Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) opens in the summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas and follows Aristotle Mendoza’s journey toward self-discovery. Fifteen year old Ari is smart and witty but quite isolated from other boys his own age. However, after meeting Dante Quintana at the pool he begins to feel a renowned interest in life and an unfamiliar feeling for Dante. Benjamin Alire Saenz creates a beautiful flourishing relationship between the two young boys that forces both of them to look inward. Ari and Dante find solace, friendship, and love in one another that helps them overcome the obstacles that stand in their way. Saenz’s novel speaks to the innocence and pain of accepting one’s cultural and sexual identity in a society that might not be as accepting. Aristotle and Dante is a fabulous novel for many reasons but here are five reasons why you should love it too.
There’s an important discussion on a family member in prison. One of the issues burdening Ari’s identity is the silence around his brother’s incarceration. While his parents refuse to speak about Bernardo and what he did to end up in prison, his presence is still very much palpable for Ari. His parents’ shame of having a son in prison dictates what they expect from Ari and this becomes too much of a weight for him. After Ari gets into a fight and sends another young man to the hospital it is revealed that Bernardo went to prison for doing something similar. Ari’s parents fear that he may be headed down the same path. Saenz’s discussion on a family member in prison complicates the novel and makes it more than a simple coming out narrative. Ari must contend with what it means to be a man of color in his present society and his brother is a constant reminder of the racism and discrimination that men of color face. Ari cannot fully embrace his sexuality until he comes to terms with what Bernardo represents about Latino masculinity and how those terms define Ari. The focus of the novel is certainly Ari’s coming-out; however, Saenz’s makes it evident that Ari’s intersectionality with race, ethnicity, and class are also contributing factors to understanding the character as queer.
You’ll wish Dante was a real person so y’all can hang out. Dante first meets Ari at the pool and they bond over their rather unusual names. Dante is different than the other guy’s Ari knows and is estranged from. He is intelligent, kind, and vulnerable. Ari and Dante become inseparable that summer and spend much of their time reading, writing, and taking the bus around town. Dante’s romantic view of the world is new to Ari who has a darker vision of society. His positive outlook, though, sometimes gets Dante into trouble and Ari becomes protective of him. Dante forces Ari out of his comfort zone and into a special, almost magical, place of self-discovery. With Dante, Saenz has created an opportunity to talk about how class, ethnicity, and sexuality intersect. His father is a professor and his mother is a psychologist and while they are both supportive of his queer identity, he still feels like does not fit in with other Mexicans/Mexican Americans. Many readers will be able to identify with Ari because he can’t quite seem to find a place where he belongs and these readers will wish for a friend like Dante. Dante gives Ari hope and we all either have or need someone like that in our lives.
Ari and Dante’s passion for literature is contagious. One of the subjects that Ari and Dante bond over is literature. The accessibility to literature that the boys and their families have is extremely important because it challenges many stereotypes about literacy and education in relationship to Mexican-American communities. While it certainly helps that Dante’s father is an English professor, and it says plenty about class, this accessibility remains significant because they use it as part of their healing process. The books that Ari and Dante share help them process much of what they understand about the world around them. Books also allow them to connect to their parents in ways they didn’t know was possible. For example, Ari learns that his father’s favorite book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Other literary references in the novel include Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, The Grapes of Wrath, War and Peace, and W.S. Merwin. Reading leads Ari and Dante to begin journaling and writing letters to one another. Writing allows Ari to process many of the nightmares he has and it allows him to stay connected to Dante. It is through these letters that the Ari and Dante talk about issues like kissing, smoking, and masturbating. Whereas the books and the letters promote a healing process in Ari and Dante’s life, they also encourage the novel’s readers to delve into a literary world with which they may not be familiar.
Ari’s genuine desire to have a relationship with his father. It is likely that Ari’s father suffers from PTSD after serving in Vietnam. Mr. Mendoza’s silence about Bernardo and the war make it difficult for Ari to get close to him and this distance pains Ari. Throughout the novel, Dante becomes a catalyst through which Ari gets to know more about his father. By knowing his father he gains more knowledge about his family and about what it means to be a man. However, Mr. Mendoza recognizes his son’s inner struggle and is there to help him come-out. The father/son relationships in Aristotle and Dante are more supportive than those found in other young adult Latino gay novels. Most often the fathers either reject their son’s gay identity or are entirely absent from their lives as is the case in Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys and Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito, for example. While Ari and his father definitely have some important issues to work through, his father is there to support him when it matters most. Ari’s desire to have a relationship stems from a desire to accept himself. By the end of the novel, Mr. Mendoza becomes instrumental in helping Ari see that he loves Dante and is able to go after him. In Ari’s coming out process, it is significant that he has relationships with the other men in his family. That he can have some sort of a relationship with them by the end of the novel is a beautiful gesture.
Because “I don’t think liking boys is an American invention.” Aristotle and Dante creates a space to discuss the intersectionality of being queer and Latino. Ari struggles to come out because he has some unresolved issues with the other men in his family, who are essential in defining Latino masculinity for him. Dante is openly queer but he struggles with feeling a connection with his cultural identity. He feels that his class status and his sexuality separate him from the Mexican community around him. Dante’s fear is a real experience that many Latino youth face. Often times, queerness is constructed and understood as an identity only accessible to white people. In claiming a queer identity, Dante feels further removed from his cultural community. However, Ari and Dante, and other queer characters of color, complicate and challenge these misconceptions. Dante reveals to Ari that he does not feel Mexican because he likes boys and Ari replies that he doesn’t “think liking boys is an American invention.” Ari’s nonchalant reaction is powerful because he directly challenges notions about who can claim a queer identity while simultaneously creating a space where he and Dante can exist. Saenz’s novel contests many stereotypes about queer and Latino communities; in doing so, he further affirms to queer Latino youth that their experiences are legitimate.
 Saenz is the author of several young adult novels and children’s books including Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, Carry Me Like Water, Names on a Map, Last Night I Sang to the Monster, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, and A Gift from Papá Diego. Aristotle and Dante has won numerous accolades including a Pura Belpre Award, a Stonewall Book Award, and a Lambda Literary Award.
*Originally posted on Gay YA blog: http://www.gayya.org/?p=1934