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Understanding Cultural Identity

By Elizabeth Rich — September 17, 2010 3 min read

The Teacher Book Club discussion for this book will run Oct. 25-29.

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America
By Helen Thorpe
Scribner, 2009, 386 pages

Just Like Us is the story of four young women from Mexico—two of whom are living in America illegally. Author Helen Thorpe spent five years following the lives of these four Latinas from their Denver high school, through college, and beyond. A naturalized citizen herself, Thorpe recently shared her thoughts with us via e-mail on why stories like the one she tells in her book are important to educators today.

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This book raises difficult political and social issues around immigration and personal identity. At times, it can be a tough read. Why do you think it’s an important book for educators?

Educators often work with children from immigrant families. These stories illuminate both the home lives of these children, and the reasons why their parents have made the choices they did. I’ve heard from many teachers that the book has deepened their understanding of the context in which the students are operating.

You are a naturalized American citizen, which is one of the reasons you say you pursued this story. What role do you think a student’s national identity has in an American classroom?

I think teachers are always looking for ways in which to connect students personally to the material being taught. National identity, cultural background, or family heritage can be a means by which to establish that personal connection. It can bring the material being taught to life for the student.

You embedded yourself in the lives of these young people. How long did you spend with them? And how did you manage to convince teachers, administrators, even their families into letting you into their classrooms, schools, and homes?

I followed the students over a five-year period. Usually I saw them once or twice a week, although sometimes life was too complicated and got in the way of such regular contact. Before entering any classroom, I asked permission from the students themselves, as well as their parents, and then I also reached out to their high school principal and their individual teachers, and their college chancellor and individual professors. I also let the other students in the classroom know that I was a journalist working on a book. I think everybody agreed to facilitate the project because they saw that these students were living through an incredible experience, and felt it should be told.

In the chapter called “Social Inequality,” you spend time in the college classroom of the book’s main characters, and you detail the social divide—and the lack of awareness—between the middle and upper-middle class students and the working or lower-class Latina women. What responsibility do K-12 schools bear for educating young people about socioeconomic differences?

In the Denver Public School system, where these students were educated, students attend school within a system that is often highly segregated in terms of socioeconomic status, with poor students sometimes going to school together and wealthier students sometimes going to school together. No matter how much book learning is offered about socioeconomic status, children from different backgrounds learn the most about each other by mixing, I believe. I have chosen a public school for my son where that mixing can take place naturally. If teachers can figure out how to teach about socioeconomic differences in other ways, I applaud them. It seems like useful preparation for life.

Have you been in touch with the students you followed? Where are they now?

Yes, I have. They all remain in the Denver metro area, and all four still have the same legal status they possessed at the end of the book. Clara and Elissa, the two students with legal status, have both been accepted into graduate school. Elissa has completed one year toward a masters degree that would allow her to teach. Clara has deferred entry into social work school. Neither Marisela nor Yadira ever applied to graduate school. Marisela and Julio married in 2010, and their son is now one year old. Although Marisela is now the mother of an American citizen, the wife of an American citizen, and the sibling of two American citizens, she still has no way of obtaining legal status herself unless she returns to Mexico and applies from there. She has not done so yet.

Join author Helen Thorpe for an online discussion of her book during the week of Oct. 25-29.


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