Fiesta, 1980 by Junot Díaz, 1996
The magic trick:
Putting a child protagonist in a position of having to mature quickly and consider the world on adult terms; then showing his ability to mature beyond the adults around him
Do you recall Alice Munro’s “Walker Brothers Cowboy”? Well, if you do, you’ll know that Munro’s narrator recalls a sales trip with her father to a woman’s house where she observes an interaction that forces her to grow up and consider the world with a more adult perspective. Something like that happens in “Fiesta, 1980.” The observed interaction in this case is a little less nuanced and a lot more troubling, though. Such is the difference between juvenile stress in Dominican New Jersey as compared to rural Ontario, perhaps.
Any situation in which a child is forced to deal with the world on an adult level is inherently dramatic and sad. So this story has that magic trick locked down already. What really sets it apart is its conclusion. The story isn’t simply about Yunior, the child protagonist, observing his father’s dishonest and hurtful behavior; it’s about how he confronts and processes it.
By the story’s final scene, it’s clear that Yunior has matured quickly and now is ready to take on adult action and responsibility that heretofore his parents have not had the strength to manage themselves. And that’s quite a trick on Díaz’s part.
Me and Papi didn’t talk much. We just drove around our neighborhood.
Occasionally he’d ask, How is it?
And I’d nod, no matter how I felt. One day I was sick outside of Perth Amboy. Instead of taking me home he went the other way on Industrial Avenue, stopping a few minutes later in front of a light blue house I didn’t recognize. It reminded me of the Easter eggs we colored at school, the ones we threw out the bus windows at other cars.
The Puerto Rican woman was there and she helped me clean up. She had dry papery hands and when she rubbed the towel on my chest, she did it hard, like I was a bumper she was waxing. She was very thin and had cloud of brown hair rising above her narrow face and the sharpest blackest eyes you’ve ever seen.
He’s cute, she said to Papi.
Not when he’s throwing up, Papi said.
What’s your name? she asked me. Are you Rafa?
I shook my head.
Then it’s Yunior, right? I nodded. You’re the smart one, she said, suddenly happy with herself. Maybe you want to see my books?
They weren’t hers. I recognized them as ones my father must have left in her house. Papi was a voracious reader, couldn’t even go cheating without a paperback in his pocket.
Why don’t you go watch TV? Papi suggested.
He was looking at her like she was the last piece of chicken on earth.
We got plenty of channels, she said. Use the remote if you want.
The two of them went upstairs and I was too scared of what was happening to poke around. I just sat there, ashamed, expecting something big and fiery to crash down on our heads. I watched a whole hour of the news before Papi came downstairs and said, Let’s go.
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