The Tequila Worm, Viola Canales's first book for children, is part of the recent trend in publishing semi-autobiographical novels chronicling the experiences of Latino immigrants. The story follows Sofia, a bright teenager, who receives an opportunity to attend a private school on a full scholarship. As she debates whether to accept the scholarship, she also reexamines her own life and, accordingly, the culture in which she’s been raised. Part of the story, then, is about growing up Mexican-American; part is simply about being a teenager and about life with a close family and friends. On both levels, it was a rich and rewarding read.
In Interpreting Literature with Children, Shelby Wolf cites a study that "found four sociopolitical themes in Latino/a literature for children: '1) Border crossing, 2) Coming home, 3) Healing, community, and spirituality, and 4) Shaping language and being shaped by language'" (Carmen Medina and Patricia Enciso, "Some words are messengers/Hay palabras mesaneras," New Advocate 15 ). That quartet of concerns runs through Canales: Sofia (and it's probably not coincidence that the character's name means wisdom) is dealing with two sets of border crossings: her own, to go off to the different world of a private boarding school, and her best friend Berta's, as she prepares for a quinceanera, crossing the border from childhood. Sofia's decision to help Berta with the preparations also lays the foundation for her own journey, but she never forgets her home and, indeed, returns for the novel's final scenes.
The importance of community – and various types of beliefs – is an integral part of the story. Religion is also used to establish one of the initial culture clashes through some carefully selected description. At the Episcopalian boarding school, Sofia shares a 12 x 15 dorm room with another student, who has decorated her half with "a framed, signed Chagall print . . . . a small Persian rug . . . [and] a cut-glass vase with pink and yellow roses.” In Sofia's half, her mother sets up a home altar with "a ten-inch statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe with lightbulb and cord, [a] glow-in-the-dark rosary, a framed print of the Guardian Angel, and my late grandmother's favorite saint, the black San Martin de Porres. It was so old and badly chipped that his face was chalk white and his body rotated in three broken parts on a thin wire. Last was a twelve-inch bleeding Christ on a wooden cross.”
As for language, the novel is all about story, from the opening chapter (“The Storyteller’s Bag”) through the gifts Sofia exchanges with her roommate (“I gave her the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, saying it would give her a taste of the magical; she gave me a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, saying it would give me a taste of the Northeast”) to the final chapters, as Sofia discovers her own voice as a storyteller.