Awakening Readers in Latino Teens

By Author David Bueno-Hill draws from his own experiences to capture the attention of today’s Latino Teens. Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

David Bueno-Hill was the “hung-over kid” sleeping in the front row of high school English class when a teacher did something to jolt him from his stupor.

The teacher threw a book down onto a desk and proceeded to yell at the top of his lungs, “Bam! Boom! And you’re over here, and a missile hits this building… !”

The teacher was acting out an action scene… from a book.  “I was just like, ‘What the f—? What’s going on here?’” Bueno-Hill recalls. “I thought he was insane, and I loved it. I was like, finally, you know. Most teachers just let me sleep.”

He couldn’t wait to read the book, which turned out to be George Orwell’s 1984, a standard high school reading selection. He realized he hadn’t even cracked opened the book, which was sitting at home where he had left it after the teacher handed it out a month earlier.

Bueno-Hill, then an eleventh-grader who seemed more interested in drinking and using drugs, who joined a gang when he was 15 years old, went home and read the book immediately. “I failed that assignment, but it was a cool book. I wanted to see what was going on,” he said.

Now himself a teacher at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, Bueno-Hill credits the English teacher’s outburst for getting him interested in reading, especially since that experience led him to where he is now, writing and publishing his first book, “I Wasn’t Born a Teacher,” and the “Mr. Clean” book series for young adults. He draws on his experiences growing up and surviving rough neighborhoods where he was surrounded by the lure of gangs and drugs.

Bueno-Hill knows that most teenagers, especially the ones who floated through school hung-over or disinterested, never got woken up out of their seats the way he was by his high school English teacher.

Given a five-dollar bill to spend, most young people would not spend it on a book. “When I was a teenager, and I had five bucks, I would buy beer or weed,” he says.

He wrote the Mr. Clean series, set mostly in Huntington Park, for young adults. The first book, “Mr. Clean and the Barrio,” published by independent publisher Urbano Books, won him an honorable mention from the 2009 International Latino Book Awards. He is now promoting the second installment of his Mr. Clean series, “Mr. Clean’s Familia.”

The series follows Jacob, aka Mr. Clean, a 16-year old Mexican-American kid who grew up around black kids and is raised by a single mother who never taught him Spanish because she didn’t want him to be assigned to ESL classes in school.

In the first book, Jacob befriends a girl named Melody, who lends him a pencil in class, only to move away soon after to live in a better neighborhood. Two weeks after moving to his new neighborhood, Jacob is jumped. But because he came from an even rougher neighborhood and is no weakling, he fights back, only to end up in even more trouble, as the kids he beat up want revenge.

Those troubles lead to Jacob getting tricked by Trigger, the local gang leader, into joining his gang. All Jacob wants to do is “get good grades, make his mom proud.” Instead he gets jumped by the gang, and wakes up the next morning officially inducted as a gang-member.

“[Jacob] doesn’t really know what to do, but they’re giving him weed and beer, and he’s drinking, and he’s having a good time and he kind of feels the camaraderie so he doesn’t want to rock the boat. But soon he realizes, it’s not a game. It’s serious.”

Jacob ends up choosing his mom and his friend Melody over the gang life, but before he could escape, he must find a way to outsmart Trigger. In the second book, “Mr. Clean’s Familia,” Jacob’s uncle comes home from prison, causing his life to once again get swept up by the gang life.

He says his books aren’t for the typical reader. “It’s not like I’m going to be on the bestseller’s list writing ‘Mr Clean and the Barrio,’ you know? It’s only a specific group, for teens that have been through that lifestyle and are looking for something to read, which isn’t a lot,” he says.

Some of the kids who don’t see themselves as being successful at school find their respect elsewhere, he says, pointing to a game his students play called “Knuckles,” in which they hit each other until one of them gives up.

“It feels good when you’re a kid and you’re not that smart, or don’t think you’re that smart… to just hang out with your friends during lunch and sock each other,” he says. “They just sit there going ‘Ungh!… Okay, you hit me. Okay… Ungh! Okay, I hit you… Ungh!’ until somebody gives up and you get that ‘Oh, he didn’t give up,” that twelve-year-old idea of respect. And that’s more respect than they get for getting an A at home,” he says.

He is writing for “that group of Latinos that are kind of breaking away from traditional, whatever you call it, Latino culture” who, as first generation Latino Americans, don’t speak Spanish, he says.

“Especially for Latinos, you either have this huge body of work that’s all about the 70s and 80s, which kids nowadays, they’re not relating to that…  you sit a kid down and try to make him read the autobiography of Cesar Chavez and it’s like pulling teeth,” he says.

“I’m writing for pochos,” he says, adding there is not much out there that appeals to today’s Latino American teens that does not also in some way alienate them, Bueno-Hill says.

“The worst thing the older generation can do is alienate us, make us feel less than Latino, because the first thing we’re going to do is jump ship. White America is happy to have us on board, have us buy Britney Spears instead of Shakira,” he says, “have us buy Eminem…”

In his books, he tries to reflect how today’s Latino teens deal with their culture. In the second book of the Mr. Clean series, Jacob starts learning Spanish, but his girlfriend makes fun of him for trying to crack Mexican jokes that he doesn’t understand, he says.

Boys especially also lose out on reading choice, he says. “There is a flood of Latina authors like Reyna Grande and Josefina Lopez writing all these books for chicks. For Latinas. And that’s cool, because girls read, and boys play sports, right? Wrong. Why can’t boys read, dude? Why can’t we make books for boys to read, that they’ll find exciting, that will have action like the stuff they see in movies?” Bueno-Hill says.

He explains that his Mr. Clean books are about a character who is doing what he can to survive, even though some of it conflicts with his desire to “do good things.”

He describes Jacob as a “16-year old who has a goal, who has a dream, who wants to graduate from high school, who doesn’t want to see his mom cry… He’s the kid who realizes how hard she works, why she’s waiting for him… It gets to the point he has to ask himself, ‘Well, how far am I willing to go to survive?’ He’s also very smart, learns from the environment, from movies, from anything. He ultimately realizes there is a way out.”

David Bueno-Hill’s books are available at Commerce Library. They are also available through his website

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October 29, 2009  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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