Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, by Helen Thorpe

When Just Like Us opens, the four girls of the title--Marisela, Yadira, Clara, and Elissa--are seniors at a Denver high school. The four have been friends for years, but now their friendship is being tested by the fact that Clara and Elissa are applying for scholarships and their preferred colleges while Marisela and Yadira, because they are unauthorized immigrants and lack papers needed for many aspects of the college and financial aid application process, are struggling to figure out what they are going to do after graduation. The two are fortunate to be helped by a number of people who manage to get the money together for them to attend the University of Denver, along with Clara; Elissa heads off to Regis University, also in Denver, where she mostly falls out of contact with the other girls.

Thorpe follows the four (with more attention to the three at DU than to Elissa),  from the end of their senior year until nearly a year after their college graduation, going to classes and clubs with them, spending long hours hanging out in their dorms with them, getting to know their parents, siblings, and boyfriends. The girls are smart, hard-working, motivated, silly (they're teenagers after all), politically active, social--everything wonderful young college women are. But the two without documents are also subjected to unbelievable stress. In part, the stress stems from the fact that their families are constantly facing financial and legal problems. Yadira's mother, for example, returns to Mexico to escape prosecution for using a stolen Social Security number, leaving Yadira with huge responsibilities for her teenage sisters. The girls keep their status secret from most of the people they know at college, another stressor, since they have to make up excuses for why they can't study abroad, do work-study, and take part in countless other activities people take for granted. They also know that, when they finish college, they may not be able to get jobs suitable for educated young women.

Thorpe intertwines the girls' stories with the larger narrative about immigration occurring in Colorado, focusing on Tom Tancredo's abortive run for the presidency in 2008 and the killing of police officer Donnie Young by an unauthorized immigrant who happened to work in one of her husband's restaurants (at the time she was married to John Hickenlooper, then-mayor of Denver). She weaves these narrative threads together skilfully, depicting a systemic problem that is negatively affecting many lives--a problem recognized by virtually all policymakers, who are incapable of finding a solution.

The wisdom of hindsight (Thorpe and Hickenlooper are separated--perhaps divorced, I'm not sure) makes the discomfort Thorpe clearly felt in the role of political wife seem like foreshadowing--and makes me almost as sad as the challenges faced by the young women Thorpe writes about.

Just Like Us is a very good book; the girls' stories aren't resolved at the end and, of course, neither is the immigration question. Like life, things could go any way.

Favorite passage:
Did the idea of a country--an abstract concept, really--truly matter more than the sum happiness of all the individuals living within its boundaries? No, I thought. People mattered more than governments. In fat, this country was founded on that very idea.

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