Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez: Urban Decline and Cultural Identity

I was once told the most epic of books takes place in a small timeframe and that as a writer you shouldn’t try to span years.  You should try to confine your story to a smaller pace and Pig Park does that.  You are given a snapshot of urban life for a group of Hispanic-Americans in Chicago during one summer.  But in that one summer so much changes and grows that no one walks away from this story without being different.  At the center of this story is Masi Burciaga, a young woman who lives along with many others in the neighborhood of Pig Park.

One of the first things you immediately discover about this neighborhood is that it’s dying.  It’s an epidemic occurring across many urban neighborhoods and small towns in America.  One major company would provide the economic lifeblood and because of globalization the company closes its doors, leaving behind the many small businesses it once supported.  That is what happens in Pig Park as the American Lard Company has closed its door and crippled the neighborhood as result.  The only remnant of those glorious manufacturing days are the rubble and refuse the company left behind.

Of course no one wants to leave the neighborhood even though it seems like that would be the easy thing to do.  And I think it was important for the author to show the neighborhood solidify and really add a human element to it.  Why?  Because far too often the charge thrown at poor, urban minorities by whites is that they should just “leave” or “go where the opportunity is at”.  Such an easy thing to say when you don’t have to think about people leaving behind family legacies, best friends, and connections that run decades deep.

That richness spoke to me because I have seen firsthand how bone-headed such statements can be and how it misses the bigger picture.  White people can tie themselves to trees to stand their ground, but minorities fighting for their neighborhoods are seen as fighting a pointless battle.  Even worse, they’re seen as having brought the economic rot on themselves.  I’m glad this point in its quiet way rails against that.

So the crux of this book is the neighborhood trying to save itself and become what it once was.  That’s another aspect of the neighborhood I came to love throughout the book.  It showed the solidarity of the neighborhood and again, I think that is a quiet railing against a stereotype.  Far too often minority neighborhoods are seen as villainous death traps where everyone is against everyone and it’s a Darwinian struggle for survival.  Or even worse your perceived solidarity is turned into something dangerous like the fictional Muslim “no-go zones” that supposedly exist.  I applaud the author for making a statement about the good nature and true partnership that really exists in these communities.

Masi is right at the forefront, navigating through a potential divorce between her parents, seeming first love and a conspiracy all along the way.   Her parents were certainly more fleshed out than I have seen parents be in other young adult novels.  They have depth and they’re approached with fairness though I have to admit my personal feelings often left me angry with the Mother throughout the story.  Still, in the end I’m glad the author took a route that almost seems atypical when it comes to situations of divorce.  Again, I think the author is railing some more with that and I loved it.

Another truism of the young adult novel is the first love and Masi encounters what she believes to be hers.  I think the way the relationship of Masi and Felix plays out gives the character of Masi so much more agency than what you typically see in female protagonists dealing with their first real relationships.  It never felt like it was trying to push a message other than that a woman has as much and should always have as much say so in the direction of a relationship as a man.  A powerful message quietly snuck in there.

The conspiracy Masi uncovers is certainly the sinister element of this book and it makes me wonder if the author is drawing this from some true experience.  It certainly strikes me as a completely plausible.  The cultural humiliation that one of the antagonists tried to make the kids go through was so painful to read because I could feel their disgust.  I was disgusted for them and it made me realize just how seriously members of the Hispanic-American population take their status as Americans.  It was something I never really thought about.  As a black man, the circles I read and converse in often speak of pulling away from the American part of our identity.  So it surprised to see another minority group stand by it so strongly.  Definitely a learning experience for me.

So what did I walk away feeling like once this novel was over?  I have to say I felt hopeful and proud of the characters in that book.  They stood up for what they believed in even when they didn’t have much material reason to anymore.  I also high-fived the author in my head for all the moments when resistance against the “white default” was put into the novel.  Pig Park is a truer representative of poor urban neighborhoods than any I have read in a long time for that reason.  The author creates a neighborhood as it truly exists and not how Fox News would have you believe it exists.

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