Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood

Title: Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood | Author: Benjamin Alire Sáenz | Publisher: Cinco Puntos | Date of Publication: 2004 | ISBN: 0-938317-81-4 | Number of pages: 294 | Grade Level: 9+ | Literary Trends: Spotlight on Diversity, War, Bullying

Sáenz, B.A. (2004). Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos.

        Jimmy Ruffin recorded the song What becomes of the broken hearted? in 1966, a few years later, in Benjamin Alire Sáenz young adult novel, we get a glimpse of what life was like for a small group of young Chicano kids growing up in Hollywood, New Mexico, and yes heartbreak seems to follow the stoic teens in this book set amidst the Johnson era escalation of the Vietnam War. Unlike the more famous Hollywood, the residents of this New Mexico barrio live deep in the margins of society and economy, yet teens like Sammy Santos manage to grow stronger and wiser every day. Regardless of their perseverance, the teens in this novel are defenseless to the atrocities of adult life and eventually, almost all get picked apart by the haunting effects of a world at war for no apparent rhyme or reason.

        Alire Sáenz, an award winning author, poet and professor, uses all of his literary tools to offer young readers a chance to view a world where bleakness runs amok and the consequences of the adult world effect a vulnerable youth culture. Sammy Santos, a reluctant leader, is a gust of fresh air in amongst his Mexican American friends, the girls have crushes on him, boys rely on his wisdom to figure out their next moves and his father urges him to move forward with his life. Many of the social issues of the time seep into the life and times of Sammy Santos, most notably, the persistence of racism and a deep distrust of authority. Throughout the book, Santos and his friends take small defiant steps that begin to form their identities and as they come of age, they often learn much from each other.

        School Library Journal and Booklist hint at Sammy’s potential downfall as he gets pulled further into the lifestyle of Hollywood and both agree that the authenticity of the characters and dialog provide a valuable insight of the poverty ridden Vietnam era. Undeniably, Sammy and Juliana reads like it could be born from the pages of the critically acclaimed anthology Aztlan and Vietnam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War, which offers a stunning mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, critical assessments and archival communiqué written during and about the tragic war. Similarly, the character of Sammy Santos reflects many of the attributes and shares experiences with that of Jose Angel Gutierrez, whose autobiography, The Making of a Chicano Militant: Lessons from Cristal, recounts his life in politically segregated rural Texas in the 1960’s and subsequent rise to a political activism.

        Young Adult readers who are struggling with authority and those who seek to understand how social change can emanate from conflict zones, such as those found in Hollywood, New Mexico during this era, will learn a lot from Sammy’s modest leadership style.

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