Matt de la Peña’s ‘Mexican Whiteboy’

Courtesy of Colorado photographer Kira Gowan

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Who are we? This review is part of a continuing focus on the issues of identity—such as struggling to fit in, having a sense of place, and practicing tolerance.

Machismo versus maturity
Matt de la Peña’s Mexican Whiteboy is an important book for teens to read no matter what their ethnic or racial background. Danny, the central character, gives voice to the difficult feelings of being split between two cultures and never feeling whole.

Aside from providing a backdrop for discussions about racism, Mexican Whiteboy is ripe with valuable talking points such as the importance of family, maturity versus machismo,  taking responsibility for one’s own success, and the negative impact of hiding the truth. It also shows how sports can motivate us to achieve and can draw cultures together.

Danny may be a skinny 16-year-old, but he has long, powerful arms that are made for pitching fastballs. What he doesn’t have is a solid mental game. The emotional instability of his life and his sense of otherness keep him from showing the baseball team at his very white school what he can do.

Danny’s dad, who is Mexican-American, disappeared from his life under mysterious circumstances years ago. Danny doesn’t know where he is, but misses him deeply.

It helps that his mom—who is white and still loves his dad although divorced from him—has maintained close ties with Danny’s paternal relatives.

Brown boy, pale boy
This summer Danny has chosen to live with his dad’s family in the San Diego suburb of National City. Meanwhile, his mom and sister have moved north to San Francisco and are trying out a new life with his mom’s fiancé, a successful white businessman.

Danny is a scholarship student and is a “shade darker than all the white kids at his private high school, Leucadia Prep. Up there, Mexican people do under-the-table yard work and hide out in the hills because they’re in San Diego illegally. Only other people on Leucadia’s campus who share his shade are the lunch-line ladies, the gardeners, the custodians. But whenever Danny comes down here, to National City—where his dad grew up, where all his aunts and uncles and cousins still live—he feels pale.”

Not only does Danny feel pale in the hood, but he often feels clueless since he speaks only a tiny bit of Spanish and understands only half the jokes that his relatives share in their “random mix of Spanish and English.” What’s more, “they know he doesn’t quite have the whole picture,” and they mistakenly think this will protect him.

A slice from real life
Matt de la Peña
knows National City well, because it is where he grew up. According to online statistics from SANDAG, San Diego’s Regional Planning Agency, minorities comprise 95 percent of National City’s population. About 63 percent are Hispanic.

Mexican Whiteboy is based on de la Peña’s own childhood. In an August 2009 interview with Amy Bowllan for the “Writers Against Racism Blogroll” of School Library Journal, de la Peña said that his mother was white and his father Mexican-American.

“Because of my genetic blend I came out of the womb looking like I had a nice little tan,” the author joked.

A good basketball player, de la Peña decided that sport would be his way out of the barrio. To succeed, he sought the best competition in San Diego at an all-black gym. Despite taunts from the players who called him “Pele” and suggested that he play soccer, de la Peña persisted and succeeded.

Similarly, in Mexican Whiteboy, Danny is a good enough baseball player to be scouted for college and the minor leagues, yet he is taunted by teammates at his school. While in National City, Danny hones his pitching by practicing with the best street baseball player in the neighborhood, tough Uno who is half black and half Mexican.

His father’s side of the family treats Danny as if he is the straight “A,” great white hope who will raise them all up. Expressing pride, his uncle calls him “Mr. Smart Boy,” but Danny wishes he “had called him Mr. Bad Boy instead.” He longs for sameness, not individuality.

Subtle forms of racism
It further troubles Danny that his grandmother dotes on him during family meals.

“[W]hen his grandma passes out homemade tortillas, hot off the griddle, she does it based on family rank. It’s a subtle and unspoken ranking system, but one each and every person in the house understands. And ‘cause he’s so guapo [handsome] and gets such good grades and lives in such a better neighborhood these days—and ‘cause in a weird way Grandma’s almost ashamed of being Mexican—he’s always the first to eat.”

In real life, de la Peña’s grandmother, despite being “the nicest woman I know,” once expressed a subtle form of racism when she told him “You know, Matt, we’re not just Mexican. We’re Spanish, too.” It was a comment that would shape his future work.

Speaking about racism in the School Library Journal interview, de la Peña said, “Sometimes it’s really obvious, a guy rocking a ‘white supremacy’ tattoo on the side of his neck. But more often it’s shiftier. It’s brown on brown. It’s one subjugated person trying to feel better than another. And from a personal standpoint, that’s one of the things that most moves me as a writer.”

And de la Peña is a writer who will move readers. He will move young people, teachers, and perhaps parents in the right direction toward a new and positive understanding of the gifts as well as the problems of our increasingly biracial nation.

More about Matt de la Peña:
Mexican Whiteboy is Matt de la Peña’s second novel. The first, which involves basketball and is called Ball Don’t Lie, was made into a movie that premiered in 2008 at the New York’s Tribeca film festival.

We Were Here, the author’s third novel, was released this autumn and concerns a boy running toward the U.S./Mexican border and away from the law following a terrible experience.


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