“Can you spell illegal alien?” or California Diaries #14

Racist people suck.  So says ghostwriter, Peter Lerangis.  I think maybe at this point in the series, Ann M. and her ghosties sat around at a conference table with a checklist and were like, “OK.  We did the dead parent thing.  The drinking thing. The anorexia thing.  The suicide thing.  The abusive boyfriend thing.  What’s next?  Racism!  Why, let’s give that one to Amalia, because….well obviously.”

Doesn't Amalia totally look like Angela from Boy Meets World?

Amalia is kind of obsessed with Maggie or something. She makes Maggie’s problems her own.  Good news – Maggie is eating better (which we knew from the last book anyway).  Neutral news – Maggie is still dating Tyler Kendall.  Bad news- Maggie’s mom’s drinking is way out of control and she’ll yell at anyone who tries to talk to her about it.

Amalia and Brendan decide to go on a double date with Maggie and Tyler Kendall.  It’s a disaster thanks to the paparazzi.  And I would snark on how the press are way too in to the love life of a fifteen year old…but yeah.  It sadly doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration to me. But Brendan, who pretty much wears the same old Grateful Dead shirt every day, does get new clothes for the date with the famous dude, which Amalia finds funny.  He also shaves and Amalia has to ask “Shaved what?” which makes me giggle and kind of makes me love Amalia.  Brendan didn’t find the humor though.

Other shit going on in Amalia’s life?  Her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary is coming up and she and big sis Isabel are planning a fiesta for Mami y Papi with the whole Vargas clan coming in from San Diego.  Isabel is being a major bitch about it!  It’s May and finals are coming up, and Amalia has been lazy and putting off studying.  And Isabel ‘Straight-A’ Vargas is a bitch about that too!  One morning Isabel wakes Amalia early so she can study, then asks if she reserved a rental car for Hector and Cristina for the fiesta.  Um…no?  Amalia’s fucking thirteen.  Why wouldn’t Hector and Cristina do it themselves?  Rather than study that day, Amalia goes to the beach with her friends.  Where she finds out that Brendan is going to camp back east all summer long – to Western Massachusetts, to be exact.  Bummer!  That night, Maggie stays yet another night at Amalia’s house because of a big fight after her dad asked her mom to check into the Betty Ford Clinic.  Shit hit the fan.  Then Ducky and Sunny came over and they decided to plan on a surprise party for Dawn’s birthday before she left for Connecticut for the summer.  (And Amalia wonders how close she’ll be to Brendan in Western Mass.)

Amalia continues to not study so much, and her parents hint that she’s spending too much time with Brendan.  Amalia only kind of cares about falling behind in school.  She’s more pissed when someone ruins Dawn’s surprise party.  And she’s, as always, more concerned about Maggie’s problems.  Maggie is spending all her time at casa de Vargas, thanks to mom’s out of control alcoholism.  None of the Vargases think this is a problem, but Amalia remains concerned.

No time for that though!  Brendan and Amalia are going on a date, which Mami and Papi will only allow Amalia to go on if she studies all week.  So she does!  Finally, a good reason to get good grades, right? The date is pretty awesome at first.  She and Brendan have their first kiss (awwww…..) and Amalia is on cloud nine.  After the movie, Brendan hits the loo, while Amalia waits outside for Isabel to come pick them up.  Except Brendan is taking a while and Isabel is running late.

And that’s when bad things happen.  A group of drunk white girls start making racist comments to Amalia.  They call her wetback and tell her to go back to Mexico.  Amalia kind of defends herself and says she was born here, thank you very much, but these drunk racist bitches are having none of it.  One of them grabs her while another punches her in the gut and spits on her face.   The theater manager comes out and the girls run off.  The Manager brings her inside, just as Brendan is coming out of the bathroom, probably wishing he’d held off on taking that shit.  The Manager wants to call the police, Amalia says no. Brendan is quiet.

