The strength of the book is in its honesty. Cooper has had the humility to let the subjects speak for themselves and appears to have left their words essentially unedited and unchallenged. Sometimes, the subject matter is disturbing—young boys explaining in a straightforward manner how simple it was at times to earn fifty dollars as homosexual prostitutes, a casual discussion of sniffing glue in the school lavatory, graphic accounts of fights in which people’s skulls were crushed by pipes. Universally, the speakers decry drug abuse, though most of them have experimented with street drugs and some, including the drug counselor, are still sometime users. Sexual experience is recounted in a straightforward way. These details are never exploitive, however; they are simply presented matter-of-factly by the speakers as they seek to give an accurate account of what their lives have been like.
Machismo and the damage it causes families is very much a theme in this book. Most of the speakers have grown up without a father; over and over they speak of their mothers being beaten by their fathers and later by boyfriends. They have been pained by that, yet Ricky, “The Hustler,” says, “I’ve hit a lot of girls, I guess, when they did something wrong.” Despite their frequently very early sexual experiences (some as young as six or eight), the young people continue the culture’s preoccupation with virginity, and a number of them insist on the need for a girl to be a virgin at marriage. They admire their culture for its vividness and life. They love the family rituals, the parties, and the dancing. They find their...
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Cooper’s collection is enlightening. The fact that the young people speak for themselves, giving simple, honest accounts of their sometimes very painful experiences, is deeply moving in a way that a more fictionalized account might not be. White young people reading the book must confront the darker side of their own culture, seeing it from an unfamiliar angle. Because these voices are so real and so honest, the speakers evade stereotyping. Because the book does not romanticize Hispanic culture and, in fact, exposes its limitations, it leads readers to a critical analysis of the values of their own cultures and to a consideration of the way identity is and is not tied to a particular heritage.
Teachers and students will find ample material here to encourage reflection on a number of issues central to everyone’s lives. The quest for personal identity is always an issue for young people. The need for success and for self-respect is central to these interviews. Prejudice and its enormous toll is clearly a problem all Americans need to face. The book compels the reader to confront the inadequacy and the hypocrisy of the schools, the police, the courts, and the drug treatment facilities as they were experienced by these young Puerto Rican Americans. The need to find one’s own value system and to accept what is positive and rise above what is not in one’s environment is a need shared by all human beings.