What It Means To Be Biracial (A discussion of “Mexican White Boy”)

In 2010, about nine million people selected more than one race on the U.S. Census form.*

I was one of them. I’m predominantly Sri Lankan and Irish American, as I’ve discussed in Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?, but my multiracial identity has changed over the course of my life in response to the circumstances around me, as I’ve mentioned in a post on racist themes in children’s literature.

Mexican White Boy Thumbnail CoverWith the context of this multi-racial background, I read Matt de la Peña’s Mexican White Boy (2008), a young adult novel that is currently on Vamos A Leer’s reading list for the 2014-15 school year. It features 16-year-old Danny, who is half Mexican and half white, who feels like he does not truly belong with either side of his family. He finds that he is “a white boy among Mexicans, and a Mexican among white boys.” To make matters more complicated, his Mexican father is no longer in his life, for reasons wholly unknown to Danny.

Meanwhile, the novel also features Uno, whose biracial heritage is Mexican and African American. His separated parents are hostile towards each other, causing Uno to feel like “it’s some kind of tug-of-war between black and Mexican, and he’s the rope.”

The boys become friends when Uno recognizes a way to turn Danny’s prowess on the baseball mound into a money-making endeavor. He has found it difficult to make money any other way:

He put in [job] applications at a mess of places, but nobody’s called him back. Not one restaurant, one clothing store, one shoe shop. Not even the coffee shop outside the mall that always has the ‘Now Hiring’ sign taped to the door. What’s up with that?


“It’s ‘cause my ass is half black. It ain’t right.”**

Sadly, the frustrating job market conditions that Uno faces are not unique to fiction. I’ve previously noted research that shows how the name of an applicant—and what potential employers assume about the ethnicity of a person with that name—impacts the likelihood of receiving a job interview. Individuals with ethnic-sounding names are not only less likely to get a job interview, but they’re also less likely to get a response from professors, whom many of us assume are educated enough to overcome their biases against certain ethnic/racial groups.

Mexican White Boy explores these types of structural barriers for ethnic minorities with an emphasis on the experiences of Danny and Uno, two boys caught between two identities. My own experience as a multi-racial American has only a little in common with the experiences de la Peña depicts for Danny and Uno—I’m from a different ethnic and socioeconomic background, and I live in a different part of the country—but it was easy to identify with their struggle to define themselves and to root for these two boys. I’m looking forward to introducing this novel to my own children when they are finally exploring what it means to be redheaded girls of South Asian heritage with Arabic names living in our part of America.

Three Daughters_The Misfortune of Knowing


*This represents only a fraction of Americans with multi-racial ancestry. For example, President Barack Obama is half African and half white, but he selected only the “Black” box. Here’s the 2010 Census Form (Question 9).

**This novel is intended for the 14-and-up crowd, which I think can handle the strong language and serious themes. Not everyone would agree with me, though.


  1. I’m so glad that you thought this was a worthwhile read. I’ve read so much about it that I’m really looking forward to reading it myself. These are themes that can be so powerful for literature used in the classroom. Thanks for linking to our book post!

  2. Your children are gorgeous. I think it’s awesome that you’re teaching them about all their different cultural roots. I also want to kiss their chubby little cheeks. I’m creepy like that.

  3. Your girls look so cute in their dresses. I wonder how many kids their age wear dresses? I never see young girls in dresses here. As for the biracial references, I found it enlightening in this day and age that applicants are refused because of racial presumptions. Sad to think of the opportunities lost by not interviewing a potential company standout.

    1. My youngest insists on wearing dresses all the time! She’s a “girly-girly,” despite the gender-neutral way we’re trying to raise them. Hey, if that’s her personality, then it’s fine with me. The dresses are adorable. 🙂

  4. This sounds like a really interesting read. My mom’s side of the family came over on the Mayflower and then my father immigrated here himself from Romania as a teen.

    It’s so sad that we still have stories like this, but so important that we read and discuss them!

  5. Trying to tear my attention away from those gorgeous pictures of your girls.

    Mexican White Boy sounds like a very relevant book for the times (past and present, and unfortunately probably for the future too). It’s sad that issues like this still exist. I think it’s important to talk about it though, especially for the sake of boys (and girls) like Danny and Uno.

    1. Thanks for compliment on the pictures! These are among my favorites.
      Mexican White Boy is a very interesting and thought-provoking book. It’s very relevant.

  6. Oh those studies are so sad. It’s the 21st Century and we still have these kinds of problems. The book sounds like an interesting one. 14 is a good age for that kind of material. I remember having an identity crisis around that time.

    1. It’s definitely an interesting book! I recommend it. I agree with you that it’s aimed at the right audience. As Lois Lowry once said: “Early on I came to realize something, and it came from the mail I received from kids. That is, kids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they’re still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general.” (https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/when-do-books-stop-changing-our-lives/)

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