy has earned a variety of awards and recognitions: ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults (Top 10 Pick), 2008 Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Ribbon List, 2009 Notable Books for a Global Society, Texas TAYSHAS Reading list, and a Junior Library Guild Selection.
If you’d like to read what others have thought about the book, check out this review from Kirkus or Misfortune of Knowing’s post “What it Means To Be Biracial (A Discussion of Mexican White Boy)“. If you’re interested in hearing what the author has to say about his work, check out the following interviews, articles, and video:
- New York Times article that reports on de la Peña visiting a Tucson High School while MexicanWhiteBoy was being banned in congruence with an Arizona state law targeting Mexican-American studies courses.
- NPR interview with de la Peña on his newest young adult fiction book, The Living.
- Rumpus interview with de la Peña.
- Schooltube video of de la Peña by in which he talks about the subtle ways in which he incorporates issues of race and class into his stories.
Our Educator’s Guide to the book is now available!