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Debut novel captures Chicano youth’s struggle

Matt Mendez signs, discusses “Barely Missing Everything” at 3 p.m. today at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There are a lot of painful “ifs” in the rocky life of Juan Ramos, a high school senior who lives in an El Paso, Texas, barrio. Maybe too many for Juan to juggle.

If he can stay away from a street gang, he’ll survive another day.

If he can avoid a jail sentence after getting busted fleeing a party, then he might aright himself.

If he can pass algebra, he’ll graduate.

If his rolled ankle heals – he injured it while running from the cops – Juan may have a shot at a college basketball scholarship.

If he could only meet a man named Armando on death row he believes is his father, then it would put him at ease. Juan’s mother, Fabi, has long delayed an explanation of her son’s paternity.

Juan is the protagonist in Matt Mendez’s absorbing debut novel “Barely Missing Everything” that produces anguish and loss.

Fabi and Juan’s longtime best friend JD Sanchez are additional principal characters. JD is also on the basketball team, but he dreams of being a filmmaker. As a sign of interest, he buys a pocket-sized video camera from a thrift store for $20. He also owns a collection of bootleg movies on DVD.

Fabi is a flashy, self-centered presence. She’s currently with Ruben, the owner of a used car dealership and the latest in a string of boyfriends.

At her son’s high school basketball game, Fabi embarrasses Juan, shouting “¡Mijo! ¡Oyes, Juan! ¡Mijo! We’re going to meet you outside. … Novio wants a cigarito. This game’s over anyways.”

Juan abhors his mother’s novios, “recognizing them for what they were: cheap nobodies wanting to use and make trash out of his Má.”

The book captures the struggles of several Chicano families, some who live in the central El Paso barrio, and of one upwardly mobile family who lives in another neighborhood.

“It’s a stretch to call the novel autobiographical but I drew on experiences I had growing up. I grew up in that exact same neighborhood (as Juan did),” Mendez said in a phone interview from Tucson, Ariz., where he lives.

“It’s a tough neighborhood to be from. There aren’t a lot of jobs. People work long hours.”

The author also wanted his characters use the language that is actually spoken in the barrio in order to convey the real flavor of the community. The book is chock full of Spanish street slang but not so much that it would slow English-only readers. However, the dialogue is spiked with obscenities.

Mendez injects his own creative metaphors, sometimes humorously, in the narration. In this passage, for example, Juan and JD are trying to figure out what car they’ll “borrow” to drive to see Juan’s assumed biological father in prison. Juan suddenly changes gears, first needing to know if he passed his algebra test. That upsets his buddy: “JD stopped short and looked ready to fight, his whole body tense. Like a really pissed-off giraffe.”

Though the novel is aimed at young adults (ages 14-18), it should be of interest to readers of all ages.

Mendez’s first work of fiction was “Twitching Heart,” a collection of short stories released in 2012. A review of the collection described Mendez as “one of the new stars in the next generation of Chicano literature.”

By day, Mendez is an aircraft maintenance superintendent with the Arizona Air National Guard.