Isabel finally comes and is vehement that Amalia call the police, but she insists on not.  Amalia is really upset, obviously, and crying and of all things she can’t get over the fact that she was spit on.  Which…yeah.  That’s way worse than the punch, I think.  Amalia doesn’t want to tell her parents, but Isabel insists.  Her parents are sympathetic, but understanding that she won’t call the police.  Amalia’s feelings are all over the place, but a lot of fear and embarrassment, which she does at least understand is misplaced.  The next morning she even feels weird about going out in public with Isabel and is looking askance at all sixteen year old white girls.

The next day, Maggie calls and is complaining non-stop about her life.  She’s mad at Tyler because he has to be gone for three weeks to reshoot some scenes on a previous movie.  And she complains about her mom and dad some more.  And at this point Amalia doesn’t want to hear it (and neither do I, frankly).  Finally, Maggie asks Amalia how her date was and Amalia opens up about what happened.  Maggie, Ducky and Sunny come over to try and cheer Amalia up.  But she can’t stop thinking about the previous night, even when they’re trying to make new plans for Dawn’s surprise party.  She starts worrying about her Hispanic family coming to Palo City for the party and wondering how racist a place Palo really is.  She gets a creepy feeling that maybe they shouldn’t come at all.

Amalia remains in a bad mood.  Even telling Maggie she can’t come over all the time anymore, that she’s just running away from her problems.  Brendan seems to be avoiding her as well.  Isabel is no fucking help at all.  She constantly pesters Amalia about going to the police, which Amalia refuses to do over and over.  She and Maggie make up, but then when Amalia is over at Maggie’s house, Maggie’s dad offers Amalia a summer job on the set (basically as a gofer) which Amalia wants to take, but Maggie is vehemently against.  So they fight again.

Amalia storms home and when Isabel starts in on her again about going to the police, Amalia gets pissed.  So Isabel talks about how when they lived in San Diego, she was dating a white dude and they were on a date.  They were at a teen dance club that catered to Latinos.   When Isabel came out of the bathroom, she overheard her date and some of his white friends making disparaging comments about Latinas, and instead of confronting him, she ran away.  She feels like she lost some dignity and wants Amalia to keep hers.  Amalia thinks about it and decides she still doesn’t want the police involved.  She feels bad for Isabel that she allowed these white boys to take her dignity, but Amalia thinks hers is intact.

Also promising is that Brendan wrote Amalia a long note about how bad he feels about that night, and he’s basically at a loss of what to say to her.  It makes Amalia happy, because even though he was kind of acting like jerk by ignoring her, he wasn’t really being a jerk on purpose.  So they make up and admit they’ll miss each other while he’s at camp.  She makes up with Maggie also, who finally gives her dad a little credit as not being the worst father ever, and tells Amalia that it’s OK if she takes that summer job.

Then finals come, and Amalia does all right.  Not Isabel-esque grades, but three Bs and a C+.  Not too shabby. Then there is Dawn’s surprise beach party which is a lot of fun.  Amalia sees one of the racist white girls there and decides to ignore her.  She’s pretty sure those girls were so drunk they may not even remember what happened.  Then it’s her parents’ fiesta and a good time is had by the whole Vargas familia.  Seeing her successful Hispanic familia reminds Amalia that she’s part of something bigger than herself and she should be proud of where she came from.

