Charisma Molina whispers: “Too many Mexicans,” a phrase that the narrator suggests has become a kind of mantra in America. The claim that there are too many Mexicans is, he thinks, an excuse for black people to “remain stuck in our ways.” Charisma is the assistant principal of Chaff Middle School and Marpessa’s best friend. When she claims that there are “too many Mexicans,” it is the first time the narrator has ever heard a Mexican-American say this.
By this point in the novel, the reader has probably become accustomed to characters making unexpected, perverse statements about race—from Hominy’s love of racism and slavery to Charisma’s claim that there are too many Mexicans. While funny, these statements also convey the insidious and alarming nature of internalized racism.
Career Day at Chaff is normally depressing, and does more to scare the children away from the represented careers than encourage them. Charisma has asked the narrator to give a more exciting presentation than the previous year, when he was so boring the students threw his own tomatoes at him. The narrator is reluctant to come back, but agrees after Charisma tells him that Marpessa will be there. On that day, Marpessa doesn’t so much as look at the narrator. She gives a Fast and Furious-style presentation, zooming her bus around at hyperspeed. The children are captivated, and one white teacher is so moved by Marpessa’s presentation that he starts to cry.
This passage subtly mocks the figure of the sentimental, self-righteous white teacher who works at a school with a largely black and Latin student population. Although Marpessa’s “Fast and Furious”-style Careers Day presentation may be cool, it is not particularly instructive. However, the teacher’s sentimentality causes him to shed a tear anyway.
The “pastoral” section of Career Day begins with a presentation by Nestor Lopez, whose family were the first Mexicans to move into the Dickens farms. As a child, the narrator always thought Nestor was cool, but over time they drifted apart, “as black and Latin boys are wont to do.” Nestor gives a rodeo presentation, and the narrator is next. The students preemptively start yawning and complaining. The narrator brings in a calf for the students to pet, which they do with fascination and enthusiasm. The narrator is happy that his presentation is a hit, and tells the students he is from Dickens. However, they object that they have never heard of the place.
This passage shows the shocking speed with which major societal change can be accepted. While the narrator and many other “Dickensians” think about Dickens all the time, the younger generation—who assumedly grew up in a world where Dickens already didn’t exist—never knew it was there in the first place. Just as a new reality can quickly become the norm, so too can history be forgotten.
The narrator tells the children that he is going to demonstrate castration for them. He explains the three different kinds of castration, miming each one on the calf. A young black girl named Sheila Clark volunteers to do the castration, and carries it out smoothly. She holds up the calf’s bloody testicles triumphantly. Marpessa drives away. Charisma tells the narrator that ever since he put up the signs on Marpessa’s bus telling passengers to give up their seats for white people, the bus has become the safest place in the city. She tells him that “the specter of segregation has brought Dickens together.”
Throughout the novel, expectations are upended when things do not progress in the way that they are “supposed” to—meaning that they fall outside of, or even reverse, accepted logic. This is particularly true when it comes to race. Here, Charisma suggests that rather than making life harder for people in Dickens, segregation has actually created a safe and peaceful environment in the microcosm of the bus.
Charisma explains that she wants the school to become like Marpessa’s bus. When the narrator was a child, everyone in Dickens was black. Marpessa didn’t realize her best friend was Mexican until Charisma’s mom picked her up from school. Charisma herself exclaimed: “Oh fuck, I am Mexican! ¡Hijo de puta!” Charisma gathers a group of students and discusses their bleak career prospects in Spanish. Although the narrator can only speak other languages “to the extent that I can sexually harass women of all ethnicities,” he understands that Charisma is warning the children that they are doomed.
This passage suggests that knowledge about one’s own racial identity can vary greatly depending on one’s social circumstances. Although Charisma was born into a Mexican family, the fact that she went to school in Dickens meant that both she and the other kids around her assumed she was black. This shows that racial identities are more flexible and subjective than we might assume. The narrator’s comment about his skill with language also addresses the stereotype of men, and particularly black men, as being sexually aggressive.
Under Charisma’s orders, the students make an enormous bonfire of books and set fire to them. Charisma tells the narrator that the books were given to the school by Foy Cheshire under an initiative called “Fire the Canon!” in which he rewrote every book on the curriculum. They include Uncle Tom’s Condo, The Point Guard in the Rye, and The Great Blacksby. The narrator joins in with the torching. The kids tease each other for doing things that are “gay,” and one of them concludes that the only thing not “gay” is actually being gay.
At the beginning of the novel, Foy Cheshire seemed extremely powerful and influential. However, it is now revealed that his ideas are not as popular as it first appeared. In fact, Charisma resents Foy’s “fire the Canon!” initiative so much that she stages a book burning, which recalls the burnings that historically take place under repressive, totalitarian governments.
It starts raining heavily, and everyone scrambles to leave. The narrator tells Charisma that she should segregate the school, and as soon as he does so he realizes that segregation is also the answer to bringing back Dickens. People assume that integration is a good thing, but integration is often used as an excuse to cover up the continued existence of racism. After giving it some thought, Charisma tells the narrator to go ahead and segregate the school, but warns him that there are “too many Mexicans.” The narrator is inspired to adopt a new career: City Planner in Charge of Restoration and Segregation.
A central paradox of the book appears in this passage: in order to achieve the “progress” of restoring Dickens, the narrator decides to employ a tactic of regress by bringing back segregation. Of course, the narrator’s goal in the first place is a confusion of progress and regress, as resurrecting Dickens is a mission of bringing back something that once already existed.