WE WERE HERE by Matt De La Peña

NOTICE: If you have come here for help with your homework on this book, please see my more recent post here.

Matt De La Peña was one of the contributors to a recent Up For Debate segment on the New York Times website with his piece Seeing Themselves in Books. After reading this piece I was excited to read De La Peña’a book We Were Here which he mentions in the article.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When it happened, Miguel was sent to Juvi. The judge gave him a year in a group home—said he had to write in a journal so some counselor could try to figure out how he thinks. The judge had no idea that he actually did Miguel a favor. Ever since it happened, his mom can’t even look at him in the face. Any home besides his would be a better place to live.

But Miguel didn’t bet on meeting Rondell or Mong or on any of what happened after they broke out. He only thought about Mexico and getting to the border to where he could start over. Forget his mom. Forget his brother. Forget himself.

Life usually doesn’t work out how you think it will, though. And most of the time, running away is the quickest path right back to what you’re running from.

Sometimes it’s refreshing when a book delivers pretty much exactly what its blurb promises. Despite being pretty long, it’s a very contained story about the protagonist, Miguel and two “friends”, Mong and Rondell going on the run from a juvenile detention home. Other characters pop in and out, but mainly these three drive the story.

I loved the kind of mash up between classical road trip/buddy story and contemporary “issue” based YA. They were pretty much a perfect fit in fact. Miguel’s voice was very authentic but not self-consciously “street” and his insights felt realistic to who he was, a smart kid on the run from himself.

I chose this book because of De La Peña’s article, but also because of the commitment I have made to the People of Color Reading Challenge for 2012. It’s interesting reading a book with this in mind. I’ve read many books by and about people of color, and not given it much thought. A good story is a good story, right? But reading We Were Here I couldn’t help thinking of the YA Highway article from last year that haunts me to this day. In particular I was thinking about what Nicola Richardson calls the ‘Not Quite Black Trope’

“1) The “Not Quite Black” Trope.

This happens quite a lot in movies and television. A Biracial character will be used as a stand-in for a Black character. This is done because some assume that white readers will be more comfortable with a character who shares half their racial identity and therefore is less Black.

Now I want to stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Biracial characters or people. But this tactic doesn’t work with readers of color at all. It also happens to other minorities, too. A perfect example is Taylor Lautner. He is NOT Native American, but because he had some in his ancestry, he was cast in Twilight. What exactly was wrong with giving a Native American actor a chance since Jacob is Native American in the books? The trope is what’s wrong. Readers of color want to see characters that look like them in books. It also does a disservice to White readers. I am quite sure that many of them won’t run shrieking in horror because they see a character of color.” (Nicola Richardson, YA Highway Feb 2011)

The protagonist of We Were Here, Miguel is half Mexican; his mother is white. I hope that to readers of Mexican descent he was “Mexican enough”. Maybe it’s different when the author shares the heritage of their characters. I’d hate to see writers hesitating to write biracial characters because they are worried it’s a trope.

Needless to say, I disagree strongly with Richardson about the “Not Quite Black Trope” but as a white writer that’s not up to me, I suppose. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to write “Not Quite Black” characters as the mood takes me. I hope Matt De La Peña will too.

11 thoughts on “WE WERE HERE by Matt De La Peña

  1. This has lead in’s from the recent discussion on my blog about your book with the Aborigine character. Seems like you can’t get away from it. Seems like if other authors write about people of color then you should be able to also. Not just half way. Not just Half Black. I hope other’s weren’t as confused as I was in this post.

    I had to look up what “Trope” meant.

    I get it that authors are afraid of offending somebody.

    PS. Sound like a good book.

    1. Well, I struggle with it because on the one hand editors and readers are clamoring for diverse YA and MG, on the other hand there are questions about white writers writing characters of color (or not). I just felt bad reading this book because I was thinking that readers would judge this great character (and writer) because he’s biracial.

      1. Maybe I need to reread the post to see where you made that clear about the author. I did understand about the character being biracial.

        It was an interesting post. I just got confused. Thanks for clarifying. 🙂

  2. Thanks for your comment on my blog, Gabrielle. I’m very excited to read your verse novel when it comes out!

    Matt de la Pena is one of my FAVORITE authors, so this is awesome that you posted about him just as I discovered your blog. I also get to meet him this weekend at an SCBWI regional conference. Yippee!

    I was also really interested in this discussion because I’m a “white” writer who grew up in Asia. My books often have Asian themes and characters. I’ve worried about this–that people will doubt my authenticity because my ethnicity is different than some of my characters. But, oh well. I am desperate to see more ethnic diversity in YA, and so I’d love to make that happen by writing books about ethnically diverse characters. I am a little concerned by this bi-racial comment, though. The book I’m working on now has a half-Vietnamese protagonist. I’d hate to have someone accuse me of “whitening” her for my audience. Yikes. Never thought that would be a problem.

    1. This whole area is fraught, but as Nicola Richardson says, readers will “go in” on you. I think that’s a shame, especially if the book is not about race. It means that readers are being distracted from the story by the ethnicity of the character, which is the exact opposite of what we want when creating diverse casts. I would rather readers “go in” on me about the plot, the writing, almost anything but the race of the character.

      As for biracial, I think Richardson is out of line. IN Vancouver, where I live, biracial kids are practically the default setting. At least half of my daughter’s friends have mixed heritage. Chances are, if I “find” a character in Vancouver, they would be bi or tri-racial

  3. I think it is wonderful you quoted Richardson. While she makes a great point I think to find out if an author has created a Biracial character as a stand in on purpose, we have to ask them. Too many times I have read harsh comments about an author’s character and how they have come across as racist or down right mean in doing so, but I think we tend to forget that authors are human too, and many write from their heart unaware of how their readers can take things in a negative way.

    The reliability, truthfulness, and authenticity of an author’s writing, meaning & purpose when writing on a culture was a huge debate in my Multi-Culturalism in Young Adult while I was working on my Masters on Library Science. Again it is always better to go to the ‘horse’s mouth’ so to speak and ask them.

    Now onto the book… I actually have this book on my TBR list for October as part of my YA Saves Reading Challenge that focuses on #YASaves books. I have never read a book that discussed border crossing (in any way) let a lone about a character(s) who escapes Juvie. This sounds like a very thoughtful yet fun read.

    Did this book make you ask any questions in particular or challenge your way of thinking about the topics in the book?

    1. I had my doubts that the protagonist would have been charged for what he did. So I had legal questions. However, editors have called me out on some legal charges in my upcoming verse novel and I have had to tell them that they are based on real cases. Sometimes the legal system can be very cruel and unfair to young people.

      My sister has an MLS from UBC. Where did you go?

  4. I find this debate weird and skewed, especially if you’re writing in America, because there is a growing population of mixed-race people in America and it’s estimated that mixed-race people will be the majority in the next couple of decades. Arguing against having biracial characters sounds like arguing against interracial marriage, and undermines the unique cultural problems biracial people face in society. It’s like we have this need to classify people as either one thing or the other, which is kind of an outdated worldview. Like you’re either “pure white” or “pure black” and if you’re half-and-half, you have to choose between the two.

    This is a problem a friend of mine has experienced a lot, actually. She’s half Puerto Rican and half African American, but people act surprised that she speaks Spanish because she doesn’t “look” Latina. She also looks quite different from her brother, who much lighter-skinned, so people assume “what? you can’t be related!” Understandably, she’s annoyed by this because a family is a family, regardless of race or appearance.

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