A Parrot Struggling to find an Umbrella in the Oven of Life

Victor Martinez. Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
"Perico, or Parrot was what my dad called me sometimes. It was from a Mexican saying about a parrot that complains how hot it is in the shade, while all along he's sitting inside an oven. People usually say this when talking about ignorant people who don't know where they're at in the world. I didn't mind it so much, actually, because Dad didn't say it because I trusted everything to much, because I'd go right into he oven trusting people all the way - brains or no brains." - Manny (Parrot in the Oven, 51-2)

Book Review
Victor Martinez's 1996 award-winning work tells the story of Manny Hernandez - an Hispanic youth in a large poor family living in the projects. Much of the story centers around Manny's difficult relationship with various members of his family. Manny's father, usually referred to as Manuel or Mano, is an unemployed abusive alcoholic. "...I thought about calling Dad to see if he'd give me a ride home, but figured he was still numb form drinking the night before and would probably scold me for the hell of it. Besides, Mom wanted to keep it hush about me attending a school across town. SHe thought schooling could graduate me into places that make her eyes gleam. Dad thought I should cut school altogether and get a dishwashing job. Start on the bottom and work your way up, that's what he'd say. Only most of the people he knew started on the bottom and worked their way sideways." - Manny (Parrot in the Oven, 38)

Manny has an older brother, Nardo, who is buff but often lazy and a bit dim compared to Manny. "Dreams fascinated Nardo. He could analyze people's sleep. Grandma claimed this was because he had a birthmark in the shape of an eagle's wing on his shoulder. Nardo said that before leaving for heaven the dead sometimes sprinkle messages inside the ears of those they love. He didn't know why Grandma would want to leave a message for me, but the dream sounded lke a warning. I would die alone, he predicted, in a very cold place." - Manny (Parrot in the Oven, 86) Nardo often brings Manny to jobs with him which makes Nardo a more efficient worker but causes the brothers concern that the bosses will fire them or other problems will arise. One of these jobs is in a field where many illegal immigrants are working. Immigration services show up and arrest all of the illegals, leaving Manny and Nardo to ponder the situation. "I thought of the baseball glove, all clean and stiff and leather-smelling, and of myself in the cool green lawn of center field. I imagined already being on the baseball team at school, and people looking at me. Not these people picking chilies or those sent away in the vans, but people I had yet to know, watching me as I stood mightily in the center field. I looked down at the sacks, then far out in the distance at the clouds of dust folding and unfolding where the vans were pulling away. I wondered how long I'd have had to work to fill those sacks. The weariness of it stretched as wide as the horizon." - Manny (Parrot in the Oven, 20)

The family also has a young daughter, Pedi, and an older daughter, Magda. Pedi is the typical toddler, filled with energy, eager to please, having little awareness of the family's situation. When Manny's father becomes angry with the mother, he takes his rifle in a drunken rage and goes searching for bullets to shoot her. Pedi helps him find the bullets, believing that if she finds them then the Manuel will teach her how to use the gun. Manuel then runs around the neighborhood, banging on a neighbor's door where he believes his wife is hiding. She runs out the back door and begins hiding behind trees to avoid being shot. "Then I heard the police. Not the siren of the police or the blink blink of quick lights, but the hush of deep-threaded tires pressing against asphalt, an engine that wound and gathered like a pwerful animal. I felt a pressure in my throat, and my legs were full of cement. "Get back in the house," I yelled in a thick voice. "Get back in the house!" - Manny (Parrot in the Oven, 60) The Hernandez family races back to the house and the wife takes the gun and hides it. They then deny the existence of a family firearm. After the police go and find it hidden in a bedroom the seize the rifle and then arrest Manuel for possessing a weapon without a permit. After Manny is released from jail several days later, he uses all his money and borrows from friends to pay a "$150 dollar lawyer to get for a $50 dollar rifle."
The story also focuses on the challenging relationship that Manny has with the students at his school. He is often bullied by older, bigger students, but he never has too many problems because he has a bigger older brother.

Martinez then moves on to focus on the challenges facing Magda who is impregnated by a boy that she doesn't particularly like, but that she goes with out of loneliness. The baby does not make it and the medical problems resulting from this cause some seemingly significant problems for Magda that frighten Manny and the family. It becomes clear that Magda's decision to rebel against her family and sleep with a boy during her teenage years parallel the decisions that her mother made that resulted in her living in poverty married to an alcoholic, just trying to scrape out a meager existence.

