In the evenings when the cool breeze began to blow, all the families came out to their porches to sit and talk, to laugh and gossip. And that is where and how our barrio became one family.
Thus begins The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales, a novel that seems to have the most noble of literary intentions only to fall short of fulfilling them. The premise sounds promising: Sofia is a Mexican-American girl from Texas who receives a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school in Austin, leaving her to wonder whether she wants to and can ever leave her barrio behind for a world of privilege.
That’s what I wanted to read. Instead, I got something less thrilling.
The Tequila Worm won the Pura Belpré Award, which is “a recognition presented to a Latino/Latina writer’s work that best portrays the Latino cultural experience in a work of literature for youth.” No easy feat. The problem with the book is that it’s the only feat. Canales takes us inside specific moment’s in Sofia’s life that are supposed to trace her own evolution as a character. Unfortunately, these vignette’s read more like a didactic, anthropological slide show on Chicano culture. Oh look, here’s Sofia explaining what El Día de Los Muertos is! Oh wow, that’s how you make really delicious beans! Oh hey, here she is experiencing xenophobia and racism, which will only make her stronger! The entire book could be used as a bingo template of your standard, cookie cutter, coming of age in the USA while brown story. Will Sofia at first feel shame over her family’s crazy traditions? Of course! Will she feel like she doesn’t fit in with her rich, white classmates? You betcha! Will she finally, after a personal tragedy, come to realize that her culture is at the core of who she is? You can bet your pretty liberal guilt she will!
There are a few moments that shone more brightly than others, like when Sofia describes the workers in the packing plant she works for one summer as dressing to the nines for the grueling job, revealing an interest in personal care and attitude from a community that isn’t usually described in that way. One of the descriptions that most rang true to me was of the nightly musical rituals that the students in the boarding school would engage in:
It was as though every girl was trying to assert whatever individuality she had left in the few desperate minutes before lights-out, before we were all thrown together into sleeping, eating, studying, playing, praying, and doing everything together again the next day.
This is prime opportunity to explore the universal nature of searching for your own identity, but Canales lets it pass. Much like she does with most of the emotionally weightier topics she brings up. We get an in-depth look at the Texan Mexican-American community, but we barely scratch the surface of what these characters feel, of their inner life. For that reason, I can’t help but think of Sofia as a guide to this world instead of being an individual that is fully of it.
The book is fine. It’s swell. It’s just not that interesting.