Published by Slant on February 1, 2019
“Llorona was no harmless little pigeon. She was the lechuza, the owl you see just before someone is about to die, the one that haunts you in your dreams and you never want to see in real life because it means you are about to lose someone you love.”
Llorona is the only girl Güero has ever loved. A wounded soul, she has adopted the name of a ghost from Mexican folklore. True to her namesake, Llorona cast Güero away with the coldness of the apparition she has become. But Güero—though he would never admit it to his friends—still wants to get back together with her.
Güero spends time with his friends Ángel and Smiley—members of the HCP (Hispanics Causing Panic) gang—roaming the streets of the South Texas border towns they inhabit, trying to forget Llorona even as she seems to appear around every corner.
Over three days Güero’s increasingly violent confrontations with Llorona’s current boyfriend will jeopardize the lives of Ángel and Smiley and the love he hopes to regain.
As events begin to accelerate toward their conclusion—and gang signs are thrown as both threats and claims of identity—the question arises: will Güero throw the HCP sign, or will he throw off that life? Güero’s life will be irrevocably changed by violence and loss, but who will he lose, and will he—somewhere along the way—lose himself?
Why did you write this book?
I wanted a book that spoke to my experience as a young Latino and the experiences of my Latino students. The books I tried to give them were either inauthentic caricatures of Latinos or did not speak to the tough reality many of these students face on a daily basis. The one book they did relate to year after year was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I thought, what if I give them a modern Chicano Outsiders? What if I gave them a novel telling a completely different story about teens living on the fringes of acceptable society, but whose hopes, desires, and regrets were as relatable to my white students as they were to my Latino students? It was something I knew I had to write myself.
Is this book autobiographical?
The main part of the narrative is completely fiction. However, virtually all the back stories, the memories of the main character, Güero, are from my own experiences and a few are from some of my former students. I did have a student who tried to kill herself like Llorona, the female lead, by attempting to jump off of the stadium bleachers. Other scenes are from my life, like getting jumped by a gang of kids and fending them off, ultimately gaining their respect. Also, all of the characters are based on real kids from my youth and from my years as an educator. The visual appearances and personalities of the students have been mixed and matched, but they are all true to my life.
Why did you title the book Throw?
In Mexican Spanish slang, we have a term, “¡Te avientas!” Literally, it means “You throw,” but the connotation is that you do well at something, that you excel. In Latino gang culture, it has a few different meanings. When you “throw down” it means you fight. When you make gang signs with your hands, you “throw” for that gang and thus claim them as your identity. For the main character, Güero, one of the questions he has to answer for himself is which cultural definition he will he embrace. Will he do well in life or will he fight and claim gang membership as his identity?
The folktale ghost, La Llorona, plays a role in this novel, as the female main character has taken on the name as her own. Why is this significant to the novel?
Where I am from, we all grow up hearing these stories, particularly the ones about La Llorona, The Weeping Woman. The legend, which goes all the way back to Spain and perhaps even further, tells us that a woman drowned her own children because a soldier she was in love with would not marry her because of them. She then commits suicide and is condemned to roam the earth, weeping and searching for the children she has lost. Karina “Llorona” adopts the name and persona of this ghost because she too feels damned and feels guilt for what she has done and for what has been done to her. For Karina, the name “Llorona” is a talisman protecting her from feeling or being hurt ever again. If she is a ghost, no one can touch her.
Family seems to play a large role in Mexican culture, yet the main character Güero’s family isn’t really seen until the epilogue in the novel. Why is this?
You have to understand Güero’s definition of family. He says it early on, referring to those in his circle as “people who are closer than blood to me.” Llorona, his friends Ángel and Smiley, are closer than his parents, closer than his extended family. Though Güero has both parents living at home, they are virtual strangers because neither of them understands the inner life of their son. Many teens, whether they are connected to gangs or not, feel a closer kinship with others their own age, and they become a sort of surrogate family, adopting an almost tribal identity defined by new names, common language, dress, social rules, and their own shared history. In the epilogue, having lost the identity he once had with his friends, he comes back to his extended family and reconnects with them.
The names of the characters in Throw seem to be important to their identity. What is the significance of names in the novel?
Güero’s family name is Cirilo, a name given to him by his mother, in honor of her brother named Cirilo who died in utero. This is how I got my name Rubén, as my mother named me after her baby brother who died the same way. I wanted to honor this uncle I never knew by giving my main character’s name the same back story. Many of the characters have two names as they have two competing identities, one from their birth family and one from their new family, their circle of friends. At the end of the novel, Llorona gives up the name of a ghost, calling herself by her birth name, Karina, as well as accepting a new name from heaven given to her through forgiveness.
Who is this book for, what kind of audience(s) will enjoy this book?
The complexity of some of the language, the themes of identity, coming-of-age, and the lesson of loss will appeal to the literary reader who enjoys the bildungsroman novel as they will see this done in a different light, happening over three days in the character’s life and in a culture they may not be familiar with. The fast-paced and inexorable narrative, the love story, the authenticity of the setting, dialogue, and characters will appeal to readers of young adult fiction wanting a book that doesn’t talk down to them or pretend that their lives are perfect and speaks to their universal experience.
