Literature about “brown weirdos,” as Celia C. Pérez describes young Latinos in the U.S. who acculturate in non-stereotypical ways, are hard to come by, but in the Mexican-Cuban author’s debut children’s book, “The First Rule of Punk,” she presents the punk rock-loving Latina character that quirky brown girls have long awaited.
The book, published by Viking Books for Young Readers in August, follows 12-year-old María Luisa O’Neill-Morales, or, as she prefers to be called, Malú, a half-Mexican, half-white angsty middle schooler. She just moved a thousand miles away from her father, who she idolizes, to Chicago with her mother, who she often clashes with. Malú’s mom, Magaly, or, as her daughter refers to her, “SuperMexican,” wants the tween to be “less punk rocker and more señorita.” At school, Malú’s black nail polish and Doc Martens become fodder for mean popular girls and grounds for suspicion by her principal.
Feeling like she’s drowning in a pool of clichés, superficiality and her mother’s unappealing traditions and history lessons, Malú holds on to what her rocker father told her was the first rule of punk: always be yourself. With this in mind, she and three other misfits start a punk band called the Co-Co’s. The band’s name is a play on coconut, after cool-girl Selena Ramirez hurls at Malú for being “brown on the outside but white on the inside.” But while the band is a way to resist school conformity and her mother’s stuffy cultural customs, it ends up also introducing her to the oft-forgotten history of Mexicans as co-creators of punk culture. Through this discovery, Malú realizes that her love for the unorthodox doesn’t mean she has to abandon her Mexican-American heritage.
“It’s about embracing all the mismatched parts of yourself and learning how they fit together,” Pérez, a Miami-raised, Chicago-based community college librarian, tells mitú of her book. “Malú is able to reconcile the different parts of her identity through punk because it gives her the freedom and the tools to explore and to create, to learn and to embrace who she is.”
While “The First Rule of Punk” is not autobiographical, the bicultural writer behind it shares some similarities with her protagonist. Like Malú, who makes zines to express herself, Pérez has been a part of the do-it-yourself zine scene for 20-plus years, an arena she entered because of her own love of punk music. And as a brown daughter to immigrant parents growing up in a city that has one of the highest populations of Latinos, she too was misunderstood.
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“There’s a line in ‘The First Rule of Punk’ where Malú says that her mother sees the anger but not the beauty in the music she listens to, and that’s how I think some people approach punk. They see angry, disgruntled, disaffected young people. But punk is also creative, energetic, and affirming,” Pérez says. “It’s these characteristics that drew me to it in the first place. Sure, I love a fast, loud, aggressive song, but in all my years identifying with punk I’ve seen how cool it is when people take initiative to create what is missing and what is needed in their worlds.”
It’s Pérez’s hope that youth like Malú, those who exist beyond the binary and whose interests and experiences don’t fit neatly into a box, can see themselves in this character and feel affirmed.
“A big part of Malú’s journey involves figuring out how to be happy being herself, but also how to find a community that supports her and how to create what she doesn’t see. These are all, in my opinion, not only punk ideas but also messages that are important for all kids as they grow up and begin to struggle with peer pressure and societal expectations and figuring out where they fit in the world,” the author says.
While the pressure to fit in starts early, Pérez says that it’s heightened during middle school years, a time when young people begin to separate into groups and really begin “feeling the heat of peer pressure.” That’s why this book is written for middle school-aged children. She wants young Latinos to have literature that can help them make sense of these experiences and encourage them to be themselves — always. But, with its universal themes, she also hopes that it’s a book non-Latino children can pick up to relate to and expand their world views.
“We need books that empower kids and help them develop a sense of curiosity and empathy,” she says.