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Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
Sammy’s first-person narration, observant and self-aware, affords a window into a world of quiet despair and stubborn hope, set appropriately against the backdrops of late-1960s social ferment ... His message is one of victory through endurance rather than escape.
Sammy Santos is a warmhearted and thoughtful young man who willingly embraces his dad in front of friends, misses his dead mother, and reads bedtime stories to his little sister. However, Sammy also sees his girlfriend Juliana murdered by her father, and he struggles to survive as friends from his New Mexico neighborhood (ironically named Hollywood) are killed in Viet Nam, viciously beaten by a homophobic gang, and destroyed by a drug overdose. Juliana provides a focal point for Sammy’s mourning for the individual people he’s lost and also for the continual crushing of all Mexicana. Sammy’s first-person narration, observant and self-aware, affords a window into a world of quiet despair and stubborn hope, set appropriately against the backdrops of late-1960s social ferment. Agile transitioning between Spanish and English eases readers into Sammy’s own hyphenated world, where rights, wrongs and individuals cannot be easily lumped into discrete black and white. A few triumphs lighten the gloom—Sammy organizes a successful campaign to elect a Hispanic to the student council, leads a student strike that changes the dress code, and gets accepted to all eight of the universities to which he applies. His message is one of victory through endurance rather than escape, as Sammy finds ways to define himself and maintain his loyalties while circumstances prevent him from leaving the barrio. Even readers far removed from the poverty and prejudice that define his world will see this facet of the Mexican-American experience with empathy through Sammy’s eyes.
- September 1, 2004 
Booklist
The tough but caring family, neighbors, and friends speak in authentic dialogue liberally laced with Spanish that adds texture to the story, and an empathetic teacher and a stand against the school dress code provide a small victory to help Sammy weather the racism and poverty that fuel his emotions and his losses.
"Someone's gonna hurt you. And you're gonna wish you never had a heart." The warning quickly becomes reality as Sammy struggles with his girlfriend Juliana's violent death. Sammy and Juliana's Hollywood is a New Mexico barrio, where Sammy loses more than his virginity and his girlfriend during his difficult 1969 senior year. A good student and an avid reader (his classmates nickname him "The Librarian"), he works hard for his dream of college. One friend is drafted for Vietnam, another dies of a drug overdose. Two gay friends leave town in exile, and Sammy's father is injured in an automobile accident, altering Sammy's plans. But dad suggests that they shouldn't feel so bad about loss: "I mean—it's the only thing we're good at." The barrio setting is as palpable as the wings that beat against Sammy's insides when danger lurks. The tough but caring family, neighbors, and friends speak in authentic dialogue liberally laced with Spanish that adds texture to the story, and an empathetic teacher and a stand against the school dress code provide a small victory to help Sammy weather the racism and poverty that fuel his emotions and his losses.
Horn Book
Written in a poetic first-person voice that incorporates some Spanish into the narrative, Sammy’s story of love, loss, and strong family ties is hard to forget.
Looking back at his teenage years in a New Mexican barrio called Hollywood, Sammy recalls his ill-fated romance with the tragic Juliana, the death of a friend in Vietnam, and the impact of social changes on his school life and friendships during the late 1960s. Written in a poetic first-person voice that incorporates some Spanish into the narrative, Sammy’s story of love, loss, and strong family ties is hard to forget.
School Library Journal
Saenz provides the Mexican-American teen with a voice that is genuine and compelling, realistic in its limitations and nuances as he comes to grips with the death of Juliana, his first love, and the increasingly complex demands and needs of his remaining friends, as well as of his family and neighbors ... This is a powerful and authentic look at a community's aspirations and the tragic losses that result from shattered dreams.
Sammy Santos—responsible, bright, and self-contained—grows up in the Hollywood barrio of Las Cruces, NM, during the last half of the 1960s. Saenz provides the Mexican-American teen with a voice that is genuine and compelling, realistic in its limitations and nuances as he comes to grips with the death of Juliana, his first love, and the increasingly complex demands and needs of his remaining friends, as well as of his family and neighbors. Subplots involve the role of the Church in the barrio, the movement from authoritarian school administrations to the loosening of rules during the Vietnam War period, the realistic portrayal of what happened to too many gay teens during this period (and continues to happen today), the effects of the draft on poor young men of color, the roles adopted by individual teens as they mature within a community's social order, and family ties that require people to choose sometimes for themselves and sometimes for others in the family. Saenz works through all this material neatly and so effectively that Sammy deserves to become a character of lasting interest to both casual readers and literature classes. Expletives appear throughout as do large helpings of Spanish, without italics and not always with English echoed afterward, in perfect keeping both with Sammy's world and his self-perception. His hopes and plans for a better life, beyond the hold of Hollywood are poignant and palpable. This is a powerful and authentic look at a community's aspirations and the tragic losses that result from shattered dreams.
San Antonio Current
The way Sáenz writes, he captures perfectly the cadence, the nuance, of an adolescent Sammy telling the story of "the boy I was when I fell in love with a girl named Juliana," right down to the way he remembers every stolen kiss, every shared moment. In natural, lucid prose, Sáenz captures Sammy's half-formed thoughts, expressed in sentence fragments, and the confusion and uncertainty of an introspective, introverted boy on his path towards becoming a man. Sáenz' has an ear for dialogue, not just the idiosyncratic phrases and expressions that characterize the residents of Hollywood, but also the way that Sammy narrates his tale, in a poetic, lyrical manner that begs to be read out loud and shared with others, placed in the hands of anyone who's ever struggled with the confusion, loss, and contradictions that come with saying goodbye.
This coming of age story starts with a kiss.

