Sofi Mendoza’s Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico by Malín Alegría. Simon & Schuster, 2007. Currently available.
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction
Face Value: It’s kind of cheesy, but I like it. I don’t like that we only see part of the girl on the cover, and most of that is exposed skin – but at least we do see her face. The road signs pointing in different directions are pretty clever, given that Sofi is confused about her own identity and life direction throughout most of the story. She doesn’t know which direction to go.
Does it break the slate? Well…sort of? Sofi Mendoza pushes the limit to be considered a Slatebreaking character because she doesn’t change her behavior until the very end of the book. I think she may be, and I’m going to take the liberty of imagining that she carries on living her fictional life as a Slatebreaker. But what’s truly Slatebreaking here is Alegría’s book. There are a only handful of YA books out there that explore border politics, and this one is truly a standout. Alegría tackles multi-ethnic identity and life “on the other side” with nuance.
Review: Sofi Mendoza’s story starts out not unlike other YA heroines. She’s a smart, lively girl who just wants to escape from the overprotective bubble of her helicopter parents. So she lies to her parents about a weekend getaway to a house party in Mexico and sneaks off with her friends. Of course, the party is a total train wreck. Sofi’s hopes for a glamorous weekend with perfect romance are dashed when she realizes the guy she’s been crushing on is a major jerk.
On their way back across the border, Sofi and her friends get stopped for inspection. That’s when Sofi learns that her green card is a fake. While her friends get to drive back home to California, Sofi is stuck in Mexico. She’s alone and scared and wondering why her parents never told her that they were undocumented.
Although the situation may seem farfetched, Alegría based the border incident on a true story. The way she writes it makes it fit very well with Sofi’s characterization, too. Sofi is so naïve that she has never once considered how her parents got into the US, and she never thinks about what their life might have been like before they crossed the border. She also doesn’t bother to worry about the potential consequences of sneaking off to a house party in Tijuana. Sofi is frighteningly dense for most of the book, but not in an unlikeable way. She makes poor decisions based on small tidbits of incorrect information, and it made me want to bang my head against a wall – but I also wanted to keep reading to make sure that things would turn out ok for her.
Sofi eventually connects with long lost relatives who live in Rosarito, and she has to adjust to life in Mexico while she waits for her border situation to be worked out. The daily routine is extremely different in Rosarito. Sofi has to learn to cope with things she’s never even handled before, including household chores, caring for livestock, cooking her own meals, and dealing with temporary loss of electricity and hot water. She acts as if it’s complete torture and is initially rude and ungrateful to her hosts. But while she’s busy whining about her situation and how none of the boys she falls for turn out to be nice guys, she’s actually learning a great deal about elements of her culture with which she is out of touch.
This book is strongest when Sofi is wrestling with her own notions of identity. She ponders whether she can really consider herself Mexican when she doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t understand dynamics of the culture. But she’s also wondering if she can be truly American if her entire life in the US has been built under false pretenses. Eventually Sofi arrives at an inner compromise. She decides to embrace her Latina identity and stands up for herself in ways she has never done before. And although this book is mostly about Sofi’s identity journey, it also deftly shares varying perspectives on immigration. I appreciate how these ideas are woven into the story in such a natural way. Alegría has crafted characters and communities around Sofi that provoke the reader to think carefully about whether life is really better or worse on either side of the border. Readers are reminded that owning material goods and having access to services does not necessarily mean that you will be a happy, well-adjusted person.
Sofi took a little longer to come around than I liked. It was painful to read about her irritating arrogance in the face of this opportunity to learn about another culture. I had to keep reminding myself: she’s 17. At that age, the world revolves around you. It makes sense for her to be reacting this way to her circumstances. And by the time Sofi was finally changing and growing, Alegría writes an ending that seems to be too easy of a fix for the situation. I respect her choice to conclude the book in that way, but I will always wonder what would have happened if Sofi had been forced to stay in Mexico – just like the real girls upon which her story was based.
Reviewed from a library copy.