Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
Publication: April 21st, 2018
Genre: Middle Grade
One boy’s search for his father leads him to Puerto Rico in this moving middle-grade novel, for fans of Ghost and See You in the Cosmos.
Marcus Vega is six feet tall, 180 pounds, and the owner of a premature mustache. When you look like this and you’re only in the eighth grade, you’re both a threat and a target.
After a fight at school leaves Marcus facing suspension, Marcus’s mom decides it’s time for a change of environment. She takes Marcus and his younger brother to Puerto Rico to spend a week with relatives they don’t remember or have never met. But Marcus can’t focus knowing that his father–who walked out of their lives ten years ago–is somewhere on the island.
So begins Marcus’s incredible journey, a series of misadventures that take him all over Puerto Rico in search of his elusive namesake. Marcus doesn’t know if he’ll ever find his father, but what he ultimately discovers changes his life. And he even learns a bit of Spanish along the way.
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My little Latin heart was soaring the whole time I read this book. Pablo Cartaya is easily becoming one of my favorite middle-grade writers especially because of the representation. Everything about this book made my heart happy and I really loved Marcus as a character. I felt very connected to him because of how similar we are. Marcus Vega is a half Puerto Rican 14-year-old 8th grader who can’t speak any Spanish. He has a booming business in his school that he started based on the several school policies and bullies. He walks the smaller kids to school since he is 6ft and 180 lbs. The bullies won’t bother them if they are seen around Marcus. He charges $5. Then he has his phone collection where the students hand over there phone for safekeeping until the end of the day. Lastly, if you are caught littering there will be a charge. He helps his mom out with these businesses since she is a single mother raising two boys and one has down syndrome. Life is pretty good until Stephen, the school bully, calls Marcus’s brother Charlie and another student the R-word. He loses it and punches him square in the face. Marcus is facing expulsion and it is advised that his brother attended a school for kids like him. On top of that Marcus just wants to meet the father who walked out on them so many years before. The three of them need a break and where else can you get some great food, culture, and peace under the sun? The family jets off to Puerto Rico where they will reconnect with family and Marcus discovers his true self. The family and sibling dynamics really made me tear up. The bond shared between Marcus and his brother Charlie really touched me because I feel the same way with my sister. Of course, all the representation for Puerto Ricans and the beautiful country itself hit home for me.
Marcus is very out of touch with himself. You see a lot of self-loathing, especially regarding his size and appearance. He thinks finding his father will solve all of their money issues and his identity issues. I loved his growth for such a young man and it was beautiful to see him truly discover the meaning of family and even learn some Spanish. I know a lot more than Marcus but that was very touching for me that the author created a main character that struggles with not feeling Latin enough at times. Charlie is such a happy go lucky kid. He made me smile and I love how sweet he is. I loved how the author touched on his down syndrome but also showed that there are good people in the world. I honestly would love a story in his point-of-view. Danny was a short side character in the beginning and ending. He is one of the students that Marcus walks to school. Danny is so funny because he talked like an adult. In one scene when he is defending Marcus to the principal he literally says yes your honor as if he is on trial. Marcu’s mom, Melissa, is a single parent. She works really hard to do all she can for her boys. She is against Marcus finding his father but through growth, she realizes he needs it. The mother x son dynamic is so cute. I loved the Puerto Rican family members they meet because they remind me of my family. There are even two German girls that go along the journey.
Pablo Cartaya never fails to make me smile and laugh. His middle-grades deal with a lot of Latinx representation and he hits the mark every time. I feel so connected with his characters through his writing on my culture. But, his writing also has a lot of depth even though it’s easy to read. I feel what the characters feel and they go through a lot of growth. The family dynamics are thoroughly flushed out and feel very real. His characters feel very real as well. I love that the people feel like someone I would actually know.
He doesn’t take their money and usually doesn’t shove them, but he ridicules them. Sometimes that hurts more. Sometimes that hurts longer.
I am Puerto Rican. I am an American citizen. What is my home? Where do I belong?…I understand both worlds because they exist in the same person.
There we are, our first trip this far away, watching the night turn to sparkles and light, in a place we haven’t been, with strangers who say they’re family.
Darma extends her hand to me. I don’t say anything. I just want peace. She says goodbye to everyone again. We drive off. Everyone is quiet. I look over at the mountains, where my screams have been swallowed by the mist.
It’s like another country out here. Except it’s not. It’s an island in the middle of the ocean where people speak English and Spanish and sometimes a mix of both. It’s full of contradictions. The people here can serve in the US military but can’t vote for president. How does that make sense? Where they play the same sports we do back in Springfield. Have the same passport. The same currency. It’s part of the same country. It’s a place where a Puerto Rican living in Chicago can invent a sandwich that reminds people of their culture, and a tall kid living in Pennsylvania can learn he has a culture and family he can claim. I cam here to find my dad. But I didn’t find him. I found something else.
“What a trip, huh?” my mom says, stretching. “I’m sorry you had to experience that one bad spot, sweetie.” No bad spots, I think. Just doors that needed to be closed and new ones I’m so glad we opened.