As soon as you read the first paragraph of Benjamin Alire Sáenz' SAMMY & JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD, you know that this novel will break your heart, again and again. It's only fair to warn you now, before you get to know the inhabitants of a Las Cruces, New Mexico barrio called Hollywood.

At 16, Sammy Santos should still be too young to have such a profound understanding of love and loss. Innocently, naïvely, he falls for Juliana Ríos, a tough girl with a collection of secrets and eyes of fire. She tells him to be careful, for he's bound to get hurt. And he will. And he does. But he already knows about hurt, he wants to tells her, ever since the death of his mom forced him to take on the responsibilities of an adult while still in his teens. He holds a cleaning job before school, prepares dinner, and cares for his kid sister Elena; in many ways he's more brother than son to his father, a kind, nurturing, hardworking man who's every bit as aware and understanding as Sammy.

Set at the tail end of the '60s, SAMMY & JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD trades the superficial nostalgia and false romanticism of other tales about that summer of love for the livid honesty of emotion. A close friend gets drafted. Another overdoses. Gigi, a spunky Chicana, runs for class president, and later organizes a protest against the school's dress code. Mrs. Apodaca, Sammy's neighbor, cares for her ailing husband and practices her own form of tough love, until she becomes the one in need.

"Things never end the way you expect them to," Sammy says of his path in life. We make plans, our plans change, and we're left to pick up the pieces. Throughout it all, Sammy struggles with letting go. At times he loses himself in the moment, observing but not interacting, while at other times he becomes swept up in events larger than himself, an active participant in an inevitable tidal wave of change.

SAMMY & JULIANA is about finding resolution to those difficult transitions in life: Your first love. Moving. Graduation. Heartbreak. Death. Sometimes their impact comes immediately, other times their full weight sets in days, months, years after the fact. Despite Sammy's best efforts to resist, he's well aware it's in vain. "The living, they forget. But that's what we do. I didn't want to forget. Didn't matter, though, what I wanted. Each day I forgot a little more."

The way Sáenz writes, he captures perfectly the cadence, the nuance, of an adolescent Sammy telling the story of "the boy I was when I fell in love with a girl named Juliana," right down to the way he remembers every stolen kiss, every shared moment. In natural, lucid prose, Sáenz captures Sammy's half-formed thoughts, expressed in sentence fragments, and the confusion and uncertainty of an introspective, introverted boy on his path towards becoming a man. Sáenz' has an ear for dialogue, not just the idiosyncratic phrases and expressions that characterize the residents of Hollywood, but also the way that Sammy narrates his tale, in a poetic, lyrical manner that begs to be read out loud and shared with others, placed in the hands of anyone who's ever struggled with the confusion, loss, and contradictions that come with saying goodbye.
- Alejandro Pérez, 
San Antonio Express-News
You will find no superfluous writing here, only the raw talk of a young Chicano struggling with ethical, religious and emotional challenges. The imagery is so vivid, you’ll find yourself searching your mind for your own memory, a similar situation in a similar space and time.
Book Review: From the ‘60s, with love, angst

In Hollywood, there are no fancy shops or hotels. You won’t see famous actors or musicians around. There are no big houses or expensive cars cruising the streets. Poverty casts a pall over everyday life. Things are pretty bleak in Hollywood. But sometimes, on a clear night, the stars do shine brightly.

