Matt de la Peña’s debut novel, Ball Don’t Lie, was an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and an
ALA-YALSA Quick Pick and is soon to be released as a motion picture starring Ludacris, Nick Cannon, Emelie de Ravin, Grayson Boucher, and Rosanna Arquette (based on the screenplay he co-wrote with director Brin Hill).
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I was born in National City, a poor, predominantly Mexican-American San Diego town nestled in the shadows of the Mexican border. My dad is a first-generation Mexican American. My mom is white. Because of my genetic blend I came out of the womb looking like I had a nice little tan. So, there’s the background.
My first bout with racism was in name only. My elementary school was trying to purge some of the Mexicans on campus and bus in more whites (at the time it was 90% Hispanic…man, was this even legal?). Apparently they took the school roster and eliminated a certain percentage of kids with Mexican surnames. I was one of the kids that had to go. I got a letter in the mail saying the following year I was to attend a different school. Turned out the new one was 100% Mexican and completely impoverished, and the only thing I remember from that year is the teachers wanting to hold me back a year because I “couldn’t read.”
For whatever reason another event stands out even more. It was a more subtle form of racism, and it came from my own team. My family and I (mom, dad, two sisters, and grandmother) were coming home from visiting relatives in Tijuana and we got stuck in traffic near the border. Little scrubby-looking Mexican kids were running in and out of idling cars pushing Chicklets and oranges and bottles of water and an assortment of more interesting things, too, like belt buckles and carved mangoes and homemade salt shakers. My grandmother, who is literally the nicest woman I know (and her tortillas are insane!) turned to me with a determined look and said: “You know, Matt, we’re not just Mexican. We’re Spanish, too.” It hardly registered at the time (I was only 10), but I’ve spent a good amount of time since trying to pull meaning from her words. I think racism can show up in a number of ways. Sometimes it’s really obvious, a guy rocking a “white supremacy” tattoo on the side of his neck. But more often it’s shiftier. It’s brown on brown. It’s one subjugated person trying to feel better than another. And from a personal standpoint, that’s one of the things that most moves me as a writer.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I’ve written three novels (Ball Don’t Lie, Mexican WhiteBoy and We Were Here) and the most prominent recurring theme is search for racial identity and racial awakening. (Well, I’m also a bit of a class warrior.) This is definitely influenced by my own experience.
Growing up poor, I knew the only way I was going to college was on some kind of scholarship. I was pretty good at basketball so I decided hoops had to be my ticket. From that point on, I played ball day and night in this all black gym in Balboa Park – best competition in the city. But I’ll never forget the first day I showed up and tried to play. The regulars laughed at me and said I’d come to the wrong place. “Yo, Mexicans don’t play ball,” one of the guys announced, and all his guys busted up. “Yeah,” another guy said, “what you need to do is go get yourself a soccer ball, Pele. Kick it around in the grass outside.” They all laughed and laughed and laughed. I wasn’t allowed to play that day. The next day either. In fact, I spent the entire first week up in the bleachers, watching. I wondered if they were right. Maybe I would never be good enough to play in college because I was Mexican. As the summer went on, though, I finally got my chance. And I impressed them enough that they kept letting me play. By the time high school was over and I was offered a basketball scholarship, those guys were some of the most important people in my life. A few of them even showed up at my school the day I signed my letter of intent.
My experience in that gym became the inspiration for my first book, Ball Don’t Lie.
My second two books deal with the confusion of being bi-racial. Because I was lighter than my cousins and aunts and uncles, I sometimes felt like I was anointed “future of the de la Peña’s.” This made me feel extremely guilty. My grandma started hooking me up with the first tortilla, hot off the grill, and I remember feeling so awful as the rest of my family sat there smiling and waiting. This guilt is the basis of Mexican WhiteBoy where main character Danny feels like he’s a “Mexican among the whites and a white boy among the Mexicans.” In We Were Here, main character Miguel commits a horrible crime (one he didn’t mean to commit) and is sentenced to a year in the system. Because of his brown skin everybody calls him Mexico – the irony being he doesn’t speak Spanish and has never even been to Mexico. Throughout the novel the three characters on the run (a Mexican kid, an Asian kid, and an African American kid) make discoveries about each other’s race.
In everything I’ve ever written – even the stupid poems I used to write in high school to try and get girls – elements of racism and racial identity and racial consciousness color the world.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
In high school I was a reluctant reader. I didn’t fall for books until I was in college. But when I did I was amazed at how much broader my scope became.
As a writer, I think it’s best to go into a story without any kind of agenda. However, people usually write about the things that interest them, or upset them, or make them laugh. That’s why I think it’s such a great idea to push multi-cultural literature. Those interests are represented. Maybe a biracial kid like me can read one of my books and feel like an insider. Or maybe a white kid can read one and learn about somebody who exists outside of his context. But they have to be there, right? Accessible. Because, man, these kids of color, their lives are beautiful, too.
de la Peña’s second novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, was an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adult (Top Ten Pick), a 2009 Notable Book for a Global Society, a Junior Library Guild Selection and made the 2008 Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Literature Blue Ribbon List. His third novel, We Were Here, will be published by Delacorte in October, 2009. His short fiction has appeared in various literary journals, including: Pacific Review, The Vincent Brothers Review, Chiricú, Two Girl’s Review, George Mason Review, and Allegheny Literary Review. de la Peña received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full athletic scholarship for basketball. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he teaches creative writing. Learn more at www.mattdelapena.com