When I was a kid, my family moved from a predominantly Mexican American border community in San Diego to a sleepy beach town 20 miles up the coast. Surrounded by the dominant culture for the first time, I found myself gravitating toward the “American” part of my Mexican American identity. I dropped soccer for basketball. Started asking out of church. Requested ham for Christmas dinners in addition to our usual tamales and empanadas.
But my late abuela, Natividad Burgos-de la Peña, our matriarch, made sure my sisters and I never drifted too far away from our roots. Her quiet presence was a constant in our lives, and though she may not have fit the version of the American Dream most books and movies peddled back in those days, she was our North Star. Now, as an adult and a storyteller, I find myself turning toward the “Mexican” part of my identity out of admiration for her.
Thankfully, the American Dream we see in pop culture today is more expansive. Two middle grade debuts — the brilliant graphic memoir MEXIKID (Dial, 320 pp., $14.99, ages 10 and up), by Pedro Martín, based on his web comic of the same name; and the richly textured novel SALSA MAGIC (Levine Querido, 272 pp., $18.99, ages 8 to 12), by Letisha Marrero — explore how first-gen kids are empowered by the stories and experiences of their forebears.
In the opening pages of “Mexikid,” Martín riffs on his first name: “They call me Peter … but my real name is Pedro. … Some people go full-on Mexican and keep their real names. Some of us slip and slide between an American-style name and a Mexican one.”
The disorientation Martín sometimes feels growing up on California’s Central Coast during the late 1970s mirrors his own household. His parents, having immigrated to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, to pick strawberries, are “100 percent authentic Mexican.” His five oldest siblings, who moved with them to the U.S. as small children, are “somewhat American.” And the four youngest kids, including Pedro — all of whom were born in the U.S. — are “somewhat Mexican.”
Pedro’s Spanish isn’t great. And he’s obsessed with “Star Wars,” “Happy Days” and an assortment of TV show theme songs.
His life is upended when his parents announce that the family will be traveling more than 2,000 miles to Jalisco to bring their abuelito back to live with them. Pedro is miffed. There’s not enough room in the house as it is. His abuelito is old. And he doesn’t speak English. He’s probably never even seen “Star Wars.”
The wildly entertaining trip that follows, involving a used Winnebago and an old pickup truck with ropes for seatbelts, has a profound effect on Pedro. Along the way, he’s duped by border patrol agents, mistakenly buys Spanish-language comics, gets an awful haircut and helps rescue his deceased abuelita’s remains from a deteriorating grave. But he also gains a much deeper understanding of his heritage and his connection to the land.
We are living in a golden age of graphic novels and memoirs, and “Mexikid” is one of the best I’ve ever read. There are genuine laugh-out-loud moments throughout, but there’s an equal amount of poignancy.
One of the most powerful scenes comes late in the book, when Pedro’s amá uses an avocado’s “soft, beautiful” inside and “old, wrinkly” outside to answer his question about how his abuelito can be simultaneously happy and sad about leaving Mexico, and its pit (which will one day yield many more avocados if planted in good soil) to make the point that Pedro is “the legacy of Abuelito’s life.”
While in “Mexikid” Pedro and his family travel thousands of miles to reunite with a cherished relative, in “Salsa Magic” an estranged great-aunt, who practices Santeria, shows up unannounced.
Maya Beatriz Montenegro Calderon, the spirited 13-year-old protagonist of “Salsa Magic,” is extremely close to her Puerto Rican family. Apart from her civil-rights lawyer father, they all work together at the family-owned Café Taza in rapidly gentrifying Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Maya already has her hands full as a student, soccer star and barista when Titi Yaya — “la bruja, the ‘witch’” — steps out of a cab in front of the restaurant. (The hurricane in Puerto Rico has washed away her house.) Maya’s Abuela Chacha, who has been feuding with her sister for 20 years, may not be able to turn her away, but she forbids her family to even say the woman’s name, let alone spending time with her.
Maya, however, is drawn to this mysterious relative — who’s been appearing in her dreams for months — and sets about finding a resolution to the rift. It turns out Titi Yaya is a famous curandera, or healer, and as Maya grows closer to her she learns about her own Yoruban heritage. Santeria isn’t something to be feared, she discovers; it’s a way for her to connect with her African ancestors, going back more than five centuries. After helping to end the family feud, Maya becomes Titi Yaya’s apprentice and decides that her “aché” (life energy), and her purpose, is to be “the bridge between the generations, the glue that holds the family together and the keeper of traditions.”
Marrero, who is of Puerto Rican and Black Dominican descent, does a wonderful job of weaving the spiritual into corporeal affairs like soccer matches, clumsy flirting and sibling rivalry. But it’s Maya who ultimately steals the show.
Early on, she shares her papi’s favorite quote from César Chávez: “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.” On these terms, both “Mexikid” and “Salsa Magic” are triumphs.
Matt de la Peña, a Newbery Medalist, is the author of the young adult novel “Mexican White Boy” and many other children’s books.