This is the Hollywood of Las Cruces, N.M., in 1969. In his latest novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, New Mexico native (and former Catholic priest) Benjamin Alire Sáenz exquisitely captures the mood and voice of a community, a culture and a generation. Sammy is a student at Las Cruces High, and the tension of war and racial unrest is thick in the air. He’s a bookwormish loner who lives with his little sister and dad in a small house in the barrio of Hollywood.

There aren’t too many things to look forward to in his life, but Juliana is one of them. She’s smart and beautiful — and the whole town thinks she’s a tramp. Sammy doesn’t care, he loves her, and even though she doesn’t say it, he knows she loves him. But then, at the beginning of a turn of events filled with tragedy and painful lessons, Sammy loses Juliana and is relegated to continue high school and beyond without her. Through the magic of Sáenz’s words, readers are allowed to ride along with Sammy in a time of turmoil mixed with teen angst. Death seems to have it out for Sammy, and he always has to bear witness to it: the drugged-out friend, the schoolmate drafted to Vietnam.

Sáenz brings the isolation of the desert town of Las Cruces into the painfully bright light of reality; it’s a self-contained place, and dreams that reach past its borders are considered too big to ever come true. In this context, he gives Sammy an incredible voice. You will find no superfluous writing here, only the raw talk of a young Chicano struggling with ethical, religious and emotional challenges. The imagery is so vivid, you’ll find yourself searching your mind for your own memory, a similar situation in a similar space and time. Sáenz, who is a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, seems to get more real here than in previous novels, the complicated web of spiritually and physically connected people in Carry Me Like Water and the psychological drama The House of Forgetting.

Sammy & Juliana comes straight from the streets and the times. Sammy just isn’t on the cusp of manhood, he’s on the edge of an often violent and frustrating world that demands difficult choices and sacrifice. And Sáenz’s lyrical prose provides the soundtrack to that tumultuous life borne of the barrio of a small town.
Miami Herald
The gritty details about drugs, sex, domestic violence, the liberal doses of Spanglish, even the profanity, make this story feel like an authentic portrayal of what it meant to be poor and Chicano in America in the 1960s.
Set in the barrio of a New Mexico town during the Vietnam war, this heart-rending story of love and loss follows Sammy Santos through his senior year of high school. The gritty details about drugs, sex, domestic violence, the liberal doses of Spanglish, even the profanity, make this story feel like an authentic portrayal of what it meant to be poor and Chicano in America in the 1960s.
Children's Literature
This is a moving and convincing description of the confusions of the sixties, combined with the difficulties of growing up Mexican-American and poor... The love story, though over rather early in the book, is very sweet.
Growing up in a barrio in small town New Mexico is an endless series of losses for Sammy Santos—a mother to illness; a girlfriend to a father's anger; high school friends to Viet Nam, drugs, and exile; and plans to the accidents of life. But somehow Sammy survives the sixties with his sense of self and ability to love intact. This is a moving and convincing description of the confusions of the sixties, combined with the difficulties of growing up Mexican-American and poor. Sammy is a hard-working, intelligent, quiet kid who—like his father—is learning not to be afraid to show his love. His becoming a leader is accidental and right. It is one of the best Viet Nam era novels for this age I have read. The love story, though over rather early in the book, is very sweet. I particularly liked the relationship between Sammy and his father. We do not often see books for this age where kids genuinely respect and love their parents.
KLIATT
Set in the 1960s, the novel explores how the counterculture affected youth from a disenfranchised but still conservative background. The prose and plot have tremendous grace and emotional impact. YAs of today can relate. Excellent for cultural studies. Recommended for senior high school students.
This is a sober, moving, coming-of-age story. Sammy lives in a poor, Chicano, small-town New Mexico barrio. Although he has lost his mother, he has what many of his friends don't--a loving, caring father. A serious student, he excels in school but suffers the low self-esteem of a minority teenager whom the "gringo" world deems less capable of intellectual and career achievement. He falls in love with a girl who is living in a nightmare of domestic abuse. He loses her when her alcoholic father murders the entire family. Still, his ever-steady father, an irascible old lady who lives next door, and his friends sustain him. Set in the 1960s, the novel explores how the counterculture affected youth from a disenfranchised but still conservative background. The prose and plot have tremendous grace and emotional impact. YAs of today can relate. Excellent for cultural studies. Recommended for senior high school students.
Letters from students
“I just finished reading your book and I have to tell you the truth. Your book is the best one I have ever read. When you’re reading it makes you feel like if you were there living it. It’s very realistic. I like how it has to do with love, being responsible, and getting mature. If they would make it a movie, it would be great.”—Erika De Santiago

