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Writers Against Racism: Matt de la Peña

Matt de la Peña’s debut novel, Ball Don’t Lie, was an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and an Matt de la Peña’s debut novel, Ball Don’t Lie

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.

                       Ball Don’t Lie

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


  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Matt, the same kind of passive racism existed in Memphis, Texas, when I was growing up. No one threatened the Mexican laborers or called them names (at least in my hearing) when they came seasonally to pick cotton, but what I think is really even worse, no one gave them a second thought – they were just invisible – except to me. I wanted to be Mexican – so I could speak Spanish! I’ve honestly never understood any of this. I guess it’s because when I was growing up, I didn’t play sports, and, well, if you’re a boy growing up in West Texas and you don’t play sport you’re called names – all kinds of names. I preferred to read and to write – and I’m quite sure I was the only person in Memphis, Texas,(male, female, white, black, brown) who, after high school classes were over, would come home, prepare a cup of hot tea and then read COMING EVENTS IN BRITAIN. Why can’t we all just celebrate ourselves for who and what we really are? I loved your comment about your tan. Our younger son married a wonderful girl who is second-generation Mexican-American. I’m hoping for tan grandchildren! I applaud your story, I intend to get this particular book, and thank you for writing and celebrating with such a passion about who your are!

  2. Very true, and very trippy sometimes how the “one subjugated person trying to feel better than another” thing works. We are so often the ones who tell ourselves what we can and cannot do, we limit ourselves in a bizarre quest to make sure that the status quo remains the same. There are whole psychological tomes to be written on WHY. That’s not often explored in YA fiction – I think people are more used to Skinheads vs. Everyone thing, and don’t realize that racism has such subtleties.

    Exciting to read about this story and realize that it will get wider distribution through film. Excellent!

  3. I agree with Tanita–people of color really do need more open, honest conversations around colorism and other forms of intraracial bias…and it IS complex, and should never be reduced to simple either/ors. I’m interested in the ways colorism functions in immigrant families like Matt’s or my own–where my black father felt he was giving us “every advantage” by putting us in such close proximity to whiteness. Yet we then became people he didn’t recognize at times (well, I did). There’s light-skin privilege, but there are also a lot of penalties, particularly when you’re singled out by some for praise (earned or not) and those who are left unpraised then direct their hurt and rage at YOU.

    If you’re in Brooklyn, don’t forget to check Matt out at the annual book festival on Sept. 13.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Reading Matt’s back-story here (as well as his novels) really makes me wish that I had books like these to read when I was growing up Asian in BK in the 80’s. I feel like back then it was all white-bred Newbery picks that were fantastic and wonderful, but they never addressed the real-world issues of how confusing it is to reconcile one’s racial identity when one feels so distant from all spheres. Matt’s books speak to a growing generation of biracial kids that are looking for authors who *know* them and can talk to them without being phony. I’m really looking forward to Matt’s next book coming out in October and I’m going to make sure all my students, and those of my colleagues, give these books a read. They get to the heart of an issue that so many choose to skirt around for fear of causing waves.

  5. George Edward Stanley says:

    So true, so true, so true, everyone! I just received an email this morning from a teacher in a nearby town who had invited me several weeks ago to come speak to a group of middle-schoolers about NIGHT FIRES. In her email this morning, though, she said her school administrators didn’t want her to do that because of the “content” of the book. (It’s about the Ku Klux Klan and the horrible things they did in Oklahoma in the 1920s!) That’s the problem. As AG Holder said, Americans don’t want to talk about the serious social problems that face us. But I wasn’t surprised and was kind of expecting it. (Would anyone like to talk about who’s going to win the state championship in football this year?)

  6. Amy Bowllan says:

    George, do you know the racial breakdown of the school you were to visit? If so, that may unravel some of the answers as to why they cancelled.

