>Looking for a good read this Labor Day weekend? Consider Mexican High, a fascinating novel about Mila, an American girl who spends her senior year at an exclusive high school in Mexico City when her diplomat mom is assigned to Mexico. Mexican High is written by my first writing instructor (and full disclosure, friend) Liza Monroy. Liza stopped by CUSS to answer a few of my questions about the book:
You clearly state in your author's note (which I found very funny) that the book is only "marginally inspired" by your experience at a high school in Mexico, but some of the most compelling parts of the book to me were the ones in which Mila talks about the inequality in Mexican society. Yet Maggie (Mila's mother) seems rather clueless about the local culture, preferring to think of Mexico City as similar to her experiences many years before at the beach. How much of that is something that you observed, and has it impacted you?
Thanks for saying that about my author's note! I meant it as a humorous takeoff on those lawsuit-prevention tactics. That dynamic between Mila and Maggie is intentionally representative of the tension between how we tend to perceive Mexico from the U.S. and the realities of daily life there. Maggie tells Mila to get a new wardrobe with lots of tropical colors, and Mila refuses. The fashions in Mexico City are more akin to those in Paris than Cancun. Since Maggie spent time in a beach town, she imagines the whole country as being like that. Her heart is in the right place, blending in with the culture, but she takes it to an unfortunate extreme, like when she paints the house she lives in with Mila bright orange, yellow, and pink to look more like Frida Kahlo's.
When I first moved to Mexico City I had no preconceived notions, other than at over seven thousand feet, and temperature lows dipping into the 40s, it wasn't going to be a beachy climate, so I rejected the tropical-colors idea which did, in fact, come from my mother, who would probably appreciate if I reiterated here that the character Maggie isn't based on her. I took my mother's career and some of the funnier kinds of things she said and gave those to Maggie. But from there I created a monster, so to speak.
I also grew up in the 1990s, and I also loved how the book captures the pop culture from that time. Did you feel that the era was essential to the story that you wanted to tell?
I wanted to tell the story of the years I spent in high school in Mexico City, originally, which happened to be in the 90s, when the country was in political and economic turmoil. I lived there from 1993 to 97, so I had more years than Mila, who only goes to Mexico for her senior year. I chose the 93-94 year because it was the most dramatic. The pop culture trickling down from the States -- grunge and so forth -- was also really popular in Mexico City. It just so happened that the music and style that came about during that time period captured the tone and mood I had in mind for the novel. The 93-94 period saw the assassination of the favored presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, a near-eruption of the Popocatepetl volcano, the EZLN revolutionaries in Chiapas, and the peso devaluation from 3 to a dollar to around 10. It was chaotic. Nirvana might have been the perfect soundtrack. I went back and re-listened to all the music from high school, the same way I re-read the news from the time.
Later on, I saw Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal interviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival for their documentary, Chavez, about the famous Mexican boxer. They talked about Chavez's personal narrative having a similar arc to 1994, the year of corruption, devaluation, eruption, and revolution. The book was done by then, but when I look back on it now, Mila's turbulent year tracks Mexico City's, too.
"Mexican High" reminds me in a lot of ways of "Gossip Girl" in that parents are largely absent, there's a lot of drug and alcohol use, the characters are wealthy, fashion is pre-eminent, and sex is rampant, but your novel is marketed as an adult read rather than young adult. Is there a target audience that you had in mind, and what age reader do you think is appropriate for your book?
When I was writing the novel, I wasn't sure whether, if it were to be published, it would be young adult or adult. I just wrote the book I wanted to write and didn't really worry about it. I figured if it got out there, it would find its audience and a publisher would be better schooled in how and where to market a book than I was. I think the general idea is that young adults will read "up" -- meaning they will browse the non-YA sections of a bookstore, whereas adults wouldn't read YA. There was a great essay by Margo Rabb in the New York Times Book Review called "I'm YA and I'm OK" about the conflict between what was YA and what was an adult book with a teen narrator or protagonist. Were MEXICAN HIGH marketed as Young Adult, I would have been just as happy because I loved reading as a teen, and those books shaped my love of literature, so to be thought of as a voice that could reach teenagers would be something I'd think of as an honor because it's a tough audience to engage.
Ultimately, the novel was decided an "adult" book. I think my publishers were considering it in the vein of PREP and other novels with teenage main characters that have adult themes. Also, since Mila is looking back on her senior year from a time when she's older, which I actually had all worked out in an epilogue that was cut out, the perspective is more of an adult going back than a seventeen-year-old in the present. If she was seventeen in ninety-three, she's now thirty-two -- older than I am!
Although there is a lot of sex in the book, there is also a lot of hypocrisy about women as sexual beings versus the need to stay pure, and I was surprised by the sexual violence. The rich kids also have parents who engage in corruption and illegal activities, and I thought there was a connection between the two types of duality in people's lives. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Well Mexico is a Catholic country, so the attitudes about sex conform to that. However, the politician going to church on Sunday with his family could also be secretly organizing an assassination on Monday morning. There's an innate duality to who the teenagers and parents are to their families, and who they are to their peers. That's a universal concept but in Mexico City, and in my novel, it's a more extreme case, because at a school in the U.S. or basically the rest of the world, you don't have the bodyguards outside of the school, protecting the kids from kidnapping. You don't have the small inner circle of power who have such intricate relationships --- in the book, the man Mila believes could be her father may or may not have had her boyfriend Manuel's father assassinated. It's a reality many of the kids had to live with.
As for the sexual violence, it's a sad reality of high school that date rapes happen, but the lawlessness of the environment in MEXICAN HIGH makes it easier to get away with. There is a part in the book where a boy's father has medical information intercepted and destroyed. He also might have paid off the doctor who examined the victim. Money was a way to get around things at that time in Mexico. As a character in MEXICAN HIGH says, "everyone's got their hand out."
Thanks again to Liza Monroy for visiting CUSS to talk about her book, Mexican High.