Lisa Sibbett is a high school English teacher and a dedicated fiction reader. As she put it in an email to me, “With so many great novels and short stories and plays and poetry out there, I’ve often wondered how people have the time to read true stories. This coming year, though, I’ll be teaching Social Studies, and in preparation for that I’ve finally branched out. A whole new world has opened up. Here’s a review of one of my favorite non-fiction books I’ve read this summer, Steve Wilson’s The Boys from Little Mexico.” Along with Wilson’s book, I’d suggest reading Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John.
Guest Blog by Lisa Sibbett
I teach ninth grade World Studies in a wealthy suburb of Seattle. My students are high achievers, talented artists and athletes, with supportive families and the resources to travel during school vacations. They know in an abstract way that not everyone is as fortunate, but in order truly to imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences, we need to read lots of good books.
I’ve just finished Steve Wilson’s nonfiction book, The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream (mentioned in your blog several weeks ago), and I’m super excited to teach it this fall. I think it will help my students put a human face on our country’s current (and bitter) immigration debate.
First of all, Boys is a highly readable narrative that uses novelistic pacing and character development to follow an Oregon high school soccer team for one season. On the surface, the book is about soccer; but the sport really functions as a lens for examining immigration, education, and what it means to be an American teenager in a rapidly changing world. The players in the story are drawn with enormous empathy, and Wilson takes a hard look at stereotypes about Mexican-American teenage boys.
Woodburn’s players are mostly immigrants, many undocumented and several of whom speak little English. Some live with their parents, but many live with aunts and uncles, or even foster families, while their own families remain in Mexico. They are gifted athletes, but hyperaware that the odds are stacked against them both in sport (their team has never won the state championship), and in life (due to poverty, language struggles, and low rates of college attendance.) One chapter that’s lingered in my mind follows a key character’s crossing to El Norte:
Octavio felt a surge of adrenaline as he watched the coyote suddenly dash across the freeway, pause for a reconnoiter in the median strip, then bolt through the far lanes toward what looked like a small park—what Octavio would later learn was a highway rest stop…. The American drivers and passengers at the rest stop, now aware of what was happening, had all stopped to watch the campesinos dash across the freeway, and stood motionless in disbelief.
The players’ experiences of being perceived as criminals will continue to resurface throughout, an experience quite alien to most of my own students’ lives. Despite this unfamiliarity, in the end what I love most about this book is not how different Octavio and his teammates’ lives are from my students’ own, but how similar: how very alike their hopes for happiness and success, their anxieties about school and dating and the big game, their friendships and their family relationships and the tough decisions which, as they get older, they must more and more frequently make. In the end, this is what I want my students to learn: that the people who seem most alien are often surprisingly like us. In clear, precise prose, The Boys from Little Mexico conveys just that.