Book Review: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

 

Review by Jessica Agudelo

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL? For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it. Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.

MY TWO CENTS: Much to my delight, there were a number of titles released in 2017 that filled me with pride and transported me back to my days as a middle school book worm. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was among them. Arturo’s story possesses familiar hallmarks of coming of age tales, a first crush, a crummy summer job as a dishwasher (albeit at his family’s beloved restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla), and self-discovery. With equal measures of humor and heart, Pablo Cartaya’s middle grade debut is sure to leave readers anxious for an invite to the Zamora family Sunday dinners. What truly makes The Epic Fail special, though, is how Cartaya burnishes deeper themes like family, community, gentrification, and cultural identity with nuance and irresistible charm.

When Wilfrido Pipo, a villainous real estate developer, saunters into Canal Grove looking to build a luxurious high rise, Arturo and his family fear the move will drastically alter their Miami neighborhood. Pipo intends to buy the city-owned lot next to La Cocina, which the Zamoras also planned to bid on, hoping to expand their restaurant. In order to convince community members to back his development plan, Pipo throws fancy events and raffles off all-expenses-paid trips. Arturo senses Pipo’s duplicitous nature and is spurred into action by Vanessa, his activist cousin, and Carmen, his new crush. Together, they hatch plans, one involving a Hulk disguise, to further investigate Pipo’s shady background and resist his ambitions. Gentrification and activism are timely topics, but their weightiness can feel overwhelming and disheartening, especially in light of news about Dreamers, to name one example. Cartaya does his best to impart readers with some hope. Arturo and his family picket and attend public forums at city hall, actions which, whatever the ultimate result, display a sense of agency, a power Arturo realizes he possesses.

At one protest, Vanessa holds a picket sign reading “Family is Community-Community is Family,” a succinct summation of two overarching themes. For Cartaya, family is not just those related by blood, but those with whom you choose to spend time, and sometimes, inadvertently share space. We readily throw longtime friends under the family umbrella, but Cartaya implores readers to consider neighbors, even the most eccentric among them, as members of our extended families. La Cocina itself is an extension of the family’s dining room, where an array of regulars eat, local businesses build partnerships (the restaurant buys its meat and greens from area vendors), and everyone is welcome.

Cartaya’s portrayal of an ample list of secondary characters is one of his greatest successes. He depicts a variety of personalities using distinct and vivid details, bringing the community of Canal Grove to life. Whether it is Arturo’s best friend Bren, a hopeless dork perpetually trying to look and sound like Pitbull, or Aunt Tuti, who has a penchant for dramatics, but is a fierce defender of her family, readers will surely recognize at least one, if not many, of Cartaya’s characters. Arturo may be the hero of the story, but it is the people around him who inspire his actions and give his mission purpose. His fight to save the family restaurant is also a fight for the preservation of his hometown, a love he shares with the people of his community, who, in turn, make that community a place worth loving. In one passage, Arturo wonders where Pipo’s own family might be, “All that success and I never heard him talk about anyone who he cared about.” Arturo’s realization reminded me of Harry Potter’s own assessment of Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix, whom he pities for being equally rootless. A poignant message about community that traverses Hogwarts and Canal Grove.

As Arturo’s Abuela’s health declines, she gives Arturo a box of photos and letters from his Abuelo, which reference the poet José Martí. The poet is a link to his grandfather and his Cuban heritage. Arturo is pulled in by Martí, a figure emblematic of embracing multiple cultures and causes. Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he “sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.” Although awkward in many aspects of his life, Arturo moves through his multitudes with spectacular ease. The narrative of struggling to balance cultural identities has shifted. Of course, stories about cultural struggle are necessary, but it was wonderful to see Arturo just be himself. It allowed me to let out a deep breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.

I could go on and on about The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. How touched I was by the depictions of Abuela’s tenderness, his mom’s quiet struggle becoming matriarch of the family, Arturo’s admiration for Carmen’s colorful braces, and of course, the food (recipes included as backmatter). This novel was a true joy to read from beginning to end. A rare feat, even in children’s literature.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by Viking. He is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. For his performance recording the audiobook of his novel, Pablo received an Earphone Award from Audiofile Magazine and a Publisher’s Weekly Audiobooks starred review. He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing. http://www.pablocartaya.com / Twitter: @phcartaya

 

J_AgudeloABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jessica Agudelo is a Children’s Librarian at the New York Public Library. She has served on NYPL’s selection committee for its annual Best Books for Kids list, and is currently a co-chair for the 2018 list. She contributes reviews of English and Spanish language books for School Library Journal and is a proud member of the Association of Library Services to Children and REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and Spanish Speakers). Jessica is Colombian-American and was born and raised in Queens, NY.

