Understanding Cultural Identity

By Elizabeth Rich — September 17, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Sponsored Online By:

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.


Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Tech Is Everywhere. But Is It Making Schools Better?
Join us for a lively discussion about the ways that technology is being used to improve schools and how it is falling short.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: May 31, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 17, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 3, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 26, 2023
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read