by Kimi Eisele
For a time, the novelist Matt Mendez had an office at Denny’s.
Late at night, after his shift as an aircraft technician at the Air National Guard, he’d go to one on Tucson’s south side and write until two in the morning. Over cheese sticks and “gallons of terrible coffee,” he drew from his childhood in El Paso to write the story of two Chicano teenagers coming of age in the borderlands.
In the world of table-top diners, Denny’s might be as American as it gets. Logically, Mendez’s debut young adult novel is, too.
Set in El Paso, Barely Missing Everything (Atheneum 2019) follows Juan and JD along with Juan’s mother Fabi, as they navigate the circumstances of their lives. Juan is an aspiring basketball player and hopes for a scholarship to college. His best friend JD yearns to be a filmmaker and takes his camera everywhere. Fabi, who got pregnant as a teenager, tends bar and tries to be a good mother to Juan.
The trouble starts when Juan and JD run when the police show up to a party on the outskirts of town. There was no real reason for them to run, just a split-section teenage choice that puts the plot—and the boys—in motion. From there, they run hard throughout the whole book—away from danger, towards their dreams, or into danger and away from their dreams.
As the boys maneuver the world of El Paso’s Chicano youth culture, the characters confront the systemic racism and poverty that exists there and across America. “They hit it and move around it because that’s the way life is,” Mendez says. “These characters are aware of what’s in the background and they just keep moving.”
Writing El Paso
Born and raised in El Paso, Mendez left at 18 to join the U.S. Air Force. But the city, he says, “is a place wired into my DNA. It was hugely influential to the person I am.”
Language, place names, and the changing landscape of the border town are critical to the story. Here, mothers are amás and friends tease one another with “No seas güey” and “No seas cabrón.”
This language in the novel reflects that of real life. “Teen readers can spot a fake really quick,” he says. So there is plenty of Spanglish and plenty of swearing.
“I want readers to be absorbed by the story. Otherwise I’d be writing an afterschool special. If you’re just trying to give a message, you’re not in the real storytelling world,” Mendez says.
Mendez also wanted to portray El Paso authentically, in present day, which meant capturing changes happening in the urban landscape.
The young protagonists live in the central historic district of the city, a working-class neighborhood in flux. “There are people trying to ‘hipster it up’ and the boys don’t know if they’ll be priced out or not,” he says. “But it’s home to them and they’re really out of sorts when they’re not in that part of town.
When Juan and JD attend a friend’s party in a new development, they notice how big and clean the house is. When Juan flees the cops, Mendez says, “he doesn’t know where to turn in that maze of houses. He’s infatuated by the newness but also aware of what is disappearing.”
This sense of loss echoes throughout the book. As JD and his father drive into the new neighborhood, JD’s father comments on the new tract homes, “…they’re nothing but chicken wire and stucco. They’re no good.”
Later, the boys cruise Glory Road near the University of Texas at El Paso, where JD observes “the short street crawling with nerdy dudes wearing skinny jeans, a sea of beards and glasses,” and feels both contempt and envy for the college hipster life.
Juan’s mother Fabi works at a bar in Five Points, where the clientele has gone from “gente form Juarez, crowds of displaced men and women who’d come to escape the drug war horror show” to the “hipster crowd, who liked to ironically enjoy the dumb tropical themed décor and cheap beer.” The hipsters seem to view Fabi, and her problematic boyfriend, as part of the quaint décor also.
In the story, Juan creates a Tumbler account under the handle BadJuans. In what he calls a “hidden Easter egg” for readers, Mendez has created the account in real life, where he shares snippets from the book along with news articles from central El Paso—“All the things I imagine Juan would post,” he says. “A lot of weird shit happens there.”
The idea for Barely Missing Everything came when Mendez was fact checking for a short story he’d written. On the Texas Department of Justice web site, he came across the profiles of death row inmates. “The death penalty has been a preoccupation of mine,” he says. “Every inmate that is executed gets their last words put up on the site. It’s amazing. I mean, who has their last words immortalized?”
While on the site, he found a death row inmate from a small Texas town who shared his exact same birthday, both the day and year. “The day he was put on death row was same day I graduated from the University of Arizona. What happened in his life that caused our lives to veer off so differently?”