“The most important thing I liked about it was that even though Juliana was dead, you still mention her throughout the book. I enjoy that. It was important to not just forget her. Gigi was my favorite character. She was great: a very strong girl; fearless of things. Her character just made me want to act it out: so intense, so real. I was feeling her.”—Jennifer Garcia

“In conclusion, so far this has been one of the best book I’ve ever read. I would like for more authors to write books like this. When I was reading the book I couldn’t let it go, I just wanted to keep reading it. Even though the end was really sad because almost everyone died, and Sammy had to take care of Elena and Mrs. Apodaca’s daughter. Even my teacher cried at the end.”—Daniela Muniz
El Paso Times
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.
“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.
Albuquerque Journal
Sammy just isn't on the cusp of manhood, he's on the edge of an often violent and frustrating world that demands difficult choices and sacrifice. And Sáenz's lyrical prose provides the soundtrack to that tumultuous life born of a small town barrio.
In Hollywood, there are no fancy shops or hotels. You won't see famous actors or musicians around. There are no big houses or expensive cars cruising the streets. Poverty casts a pall over everyday life.
Things are pretty bleak in Hollywood. But sometimes, on a clear night, the stars do shine brightly.
This is not the Hollywood of Southern California. In Benjamin Alire Sáenz's novel, "Sammy & Juliana," Hollywood is the name of a barrio in Las Cruces, N.M. Sáenz, a former Catholic priest, is himself from the Las Cruces area.
In this his latest novel, set in 1969, Sáenz exquisitely captures the mood and voice of a community, a culture and a generation.
Sammy is a student at Las Cruces High, and the tension of war and racial unrest is thick in the air. He's a bookworm-ish loner who lives with his little sister and dad in a small house in the barrio.
There aren't too many things to look forward to in his life, but Juliana is one of them. She's smart and beautiful— and the whole town thinks she's a tramp.
Sammy doesn't care, he loves her. And even though she doesn't say it, he knows she loves him.
But then, at the beginning of a turn of events filled with tragedy and painful lessons, Sammy loses Juliana and is relegated to continue high school and beyond without her.
Through the magic of Sáenz's prose, readers are allowed to ride along with Sammy in a time of turmoil mixed with teen angst.
Death seems to have it out for Sammy, and he always has to bear witness to it— the drugged-out friend, the schoolmate drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Sáenz brings the isolation of the desert town of Las Cruces into the painfully bright light of reality; it's a self-contained place, and dreams that reach past its borders are viewed as too big to ever come true.
In this context, he gives Sammy an incredible voice. You will find no superlative writing here, only the raw talk of a young Chicano struggling with ethical, religious and emotional challenges.
The imagery is so vivid you will find yourself searching your mind for your own memory, a similar situation in a similar space and time.
Sáenz, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, seems to get more real here than in his previous novels, "Carry Me Like Water" with its complicated web of spiritually and physically connected people, and the psychological drama of "The House of Forgetting."
Sammy just isn't on the cusp of manhood, he's on the edge of an often violent and frustrating world that demands difficult choices and sacrifice.
And Sáenz's lyrical prose provides the soundtrack to that tumultuous life born of a small town barrio.
Michigan Reading Journal
Please do yourself and your students a favor and search for this beautiful work of art ... Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood deserves top billing in our school libraries. Find it! Buy it!
Cinco Puntos Press is a very small press. This book does not have the distribution of small presses like Front Street Books, let alone the distribution of larger publishers. Please do yourself and your students a favor and search for this beautiful work of art. Bilingual students will be pleased to see many Spanish phrases whose meanings are never translated except by context. English-speaking readers will understand, perhaps, to a small degree what it feels like to be outside the spotlight, which is the point. Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood deserves top billing in our school libraries. Find it! Buy it!
El Paso Inside & Out Magazine
Like a ballerina whose graceful dancing effortlessly belies her athleticism, Saenz writes as if he is merely documenting the lives of a small segment of America, lifting the cover for us to peer down on the struggles of this group of young adults as they play out before us.
Including the one with the famous sign, there are 10 cities in America named Hollywood. There’s a Hollywood in England and one in Ireland. Hollywood is also the fictionalized name of a barrio in Las Cruces. That is the Hollywood where Ben Saenz sets his new book. Saenz, a native of Las Cruces and the author of children’s books, short stories, poems, and two other well-received novels, teaches in the Creative Writing program at UTEP. Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, though classified as young adult fiction is an absorbing read for anyone.