  7. George Edward Stanley says:

    Amy, I honestly don’t know percentages, although I can find out, but I’m sure the town is mostly white. I’m sure some of this is also because school administrators won’t stand up to well-connected parents who usually don’t want their children thinking about anything “controversial.”

  8. Excited about the Ball Don’t Lie movie- it means more teens will seek out the book. Hopefully, a few of the actors will talk about how great the book is.

    I loved Mexican White Boy and We Were Here is in my TBR pile and I am looking foward to reading it.

  9. What I really admire about Matt’s story is that he knew that he had his destiny in his own hands…that if he wanted to go to college, he needed to make it happen himself. And so he went and got a basketball scholarship…just by knowing what he needed to do to get to where he wanted to be, he took control over his life’s course and made it happen. It’s really inspirational and I hope more kids out there hear about Matt and what he’s accomplished after growing up with nothing much.

  10. I did not know the father who gave me the Hispanic last name that is hard for some to say and spell. I was raised in a house where, because of a mother who did not want her children to be seen as being “dirty Mexicans”, Spanish was not spoken, Mexican heritage was not celebrated.
    Boy did I miss out on some great, one of a kind “fiestas.” And I love it when some stumble trying to pronounce the “apellido” that I love so much.

  11. B Herrera says:

    Thank you for discussing a topic about racism within a culture. I just saw the book Mexican WhiteBoy today as my students were checking out books to do book trailers on. It struck me because my children express the same views. I am anglo and my husband Hispanic. In Laredo my daughter and son are looked upon as “too white” to fit in. It made them turn away from speaking Spanish, something I had gotten a degree in when I lived in Oklahoma. Then, when my daughter started college at the University of Texas, her writing was considered “not quite good enough” because all the professors saw at first was her last name. Then they began looking at her writing and telling her how wonderful it was (but only after they met her and decided she was really “white with a Mexican last name.” How sad that my children will experience racism from both halves of thier lives. And the greater racism has come from the Hispanic side, sad to say. Even their cousins reject them because they are “white.” Their Hispanic relatives constantly leave them out of events, then tell them to their face that they don’t fit in because of their mother. No wonder they want to move to Oklahoma where people have welcomed them without clasifying them. They are not white. They are not Hispanic. They are people. We all are.

  12. Matt de la Pena says:

    Thanks so much for reading my answers, everybody. I think this is such a cool and important discussion. It was an honor to asked to join in. Thanks Zetta and Amy!

    Hope you like We Were Here, Doret. (Fingers crossed). That book is my baby!

  13. Matt de la Pena says:

    Oh, and to Al:

    Beautiful name, my man!

  14. Andromeda Jazmon says:

    This is a really great discussion. I am so glad to have read Matt’s discussion post and am going to look for the books now. Two of my three kids are African American and I am white so I am always looking for books about mixed families and developing racial identity. Delighted to have found this series of blog posts from Tanita’s link.

  15. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    Hola Matt! it’s good to see another Latino author on W.A.R. Congrats on the film deal. i’m excited about reading your books. cuidate!

  16. You made me remember a light skinned Black women who proclaimed she wasn’t African American because her family was from Egypt.

    If all the folks of color ever start talking to one another… wow!!! That will be empowering!

  17. excellent! kudos to de la Pena! another book that delves deep into the subtleties of, among other things, racism (including white-on-white racism) beyond the Skinhead vs. Everybody Else paradigm, is a compelling, insightful, irreverent and entertaining anthology of short fiction by Eugene Kachmarsky, called Let Slip the Dogs of Love (Suburban Legends of the Living and the Dead). if you like what de la Pena says about racism and how he says it, check this book out. it’s available online. google the title.

  18. Alicia Rudnicki says:

    This is beautifully written and very insightful. Thanks.

  19. Joy Harmon says:

    A name I chose myself…..I’ve taught multi-racial kids and adults for a whole lot of years and am ALWAYS looking for books that “speak their language”. Yours certainly do Matt and it’s obvious you’re LIVED it. These should be required teen reading by all schools—I’ll work on that.