Mendez wrote the inmate a letter, and they corresponded before the inmate was executed. There’s a death row inmate in the novel, and in earlier drafts, he played a more central role, Mendez says.
Over time, the book became more focused on the two boys, and one of their mothers. But the idea of how two lives can unfold so differently–depending on circumstances, choices, and conditioning–stayed with him.
When trying to sell the novel, his agent suggested it might be a book for young adults. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made sense.” And luckily, he adds, “I didn’t have to change anything. The book was seemingly perfect for young people.”
The book contains violence and adult themes, but young people are living with those realities every day, he says. “It’s the book I would have wanted as a young person.”
Reading and Writing Culture
Like the character JD, Mendez also wanted to go film school, but once he got out of the air force, he says, “I needed to pay bills and take care of family responsibilities.”
He had married young—to his wife, Marlo—and the couple moved to Tucson where Mendez got a job with the Air National Guard. While holding down a full-time job, Mendez attended Pima Community College. “I had no idea how to be a college student. My dad didn’t even finish high school.”
To navigate school, Mendez leaned heavily on his wife, who’d enrolled at the University of Arizona. “She told me to go to the registrar’s office and walked me through everything.”
He also got help from instructors and staff at Pima Community College, where he took creative writing classes and discovered Chicano, Latino, and Latin American writers. “I hadn’t read any Chicano writers ever. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street was everything. I wish I’d had that when I was young,” Mendez says.
He also read Dagoberto Gilb, who lived in El Paso and began his writing career there, and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, among others.
Mendez later transferred to the University of Arizona and minored in creative writing to support his screenwriting efforts. After he earned a BA, his professors encouraged him to continue on for an MFA in creative writing, which he did, only to find himself a fish out of water.
“I was totally unprepared for it compared to the other students who’d come in. I’d only had two years of serious writing and reading under my belt. The others were coming from Ivy League schools and years of supportive education,” he says. “I was the only Latino in my cohort and none of the instructors looked like me.”
Once, Mendez recalls, after he’d shared a short story in a workshop, a fellow student asked, “Why do all the characters have to be Mexican?”
“It was a serious line of inquiry. I was like, um, of course they have to be Mexican, that’s my world,” he says.
At that time Mexican American culture and Native culture “seemed really divorced from the University,” he says. “There were a lot of old white guys who’ve since retired and moved on,” he says, “Since then things have changed. They’ve made some good hires.”
Which is important, Mendez says, because young writers—and youth everywhere—need role models who understand who they are and where they came from.
An American story
Mendez’s book came out the same day federal prosecutors charged 50 people—including several Hollywood stars—with influencing college admissions decisions, paying off and bribing officials to guarantee a spot for children at the schools.
The news made him reflect on his characters.
In the book, Juan’s mother Fabi misses her chance to go to college because when she is still in high school her mother dies quickly of cancer with no health insurance. If Fabi had been a little older or had more guidance, Mendez says, she might have been able to go college. The loss of her mother didn’t have to mean losing out on her education too.
In another scene, Juan sits with his Grampá in the car and listens to him talk about his past:
Look. Before I got drafted and went to Vietnam, before they shot me in the head and left me for crazy, I was gonna be an engineer. I had the best grades in school. The best! But I didn’t know I needed to apply to the university before going. To be accepted first. ¿Me entiendes? I thought I could just show up, fill out some papers, and go inside. Nobody ever told me how it was supposed to go.
Mendez knows from his own experience how difficult it can be to get to college, particularly for youth of color who lack resources and guidance. “Depending on where you are when tragedy happens, if you have means you can make it. When you come from those circumstances, small things don’t just derail you, they can destroy you,” he says. “These are real-life margins.”
Mendez hopes his book offers an honest portrayal of those margins. “There are all kinds of issues affecting young people from police brutality to the school to prison pipeline to identity.”
Recently, while speaking on a panel, Mendez was asked by an audience member, “Don’t you think people are tired of issue books?”
The question struck him as odd, one that might be asked only of writers of color. “No one says to Philip Roth, ‘Tell an easy-breezy story,’ or to Tim O’Brien, ‘Don’t tell a war story.’ As a writer, you’re supposed to explore the American condition. America is an issue. This is what happens in the Southwest along the border.”