In my review of Craig Lew’s Breath to Breath earlier this month, I talked about the role of small presses in publishing diverse books that also present a wider range of subject matter, points of view, and styles. California journalist Claudia Meléndez Salinas’s A Fighting Chance, published in fall 2015 by the Piñata Books imprint of Arte Público Press is a fine example of what small presses offer. This book breaks the rules of conventional young adult literature and in doing so gives teen readers a broader social and cultural perspective.
While focusing on her protagonist Miguel Ángel, a 17-year-old boxer from Salinas, California – the town best known for its connection to the twentieth-century author John Steinbeck – Meléndez Salinas also tells a story of class relations and a community fighting for dignity and survival. Miguel Ángel is the oldest of five siblings. His mother works hard in the fields, but she cannot support her family by herself, so he has to work at a supermarket full-time while attending school and working out at the local community center, the Packing Shed. Coach is trying hard to keep the Packing Shed open in the face of budget cuts because he knows it’s the only alternative keeping teens from gang life. And Miguel Ángel, Coach’s shining star, is no saint. At a match in a neighboring well-to-do community, he fell in love with wealthy Britney, they had unprotected sex, and now she’s pregnant. To see her, he has to borrow his best friend Beto’s truck, but Beto, a gang member, now wants something in return.
By shifting points of view from Miguel Ángel to Britney to Coach and a local politician torn between her career and doing what’s right, Meléndez Salinas shows teen readers that their lives don’t exist in a vacuum. The Mexican-American residents of Salinas struggle against stereotypes of their community as violent and undeserving of help. Through Miguel Ángel and his family and Coach’s sacrifices, we see a more nuanced picture – young people resisting gangs, parents who want the best for their children, children who contribute with pride to their family’s survival. For instance, Miguel Ángel, never a strong student, knows that working full-time while struggling to finish high school will allow his more academically gifted younger sisters to concentrate on their studies and attend college. Through the omniscient narrator, readers are able to see the broader social forces working for and against her characters. A Fighting Chance frequently refers to Steinbeck’s classic novels, and it hearkens back to that tradition – big stories told through the experiences of ordinary people, stories that motivated their readers to think about their lives and society in general and to fight for real change. Today, we need more of these stories.