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Rolling the R’s (R. Zamora Linmark)

February 16, 2010

This is the second time I’ve read this book, and I’ve come out of it with significantly different conclusions. Last summer, I read it for a class and in our discussion many of my classmates talked about it as a sex-positive book — one that not only portrays sex in a positive light, but specifically child sexuality. With that in mind, I was a bit surprised to find that while I had tended toward agreement with my classmates less than a year ago, upon revisiting the novel I realized I actually thought it was not something that could be considered “sex-positive.” Yes, many of the characters have sexual encounters in the novel. Yes, most of those who do seem happy about it. But no, I don’t think Linmark is asking his reader to be happy about it. Katherine Katrina-Trina Cruz, a fifth-grader like the rest of the main characters, has a boyfriend who’s a high school senior (star of the football team, etc.) and who she has been sexually active with for a while now. But the last chapter, “F for Book Report,” leaves the reader with a sad look at Trina’s relationship. While she claims to be happy and says that she feels sorry for a character in the book she read who remains a virgin, Linmark’s narration invites us to feel sad for Trina instead. Every time she praises her “babe” in this chapter, it’s clear that she believes what she says, but that what she says is not the truth. For instance, she says that “Erwin not dicking around when he say he love me […]. And he no like met get pregnant, too. So everytime we go all the way, he always bring his box of rubbers cuz he no like me get pregnant too young too soon. I love him so much” (148). While Trina seems to think that Erwin’s words are sincere and his actions gallant, they hardly seem so to the reader. Her insistence that he’s not “dicking around” when he claims to love her highlights its false ring. Also, the way she proudly explains that he uses condoms as a consideration for her falls short of making the reader sympathetic to Erwin. Instead, the reader is able to see what Trina is not: that Erwin is using her, that he doesn’t love her, and that he most likely cares about whether or not she gets pregnant because of how that would affect him and his football playing (not because of how young she is). Similarly, Edgar is extremely proud about his sexuality, and flaunts it for all to see. This is definitely something I would see as a positive portrayal in this book — homosexuality is not denigrated here, and in that sense I’d say you could argue the book is sex-positive…except that it’s not sex positive. Sure, Edgar’s having a sexual relationship with Mr. Campos, the school janitor, and he lets Vicente witness this relationship. However, it’s a “secret.” The only reason he lets Vicente watch is because he’s made Vicente his special project: he recognizes some of Vicente’s desires and thinks that he can help Vicente by forcing him to come out of the closet. But when Vicente reveals the secret of Edgar and Mr. Campos to the rest of their friends, Edgar denies it, saying “I would never give my youth up that fast. I not that stupid. ‘Sides, he stay married already. Vicente just jealous cuz I can get what I want and he no can” (135). The fact that he denies it (and then gets angry enough to call Vicente a faggot) indicates that he isn’t proud of his relationship with Mr. Campos. Instead, he tries to hide it by giving reasons that can be interpreted as the very reasons he’s not willing to admit to the relationship: he’s given up something he can’t get back, it isn’t a smart thing to do, the man is old enough to be his father, and he can’t get what he really wants (Scott Baio, or a young and attractive lover). That Edgar, who is usually so flagrantly proud of his accomplishments (everything from the Christmas presents he gives to the music he records off the radio) is not proud of what he does with Mr. Campos in the janitor’s closet after school, and the reader can’t really feel happy for him even when he purports to be happy himself. I will say this, though: Linmark’s novel may not ask us to be happy about the imbalanced relationships these kids are engaging in, but he does ask us to be happy about their sexuality itself. Edgar has found happiness in being who he is — and doing so in the open, for all to see. Trina has also found happiness in her attractiveness, unlike her teacher (who is her foil in many ways). Orlando Domingo, the school’s high achiever, finds happiness in dressing up like Farrah Fawcett (in “Kalihi in Farrah,” 22-25). Each of these kids has a sexuality, and when they embrace it the results are viewed in a positive light. When others take advantage of that sexuality, the results are viewed in a negative light. The most explicit example of this is Vicente and his encounter with Roberto Freitas in “Mama’s Boy” (138-139). Vicente, who hasn’t yet come to terms with his sexuality, has a sexual encounter forced on him and his experience is wholly tragic. Early in the novel, the chapter “Rated-L” (16-19) makes a significant point about truth and lies that runs throughout the entire novel: when characters tell the truth and follow their hearts, they are rewarded with happiness; when characters lie and deny their hearts, they are punished with misery.

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