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Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood

El Paso Times

“Nice stories were hard to come by in Hollywood.” That’s how its citizens can summarize life at Hollywood, a New Mexico barrio, in the late 1960s. For youths, those uncertain times of dramatic social and cultural change made the transition to adulthood an even greater struggle. But it’s the heartbreaking testimony of a single member of the Class of ‘69 that turns nostalgia into an unforgettable account of survival in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood (Cinco Puntos Press, $19.95 hardcover).
Sáenz, an El Paso author and poet, teaches creative writing at UTEP.
Sammy Santos is a teenager whose personal tragedies have crippled his ability to express deep emotion. With each failed attempt comes a self-reprimand, but his hard-shelled exterior allows him to move through spaces and situations with confidence. “It’s funny how much time I could spend in my head,” he says, but only he knows the torment that comes with it.
Known as “the Librarian” for his affinity for books, the observant Sammy is equally adept at reading people, from his volatile friends to the racist teachers. This skill is not enough to prepare him for the irrepressible realities that descend on his loved ones to instill outrage and sorrow: the draft, death and domestic abuse.
But when tears become a river, Sammy reasons, “nothing else to do but swim.”
Inspired by the political furor that’s seizing the nation, Sammy and his fellow students organize to challenge the oppressive high-school dress code. They’re determined to win because they “already know what it’s like to lose.”
This battle with the school board takes on significance because it’s the only foreseeable way for the youth to leave its mark. Graduating means entering the real world with “people exploding like ammunition.” And while Sammy plans his escape from Hollywood through his college applications, he must first reckon with those who are pushed out through drugs, violence and Vietnam.
A stunning array of characters, like the pious Mrs. Apodaca, the troubled René and the unflappable Gigi Carmona, infuse Sammy’s story with complexity and depth. They demonstrate how Sammy’s community survives on its strengths as much as it is damaged by its weaknesses.
By the end of his school days, Sammy must re-imagine his viability in the barrio in order to breathe life back into a place that has taught him much about death. “Love was another name for exile,” he concludes, assessing grief realistically, not fatalistically.
The verisimilitude of teen angst, speech and behavior is what makes “Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood” a powerful reading experience. Sáenz captures a life that, despite its specific era, seems timeless and relevant to the current age. He engages a range of contemporary issues like addiction, bigotry and sexuality, and his prose never flinches, even when the reader must.
Honest and heartfelt, this is an extraordinary book.

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