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.
With 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.
*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.