♦ In a city where “cocaine is king,” can a teenage gang leader dare to dream of another life? Newark, New Jersey. 1984. Beatriz Mendez and her older brother, Junito, lead the powerful Latin Diablos gang. Everything changes on Beatriz’s 15th birthday when a Haitian gang leaves Junito for dead and Beatriz badly injured. A Like Vanessa (2018) spinoff, this page-turner opens dramatically with a visceral fight scene that introduces a fierce protagonist. Beatriz is a Spanglish-speaking Puerto Rican badass with “a blade tucked inside [her] cheek…to use on anybody who tries to step.” In the aftermath of Junito’s death, Beatriz struggles to maintain her standing as a Diabla, raise her grades (mostly D’s and F’s), and support her grief-stricken zombie of a mother. Though “dancing ain’t gonna pay the bills,” she allows her childhood dream of becoming a dancer to glimmer through her tough exterior each week when watching her favorite TV show, Fame. Told in the first person, this narrative is full of passion and humor, with flashbacks rooted in Beatriz’s beloved salsa music. Realistic newsprint clips effectively add context. A friendship/romance with a new boy contributes depth while avoiding predictability. As Beatriz transcends her trauma and self-doubt—”No such thing as a gangbanger turned famous dancer”—readers experience a necessary portrayal of a young Afro Latina woman who makes her own path, one that isn’t straightforward, told in an extremely realistic voice. Inspiring and fresh.
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Fifteen-year-old Beatriz Mendez lives a split life between school and gang life, caring for her mother and enforcing gang rules, dancing with an attractive Haitian boy, and carrying a razor blade tucked in her cheek. Set in the 1980s, Tami Charles’s gritty Becoming Beatriz shows Beatriz’s limited choices and the strength she finds to create new ones.
Beatriz, her brother Junito, and her mother leave Puerto Rico for New York City to escape her father’s abuse. Junito turns to dealing to augment the scarce income from their bodega. He forms and heads a gang, the Diablos, which leads to his death in the book’s opening pages. His mother’s grief renders her a vague, emotionally absent character. The dancing that once defined Beatriz now feels worlds away.
Beatriz is also in New York at a time when Fame was at its height and Debbie Allen served as the toughest taskmaster every dancer ever wanted. The only remaining bond between Beatriz and her mother is the television show, and the power of hope that is defined within it is evoked by the plot. Tryouts come to the city, and Beatriz is lured back to dance. But gang life—blood in, blood out, the trap set for Beatriz with her gang initiation at twelve—still looms.
Beatriz is an intense lead, fully aware of the fact that the people and things that she loves could destroy her. Her narration is sympathetic, even through difficult events. She wriggles through narrower and narrower choices, always striving to find another way. In the tough and hopeful Becoming Beatriz, gangs and hatred can destroy families from the inside out, but talent and grit help people to heal and rise.
It is the mid-1980s and Beatriz worships the TV show Fame. Her mom brought Beatriz and her brother, Junito, to New Jersey from Puerto Rico to escape their abusive father who particularly targeted Junito for not being masculine enough. Beatriz dreams of dancing professionally like her inspiration, Debbie Allen, but when Junito is murdered by Haitian gang leaders, she steps up her involvement with the Diablos, their Newark gang. A Shakespearean twist brings the beautiful and nerdy Haitian Nasser into Beatriz’s life. Nasser’s multifaceted brilliance inevitably wins Beatriz’s heart and leads her back to her passion and commitment to music. Family and school dynamics are spot-on as authority figures range from completely clueless to vitally aware. The language is improbably tame at times for a girl who conceals a razor blade in her cheek every day, but the accurate and immersive ‘80s music, fashion, and historical references outweigh these scattered lapses. Some of the Spanish dialogue is defined by context, but English monolingual readers may need to translate a few phrases or miss out on details. Similar to The Hate U Give, this book offers readers painful and intimate experiences with injustice through an intensely effective first-person narrative. VERDICT Compelling romance with insightful commentary on racial, cultural, and LGBTQ discrimination alongside the realistic depiction of gang dependency and its impact
—School Library Journal
Beatriz, first introduced in Charles’ Like Vanessa (2018), wanted to dance and become famous for it, until the day of her fifteenth birthday, when a rival gang drove by her family’s bodega and murdered her brother, Junito. He’d been the head of the Diablos, and Beatriz a blossoming Diabla, though she still harbored her dreams of meeting Debbie Allen and making her Fame dreams come true. After her brother was taken from her, though, she stopped dancing. It takes her a year of floating along with the Diablos and trying to do what she thinks Junito would have wanted before she goes back to dreaming and, ultimately, becoming whom she was meant to be. Though the situations and story line are heavy, and the average modern reader might not easily relate to a gang in the ’80s, Beatriz’s often funny, descriptive first-person narrative is a welcoming avenue into her story. Readers with diverse backgrounds will feel at home with Beatriz’s identities as Latina, Black, and American, and everyone will be cheering her on, right up until the satisfying, heartwarming end.