Marcelo in the Real World
by Francisco X. Stork
My Head Plays the Most Beautiful Music
It's safe to say that Marcelo's his own strange bird, but strange birds are often the most beautiful. Sure, he has some issues communicating with others; he's on the autism spectrum, and he's had to learn to read human emotion through memorizing how people act and how their body language changes.
Think of it this way: what comes naturally to most people isn't easy for Marcelo at all. As he tells Jasmine's friend Jonah, "I'm not smart. I have been trained. It is training and concentration. Years of learning how to communicate" (23.102). And yet this is the boy who tosses off such genius gems as, "Maybe attraction for another person is like the IM, where body and mind cannot be separated" (23.126).
Speaking of the IM, Marcelo's Internal Music… One of the reasons he has trouble communicating is that the tunes in his head are so much more compelling than anything most human beings have to say. He doesn't see and hear things the way others do. Small talk baffles him, and he's always trying to figure out how to discern the difference between it and large talk. As he puts it, "I hear a lot of 'Then he said' or 'Then she said' and this reporting of what other people have said is retold with a lot of emotion. This I think is the law firm's equivalent of large talk, since emotion is not something that accompanies small talk" (8.4).
To someone with normal language and communication skills, living inside Marcelo's head sounds pretty exhausting, and it's easy to see why he'd rather listen to the IM than try to read other people's emotions and figure out the nuances of their speech.
What's Up With This Boy/Girl Thing, Anyway?
Oof, love and sex. They're hard enough for the "regular" (for lack of a better word) people to figure out, but for Marcelo they're downright baffling. When he meets Wendell, the resident playboy at Sandoval and Holmes, he's both uninterested in and profoundly confused by Wendell's constant skirt-chasing. When Wendell asks him, "Do you notice things like that, Marcelo? You know, when a woman is hot to look at, pleasant to the eyes, attractive? Do you get that urge we all get when we see a good female body?" (7.66), Marcelo has to admit he doesn't. All this stuff is really foreign to the guy.
That's why it's such a breakthrough when he falls for Jasmine, in his own Marcelo way. When he goes camping with her, he says, "I realize for the first time that Jasmine and I will be sleeping side by side. I have never slept with anyone else except Yolanda, when we went to Spain, and then we each had a single bed in a hotel room. This is different somehow. It makes me nervous" (24.43). Crazy cute, right? It's like all the puppies from the Puppy Bowl jumped out of the pages of the book and turned into Japanese stuffed animals. And in forging a "real" relationship despite his difficulties with understanding human communication and behavior, Marcelo has become a part of the real world in a much deeper way than taking a job at the law firm. Take that, pops.
Losing My Religion
Marcelo, like many people with autism spectrum disorders, has what he calls a "special interest," which is to say obsession. His is religion. Even though he's Catholic, his mom has hooked him up with a rabbi friend, Rabbi Heschel, so he can learn about Judaism. But when Marcelo finds the picture of Ixtel, suddenly religion's response to suffering isn't so abstract and intellectual for him anymore. On the other hand, as he becomes more consumed by helping Ixtel and his relationship with Jasmine, the more he interacts with the real world, the less passionate he is about his religious study. Essentially, he's got more pressing concerns.
He recalls a conversation with his Mexican Catholic grandmother, Abba, about a picture of Jesus she had hanging on her wall. He was confused by the fact that Jesus' heart was depicted as a flame, and Abba explained to him, "That's Jesus' heart. It shows how he feels for us. The thorns are His sorrow for all that we suffer, and the flame is His love" (16.5). When Marcelo learns about Ixtel, he feels that flame in his heart for another person for the first time. He knows he has to save her, without even the benefit of a "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelet. He feels responsible for her, and knows it's the right thing to save her—even if he's not perfectly sure why.
You Don't Have to Memorize How to Do the Right Thing
Let's spend some time with Marcelo and Arturo, because they're a perfect example of a parent and kid who don't understand each other. You may be thinking, "Why do I need to read a book about this? I live it!" But imagine for a minute that not only do your parents not get your interests, they speak to you in old English, and you only understand a word or two out of every sentence they say. Then imagine that they spend their days getting rich off other people's suffering, and that you have only a vague understanding of what suffering even is. That's what it feels like to be Marcelo. Rough, right?
When Marcelo finds Ixtel's picture, it doesn't take him long to figure out that this girl needs help. He already knows by that time that Arturo's law firm is pretty shady, and his first meeting with Jerry Garcia confirms it. And this is a pretty big conundrum for our guy. As Marcelo says, "I am afraid that if I talk to Arturo, he will not let me help the girl or maybe the girl will get more hurt" (17.76). That's why standing up for Ixtel by telling Garcia about the Vidromek memo is probably the bravest thing Marcelo's ever done. He knows he has to defy his dad, and he has to do it on the down-low to protect Ixtel. There's a lot at risk, but it's worth.
It's pretty heavy stuff for a dude who's just stepped foot into the real world. Remember, Marcelo went to work at the law firm without putting up much of a fight, even though it meant leaving the sweet job he already had, because he didn't want to disobey his dad. But Ixtel's entrance into the story has raised the stakes big time: "It was like a fire. Here. And here. I touch the top of my stomach, where my rib cage ends and then the middle of my chest. It was like I wanted to fight the people who hurt her. But then I realized that might include my father" (17.61).
Marcelo becomes a better person not because he does what his dad tells him to, but because he sees what kind of person his dad really is and does the opposite. Arturo's made it his business to protect the Big Bad, and Marcelo's determined not to be another Wendell who follows in his father's footsteps.
It's precisely because his dad does the wrong thing that Marcelo takes it upon himself to do the right thing. Ixtel changes his world by teaching him the meaning of suffering and the difference between right and wrong. He changes hers by righting his father's wrongs. When you consider the obstacles he has to overcome just to talk to other people, it's pretty safe to say Marcelo's one of the major heroes of contemporary YA lit.Marcelo Sandoval's Timeline