Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya. Viking, 2017. 256 pages. 
978-1-101-99723-9. Click here to purchase.
Arturo Zamora is growing up. He has to spend his summer break working as junior assistant dishwasher at La Cocina de la Isla, his family’s restaurant and a Miami
neighborhood staple. When Carmen and “Uncle Frank” Sánchez (who are grieving the loss of Carmen’s mom) arrive from Spain, the family friend he hasn’t seen since childhood greets him with a double kiss (one on each cheek) and Arturo feels a strange “burning” sensation in his stomach. (“It. Was. Weird.”) Carmen is studying the work of José Julián Martí, and Arturo finds himself nervously lying to her about how he too writes poetry. When Abuela senses something is up, she *wink winks* at Arturo and gives him an old cigar box from his late abuelo. The box is full of letters written directly to Arturo, reflecting Abuelo’s faith, devotion to his family, and interest in the works of Martí and the power of words to make change (“sometimes life’s answers are hidden in poetry”).
The city owns the restaurant property, and the Zamora family’s lease is up for renewal. An out-of-touch real estate developer from out of town named Wilfrido Pipo decides he wants to build an exclusive complex on the same spot. With a proposed gym, spa, movie theater, cocktail lounge, and more, “Pipo Place” has almost everything a neighborhood could ask for—except La Cocina de la Isla. The fate of the restaurant and neighborhood will be determined at a city council meeting. 

In a burst of confidence inspired by Abuelo’s letters, Arturo musters up the courage to tell Carmen how he feels and to speak out about the proposed development. When the family faces a huge blow and all feels lost, Arturo finds encouragement in his Abuelo’s words: “A VECES LO TIENES QUE ESCRIBIR / SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO WRITE IT DOWN.” In the days leading up to the city council’s big decision-making meeting, Arturo and his community unpack what the “exclusive” and “V.I.P.” development might really mean for them, and they reflect on how Abuela and the restaurant she built nourished the neighborhood in more ways than one. When it comes time to learn of the city council’s decision, Arturo, with friends and family at his side, has found peace and is ready to move forward no matter the circumstances. The book concludes with a collection of easy-to-make recipes shared by the author.  
While the Wilfrido character feels a bit contrived (he is a capital-V-villain, as the line between “good” and “bad” is quite clear in this story), the young characters and their interactions remain front and center. There is an authentic back-and-forth between Arturo and his buddies, reflected in their teasing Twitter DMs (“@PITBULL4LIF: wat up, bro!!”) and their dialogue while they shoot hoops (in these scenes, their words are formatted like a screenplay, with actions in italics). Arturo’s conversations with Carmen are awkward to the point of hilarious. ("'Um, are you hot?' I asked. 'I mean not hot like hot, but like sweating hotness…from the heat, and, um, you’re in Miami.'")
Readers with limited Spanish language skills can make meaning of words and phrases using context clues that have been elegantly woven into the narrative. And there’s nothing like an author reading their story in their own voice. I listened to the audiobook CD and I found myself reflecting on the Hear Diversity campaign as I read, knowing that my appreciation and understanding of this book was enhanced through Cartaya’s narration.

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora also provides an engaging and informative introduction to the life and work of Martí. Readers will no doubt be inspired to learn more when they are finished reading—perhaps through the new biography by Emma Otheguy and Beatriz Vidal.

Last but not least, here’s a video of Cartaya sharing real-life places in Miami that inspired the setting. Show this to kids as you booktalk and then prepare to add a bunch of names to your holds list. Better yet, buy more than one copy if you can.

Reviewed by Elisa Gall

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