He didn't say good-bye. He didn't leave a phone number. And he didn't plan on coming back - ever.
In Wisconsin, Rico could blend in. His light hair and lighter skin wouldn't make him the "dark dude" or the punching bag for the whole neighborhood. The Midwest is the land of milk and honey, but for Rico Fuentes, it's really a last resort. Trading Harlem for Wisconsin, though, means giving up on a big part of his identity. And when Rico no longer has to prove that he's Latino, he almost stops being one. Except he can never have an ordinary white kid's life, because there are some things that can't be left behind, that can't be cut loose or forgotten. These are the things that will be with you forever.... These are the things that will follow you a thousand miles away.
For anyone who loved The Outsiders and for anyone who's ever felt like one Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos brings to life a haunting choice and an unforgettable journey about identity, misidentity, and all that we take with us when we run away.
About the Author
Lori Marie Carlson is the author of two novels, two landmark bilingual poetry anthologies, and many other young adult and children's books. Oscar Hijuelos is a first-generation Cuban American and the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He has written six novels, the most recent of which is A Simple Habana Melody. They live in New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:August 24, 1951
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., City College of the City University of New York, 1975; M.A.,1976
Read an Excerpt
Well, even if they say life can be shitty, you really don't know the half of it until you've dug up an outhouse. This was the fourth time in twelve months that I'd gotten down into the nitty-gritty and goop of it and I'd had enough, for crying out loud. But I was doing it for my old neighborhood bro Gilberto, not just 'cause he'd have smacked me in the head if I didn't, but as a thank-you-man for letting me stay on his farm for so long. That's right, a farm.
Anyway, let me tell you about how this New York City kid ended up around the corner from where he lived, about a thousand miles away, in Wisconsin.
First of all, you've got to be hearing music just now not with corny-assed violins and trumpets, but maybe some cool Motown you know, something way better than the kind of diddly country or polka music you can go nuts trying to avoid on the radios out here. Then you got to imagine time going backwards, and everything slipping into reverse, not to when there were dinosaurs or medieval-assed knights trying to slay dragons, but just a few years.
Now picture me on my stoop, on a hot New York City summer afternoon, with two comic books a Spider-Man and a Fantastic Four rolled up in my back pocket and dying to be read. While some kids are playing stick-ball down the street, I'm fused to the stoop 'cause I'm supposed to be going to the A&P with my Moms, but she's been taking forever to get back from wherever she's been.
I'm on my former altar boy best behavior, despite the comics I've just "borrowed" from the stationery store, and I have a pious look on my face, the one I always put on while wishing I could be doing something really devious instead, like tossing water balloons or dumping out a full garbage can at unsuspecting strangers from the rooftop, stuff I never have the nerve to do.
So I was just sitting there when my pal Gilberto Flores, all six foot two of him, came bopping up the hill from Amsterdam Avenue, wearing the biggest grin I'd ever seen in my life.
No one else looked like Gilberto. He wore a giant Afro, had a scar down the side of his face, big ears, and smiled all the time.
I was always glad to see him.
"So, Gilberto, why you looking so happy?" I asked him.
He could barely contain himself. "Rico, my man," he said, a toothpick between his lips, and stroking his goatee the way he did whenever a girl with a nice butt went walking by, "I'm rich!"
"What do you mean, 'rich'?" I asked, used to hearing all kinds of BS from him.
He strode over to me and planted one of his size-twelve feet on the highest step. "You remember that lottery ticket I bought a few weeks back at Jack's stationery?"
"Sure, I was with you," I said, nodding.
"Well," he started, bending his lanky frame closer to me. "I hit that jackpot. And I do mean hit it!"
"No shit?" I said, jumping up. "You mean like a million?"
"Nah, man. I didn't get all the numbers," he said, shaking his head. "But enough of them to make me some beaucoup bucks!" And he slapped me five.
"Like how beaucoup?" I expected him to say maybe a couple of thousand.
"A lot!" he said. "Enough to get me the hell out of here!"
"Yeah? How much?" I asked again.
He looked around the street. Then he pulled a little pad out of his back pocket and wrote down a number.
"Say what?" I smacked my forehead. "Damn, Gilberto, are you being for real? Like seventy-five thousand bucks?"
"Hey, not so loud!" he said. "And keep it under your hat, all right?"
"But for real?" I could feel my face heating up.
"You best believe it," he said, his smile stretching from ear to ear. "Anyways, I got something for you, my little bro."
Reaching into another pocket, he pulled out some bills, his fist tight around them, like they were drugs, slipping them into my hand.
"That's two hundred, but don't let on that I gave this to you, all right?"
Two hundred dollars! I didn't even look at them, just stuffed those bills into my pocket.
"But why you giving me this?" I asked.
