What would you do if you saw your friend get arrested for a murder you are sure she didn’t commit? This is the dilemma our teenage protagonist, Rafael “Flaco” Herrera, finds himself in at the start of Diamond Park, Phillippe Diederich’s third novel. Flaco, a first generation Mexican-American high school senior, doesn’t want to cause any additional stress for his mother or aunt Ana Flor, especially after his cousin Carlos is killed serving in the military in Afghanistan. Both women work hard to provide for the family: Flaco’s mother by working two jobs and using food stamps to save up for a house of their own and Ana Flor by running the household, cleaning, and cooking. Flaco has dreams of becoming an artist and moving to California, but he doesn’t want to disappoint his mother, who wants him to become “a doctor, a lawyer—or an engineer.”
In either case, Flaco is not eager to break any rules. But his hot-headed friend Magaño convinces him and their friend Tiny to skip school and take the bus from their neighborhood in Houston, Texas, to Diamond Park to buy a used 1959 Chevy Impala convertible — Magaño’s dream car. When Flaco runs into his neighbor Susi on his way out the door, she invites herself to join their adventure, and Flaco, who has a crush on her, can’t say no. What could have been a day of typical teenage shenanigans quickly escalates; the boys leave Susi with Magaño’s padrino Rayo and two other men at Rayo’s house while they pick up the car. When they return to the house, they find a cluster of cop cars and Susi covered in blood, handcuffed, and being escorted into a police car. All four friends are all taken in for questioning by the police. Rayo has been murdered and Susi was found at the crime scene holding a knife and covered with blood.
The stakes are high: Susi is the main suspect in the murder, and she’s refusing to talk; Tiny is undocumented and afraid of being deported; and the man who likely committed the murder, a coyote and gang member named Anaconda, fled the scene. These four Latinx teens are facing not only the systemic racism of the Diamond Park police force who “just wanna win cases […] guilty or not,” but also the fear of being targeted by a violent criminal who has good reason to keep them quiet. And who knows what trouble they could be in with Susi’s strict “control freak” dad. The police let the boys go, but keep Susi in custody for questioning. In order to clear Susi’s name, Flaco and Magaño head to the Mexican border to find the missing suspect. What follows is a suspenseful yet absurd, rollicking road trip.
While the story gets increasingly wild and exaggerated, the main characters are complex and believable. The dialogue is convincing in its casual vernacular as it switches seamlessly between Spanish and English. Flaco is a likable and relatable narrator who approaches difficult subject matter with thoughtfulness and compassion. That being said, certain secondary characters, such as Anaconda and Rojo, are portrayed as caricatures that play into dangerous stereotypes of Mexican coyotes, narcos, and gang members. They’re described as “dark” with tattoos and scars. And even though Diederich seems to want to address misogyny and sexism in the book, Diamond Park easily fails the Bechdel test. The women in the book just don’t seem to exist outside of their relationships with men. And his portrayal of sex workers is unflattering and oversimplified; Flaco recalls Carlos telling him “the women who sold themselves were sad creatures. […] Who would have sex for money by choice? It sounded gross.”
Despite its flaws and all the violence and trauma portrayed in the book, it’s really the strength of community, family, and friendship that shine through. Joining the ranks of other social justice-oriented young adult novels, Diederich is ambitious in all that he tries to tackle in this 288-page book: racism, gang violence, drug addiction, immigration policy, violence at the border, the injustice of the legal system, mental health, the impacts of poverty, the lack of rights for migrant workers, and the resilience of marginalized communities. He does most of this seemingly with ease, adding nuance to conversations socially engaged teenagers should already be having in 2022. Diamond Park is a quick read due to its edge-of-your-seat plot twists and the accessibility of its language and subject matter.
By Phillippe Diederich
Dutton Books for Young Readers
Published March 8, 2022