Boy's poignant search leads back to family, in book 'Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish'

The book captures the complex and bittersweet experience of adolescence: the difficult journey toward a goal and the unexpected outcomes at the end.
Author Pablo Cartaya.
Author Pablo Cartaya.Leah Wharton

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Rigoberto González

A young boy ventures to Puerto Rico to search for the father who abandoned his family. But along the way, he learns a valuable lesson about the importance of taking a close look at what he has before venturing out in search of something else.

This is the premise of "Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish," (Viking Books, 2018), a new book from young adult writer Pablo Cartaya, which shines as an exceptional story about loss and love, about redemption and forgiveness, and about learning to value one’s imperfect family.

This book follows Cartaya’s debut young adult novel, "The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora" (Viking Books, 2017) which received wide critical acclaim and was named a 2018 Pura Belpré Honor Book. Set in Miami, his first book traced the heroic efforts of a young Cuban American boy determined to save the family restaurant from greedy land developers.

In his second book, Cartaya charts a very different journey with a character that’s still uncertain about who he is and what direction to take. Marcus Vega wants answers about his family so he decides to look for his estranged father, who is living in Puerto Rico. The problem is that no one seems to know Mr. Vega’s exact whereabouts on the island.

Pablo Cartaya's book 'Marcus Doesn't Speak Spanish.'Courtesy: Pablo Cartaya / Peguin Random House

Living in Springfield, Pennsylvania is not easy for Marcus Vega, a 180-pound, 6-foot tall eighth grader who has become the man of the house after his father deserted the family. His mother works long hours behind the ticketing counter at the Philadelphia International Airport, so it’s up to him to care for his little brother Charlie, who has Down Syndrome.

But Marcus has also taken it upon himself to bring in some extra cash for the cookie jar with an enterprising scheme: charging kids who seek “protection from bullying on their walks to and from school.”

But the school bully also knows Marcus’ weak spot: the R-word, the derogatory language used against his brother Charlie, “the one word that sends [Marcus] into a blind rage.”

That act of violence nearly costs Marcus a suspension, so his mother proposes a five-day family trip to Puerto Rico “to regroup.” But for Marcus, who always thinks ahead, a fantasy begins to blossom that his parents will reconcile and that the household will thrive again with the patriarch back in his place. His mother warns him, however: “that’s not how these stories end.”

During their trip, as Mrs. Vega tries to reconnect Marcus to his ancestral heritage and culture, Marcus insists on sending his father emails that remain unanswered. The pleas are hopeful but heartbreaking. Not for Charlie, however. He appears to benefit the most from meeting relatives and making new friends who appreciate his talent for dance.

But for Marcus, the experience is double-edged: while the family tree becomes clearer and expansive, it still lacks a key component — his father.

As Marcus is introduced to his cool relatives, like Tía Darma, who “buses kids from all over the island and teaches them about farming,” and the lively Tío Pepe, who keeps the party going on the beach, it becomes uncomfortably evident that Marcus is heading toward a disappointing reunion with Mr. Vega.

Each inquiry into his father’s history reveals one more discouraging fact about this man who “tries a whole bunch of things but never seems to finish any of them.” His mother attempts to spare Marcus that letdown repeatedly, but someone wisely counseled him: “you need to see the landscape for yourself to decide what to do.”

The author acknowledges that the book was written pre-hurricane Maria, which doesn’t lessen the relevance of a book set on the island before the catastrophe. In fact, readers will wish Cartaya had dedicated more pages to describing the various settings, which are now changed.

The family travels from Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) to the towns of Orocovis and Manatí and finally to Dorado, but Marcus’ focused mission narrows his vision, keeping him from truly absorbing Borinquen’s breadth and beauty on the periphery.

The only other qualm readers will have with the book is the misleading title, which appears to forecast an impending culture clash or identity crisis. At every step of the way, however, Marcus’ hosts are nothing less than hospitable and accepting of him, creating little conversation about the tensions between island Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans from the states.

If anything, the big lesson for Marcus was not about cultivating what he didn’t have (a father figure, a second language) but about appreciating what was always within reach — the affection and support of his mother.

Marcus Vega’s visit yields mixed results, which captures the complex and bittersweet experience of adolescence: the story lies in the difficult journey toward the goal and in the unexpected outcomes at the end.

For Marcus, this means feeling that “I’m finally part of something that’s way bigger than me,” a change in perspective that reflects a new stage of maturity. His emotional growth finally catches up to his physical one.