"Because you were with me when I bought the ticket! Remember how I rubbed your head? It worked, man! You brought me the luck!"
"Yeah?" I asked, feeling proud of my head.
"You most certainly did!" Then he grabbed me by my neck and started rubbing my head as if to relive the moment. I hated the lame-o, itchy-ball crew cut my Moms insisted I get every summer, but hey, didn't it turn out to be his lucky charm?
He spun me around a few times, then said, "Go buy your Moms a new dress, or whatever you want. Buy some of those sci-fi books you're so crazy about, all right?"
"Damn," I said. "Nobody's ever given me these kinds of bucks before." I felt like jumping up and down. "Thanks for the solid."
"Ah, it's nothing." He rapped me on my shoulder. "You're just my little bro, that's all."
Well, that was kind of true. At eighteen, and being three years older than me, Gilberto was like the big brother I never had. I mean, he was always teaching me things.
Like how to fly a kite from a tenement rooftop without tumbling off the edge.
And to tame pigeons with a broomstick and red handkerchief.
To carve toy cars from balsa wood, and to whistle really loud.
The way to sneak into the movie theater on 110th Street on Saturday afternoons.
How chicks trust guys who wear penny loafers.
And how to tell if a girl is wearing falsies. ("Their boobies get this crumply thing happening.")
Gilberto even tried to get me into ice skating once (sort of ), taking me down to Wollman Rink in Central Park, where he, an ace speed skater, used to meet his fancy, East-Sidey girlfriends. No matter how many times I wiped out, he was always there to help me up, telling me, "Try it again, Rico, 'cause the next time you'll nail it."
I mean if it wasn't for Gilberto, I probably wouldn't have ever gone anywhere outside the neighborhood, the guy always telling my Moms, who was forever watching my ass, that he would look after me. His eyes were so sincere and warm that she would cut me slack sometimes, as long as I was with him. So I guess we were like brothers, even if we didn't look that way, Gilberto being this dark-skinned Puerto Rican and me being, well, the palest cubano who ever existed on the planet. No joke.
In fact, Gilberto was one of the only guys in the neighborhood who didn't rag on me for looking like a whitey. Sometimes he got into the faces of dudes who'd call me a white "Wonder bread" MF, and he even whupped some butts on my behalf.
Now, we just hung out on my stoop, trying to stay cool. And I don't mean cool in the street way, but because it was just so freaking hot. As in pigeons looking dazed while they pecked around the sidewalk. As in sewers stinking like hell.
"My man, I got to be going now," he said, getting up. "Got me a date." And he did this thing with his hands, like he was drawing the shape of a really fly-looking girl in the air. "I'll catch you later, Rico, all right?"
"Sure. Have fun, man," I answered. "And thanks for the bucks, Gilberto," I added, feeling suddenly rich myself. As he went off whistling, all merrily, towards the avenue, I didn't envy his big win, like I might have with someone else. It was just one of those things like it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
For a while I watched that stickball game run its course down the hill, the guys playing it, with just broomsticks and thirty-five-cent pink Spaldings, really cursing up a
storm and smoking pot between innings: They didn't give a damn about anything or anybody, like they didn't have any respect. I mean, there was this skinny Puerto Rican kid, named Poppo, jumping up on a car hood to catch a fly ball and leaving his sneaker prints and dents on it, like who the hell cared! And you could even tell which of them was a junkie, like this guy named Bumpy. He just sort of took forever to get his act together at the plate (which was just a manhole cover). With an unlit cigarette dangling between his lips, he was moving real slow as if he were a scuba diver in the ocean, or one of those astronauts walking on the moon.
But waiting for my Moms was getting old, and like I said, it was hot. So freakin' hot that I was tempted to jump in front of the open fire hydrant on the other side of the hill my stoop was just on top of the street all these little kids running in and out of its gushing waters to escape the heat. And let me tell you: That spray looked inviting as hell. But I guess I believed I was getting a little too old for that, even if I really wanted to, so I just packed the stoop in and headed upstairs, figuring that my Moms would turn up sooner or later.
Copyright © 2008 by Oscar Hijuelos
Reading Group Guide
1. What are some of the main challenges Rico and his family face living in Harlem? Describe Gilberto's and Jimmy's experiences also.
2. List some of the characteristics, beyond the physical, that make Rico different. What characteristics does he show while living in Harlem?
3. How does Rico fit in his environment in Harlem? How does the community relate to him? Consider the Jo Mama School shooting, and the drug dealing and heroin use with Jimmy.
4. How does Rico view his light skin color? How does his view change from Harlem to Wisconsin? Does he feel comfortable in his own skin?
5. Rico hit a low, where he wants to escape his family, school, and street life in Harlem. He asks Jimmy to show him how to use heroin. How does this become a turning point in their lives?
