The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora Summary

Pablo Cartaya

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

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The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora Summary

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The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (2017) by Pablo Cartaya follows the misadventures of thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora, who lives with his large family in Canal Grove, one of modern-day Miami’s Cuban enclaves. Summer is just starting. For Arturo, this usually means it’s time for hanging out with his friends Bren and Mop, “swinging on banyan trees, looking for manatees in the canals […] and jumping around in Bren’s bounce house.” But surprises are in store this summer. When he becomes lovesick over Carmen, a girl visiting his family, and then a ruthless real estate developer plots to raze the Zamora’s successful restaurant, Arturo must find the courage to speak up or lose everything he values.

Arturo’s grandmother, Abuela Veronica, and his grandfather, or abuelo, left Cuba in the 1980s to settle in Miami. Together they started a restaurant, La Cocina de la Isla, which, after nearly two decades in operation, has become a neighborhood institution. Arturo’s extended family, including aunts and uncles, all live in the same apartment complex, and all participate in making the restaurant a success. At the heart of La Cocina is family, and when the neighborhood regulars stop in for a meal, “they felt like family too.”

After Abuelo died, Abuela succeeded him as head chef. Now in failing health, Abuela still greets customers but has yielded the kitchen to Arturo’s mother, Caridad. Although Arturo was hoping for a summer job as her sous-chef, he is working at the restaurant as a lowly dishwasher.

“Uncle” Frank Sanchez and his daughter, Carmen, have arrived from Spain to spend the summer with the Zamoras while they grieve the recent death of Carmen’s mother, a close friend of Caridad’s. Arturo hasn’t seen Carmen since they were both small. When she greets him with kisses on his cheeks, he is surprised by the burning reaction in his stomach and disconcerted to be so attracted to a girl he thinks is his cousin. (She’s not. She is his mother’s god-daughter.) Arturo feels tongue-tied and clumsy whenever he is near Carmen, who sports colored braces and is passionate about the nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary poet, José Martí.

Arturo and his abuela share a close bond, and she notices his fancy for Carmen. When Abuela sees Arturo with a book of Martí’s poetry, she realizes the time has come to give him a box of items his abuelo wanted him to have. Inside the box, Arturo finds photos and letters his grandfather wrote directly to him about his life in Cuba, his love for Abuela, and his inspiration from poetry. Indeed, Arturo is astonished to discover that Abuelo, too, admired José Martí.

While La Cocina is closed on Sundays so the Zamoras can share a family meal, the rest of the week it is crowded with diners. To accommodate their many loyal customers, Caridad and her sister Tuti plan to expand La Cocina. When they apply to the city to lease the adjacent vacant lot, however, they learn they have competition. Wilfrido Pipo, a “flamboyantly dressed land developer with stupendously gelled hair,” has designs on the same lot. He intends to “improve” the neighborhood with Pipo Place, a proposed residential high-rise that “will include a high-end grocery store, […] a ten-thousand-square-foot gym, spa, an Olympic-size pool,” and many more luxuries.

The city council plans to hold a hearing in three weeks to decide the fate of the lot. During that time, Pipo wages a campaign to win the support of Canal Grovers. For starters, he hosts a party at his office where he displays a 3-D model of Main Street. Arturo and Carmen attend the party incognito – Arturo wears a “Hulk” costume – and they study the model. On the corner of Main Street, Pipo Place towers above familiar neighborhood businesses, but La Cocina is missing. Arturo realizes that Pipo’s project annexes the restaurant property, which the Zamora’s only lease from the city.

Arturo mulls over the letters his grandfather left him. In one letter, Abuelo divulges that “the most courageous thing” he ever did was confess his love for Abuela. To accomplish this nerve-wracking feat, he followed José Martí’s example and wrote Abuela a love poem. Abuelo ends his letter extolling the power of poetry: “Letting poetry speak for me was the most unexpected thing I had ever done. I hope one day you will get to do the unexpected, Arturo.”

Fortified by his Abuelo’s words, Arturo admits to Carmen that he likes her. Her awkward silence mortifies him. Arturo considers his admission an epic fail.

Meanwhile, Pipo is winning over the Canal Grove community with enticements like a festival replete with free sushi. Arturo’s teenaged cousin Vanessa is a budding political activist, and together with her “Green Teen” friends, she stages a protest at Pipo’s self-promoting festival. Determined to remind local residents that La Cocina has nourished the growth of their community, Vanessa holds a sign that reads, “Family is Community – Community is Family.” The Zamoras distribute pamphlets featuring Abuela’s face and those of their neighbors, and Arturo starts to wonder about Pipo’s family. Impulsively, he shouts across the crowd surrounding Pipo, “Why don’t you ever talk about your family?”, provoking the developer to hurl insults at the boy.

When Arturo returns home after the festival, he learns that Abuela has been hospitalized. Shortly thereafter, she dies. Arturo helps his mother prepare the funeral meal, and the whole neighborhood shows up to honor Abuela and express gratitude for her contributions to their community.

The day of the city council hearing arrives. Caridad takes the podium to explain how La Cocina became a cornerstone of Canal Grove, and others rise to speak in support of the restaurant. Discouraged by the council members apparent enthusiasm for Pipo’s proposal, Arturo expresses his dismay to Carmen. Suddenly, she kisses him and tells him he should speak before the council. Electrified by the kiss, Arturo bravely stands and reads aloud a poem he wrote in memory of Abuela. The next day, the council votes against Pipo Place and passes an ordinance limiting the height of city buildings. La Cocina survives and thrives.

Family, friendship, and community are important themes in Cartaya’s novel, as is the value of self-expression, particularly in the form of poetry. An author’s note at the end of the novel provides information about José Martí, a nineteenth-century “leader of the Cuban independence movement from Spain and a renowned poet […].” The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora received the 2018 Pura Belpré Award.