If I’m going to tell you the story of how I lost two people who were closer than blood to me, I have to begin here in Mission, Texas, during the summer between the sophomore and junior years of my life. This story begins as it ends, with me, Cirilo Izquierdo, waiting for what all of us spend our whole lives waiting for: to not be alone anymore. The time inbetween the waiting when we get to be with others, to laugh or to cry or sit in silence with someone next to us always ends and then we wait again. Like a sentence or prayer or a beautiful verse, there is always punctuation, the little endings of the connections to others in the world, forever the pauses where we leave or someone leaves us, and then again the waiting.
It was Saturday and I was on my parents’ front porch, waiting for Ángel and Smiley to pick me up to go to La Plaza Mall and then Tommy’s Hobbies. Even though it was still morning, it was already hot outside. Summer days like this, the buzz of chicharras was so loud in the trees you could hear them wherever you were, in your house, or even driving in a car. So many mornings I woke up and this was the first sound I heard. I would hear the cicada’s song and know it would be hot outside, which it almost always was in the Valley, except when we got a cold front once in a while.
Where I lived was not exactly barrio, nothing like where the brothers Smiley and Ángel lived over on the South Side. Since Pop had taken over our grandfather’s business, Izquierdo and Sons Painting and Drywall, he had gotten himself out of La Zavala, the barrio where he used to live in McAllen, the bigger town next to Mission. Back in the day, my Pop had been an old school gangster, the captain of a crew called Los Diggers in the Zavala, made up of his brothers and other kids from the neighborhood. Since many of his friends had died or had been put in jail, Pop had gotten it together, spending all of his time at the boxing gym and away from the vagos until he met and married Mama and they moved away. He made sure that he, Mama, and I would never have to live anywhere like that, in houses without air-con, little shacks that got broken into or shot at, little houses like where my Pop grew up, my Papa Tavo and Abuela Guadalupe’s over on Ithaca Avenue. Pop always said that the one thing in life he was happy about was that he hadn’t moved us into another poor neighborhood like the South Side, and that I would never be in a gang. He didn’t want us to live anywhere like the Zavala or where Ángel and Smiley and my other friends did, where there were tags on all the walls, tagger crews’ names in barely readable but skilled and original letters. Driving through their neighborhood, you could also see the messier HCP tags that were made without skill or pride, graffiti that marked the boundary lines, representing the Hispanics Causing Panic, a gang that Ángel and Smiley and some of my other friends were in since junior high. HCPs weren’t like the other big gangs you heard about on the West Coast or across the Valley with veteranos running the show, getting the youngsters to deal or commit crimes. It was mainly just a bunch of locos who ran together, who got initiated, mostly getting jumped in by the other HCPs for a full minute, vowing to always be down for the boys no matter what.
Praise for Throw
“Rubén Degollado joins the list of honored writers exploring this ancient and mythic Texas land. His novel shimmers and burns with extraordinary light. I can hear the people talking in my dreams.”
—Luís Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
“Throw completely transported me back to the 1990s Rio Grande Valley and the critical turning points in a teenager’s life. In his unforgettable protagonist, Güero, Rubén Degollado beautifully depicts the many-layered beings we all are: vulnerable and tender-hearted beneath a hard exterior as we navigate a world of love, family, and friendships—all in hopes of finding a place to belong.”
— Natalia Sylvester, author of Everyone Knows You Go Home and Chasing the Sun
“There are books written with the mind and books written with the heart. Throw by Rubén Degollado is written with both. It’s not just that you see a familiar reality presented intensely, accurately, la pura verdad, the way you know it really is. It is also that you see it, finally, the way it should be seen, the way it should be understood and loved, by all.”
—Francisco X. Stork, author of Disappeared
“Ruben Degollado’s debut young adult novel Throw . . . captures many of the obstacles young men and women face growing up: gangs, alcoholism, broken homes, the need to be loved; at the same time, Throw lifts the spirit, reminding us of the importance of forgiveness, acceptance, and letting go. . . . The tale of La Llorona, her love, loss, and inability to forgive, is a part of the Mexican-American experience and Degollado’s fresh take on an abuelita’s cautionary tale captures its essence and spins it with a modern perspective for future generations to enjoy.”
—Malín Alegria, author of Estrella’s Quinceañera
“I have waited, literally, a decade or more to see this book in print. Here it is…I am not alone any more. Degollado has done what only a handful in my beautiful Río Grande Valley of South Texas have done: captured it in its full glory and grit to share it with the world: among them, Américo Paredes, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Narciso Martínez, Freddy Fender, and Genaro González. Now, Rubén Degollado.”
—Dr. René Saldaña, author and professor, Texas Tech University
Texas native Rubén Degollado’s debut novel invites readers into a cultural context unfamiliar to many and yet the coming-of-age story it recounts is timeless and universal. His fiction has appeared in Image, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bilingual Review/Revista Bilingüe, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Relief and the anthologies Bearing the Mystery, Fantasmas, Juventud, and Texas Short Stories. He has worked in both public and private schools in Texas, Oregon, and Florida as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Rubén now works as an educational consultant, coaching leaders and providing professional development to improve outcomes for students. He lives in Texas with his wife Julie and their three children.