11-year-old Mexican American Jacinta wants an Amiga like her friend Angélica has – someone to take her places and buy her things. She sees her chance when local news anchor Kathryn Dawson Dahl comes to their youth center to do a report. Jacinta manages to worm her way into Miss’s life, and begins to enjoy what she perceives as the power and privilege that goes with being white.
But Jacinta’s family circumstances are fragile: her parents are undocumented and Mamá is back in Mexico with her sick mother, and has no easy way to get back; her family in America are living hand to mouth, working low paid jobs with no security. When her father is arrested and deported, Jacinta gets to see that even being white and a media star doesn’t help, and sometimes hinders, when you are up against the system.
Though the author is white, she seems to have been thoroughly grounded in the community she writes about and has a strong empathy with the families in these dire circumstances.This is pitched at middle graders and doesn’t spare the challenges of life outside the barrio blanco, nor does it shy from showing the unthinkingly exertion of white privilege.
Jacinta can be a bit of a pill – she’s jealous and very self-centered, though this is, of course, entirely reflective of a real tween. But she does learn about herself and becomes aware of her position straddling the line of two lives, and not entirely fitting in with either.
Though Jacinta’s life does reach a relatively neat resolution, the author makes it credible as well. The white family will still be part of it, but is not the lifeboat that Jacinta first thought it could be. Her family is still spread across two countries and their economic challenges will not go away. But Jacinta has discovered the power of education, and the power within herself to make changes.
I think this is a terrific middle grade book that puts real faces onto the political issue of undocumented immigrants. I just wish the girl in the otherwise appealing cover illustration had looked more Mexican.