Friday, October 23, 2009
Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Pena
Who are you? What defines you? How do others see you and label you? Look in a mirror and who do you see? A boy? A woman? A mom? A son? An activist? An American? A soldier? A teacher? We have so many parts that make up who we are, and who we are is so much more than merely the sum of our parts. Take all of our ingredients, a cup of this, a pinch of that, a splash of the other, mix it up and out comes a unique individual, a distinctive self, a being identical to no one; a body and mind of cells and genes and DNA and synapses, all tossed into a sociocultural context that makes us who we are. But who I am is not solely defined by me; who I am is also how others see me. And how others see me may not be the way I see myself; or maybe it complicates how I see me, so I can’t figure out who I am or who I should be. It turns out being me can be a lot tougher than it seems.
That’s a problem in Danny’s life in Matt de la Pena’s beautiful novel, Mexican Whiteboy. Danny’s dad is Mexican and his mom is white, so what does that make Danny? That depends, in part, on where Danny is. When he’s home in a suburb, attending a private school, he’s more a white kid. When he spends the summer – as he does in this book – visiting his father’s Mexican family in San Diego, he’s a “half-Mexican brown” kid who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. Hanging out with his cousins, they can’t figure how a kid with a Mexican father dresses like one of the Brady Bunch. Danny can’t make sense of it either, and unfortunately he can’t ask his dad. His parents have split and his father’s in Mexico. Danny's desperate for some cash to find his dad.
There is more to Danny. Baseball. More specifically pitching. He has a golden arm, with the speed of a locomotive but the control of broken shopping cart. He can throw a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball that struggles to find the plate. He can’t figure out the problem; he’s desperate to play ball, to get on his high school team. But first he needs to find out who he is.
Sometimes we can find help in the most unlikely place. Early in the story Danny’s playing ball. His cousins have introduced him to the other kids from the neighborhood and it does not take long for fireworks to fly. Another boy, Uno, whose parents have also split-up, punches him and draws blood. But that punch turns into a friendship and Danny and Uno spend the summer trying to raise some cash – so Danny can find his dad and Uno can move in with his dad – by betting kids on the ball field that they can’t hit a pitch from Danny. And popping up from time to time is Danny’s cousin Sofia, a wonderful, street smart, wise-talking, tough-as-nails kid, who cares for her cuz. She plays matchmaker by trying to hook Danny up with a new girl. But alas, she only speaks Spanish, so Danny even can’t talk to her – one of the few people he really would like to talk to.
There is a point in this story when Uno takes Danny down to the bottom of a train bridge. A train is coming and Uno tells Danny to wrap his arms around a pillar. “Grab a post,” Uno shouts over the oncoming train, “Hold tight, man. Trust me.” With the train roaring above them, the pillars vibrating like an earthquake, it is a glorious image. Two boys who met over blood and baseball, finding common bonds, struggling to figure out their lives together and who they are, wrapping their arms around those thick pillars to feel the pulse of life, to suck the energy of the train into their bodies. As the last car of the train passes by up above, Uno shouts, “Hell yeah, boy! That’s some power!” I’ll say. Grab Mexican Whiteboy. It’s a grand slam.