Manny becomes particularly aware of his social awkwardness and perceived inferiority through his experiences with a young pretty white teacher at his school (Miss Van der Meek) and the daughter of Nando's boss, Dorothy. Mr. Giddens encourages (forces) Dorothy to invite Manny to her birthday party in spite of the fact that Manny won't know anyone there (in addition to the huge difference in their social status). "...Dorothy had a smooth, floating look about her as she walked quickly away, like she was being lifted by the applause in a theater full of people. I remember then a vase I once saw at the Kern Museum. It belonged to some rich people who first settled into town, and it was beautiful. Not the vase, actually, but everything inside and around the vase. The tinted petals of the roses, the white flowers, tiny as gnats, and the deep glowing nut-color of the mahogany table. Everything seemed so perfect. And the vase held it all together. I remembered thinking if somebody were to come in at that exact moment and lift that vase off the table, the whole room and everything in it would collapse." - Manny (Parrot in the Oven, 168). Manny develops a crush on Dorothy that is quickly shattered when he attends the party and doesn't fit in with the crowd and then is treated rudely by Dorothy's male friends.

Eventually, Manny decides to join a gang leading to the climactic moments of the story.

The book won the 1996 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the 1996 America's Award for Children and Young Adult Literature, and the 1997 Pura Belpre Award for Children's Literature.

There are several Spanish words in the text and several remarks by various characters entirely in Spanish, many of which are not translated in the book. For assistance with translation, see BabelFish or GoogleTranslate.

Book Review (University of Texas)
Parrot in the Oven at Amazon

Recommendations for Teachers
Parrot in the Oven discusses many topics such as race, culture, family values, and discrimination. There are some topics that may seem too intense for students to read, especially young high school/late middle school students. These topics include sex and violence. However, since the novel includes a great deal of episodes, students will be able to identify certain traits that they share with the character Manny. Teachers can use this idea to show that even though we do not all have the same cultural background, we all share certain life experiences and have common problems regardless of race. The back of the novel also includes a question and answer write-up with the author. This material may help with group discussion because the students will be able to understand exactly what the author wanted to share in his novel.

The genre of this novel is an literary fiction-- a solid coming of age story. It may be beneficial for students to read this book if they are assigned to write autobiographical essays or practicing character profiles as well. Students will understand how to write an essay that will engage the readers and get a message across by modeling Martinez's work. Students will also learn how to incorporate experiences within the family or school and examine how those experiences have impacted their lives after examining the story structure of Parrot in the Oven.

Check out UrbanDreams--it features a chapter by chapter overview for the teacher, suggested lesson plans, questions for the class, and even has ready-made handouts and assignments for free!

About Victor Martinez:
picture courtesy HarperCollinschildrens.com
Victor Martinez was born into an impoverished family in west Fresno, California. It was here, growing up with his eleven brothers and sisters, that he formed his Hispanic identity and began to mentally record events for his eventual writing. Despite their monetary struggles, the Martinez family remained strong, avoiding the pitfalls that plague project housing. 11 out of the 12 Martinez children all hold B.A.s or higher; Victor attended California State University and Stanford.

Martinez's literary career didn't come easily. His first poem was tossed away to the trash can by a grade school teacher who didn't mind shaming him in front of the class. Self-described as a "student who sat in the back of the class" and as someone who wasn't "that high of an achiever", it took some time for his skills to get recognized. In 1996 however, Parrot in the Oven won the National Book Award and got him major recognition for YA literature.

Parrot in the Oven is Martinez's first novel and only major publication. In 1992 he did publish a collection of poetry titled "Caring for a House" with Chusma House Publications, but it has since gone out of print. Many of his works have been published in other various collections and anthologies. He now lives in San Francisco with his wife, Tina Alvarez, and writes six hours per day.

Biographical Information taken from HarperCollins, PBS, and The Guardsman

Worth noting: it is difficult to find information about this particular Victor Martinez as there are two other famous Victors Martinez (one a bodybuilder and the other a Cleveland Indian catcher). The author is distinct from the other two gentlemen.
Here you can watch some middle school students act out the chapter "The Bullet" in a YouTube video they created as a homework assignment (Keep in mind that acting is a great way to may text come alive for students!):

Additional Resources:

La Lucha:
La Vida:

--By Chris Williams, Greg Hendricks, and Kim Straub. (Check our our review of Smack here!)