Life is always a little bit better when you win free things. That’s why I was on cloud nine when notified I won Vamos a Leer’s giveaway! Vamos a Leer is a project under the University of New Mexico that provides resources and book recommendations related to Latin America. That’s the simplified version, but trust me, they’re worth a look. As the winner, I received a copy of Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, which I consumed like a vacuum. Thanks again to everyone at Vamos a Leer!
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Short Review: Dark Dude is something new– something I wish had been one of many similar books when I was a child. Within its pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Hijuelos introduces a Cuban-American coming of age story that feels honest and relatable.
I’m no expert on young adult books. In fact, I gave my 15-year-old brother Invisible Man and The Fire Next Time for Christmas last year. They’re books that every young black man should have, but my choice actually reveals that I didn’t know of any young adult books with young men of color to give him.
Enter Dark Dude. Rico Fuentes is the type of guy I’d have been friends with in high school– when he’s not playing his acoustic guitar, he’s working on concepts for the comic book he plans on sending to DC Comics executives. He’s a pretty endearing kid, in spite of being shunned for his skin.
Rico is not what he, or those around him, considers a regular Cubano: he’s not much of a dancer, his Spanish isn’t accented, and his hair and skin are very light. He doesn’t fit in among the Black and Latino students, both of which assume he’s white and are suspicious or outright hostile. Through interactions with Rico, Oscar Hijuelos is able to bring forth various discussions about race from a different perspective. Oftentimes, race is treated as a bipolar concept—in this book, mostly set in New York, race is realistically multi-polar. It incorporates dynamics between Latinos, as well as White and Black people of different socioeconomic statuses.
After a lifetime of being too poor and Latino for whites, but too light for Latinos and blacks, Rico is fed up. Convincing a troubled neighbor to accompany him, Rico runs away to Wisconsin, where an old friend lives a much simpler life. Rico’s excited to escape to a one of the homogeneously white areas in the U.S., where he’s certain his light features will blend in. It doesn’t. When he applies for a job at the gas station, the owner remarks that it’s odd his name is Rico, because he doesn’t “look like a wetback.” Over the course of the next year, Rico lives among the corn and the corn farmers, while he and Jimmy contemplate what’s left for them in New York City.
It takes a lot of faith for me to read a book that is compared to The Catcher in the Rye on its rear, but I’m happy I did. Aside from the pensive teenage male protagonist, it’s not reminiscent of Catcher at all. This book is insightful and relatable, more because of the characters than the story line itself. Rico’s voice is well developed, and he’s essentially like any other young man who feels different. There’s no classist, faux-perceptive musings about “fakes and phonies,” just conversations from a boy unsure about his future, and even more unsure about his identity.
I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars because while it isn’t perfect, it’s absolutely a book I wish existed when I was younger. Growing up Bahamian-American, I never felt as though I was Caribbean enough, which oftentimes made me feel a bit left out amongst my family. For that reason, Rico’s is a narrative I identify with strongly.
For those thinking about buying this for their young adult of choice, the publisher recommends this book for ages 11/12 and up, and I agree. Even though there’s minimal romance, there’s still ample drug use and periodical violence.
What were some of your favorites growing up? I’m also on a hunt for more great YA books with protagonists of color! If you know of any, let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to check out Vamos a Leer, where their most recent post spotlights Dark Dude’s author!