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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Coconut: Brown on the Outside, White on the Inside by Manuel Padilla Jr is the story of the Rodrigos family, a middle-class Mexican/American family living in the Los Angeles area of California and having to deal with the prejudice and racism inherent in the color of their skin, despite their having lived in America and been citizens since the early 1900s. The question so many American citizens of Mexican extraction ask is why do we not get the same rights and opportunities as our fellow white citizens? The bulk of the story focuses on young Aurelio or Oree as he preferred to be known. Oree was a precocious young man whose first memories are of being taunted by other children because of the color of his skin: Beaner, Wetback, Chicano – he’d been called them all and a few more besides. Oree was a gifted child whose intelligence and aptitude for learning became apparent early on. Unfortunately, his family neither understood what a “gifted child” was nor could they afford to send Oree to any special school for gifted kids. Oree had to succeed academically the hard way and by the time he was ready to graduate high school, he was prepared to not only become the first person in his family to attend and graduate college, but he had his sights set high on the Ivy League school, Columbia University, all the way across the other side of the country. Would the pull of the culture of the family hold him back from fulfilling his dream and his promise?
Coconut was fascinating because it highlighted a civil rights struggle that few of us have probably read about before, that of the Latino community and the prejudice they face, which is similar but also starkly different in many ways to that experienced by African Americans. Author Manuel Padilla Jr did an excellent job of characterizing the unique family and religious experience of many Latinos that poses both problems but also support structures for young Latinos as they try to improve their lot in society. I particularly liked Oree’s argument about changing the dynamic and objective as each successive generation grew up and went into the world. The author does an excellent job of delving into the family dynamics of the Rodrigos and exposing the cultural and generational differences that occur plus the anomalies of trying to balance and hold onto the culture left behind in Mexico with the realities of living in a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon world. One could feel, for example, the latent anger in Oree at his parents not teaching him Spanish as a child because they didn’t view that as compatible with being American. This is an easy to read and interesting look at a generational culture shift in Latinos and one I can definitely recommend.