Set in the late sixties, the novel telescopes seamlessly from a focus on Sammy Santos, an appealing student at Las Cruces High, to his diverse group of friends, obsessed with finding love, and out to the country as a whole as it struggles with Vietnam, drugs, and the changing morays of an unstable period. Sammy’s transition into adulthood, his emotional highs and lows mirror the country’s transition into the latter half of the twentieth century. But Saenz never overdoes it. Like a ballerina whose graceful dancing effortlessly belies her athleticism, Saenz writes as if he is merely documenting the lives of a small segment of America, lifting the cover for us to peer down on the struggles of this group of young adults as they play out before us.
Paper Tigers
... The ultimate message is how hope and memory combine to free even the most tormented soul. Readers who speak Spanish will enjoy the juxtaposition of two languages throughout the novel.
Sammy is a Chicano teen living in a barrio in New Mexico called “Hollywood,” the irony of which is never far from the surface of a novel about Sammy and his friends, and how they make the transition from boys to men during an exceptionally trying time in U.S. history. Set in 1969, the Vietnam War always looms as a threat, while racism and the violence and poverty in his neighborhood define his daily life. When Juliana, the love of Sammy’s life, is brutally killed by her father, the loss triggers painful memories of Sammy’s mother’s death years earlier. Both women have strong, positive influences on Sammy even after their deaths. He is also buoyed by a positive, caring father and sister, and motivated by a genuine interest in doing the right thing according to his Catholic faith. His religious journey is authentic, full of questions that are never answered. Instead, the world sends him mixed and confusing messages about his potential, and who his friends are.

Sammy is smart, the other kids call him The Librarian, but he faces constant reminders that he is a spic, “an animal,” and destined to end up right where he is. While the graphic violence and strong language make this a book for older readers, none of the content is gratuitous. Rather, it is indicative of the anger and oppression Sammy and his friends feel. One by one Sammy’s friends are taken from him, through death, the draft, and painful family decisions. There are several delightfully hateful adults, including a priest and a teacher who give Sammy plenty of opportunities to learn to rely on himself and his family. While the many deaths are depressing, the ultimate message is how hope and memory combine to free even the most tormented soul. Readers who speak Spanish will enjoy the juxtaposition of two languages throughout the novel.
AudioFile
Gritty as the unforgiving New Mexican desert, Sammy's story makes compelling listening for older teens. This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
In Hollywood, New Mexico, 16-year-old Sammy Santos falls in love with Juliana, a girl with dark secrets and fire in her eyes. The novel is far more than a coming-of-age story as Sammy deals with first love, poverty, the War in Vietnam, drug overdoses, murder, and racism. Robert Ramirez's performance captures Sammy's introspection, honesty, and moments of poetic lyricism, creating a living, breathing teenager on the edge of awareness. Ramirez is just as at home handling street language and poetry. Liberal sprinklings of Spanish are read so skillfully that the non-Spanish-speaking listener understands the gist of what's being said. Gritty as the unforgiving New Mexican desert, Sammy's story makes compelling listening for older teens. This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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