I thought I would love this as I"m Cuban American, but truth be told, I didn't finish it, so I delayed doing the review. I thought, right up front, that like other writings of Hijuelos, the control of language, the flow and vividness, is excellent. He chooses to use his protagonists' voice, not a distancing one, so you're in there with Rico. Sometimes, as good as a writer may be, the connection lags. For me, there it is. But that doesn't speak to the book so much as my age or me not being the right reader for it at this time.
This was not Mambo Kings, for readers seeking some similar experience. Still, it's not aimed at an adult audience. It's Y/A. And maybe knowing that colored things (no pun intended) for me. The language is raw for YA (or maybe I"m just old fashioned). If you think the younger person in your family can handle a coming of age with more of the starkness of a real life full of dysfunction and racial/ethnic issues, then here you go. If you think obscenities are not for your younger reader, then find another read.
I will add that military school was often a threat to the misbehavers back in my Cuban-immigrant heydays. It's interesting to see that crop up. I don't know if "white" families often resorted to this, but this definitely was one solution to the unruly/problem child back in the day. Not saying it was a great idea, just saying it was REAL.
While that was real, I will say that lighter skin and hair was VALUED in my Cuban growing up days in the 60s and 70s--whether NY or Miami. I've had ladies in my family of the fair skin and natural blond hair and light eyes type (granted, few), and they were not ostracized or picked on or treated poorly in the family or in the "ghetto" we immigrated to. Like Rico I experienced the unpretty side of NY. (Have no idea re Wisconsin, but do of Miami, where the Cuban presence was and is strong). LIght skin was desirable, even in guys--los rubios, the rare ones. And girls sometimes dyed their hair with lighter streaks or pale blond or lighter shades of brown. Hair relaxing was not unknown. Weird skin lightening concoctions were not unknown. Dating a whiter guy/blond guy was sometimes, disgracefully, referred to as "improving the race." This, granted, was my perception/experience. Not being light or blond, I couldn't say what it would have been. Rico is the opposite side...the "green monkey" amongst the brown. So it's a different perspective.
Strong writing. Strong voice. Difficulties of growing up. The outsider. New places. For the YA reader who can take a dose of the less than ideal realities.