6. The feelings of hopelessness for both Rico and Jimmy culminate in Jimmy catching fire. How does Rico rescue Jimmy? What do we learn about Rico?
7. Discuss the hitchhiking trip that Rico and Jimmy take as they run away from New York. Would this make you more or less likely to hitchhike yourself? Of all the characters they meet, who stands out most for you?
8. Exploring the bonds that bind a family is a major theme in this story. What torments Rico as he leaves New York? How does he relate to his family while he is in Wisconsin? How does the "family" in the farmhouse affect Rico and Jimmy?
9. The book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is Rico's favorite. How does his story parallel that of Huck Finn's?
10. Arriving in Wisconsin feels like a dream to Rico and Jimmy. Describe some of their adjustments and differences. How does Rico's feelings of being an "outsider" continue?
11. Gilberto is a major influence on Rico. How difficult is it for Rico when Gilberto moves from Harlem to go to college in Wisconsin? Then, when Rico comes to the farm Gilberto is Rico's guide. Discuss the bond between Gilberto and Rico.
12. Blond, blue-eyed, educated Midwesterner Sharon becomes Rico's first real girlfriend. How does their relationship help both of them grow?
13. How do Jimmy and Rico feel when they complete the Dark Dude comic book and submit it to DC Comics? What does this show us about Rico? Discuss the outcome of the submittal and the letter from DC Comics. Were you surprised?
14. What do you imagine is the next chapter in Rico's journey?
15. What makes people who they are? Is it how they look? Their language? Their ethnic heritage? Where they grow up? Discuss the elements of the book that support your answers.
1. Rico and Jimmy create a comic book series with their superhero, the Dark Dude. Try creating a comic book. Create a superhero that reflects characteristics you would like to embody. Write or illustrate it yourself, or get a partner. There are good guides in the book on how to get your comic published. Do you think you could get yours published?
2. Regional language is a distillation that reflects ethnicity, culture, and class. The language of Harlem included "jive," "lame," and "dark dude." In the book the language of Wisconsin includes "outhouse," "hankering," and "neat." Find more examples from the book, making lists of New York City words and Wisconsin words. What do these words reflect about the cultures and ethnicities they come from? Can you create a list of words that reflect your region's language? Compare it to other regions.
3. Find Internet images, books, and magazines that have pictures of Harlem and also of farmland Wisconsin in the late 1960s. Try creating a photo collage that reflects the two very different environments. Then make a list of similarities and differences. How strange would it be to move from one to the other for you? How might it change you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rico lives with his family in New York. Even though he¿s Cuban-American, his skin is so light he gets flack from others of his race. He tries to work things out, but his best friend Jimmy starts getting into heroin, his father is always drunk, and he starts to skip school. After Jimmy nearly burns himself to death while high, Rico decides they should run away to Wisconsin to live with a friend. They live on a farm with several other people, sharing the chores and enjoying the country life. But Rico learns that there will always be people who are prejudiced against him for a number of reasons, so he deals with it, grows up, and finds a way to live with himself, his heritage, and his New York family.
I could not finish this book. I kept getting jolted out of the narrative flow by the fact that the narrator, Rico, is a teen growing up in the 1960's in NYC's Spanish Harlem, but he uses current slang. In fact I thought I'd mis-read the review and that the story was set in the present, until another character made a passing reference to Vietnam. After two or three more anachronisms, I gave up. I didn't get very far.
Rico, the main character of Oscar Hijuelos¿ Dark Dude straddles two cultures¿Latino and American. As a light-skinned Cubano living in Harlem, he is hassled by his friends, school mates, and neighbors for his freckles because he is the ¿palest cubano who ever existed on the planet¿ (p. 10). Rico and his family live in a dark, ¿fourth floor walk up¿ that has bars on the windows to keep out burglars (p. 13). But the tenements in his neighborhood ¿had character¿like pillars and sometimes stone-carved angels and starts decorating the stoop¿ (p. 66). To add to this setting, Rico¿s new high school is a breeding den of drugs, sex, and violence. Rico gets so fed up that he starts to skip school and finds himself in trouble with the truant officers. With the prospect of going to military school in Florida, Rico cuts out of town with Jimmy to Wisconsin to live with his friend Gilberto.Rico leaves Harlem hoping to escape his troubles in Harlem. When he first arrived in Wisconsin, Rico felt that he was in a ¿truly different place, all pretty and peaceful¿ (p. 163). In Wisconsin, his pale skin and blond hair help him blend in. His room at the farm was different than in Harlem. His window no longer was barred and ¿just looking out that window made [him] feel that [he] was a million miles away from what used to bug¿ him in Harlem. Unfortunately, Rico couldn¿t escape reality in Wisconsin. He still faced discrimination and was beat up by a group of white guys who just felt like messing with someone. Even before this terrible beating, Rico kept thinking about home, particularly his family. Slowly he was drawn home. It wasn¿t easy for Rico to leave Wisconsin, his friends, and his relationships, but he knew that he belonged back in Harlem with his family. In many ways, Hijuelos¿ message follows the old saying¿home is where your heart is.
