We’re interrupting your regularly scheduled En la Clase to bring you a review of the remarkable book Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas. Written by Jay Neugeborn in 1989, Poli is celebrating a 25th anniversary edition printing from the Texas Tech University Press. It’s a biography of a lesser-known Mexican-American who was deeply involved in the formative years of the southwestern frontier of the United States. As Neugeborn explains in the preface,
“José Policarpo Rodríguez was born in Zaragoas, Mexico, on January 26, 1829, at a time when Texas was part of the Republic of Mexico, and the Rio Grande ran peacefully through the northern province of Coahuila. This book is based on Poli’s memories…”
This fictionalized biography focuses on Poli’s time growing into adulthood on what was then the Mexican-US border. Neugeborn admits that he took “imaginative liberties” by “inventing dialogue and characters here and there, shifting and/or combining some elements for dramatic or narrative ends.” But underneath those creative flourishes lies the factual structure of the events of Poli’s childhood – years in which he increasingly became aware of the economic impoverishment of Mexico; the genocidal policies and practices leveraged against the Comanche nation by the US; the brutal enslavement of African-Americans in the US; and the political, cultural, and historical disagreements (to put it mildly) between the many people who were trying to live in the contested frontier region. This is not to make it sound as though the book is wholly depressing! Interspersed throughout the serious reflections are small, lighter observations about Poli’s life, including his preference for the Mexican fruit chictzapotl or the chocolate drink atole.
Deftly, Neugeborn manages to balance the broader historical references with Poli’s personal details. At times the balance tips overly toward the historical, but that’s not a huge drawback when you consider that the book offers young readers an accessible tool for learning about the history of the United States and Mexico.
And this is not dry history. It’s filled with the turmoil of the era. Neugeboren should be commended for developing the details of the historical period without succumbing to the standard, all-too-common stereotypes. Although it would be relatively easy to fail into reductionist tendencies, he seems to make a conscious effort to emphasize a shared humanity. Individuals are named and contextualized, albeit perhaps not in as much depth as I, as an adult reader, would like to see. Unlike me, however, young adult readers will likely be content with the character sketches. The cast of characters includes, for instance: Poli, a young Mexican who’s cognizant and proud of his indigenous, Aztec heritage and the current servitude of his people; Eagle Blood, a young Comanche man who must find ways to resist the oppressive forces ripping apart his family and community, and tearing his people from their land; and Seth Turnbow, a young African-American man who must practice desperate measures in order to leave the United States for Mexico and escape the slaveholder who killed his mother.
Young adult male reader, for the most part, will find the story appealing; young women may struggle in identifying with the narrative, since female characters are few and peripheral. From an educational perspective, the book lends itself to language arts classrooms, where it could be used to teach biography, research, expository writing, creative nonfiction, and voice; to social studies classrooms, where it could be useful in teaching about the complicated history of the US-Mexico border, or about the richness of Mexican cultural; and, across the curriculum spectrum, the book could be a valuable tool for encouraging students to talk about violent and nonviolent resistance in the face of political regimes, the role of individual and collective agency, and the affirmation of self in the face of external pressure.
This final point is perhaps what will resonate most with students, as it did with me. At the end of it all, against the violent and tumultuous backdrop of the Mexican-American war, Poli remains as true as he can to himself, his family, and his friends. It’s a remarkable feat given everything he experiences, and one which will be inspiring to young adult readers.
Here’s to bringing history to life,
p.s. Thanks to Rachel Gul at Over the River Public Relations for providing us with a free review copy!
p.p.s. For those interested in learning more about the historical interaction between the United States government and Mexico, see PBS’ resource on the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848. For more on the interaction between the United States government and the Indigenous peoples of North America, see the Zinn Education Project’s review of, and the original text for, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.