Martinez, Victor. 1996. Parrot in the
Oven: mi vida. New
York: HaperCollins Publishers. ISBN: 0-06-026706-2.
In beautifully written vignettes, Manuel
(Manny) Hernandez, a Mexican-American teenager, shares his coming of age in a poor, dysfunctional family living in projects
in a California locale. Dad is an unemployed alcoholic who stresses the whole
family with his verbal abusiveness. Mom is a long-suffering martyr who wants the best for her family but who lacks the courage
to leave her husband. Manny is the second oldest boy in a family of four children. Lacking role models, Manny views his siblings
honestly and learns from them, including his older brother, Nardo, who cannot hold a job, and his sister, Magda, who undergoes
a grueling miscarriage. Manny tries on many identities while searching for his own. He experiences a humiliating evening
at an “all white” party and a close brush with the police shortly after joining a gang. Somehow, despite all the
life chaos, Manny has developed common sense and a heart, and the reader leaves feeling that Manny will find his way
first novel, Parrot in the Oven is the winner of several prestigious awards, including the 1996 National Book Award
and the 1998 Pura Belpre Author Award. The author creates believable characters, and he makes readers care about Manny.
Martinez also colors his work with fresh, poetic imagery. For example, when seeing a girl he admires, Manny says,
“Dorothy looked cool and fresh, as if carved from night air. The way her shoulders lifted…the way the hem of her
skirt fluttered, as if the air itself was swishing out of her way, touched my skin with a strange warmth, like I was being
deliciously licked all over by tiny tongues of flame (179).” Publishers
Weekly notes, "Martinez's honest voice, and descriptions sprinkled with elegant imagery, offer a rare and consummately
beleivable portrait of barrio life" (Pub. Weekly, 1996).
in the Oven is rich with cultural markers including names, community, food, family, and language. Martinez does not
address physical attributes, clothes, celebrations, religion, or music. The main characters and the father's favorite place
have Hispanic names: Manuel, Bernardo, Magda, and Rico's Pool Hall. Extremely poor, the family lives in projects surrounded
by many other Hispancis such as the obnoxious Garcias. Early in the story, Manny and Nardo earn money by picking chili
peppers, working side by side with Mexican migrant workers. The family sits down to a dinner of "some potatoes in red
chili sauce and corn tortillas" (49). The family sticks together despite all their problems, and the family is close to Manny's
grandmother. In addition, Spanish words and slang are introduced throughout the text.
For example, when Manny introduces his brother, he says, "Now my brother had what you'd call a sixth sense. 'Es muy vivo,'
as my grandma used to say..." ( 3).
With themes such as alcoholism, family
abuse, gangs, teen pregnancy, and racism, this novel would be an excellent vehicle to stimulate classroom discussion for students
in junior high and above. One weakness is that Martinez makes us guess Manny and
his siblings’ ages as well as the exact location of the story. This reviewer would have appreciated more details so
she could better visualize the characters and setting.