Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida is a coming of age novel written in 1996, by Victor Martinez. The story is set in California and is told from the point-of-view of a fourteen year old, Mexican American boy. Manuel Hernandez, like many young men, struggles with identity. Manny’s life is hard. He has two older siblings and a baby sister. His mother does not work. His father is unemployed and an alcoholic. The main provider and only person in his house that can keep a steady job is his older sister.
His older brother cannot hold a job long. As would be expected, Manny’s family lives in the projects.
Project life brings its own problems. The Garcia boys live in Manny’s neighborhood. They constantly terrorize and beat him. Manny does not fight back. He realizes that he is outnumbered and too afraid to do anything. This could be one of the reasons Manny joins a boxing club in school, and later joins a gang.
Family life is not much better for Manny. Throughout the story Manny deals with an alcoholic father and a borderline obsessive compulsive mother that have both become bitter and resentful. Manny’s brother is rarely home, but when he is he is often drunk. His older sister is resentful that she must carry the family.
At one point in the story she gets pregnant and soon loses the baby. Chapter nine shines light on a key aspect of Manny’s character. As the title implies, Manny is naive. He lives in a predominantly Latino community where racial discrimination is non-existent. In this section of the book, Manny’s boss urges his daughter to invite Manny to her birthday party. She reluctantly agrees. Manny tells his brother, Nardo, about the party. Nardo and their sister try to explain to Manny that white people do not usually interact with Mexicans socially; he is most likely being used.
Manny does not listen. He is in lust. Needless to say, the party ends badly. A terrible home life, hormones and identity issues lead Manny to gangs. He takes the beating, as a form of initiation, so that he can kiss a girl. He is not entirely sold on the gang culture but feels that he should hang out with the members. On his first run with Eddie, a gang member, he witnesses Eddie assault a woman and steal her purse. At that moment he recognizes that Eddie is the guy that knocked up his sister. Frozen in place, Manny realizes that gang-life is not for him.
He goes home and watches his sisters sleep, knowing that although life at home is rough there is nowhere else he would rather be. Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida exposes many aspects familiar to first- and second-generation Mexican American families. Many young minorities might be able to relate to Manny’s struggles. Even though the book deals with ugly issues like abuse, alcoholism, racism, teen pregnancy and gangs, the book also provides a space for discussion around identity, self-esteem and pride. I would definitely recommend this book to students.
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