  • So, Maggie.  It’s one thing to read about Maggie’s problems in a Maggie book, because these are diaries, and what the fuck is a diary for if not to complain about your own life, right?  So I forgive her self-centerdness in her own book.  But it’s kind of off the charts here.  If you don’t want your boyfriend to leave for three weeks, don’t fucking date a movie star.  Because that’s what they do.  It’s his job for Christ’s sake.  Also, Maggie sees a therapist for her home life problems, so what’s she doing leaning so heavily on Amalia?
  • Speaking of jobs.  Amalia is thirteen.  Really?  I know this is a recurring theme in the BSC-verse, thirteen year olds with jobs.  And it bugs me every time.  The only one who could be working (other than Ducky) is Sunny because there are exceptions to child labor laws for family businesses.  Yet, Sunny is one of the few who doesn’t work.  Not only that, but I feel like even the gofer type jobs on a movie set would be tied up with a Union.
  • Both Isabel and Amalia have white boyfriends.  Which is a welcome relief from the other BSC books where Claudia often ends up with a Japanese guy and Jessi always ends up with a black guy.
  • Much like in many YA books, the racism is more blunt than subtle.  And I may be well off-base about racism here – in fact I probably am, but hear me out.  I had the terrible misfortune of growing up in a small, lily-white town.  I now live in an area which Wikipedia tells me is about 65% white with a high immigrant population (though my immediate neighborhood is a mix of pretty much just white, Jewish and Chinese/Korean.)  If I’m not mistaken, Palo is a suburb of L.A.  And if I’m not mistaken again, the Hispanic population in greater L.A. is…uh….sizable, am I right?  So, here’s my problem.  Having grown up in a small white town and now living among a good-sized immigrant population, I can say in my experience that the most blatant racism comes from the small towns where people aren’t likely to have met many immigrants.  Most, actually ALL, of the grumbling about why can’t these people just learn English, why are they taking our jobs, blah blah blah, has come from the small white town and, oddly enough, NOT from the Americans who actually do live among an immigrant population.  So, I’m wondering if it seems at all realistic that Amalia would have faced such blatant racism?  When you live among immigrants, language barriers just become a part of life and don’t seem like such a huge deal.  And you honestly know too many people from other countries to ever consider using a phrase like wetback.  Wouldn’t these girls likely go to school with Hispanic kids, and a lot of them? And would you really see a thirteen year old Hispanic girl and assume she’s here illegally, as though a thirteen year old can control where she lives?  Help me out here, folks and tell me I’m not completely wrong on this one.  (***Disclaimer: I hated where I grew up and if I can get away with it, I’d love to blame all life’s problems, including racism, on that cow town.)
  • These are the names in Amalia’s math book’s word problems: Nguyen, Asami, Jose, Kareem, Asif, Luis, Benazir.  Suddenly, she realizes she’d be designated a “person of color.” That makes her feel weird.
  • Amalia wants to know why East Coast transplants to California talk about “Back East,” but the opposite folks talk about “Out West.”  I can’t answer that Amalia, but maybe someone else can….?
  • How big a deal are finals in the eighth grade?  I’m not even sure I had finals in the eighth grade.
  • Oh.  I can’t forget my always entertaining, but at this point completely unnecessary “Ducky is gay” hints.   Amalia believes that none of her friends could understand what she’s gone through, except “Maybe Ducky can understand because boys make fun of him for being different – but that’s just his mannerisms and the way he dresses and that he hates sports.”   Finally, someone uses the word mannerisms to describe Ducky’s, uh, mannerisms. Oh Amalia, Ducky can’t help being gay any more than you can help being Hispanic.  And, at the risk of sounding like a Free to Be You and Me sketch, they’re both OK things to be.

***Sorry to my friends and family still living in said cow-town. I hope you aren’t insulted and please don’t think I’m an incurable snob, just because of where I live.


About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
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9 Responses to “Can you spell illegal alien?” or California Diaries #14

  1. Becki says:

    I think the “back East” and “out West” terms are from the time period when many people were moving west – think Little House in the Prairie. All of the white citizens going west were originally from the east, so they were referring to their past when they said “back East”. Similarly, if you were moving you were going out to the west. I hope this makes sense – it’s clear in my head, heh.

  2. ciara says:

    re: racism. i can believe that amalia faced blatant racism. pretty much every person of color does at some point in their life, regardless of the racial make-up of their town. also, look at arizona & what a hotbed of racism & xenophobia it has become with things like the SB1070 law & such forth. that law is specifically designed to legalize & enforce racial profiling & turns on the assumption that latinos in arizona are probably not there legally…despite the fact that there are tons of latinos in arizona & a huge proportion of them are there legally.

    i mean, i wish more YA book would confront the fact that insidious racism exists & racism doesn’t just take the form of punching someone or spitting on them. i feel like the babysitters club books occasionally tried to do this with jessi, but because it was so inconsistent, & because they bent over backwards so much to try to make jessi relateable to white readers, it kind of backfired & now (arguably racist) white adult readers of the books make fun of jessi for “being too sensitive” or “playing the race card”.

