Just Like Us, a book by Helen Thorpe, helped me to understand what life is like for accomplished students in this country who are undocumented unlike any other article or book I’ve read. Thorpe juxtaposes the lives of two undocumented Mexican girls, Yadira and Marisela, with their two closest friends, Elissa and Clara, who are also of Mexican heritage but have documents to live legally in this country. Elissa was born in the United States and Clara, who entered illegally, has a green card. Thorpe followed the girls for nearly five years, starting with their senior year of high school. She changed their names. (In January 2009, Thorpe introduced two of the girls in a program on the radio show This American Life. Her book was released late last year.)
Thorpe made me care about the girls through communicating their teenager banter and including her perceptions about their feelings. All of the girls come from working-class families who are barely making ends meet. All four girls are amazingly resilient. They didn’t get to be top students in their Denver high school for nothing. But by the end of high school, it’s increasingly clear that the two students with legal status have fewer hurdles to overcome in getting into college and launching a career than those without such status.
The book is a coming-of-age story, but it’s also political drama. As well as being a journalist, Thorpe is the wife of the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, who is thrust into a statewide debate about illegal immigration after an undocumented restaurant employee shoots and kills a Denver cop. The killer, it turns out, is employed by a restaurant owned by Hickenlooper. Thorpe gets in some rather sticky situations as she continues to report for her book at the same time that her husband is being publicly criticized for being “soft” on illegal immigration. She accompanies him to the funeral of the murdered cop.
I’m glad that she didn’t abandon the project. She navigates the reader through the complexity of her own situation. She acknowledges that she has sympathy for the girls who face obstacles as undocumented immigrants. But she also tries to go out of her way to understand various perspectives on illegal immigration. For example, she spends time with Tom Tancredo, a Republican and U.S. congressman from Colorado at the time that she’s writing the book, who wants all undocumented immigrants to be deported.
I appreciate the warm tone of the author’s voice. Thorpe includes some of her own opinions and a lot of sharp observation and reflection. As a reader, I feel that I grew and learned along with Thorpe as her understanding of illegal immigration grew as events unfolded.
I’m sometimes dismayed by the harsh tone of comments on this blog pertaining to immigration issues. Both people who are sympathetic to undocumented immigrants and ones who aren’t have posted inflammatory comments. Thorpe manages to write about the divisive topic in a way that brings nuance and deep understanding to the issue. She includes quotes in her book of highly inflammatory rhetoric but then puts it into a context that adds understanding and promotes reason. You can tell she’s a good listener because she gets information that other journalists miss who covered the same news events.
For any of you who have submitted a biting comment on this blog about immigration, I prescribe the book to you. And for anyone who wants a good read about some lively characters (I’m now talking about the four girls who are the main protagonists), I recommend the same.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.