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.