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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1265

Culture, Race, and the Search for Self-Identity

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Matt de la Pena’s 2009 young adult novel Mexican WhiteBoy is, essentially, a story about self-discovery. The protagonist, Danny Lopez, is a sixteen-year-old half-white and half-Mexican boy who has spent his entire life feeling not “enough Mexican” and not “enough white.” His main goal is to simply fit into a society that tolerates stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination and to find a sense of belonging and balance in his life.

Danny attends a private school, Leucadia Prep, in San Diego. He is a very good student and a talented baseball player, though he has problems controlling his pitch. His baseball problems are nothing compared to the isolation he feels and the apathy he receives from his peers, however:

Up in Leucadia it was easy. Nobody paid him any attention anyway because he was Mexican. He roamed the school halls with his head down like a ghost. Drifted in and out of classrooms without a peep. Nobody even saw him as a real person.

In the hopes of discovering more about Mexican culture and tradition and, ultimately, resolving his identity crisis, Danny decides to spend the summer with his father’s relatives in National City. Once he arrives there, however, he faces a similar problem: he feels “too white” as though he belongs neither with his family and friends nor with his classmates:

And Danny’s brown. Half-Mexican brown. A shade darker than all the white kids at his private high school, Leucadia Prep. Up there, Mexican people do under-the-table yard work and hide out in the hills because they’re in San Diego illegally. Only other people on Leucadia’s campus who share his shade are the lunch-line ladies, the gardeners, the custodians. But whenever Danny comes down here, to National City—where his dad grew up, where all his aunts and uncles and cousins still live—he feels pale. A full shade lighter. Albino almost. Less than.

Fortunately, he befriends Uno—a half-Mexican, half-black boy who goes through a similar existential dilemma. Together, they manage to find a way to accept themselves and define their biracial identities on their own terms.

The Importance of Friendship, Family, Love, and Acceptance

De la Pena touches upon the importance of family and friendship in Mexican WhiteBoy, but most importantly, he explores ideas of personal growth and people's need for love and acceptance. Danny and Uno’s friendship is one of the purest and most interesting relationships in the novel, as it begins unexpectedly and gradually develops into a deep and meaningful friendship. Despite their problematic introduction and their disagreements in the beginning, the boys discover that they have experiences in common and offer support and comfort to one another: Uno helps Danny overcome his problems with his pitch as well as his fear of facing his father. The love both boys feel for their fathers and the struggles of growing up biracial bring Uno and Danny closer, leading them to become best friends.

De la Pena also addresses the confusion most teenagers feel about life in general as they slowly navigate their way toward adulthood, touching upon insecurities, self-doubt, and vulnerability and illustrating the idea that love, support, and communication are key to happiness and fulfillment:

And his and Uno’s lives will continue on in different directions. To different schools in different cities. But for now Danny’s happy right where he is. Sitting on the train tracks. With his best friend. Watching a sunrise.

The relationship between Danny and his father is another important element of the story. Danny is not aware that his father is in prison and thinks that he has left him and his mother on purpose. Danny constantly blames himself for this and desperately wishes to be reunited with him, but he is also anxious about facing him. Danny's yearning for his father's approval is apparent in the letters he writes to him throughout the book.

When Danny discovers the truth of his father’s whereabouts, he realizes that there is no easy way to overcome life’s challenges, but he also realizes that he is not alone; he finally understands his father and his family, but most importantly, he finally understands himself. His complicated relationship with his father, his family, and his own identity transforms Danny into a wiser, more mature person who is finally at peace with who he is.

When Danny moves to National City for the summer, he meets Liberty, a pretty Mexican girl. They like each other, but their relationship is complicated by the fact that Liberty only speaks Spanish and Danny only speaks English. Spending time with Liberty leads Danny to realize that he wants to know more about his Mexican heritage and to learn Spanish, so that he can tell Liberty how beautiful she is and how much he likes her. In the end, they manage to communicate their feelings to each other without words:

”I wish I could tell you how pretty I think you are in Spanish. But I can’t. Because I never learned.” Liberty shrugs. She has no idea what he’s just said.
After they’ve been sitting there for a few more minutes, in silence, staring out at the giant recycling plant, Liberty lets her head fall against Danny’s shoulder. She leaves it there a couple seconds and then straightens back up. That’s it. She doesn’t look at him or anything. But Danny wonders if maybe those few seconds, where her head touched his shoulder, mean more than words.

Violence and Self-Harm as Coping Mechanisms

Many of the characters in the novel use violence to cope with their anger and frustration; Danny’s father, for instance, is in prison for physical assault. Uno is initially described as tough, burly, and intimidating, and he uses his physical strength when confronting others. Before he and Danny become friends, Uno punches Danny in the face because Danny managed to beat him in the home run derby and accidentally hit his little brother Manny with a bat.

Danny’s uncle Ray is upset by this and urges Danny to tell him who punched him so he can take revenge, but Danny remains quiet. Danny also witnesses his uncle and his friends beating up man on the street to a bloody pulp and then running him over with a car. This incident deeply affects Danny, changing the way he thinks about his community and about life in general.

Uno and Danny both come from broken families, but they deal with their situations in different ways. Rather than directing his pain outward against others, Danny uses cutting as a coping mechanism for his emotional struggles, including the guilt he feels about his father’s disappearance and the shock of finding out that his father is in prison:

Danny still can’t feel the pain. He’s numb. Not even a real person. Needs to get deeper. He opens the medicine cabinet, shuffles through pill bottles, ointments, half-used tubes of toothpaste. Grabs a pair of tweezers. “Danny, open the door.” He holds his left arm against the sink and runs the sharp part of the tweezers across the inside. Goes back and forth in a straight line. Back and forth again. A thin trickle of blood starts creeping out. “Danny!” He goes back and forth with the tweezers, again and again, staring at himself in the mirror, until the pain finally shoots up into his brain. He grits his teeth but then a strange sense of calm comes over his face. It hurts. He feels it.
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