Reviewed by Elena Foulis
SUMMARY FROM THE PUBLISHER: When fifteen-year-old Cuban American Mariana Ruiz’s father runs for president, Mari starts to see him with new eyes. A novel about waking up and standing up, and what happens when you stop seeing your dad as your hero—while the whole country is watching.
In this authentic, humorous, and gorgeously written debut novel about privacy, waking up, and speaking up, Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was.
But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?
MY TWO CENTS: Natalia Sylvester’s YA debut novel, Running, is remarkable in many ways, but particularly in its attention to youth culture and the important role teens play in activism. Mariana (Mari) Ruiz, the protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old Cuban American girl, whose father is running for president but who has been in politics for most of his life. While the novel focuses on this Cuban-American family, and centers on Miami, Florida, as the geographical location of the story, it is not only about this. Sylvester masterfully weaves the complexity of growing up Latina/o with current issues of the region that resonate in other parts of the country, or are in some ways universal.
For example, Sylvester uses Spanish in the novel, especially in the dialogue between Mari’s parents and her abuelo, who lives with them, and we know that Mari understands it. At various points throughout the story, the protagonist reflects on the complexity of living in two languages and how incomprehensible literal translation is. I particularly enjoyed her reflection on the word desahogarse because I have used this word myself so many times and realize that some of the meaning is lost when you translate it. The novel also paints Latinx/Cuban-American identity by way of family traditions and food.
In the story, there are sociopolitical issues that Mari has heard about most of her short life but without understanding their gravity. For example, gentrification, water safety issues, and immigration. There are several moments throughout the novel when Mari is forced to think more critically about all these issues. She understands the impact of gentrification and water contamination more fully when her best friend, Vivi, along with Vivi’s recently divorced mother, are forced to leave their neighborhood. When Vivi moves to Miami Beach, she and her mother have to live in a small apartment with her aunt because they cannot afford anything in their old neighborhood. We also learn that Vivi’s grandmother ends up in the hospital due to water toxicity.
Mari, however, does not connect the dots that easily. She is also dealing with being the daughter of a politician. Along with this comes the pressure to be a perfect and supportive family. She also suffers the loss of privacy, which leads to cyberbullying–not to mention the usual challenges of being a teenager. When Vivi is forced to leave their high school, Mari connects with a group of students who are fighting for change by protesting and holding local leaders accountable. The group, called PODER, is made up of peers who are of Haitian, Dominican, and Peruvian ancestry, all with personal connections to some of the issues they advocate for. For example, Didier, whose family is Haitian, explains to Mari the different paths to immigration that Cubans and Haitians have had; one considered an exile and the other a refugee. It is through these encounters and personal stories that Mari begins to come into her own consciousness and political awareness; indeed, the political becomes very personal to her as she looks further into her own father’s voting record and his stand on issues. It is through PODER that she begins to understand the power of social media and technology in general. Yet, because of her family’s public life, she does not have access to these modes of communication and the political impact they wield.
As an orderly reader who reads books from beginning to end, I did not get to the author’s note which explains that the novel was inspired by real events until I had finished the story. Yet, throughout the novel, I kept thinking about the role played by young women like Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida; Mari Copeny from Flint, Michigan; and Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, who have used their voices and the reach of social media to bring about action regarding gun control and environmental justice.
Instead of a traditional coming-of-age story, or even a love story, what Sylvester shows us is the growth of a leader and an activist. Mari—who grew up in politics, hearing her father’s speeches regarding family, justice, and community—slowly becomes aware of her own blindness on these issues. Although not fully explored in the novel, I would also like to add that the author reveals some of the dangers of technology. In this case, Mari becomes a victim of cyberbullying, but her newfound community helps her see that what happens is not her fault. This part of the story briefly addresses issues such as consent, shame and victim-blaming.
Given our current political environment, during a presidential election year and in the middle of a pandemic, I find this novel especially timely.
Note: This book’s release date is July 14, 2020, but is now available on pre-order.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Natalia Sylvester is the author of two novels for adults, Chasing the Sun, and Everyone Knows You Go Home, which won an International Latino Book Award. Born in Lima, Peru, she grew up in Miami, Central Florida, and South Texas, and received a BFA from the University of Miami. Running is her YA debut. She lives in Austin, Texas, and can also be found at nataliasylvester.com
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. Dr. Foulis is currently working on a digital oral history project about Latin@s in Ohio, which is being archived at the Center for Folklore Studies’ internet collection. Some of these narratives can be found in her iBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She is also producer and host of Ohio Habla.