 

The Powerful Role of Coach in the Latinx Community: A Guest Post by Author Claudia Meléndez Salinas

 

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

It’s Monday evening and more than 200 youngsters pour into the gym of Alisal High, a school located in the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods in California’s central coast. The children, most dressed in the gold and black colors of the Gil Basketball Academy, are not high school students: they’re as young as four years old, some of them hardly big enough to pick up the basketballs.

After the initial chaos, the children settle into a series of warm up exercises you can tell they know by heart: run forward, stop midway and run backward; run twisting your body; leap sideways and stop to touch the ground, repeat.

From the edge of the gym, Coach Jose Gil watches the action and directs the children into their next moves. It’s a task that he can’t do alone – especially when he has to stop to provide direct instruction to kids who can’t seem to get a handle on the ball. So he relies on the assistance of other coaches, men and women who, like him, mostly offer their services on a volunteer basis.

“The word ‘Coach’ is powerful beyond belief,” Gil says. “Some think it’s easy and want to sometimes judge or criticize us for in-game situations, but at the end of the day, if coaching kids was that easy, everyone would be doing it. Endless hours, sleepless nights, responsibility beyond belief, challenges dealing with a variety of talents and skill levels etc… It boils down to the process at hand, are you willing to sacrifice your alone time to help others?”

“Coaches” or “mentors” have been crucial for the development of mankind since time immemorial. Older or wiser men and women took young wards under their wings to teach them hunting and gathering edible plants, or to pass down traditions important for survival. The concept was crystallized in ancient Greece, when Mentor, a friend of King Odysseus, stayed behind to take care of the king’s son, Telemachus. The boy and Mentor developed a trusted friendship, one whose importance can be observed in centuries of literature and movies. Think Arthur and Merlin. Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. Or Daniel and Mr. Miyagi.

In places like the Alisal, where the population is 90 percent Latinx and 33 percent of the residents live in poverty, coaches and mentors are not a matter of legend, they’re a matter of survival. Parents who must work long hours in minimum wage jobs to put food on the table have to rely on the kindness of strangers to look after their broods. In the absence of trusted adults who can guide youngsters through the difficult passage through adolescence, some fall prey to the gangs.

Latinxs are a young population. While more than 30 percent of Latinxs are under 18 years old, the same is true for 20 percent of whites. Nearly half of U.S. born Latinxs are younger than 18.

At the same time, more than 23 percent of Latinxs live in poverty – second only to African Americans. Thirty-seven percent of all the children in the United States who live in poverty are Latinxs.

For four of the last five years, Monterey County has led California in youth homicide rate. In 2013, 22 young people were slain in the county, also the fourth largest agricultural area in the Golden State. While parents are picking lettuce, their children are picking fights.

This is why people like Jose Gil are vital – and luckily, there are a few. You can see them most afternoons in the soccer field, or in classrooms teaching painting, or dance, or music. They’re not just coaches: they’re role models, mentors,  friends. They’re the glue of after-school programs, the difference between wholesome entertainment and life in the streets.

A Fighting Chance CoverOne of the reasons why I wrote A Fighting Chance was to pay homage to these unsung heroes. Under the stern gaze of Coach, Miguel Ángel, the 17-year-old main character, trains to be a champion boxer. Not only is the sport keeping him away from gangs, but it’s also his ticket out of poverty. Coach’s importance to Miguel Ángel, like that of dozens of Coaches and mentors in the Alisal, cannot be overstated.

“We have a huge responsibility to make the place we live in a better one,” Jose Gil muses. In his view, prospective coaches have to ask themselves: “Can you work and mold these young kids to make right choices and decisions in life? Are you a great enough example for others to follow? What is your passion or belief about life and the community you live in? Are you willing to invest time into changing the community one child at a time? Do you even think our community can be improved?

“I love it when people are willing to volunteer to coach in our academy because that just challenges me to coach and mentor them so that they can in return help our youth. We grow our own from within which makes me proud and keeps me hungry.”

And that’s how Coach Gil not only keeps hundreds of kids off the street, but inspires a new crop of coaches to do the same.

 

Writer Claudia Melendez in Monterey on Monday January 5, 2015. Photo www.davidroyal.net

Writer Claudia Melendez in Monterey on Monday January 5, 2015. Photo http://www.davidroyal.net

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an award-winning multi-media journalist now working for the Monterey County Herald, a daily newspaper in California’s Central Coast. She has nearly two decades of experience covering politics, education, and immigration both in Mexico and the United States. She holds a master’s in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California, and a bachelor’s in Latin American and Latino Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her journalistic work has been published in Mexico’s El Financiero and La Jornada; in Latina and El Andar magazines in the United States, and numerous newspapers.

A Fighting Chance, Meléndez’s first book, is a young adult novel that narrates the struggles of a Mexican-American boy trying to stay away from gangs as he trains to become a champion boxer. She’s been named as one the Latino authors to watch in 2016 from LatinoStories.com.