Great read about the challenges and joys of growing up brown, even if you look white. Rico has to escape the city to figure out where he truly belongs.
I'm a big fan of Hijuelo's earlier novel (for adults) The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This one didn't exactly disappoint but wasn't as rich. Light-skinned Rico Fuentes gets the sarcastic nickname "Dark Dude" in his tough 1960's New York neighborhood. Running away to join a friend in Wisconsin gives him a chance to grow and appreciate his Cuban American heritage and also to experience what we would now call a "hippie" commune.
This book shows how Rico, a a teenage Cuban, deals with life in his tough New York neighborhood. He has a lot of conflicts, some against others, but a brunt of them internally with himself. He finds he can't deal with all the problems life throws at him, and runs away to Wisconsin with is best friend Jimmy to live with Gilberto, who is kind of like an older brother. In an attempt to run away from the problems at home, he finds himself finding he can't run away from problems, as many of them come back to him. This book shows the many conflicts young Latino men face within America, and I would very highly recommend it for people that struggle to find themselves. Overall, this book brought new perspectives to me about the struggles minorities have, presented in a fun yet introspective way.
LIVE RESULT ONE
*Well-developed and engaging characters. *Intriguing. *Fascinating. *Believable. *Good summer reading. Allows the readers to truly understand the mind and emotions of a teen trying to survive in New York City. *Holds your attention. *Read the entire novel in one weekend. *Thought provoking. *Encourages the readers to follow their interests, their goals, and set dreams into motion to become reality. **Some situation descriptions may be frightening and cause readers to feel their heart racing as well as cause agitation.
I cannot think of any situation where I would rather read this than The Catcher in the Rye. Essentially, this book is a cheap knock-off of Catcher in the Rye. The voice is nearly identical, except that Oscar Hijuelos swears a lot more (by a lot I mean about every page). The main character, Rico, is Holden Caulfield with Cuban parents. The story is very similar, kid runs away to find himself. The setting is similar until Rico runs off to live on a farm. The main point is that this is a cheaper, more shallow version of Catcher in the Rye. There is no plot, so if you really like a strong plot, then this isn't you. If you like beautiful prose, this isn't for you. If you like deep characters that have some sort of realization, this book isn't for you. If you like to read about people swearing, drinking, and smoking pot, then this book is for you.
How many teens have wished they could escape the darkness of their lives and live in a land of milk and honey? Rico Fuentes does just that in DARK DUDE by Oscar Hijuelos.
Rico is one-hundred-percent Cuban, yet he struggles daily to identify with his Cuban peers. His mom and little sister have brunette hair and cinnamon colored skin. His dad has both dark wavy hair and dark eyes. But Rico, with hazel eyes and fair skin with freckles, looks white. In Harlem, that pretty much guarantees daily harassment.
When Rico has to change to a public school, he is exposed to drugs, crime, and violence like never before. Early in the school year, a student is shot and Rico watches in shock as his new classmates celebrate a day off. Soon Rico's skipping school to avoid random beatings. When his pops finds out, he warns Rico that he'll be spending the summer with his military uncle in Florida.
It's not until his friend Jimmy is rushed to the hospital due to a drug-related accident that Rico realizes he has only one way out. He must find a way to Wisconsin to stay with his friend, Gilberto, on his farm. When Jimmy is released, Rico talks him into going to Wisconsin with him. After a road trip to remember on the way to the farm, they wonder what they've gotten themselves into when Gilberto immediately puts them to work painting the outside of the dilapidated farmhouse in exchange for their room and board.
Rico finds farm life in Wisconsin to be much slower than in Harlem. He spends a lot of time re-reading his favorite author, Mark Twain. Then he finds himself attracted to a girl whose father has a drinking problem. He'd never realized that his own experiences with an alcoholic dad could be helpful to someone else. As the months go by, Rico begins to look at himself, and those around him, differently. More importantly, he begins to accept himself.
DARK DUDE is a gritty read. The projects, the bars, and the backstreets of Harlem become real to the reader as Mr. Hijuelos drops you into each scene, and he creates a character with so much promise, but with so much working against him, that we cannot stop at each chapter break. Instead we read on, praying that nothing bad will happen to Rico, and when it does, we find ourselves urging Rico on, to find the best in himself, to reach for those dreams we know he wants. This is a realistic yet inspiring read for anyone who wants to find a way to make a different choice, to find the person they really want to be.
I love this book !!!!