The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader's Guides. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, provided they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are provided here.
Students should organize their essays around a stated thesis, argument, or idea about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should rely on the references to the text.
- Luis Alberto Urrea has said "I write the funniest tragedies in town." He has said about the novel, "[A]lthough it is a painful book in many ways, I wanted to write something that made me laugh out loud every day." Select and write in detail about two scenes in the novel in which Urrea combines funny and painful elements. How does the combination of funny and painful detail affect the tone of the novel?
- Carefully review the scenes in the Tijuana garbage dump (pp. 108-112). Describe the dump, as seen through Nayeli's eyes. How do the words and actions of Ariceli, Don Porfirio, and Atómiko portray different attitudes and feelings about the dump? Describe some of the ways in which they make the dump both a home and a neighborhood. What do you think Urrea intends to communicate to his readers by including these scenes?
- In hero narratives, the protagonists must travel to an unknown place to receive new knowledge and power before they can continue their journeys. Write about the role of Nayeli's "KANKAKEE" postcard, which first appears on page 16. Why is this card important to Nayeli? What impression does she have of the North from the image on the card? How do her experiences in Kankakee differ from her expectations? Why do you think Nayeli decides to leave Kankakee without confronting her father?
- What in the novel surprised or changed your thoughts and feelings about immigration and immigrants who have entered the country illegally? How does Urrea's portrayal of these people differ from their portrayal in U.S. media stories? What are some of the stereotypes about Americans and Mexicans that Urrea challenges on both sides of the border?
- In Tijuana, Nayeli and her friends encounter the border fence—a stark demarcation of two separate countries. Describe the various languages and groups of language speakers they encounter in the borderland. How does the author employ language to suggest that the border has its own unique culture?
- In the media, immigrants are often portrayed with a stereotypical sameness. How does the author use difference (gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, skin color) to challenge this narrow view? Give examples that illustrate your ideas.