Written by award-winning, bilingual author Benjamin Alire Saenz from the outskirts of Las Cruces, New Mexico, Chicano novel Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood
(2004) features a protagonist, Sammy Santos, who also comes of age in Las Cruces.
The novel’s setting is a fictional town called Hollywood, whose name the characters recognize as ironic
. Sammy and his friends attend Las Cruces High School, where some of their gringo
teachers are racist. Sammy is a senior in high school in the fall of 1968, scheduled to graduate during the Vietnam War. His best friends include Pifas Espinosa, René Montoya, Joaquín Mesa, Jaime Rede, and Jaime’s boyfriend, Eric. Sammy has lost his mother to cancer, and he lives with his overbearing and protective father and sister, Elena. Sammy is in love with Juliana Ríos, a girl with a dangerous father and an overall difficult life at home. Sammy cultivates a relationship with Juliana during the summer before their senior year, though his father disapproves of Juliana as well as others of his wild friends. Juliana comes to the aid of Sammy’s sister, Elena, when she is hit by a neighborhood boy who intrudes on their ball game. Elena relates the story to Sammy, which endears Juliana to him even more. The Santos’ neighbors are Mr. and Mrs. Apodaca. Mrs. Apodaca (who is very religious) was a friend of Sammy’s late mother, and Sammy tends to Mrs. Apodaca’s garden. The Apodaca’s have a daughter, Gabriela, who is friends with Elena. Mrs. Apodaca's husband dies of cancer, allowing her to bond with Sammy to a greater extent.
One day Sammy hears sirens coming from Juliana’s house and arrives to find that Juliana’s father has murdered Juliana and her siblings. In the wake of Juliana’s death, Sammy takes comfort in books, leading others to nickname him “the librarian” for his reclusive nature and studiousness. Sammy develops a subtle crush on a classmate, Gigi, who has a powerful singing voice. Sammy encourages Gigi to run for class president and helps her write a speech, as they both agree that she would be a good president she is not mainstream like the more affluent students. Among other things, Gigi believes the school’s dress code should be changed. She loses the race because her speech is insulting to the administration.
One afternoon, Sammy and his friend Rene see some gringos fighting. As they approach, they realize that the gringos are beating up their friends Jaime and Eric. When Sammy and Rene intervene, the two are beaten severely themselves. Jaime’s ribs are broken are Eric needs surgery for a broken jaw. Sammy issues a police statement and tells his father about the fight, but withholds the fact that his two friends were caught kissing.
Soon after this fight, another of Sammy’s friends, Reyes Espinoza, dies of a heroin overdose. Sammy leads the cops to his body and feels internally tormented by a pigeon, which represents his inner anguish at the thought of having had a chance to prevent these sorts of tragedies. He suspects that everyone is tormented by a pigeon within, except perhaps Gigi, whose conscience, he muses, takes the form of a bright red Quetzál bird.
Later, another of Sammy’s friends, Pifas, is drafted by the army and all suspect that he will die in Vietnam. Gigi has sex with him before he leaves because she wants him to feel like a man. Sammy wears a black armband to demonstrate resistance to the war, which is especially unpopular with students. Sammy is disciplined and insulted by the school administration for forgetting to wear a belt to school one day. Sammy grows incrementally more disillusioned with his high school and its administration. He and his friends organize a strike that results in Sammy and the others being sent to jail; however, the school administration finally repeals the unpopular dress code. Sammy has a dream in which he sees his dead mother, Pifas, Mrs. Apodaca, and Elena with her friend Gabriela. Sammy gets a letter of acceptance from college, but his father has a stroke and has to go to the hospital. Sammy realizes this likely means that he will have to take care of his family, thwarting his dreams of college. The final part of the novel ends with Sammy’s father and Mrs. Apodaca having died, Rene drafted into the army, and Pifas’s death confirmed. Jaime gets in touch with Sammy, explaining that Eric died in a car accident after the two of them were a couple. Gigi goes to California with her new boyfriend to pursue her dream of music.Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood
won an award from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) in 2005, and remains a gritty and provocative examination of the experience of growing up as a young Latino in the small-town American southwest.