He’s the only one she wants.
Desperately in search of some light reading, this nonetheless turned out to be a weirdly timely choice: the issue of the economic interdependence of the U.S. and Mexico backgrounds this rather low-stakes teen romance.
Background: Not to be confused with the similar-looking Sweet Dreams, First Love or Caprice paperback romances of the 1980s, Scholastic’s Wildfire tends to have a better quality of writing (Caroline Cooney and Ann M. Martin are a few of the authors who launched their careers with the imprint) and wackier covers than the competition.
The Plot: 17 year old Sarita Valdez, a teenager living in the border town of McAllen, Texas, is thrilled to have landed a summer job as a waitress at a local café! She explains that since the economic downturn that has hit Mexico recently, people are no longer coming north to spend their money, which badly impacted tourism and local businesses in general in McAllen.
Sarita feel extremely lucky to have been hired at the El Rio café, because literally all of her other friends have to head out of town to find work as ranch hands and nannies for the summer. With her parents out of town visiting relatives and only her grandmother to keep her company, it is shaping up to be a pretty boring summer.
However, of of her first customers is a gangly redheaded gringo named Karl Jensen, a transplant from Minnesota, who has no idea what a taco is.
“Kind of… well… like a Mexican sandwich maybe.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I guess I have seen them on T.V. Just never had one before.”
Anyway, he doesn’t even want a taco, he wants a vanilla milkshake, which he also treats like an exotic delicacy:
Right after I set it down he pulled it toward him. Then he hesitated.
“Oh, sorry,” I apologized. “I forgot the straw.”
“It’s okay. I never use them,” he said “I was just sniffing the shake. Smells great.”
I mean, really: Jesus, Karl.
Sarita ruminates at length on the difference between her Chicano and Anglo classmates, including the level of strictness of their parenting and how the Mexican-American boys seem to take dating so much more seriously than their gringo counterparts. Sarita admits that although the students at the local high school mix freely for the most part, the closest friendships still seem to fall along ethnic lines.
Sarita’s friends seem modestly politically engaged, proud of their Mexican heritage, and express contempt for northern “snowbirds” who have come south to buy up property on the cheap. Which is why Sarita is secretly relieved that everyone is out of town when Karl starts spending a lot of lunches at the El Rio. Especially once she learns that his stepfather has purchased the old Montoya department store, which has recently gone bankrupt.
While Karl comports himself as a perfect gentleman, Sarita is still surprised when her grandmother allows her to go out on dates with him, sometimes even without a chaperone!
While Sarita and Karl enjoy spending the summer together, in the back of her mind, Sarita is constantly worrying about what her friends, and parents, will think when school starts. While her older cousin, Carmen, likes and accepts Karl, even taking him on a family trip across the border to Reynosa, giving a Karl a chance to mansplain Mexico to everyone:
“Life is so varied down here, you know? You’re just as ‘American’ as anyone else, but you can speak a second language, and even know about Mexican culture, too.”
Yes, I do know. Jesus, Karl.
However, Sarita starts to notice some pushback. Her nosy boss, Sr. Garza, takes a patriarchal interest in the fact that Karl is spending so much time at the café. And what will her friends say when they get home and discover that Karl is the ‘carpetbagger’ whose family bought Montoya’s?
Carmen and her husband suggest they host a big “welcome home” party before school starts, inviting as many Chicano and gringo kids as possible, so Karl maybe won’t stand out so much.
Even Grandma approves, dropping the news of Karl’s existence on Sarita’s parents after their long drive home, when she knows they’ll be too worn-out to protest.
The party is a success, everyone loves Karl, are there even any complications to this plot? Well, there is the arrival of Ramon Escobar, a childhood friend of Sarita’s who has been nursing a longtime crush on her:
Apparently ranch life had been good for Ramon. I noticed that right away. His shoulders seemed to have grown broader, maybe because of all of the heavy work he had been doing, or maybe because of the tall, proud way he was standing. All I knew was I had never seen Ramon look so terrific. If he had been handsome before, well… now he was a knockout.
How could I feel so very strongly about Karl, so happy about him, then turn right around and get a crush on Ramon, too? Ramon, whom I had known for years? Of all the times to get a crush on him! Why now?
Oh, the problems some poor girls have.
At the back-to-school campout on San Padre Island, Karl and Sarita have their first quarrel, when Sarita steps up to his defense when a member of The Eagles, an absolutely unthreatening “gang”, taunts him:
“Well, a-di-os, carrot top!”
Real dangerous delinquents, those guys.
Karl’s fragile male ego can’t deal with a GIRL defending him so he and Sarita stop speaking for like 2 days. Then somehow Sarita’s friends convince her that she has been victimizing Karl with reverse-prejudice or something and she apologizes to him, the end.
That Cover, Tho’ Department: Wildfires usually do better with their cover models, but this one is really generic and doesn’t look anything like the way Sarita is described in the book:
Short. Not exactly New York model material. A sturdy build, with some muscle. Dark, very round eyes, shiny black hair about shoulder length, and a noble nose.
It is also noted that she lifts weights as a hobby (she and her female friends led a protest to make the High School gym equipment available to girls) and is considering a career as a professional bodybuilder.