    • nikkihb says:

      Thank you. This is exactly the type of response I was looking for. I hadn’t even thought of the ridiculously unconstitutional Arizona law, but you’re right. That is some blatant freaking racism right there. And in a place that is immigrant-heavy. I knew I was coming at this from a narrow point of view, with being raised in a white small town and now in a neighborhood where the minorities are mostly Jewish and Asian, which have a plethora of “positive” stereotypes about them and far fewer “negative” stereotypes than the black and Hispanic community face. (If that even makes any sense.)

      Yeah, the Jessi thing was really inconsistent. I’m not sure the adult readers who call her oversensitive are necessarily racist, but deeply uncomfortable with the fact that Jessi was so sure that little girl in the Winter Super Special was racist and that Mallory was racist in BSC in the USA. No one wants to be called racist, and it’s a pretty big insult to throw at someone, particularly a scared little girl and your best friend. But on the other hand, she was freaking eleven, and it’s not like we can expect an eleven year old to be fair and even handed on evaluating these situations where she was the one made uncomfortable. I think a lot of the fun people poke is not necessarily at Jessi herself, but at the series’ sloppy handling of the race issue. It was definitely done a lot better in this book than in any of the Jessi books.

    • KG says:

      A lot of the sentiments from Arizona seem to be echoed here in Florida, unfortunately, and there’s been talk of passing a similar law. It seems like blatant racism is more common in areas where there’s only one or two immigrant “groups”, if that makes sense. When the population is subdivided into lots of ethnic backgrounds instead of only one or two, there seems to be a bit more understanding, although insidious racism can still exist.

      The inconsistency with Jessi’s situation is honestly what I feel dates the BSC books. Pop culture attitudes towards race seemed to change quite a bit from when she was introduced in the late ’80s to when the original series wrapped up. The way she was introduced (“black” or “African-American”) and how big a deal the narrator made about it in the introduction (“we’d love Jessi even if she were purple”) depended on what was PC or acceptable at the time. It’s sort of cringe-inducing now, like watching a “Very Special Episode” of an old TV show that dealt with race or sexuality in a heavy-handed way. I actually feel somewhat similarly with the “Ducky Hints” in the CD books: Today, they’d probably just say that he was gay (or questioning/curious), and have that be the reason the Cro-Mags tease him.

      • nikkihb says:

        Excellent point about the amount of immigrant groups. While the immigrants I live near are largely Chinese and Korean, there certainly still are plenty of Indians, middle-eastern, and Hispanic folks around also.

        Ducky would definitely be out if CD was published today. But even just five years ago I don’t think that would have happened. Even just five years ago, I don’t think Chris Colfer would have even been nominated for a Golden Globe.

  3. Lisa Granger says:

    Am I the only one that thinks Amalia looks like Malia Obama on this cover? Anyone?
    Also, I’m certain that I owned a very similar outfit in 1996…

  4. Shannon says:

    I live in the Denver area, have for years, and it’s got a sizeable Latino population as well, and the white people here are extreeeeeeeeeeeeemely racist. It’s not just small towns. And I think sometimes the people who grow up racist motivated solely out of fear of the unknown are more easily cured of it than the people who are racist about their next door neighbors.

    Good point about these 13-year-olds always working and needing jobs. It IS weird.

  5. Melissa says:

    This is my first time reading this post and I’m quite sad that this stuff happened to amalia. Amalia was one of my favorites in the california diaries , right next to ducky and maggie and sunny. I’m shocked that this happened to amalia, but not too surprised that it was because of her race.

    Racism pretty much still exists, mainly in the south. I know because I went down south to alabama to visit my grandparents down there and i asked my grandma why racism still exists down south and she said it’s because not a lot of southerners are friendly and open with race like the northerners are. Keep in mind that my grandmother was around during the 1960’s and she’s from texas so yeah.

    it is nice to see how this issue with racism was written very well and not in the bsc book, because the jessi books were getting kind of boring and i feel that jessi was quite judgemental, if not snobby. She was my least favorite along with kristy and dawn and mallory a little.

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