Is love enough to keep Sandra and Manuel together?
“Are you saying that your parents–” Elizabeth stared at Sandra. “Sandy, do you mean that you want to keep your relationship with Manuel a secret because your parents would object to the fact that he’s Mexican?”
My senior year of high school, I wrote for our school newspaper's entertainment section – I reviewed movies and restaurants. Once when trying to convey the delightful authenticity of a local Mexican restaurant, I noted that I was greeted at the door by a "jolly Mexican gentleman." Our staff advisor (think Mr. Collins, only angry and less handsome) returned it to me with one edit. The quote above was circled in red, and written next to it was a note: "borderline racist."
These words sprang to mind when reading Caught in the Middle. You see, I'm not sure there's a way to write about it without getting "borderline racist" stamped across the words. This book is about Sandra Bacon doing something her parents consider unthinkable: dating Manuel Lopez, a Mexican-American.
The book itself minces around stereotypes of Mexicans by making them all positive: the Lopez family is huge, making their "cheerful, cluttered" house full of life, unlike Sandy's boring, stuffy home. They throw big family picnics and parties, warmly welcoming Sandy into their fold, while Sandy continually puts off telling her own parents about Manuel's existence, certain they'll disapprove and hurt his immense, macho pride. And don't forget the bold, colorful Mexican heritage fiesta that the town is throwing! It's going to be a festive, upbeat blast, even if the Bacons don't like it.
So, while casting the racist Bacon parents as ignorant villains (the book refers to them as "ignorant" quite frequently), it still puts their racist opinions in print. To the Bacons, Mexicans in general are just "those people," "hot-tempered" and prone to "starting riots." Which, on second thought, sounds like kind of an abnormal stereotype. Maybe that's why the author puts aside the specifics of what the Bacons object to after the book's first chapters, leaving Mrs. Bacon to say only that "they're different from us."
Okay, you get the idea. Sandy won't tell her racist parents that she's dating a Mexican-American, and Manuel really resents being kept a secret, especially since Sandy keeps trying and failing to come clean to her folks. When she tries, hypothetically asking “what if I fell in love with a Mexican-American?” her mom is no help: “I have to say that I was thinking last night about what you asked me the other day, when you were talking about what would happen if you fell in love with a Mexican boy. I got so upset I couldn’t sleep. Sandy, if that really happened, I don’t know what I’d do.” Yikes.
Sandy even stops Liz from writing about the new couple in "Eyes and Ears" lest her parents read the article or hear about it through the grapevine. Liz is much chagrinned, but (of course) becomes Sandy's confidant.
Here's where things get good. Manuel wants to go for a ride on Sandy's boat, which Sandy dearly loves. She wants to take him, but knows her prying parents will ask where she'll be all day. Sandy's best friend Jean is tired of being asked to cover for Sandy & Manuel. In need of a new patsy, Sandy asks Liz to come with them on the boat ride, saying that Manuel wants to get to know Liz better. Liz thinks this is weird (because it is), but agrees. Sandy then tells Manuel that Liz really wants to come along. Manuel is bummed that Liz is crashing his romantic day, but he's a nice guy, so he obliges.
Are you still with me? Perfect! See, now Sandy can tell her parents that she's going to the lake with Liz, and it'll be true! Meanwhile, Manuel thinks Sandy's told her parents the whole truth at last. And perhaps everything would have gone off without a hitch, if it weren't for one huge, jaw-dropping, life-threatening hitch.
The boat explodes.
It starts as a simple engine problem. Sandy's not worried when she can't get the boat to start back up after sitting out in the lake for a while. But then there's an explosion, and Manuel and Liz are thrown into the water. But Sandy was tinkering with the engine when it exploded, and a piece of shrapnel knocked her unconscious. She's stuck on the boat!
Manuel bravely rescues her, and swims her back to the dock, watching all the while that Liz is swimming safely. What a great guy! And surely now that he's saved their daughter's life, the Bacons will welcome Manuel with open arms!
Alas, even half-conscious and badly burned (well, on her hands), Sandra can't give up her spineless crusade of secrecy. She actually asks Manuel to disappear, telling the police that it was just herself and Liz on the boat! After he saved her friggin life! Liz is not keen on going along with this plan, but she does anyway, because Sandy is right there, pleading with her to keep up the lie. The papers and everyone at school think that Liz saved Sandy's life, and that she's a hero — only Sandy, Manuel, and the Wakefield family know the truth.
I expected this charade to end with Liz coming clean to the public, unable to lie anymore for Sandy's sake. It would have been heroic, in a way. But no. Some witnesses saw Manuel slink off at the scene of the explosion (or someone like him; after all, how many young Hispanic men could there be in a Southern California town?). The cops pick him up, accusing him of somehow causing the explosion! Manuel maintains that he is innocent, so the police are forced to bring in Sandy...and her parents.
"Of course," we naively assume, "she's got to come clean about her romance now!" But still, no. This chick has the nerve to look Manuel in the face and say, "I've never seen him before in my life." For a moment, it looks like that's that, and they're ready to lock Manuel up without a trial. But then Manuel utters, "Sandy, how could you?"
Then Sandy starts to cry. Perhaps it was a result of the traumatic realization that her actions have consequences, something she seemed to be previously unaware of. She confesses to her parents, the cops, Manuel, even to Elizabeth, who's just slipped in, that she loves Manuel and all her lying was for their love's sake. She was ashamed of her parents ignorance, and knew they'd never treat Manuel with the kindness that his family has shown her. It's a nice speech, and it almost makes up for the fact that she practically let her boyfriend go to prison for attempted murder, instead of letting the public hail him as a hero. It works. Mrs. Bacon still seems to have some reservations, but she manages to keep from screaming and pointing at the riotous Mexican while her husband thanks him for saving Sandy's life, and announces that Manuel must be a pretty good guy after all.
I am not sure why, after all of this, Manuel still loves Sandy. She seems confused by that fact as well, but it's a happy confusion, and that's really all you need to get by in Sweet Valley.