Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

“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 fact, this country was founded on that very principle.” -Thorpe

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

(The overly long) Publisher’s blurb: “Just Like Us tells the story of four high school students whose parents entered this country illegally from Mexico. We meet the girls on the eve of their senior prom in Denver, Colorado. All four of the girls have grown up in the United States, and all four want to live the American dream, but only two have documents. As the girls attempt to make it into college, they discover that only the legal pair sees a clear path forward. Their friendships start to divide along lines of immigration status.

Then the political firestorm begins. A Mexican immigrant shoots and kills a police officer. The author happens to be married to the Mayor of Denver, a businessman who made his fortune in the restaurant business. In a bizarre twist, the murderer works at one of the Mayor’s restaurants—under a fake Social Security number. A local Congressman seizes upon the murder as proof of all that is wrong with American society and Colorado becomes the place where national arguments over immigration rage most fiercely. The rest of the girls’ lives play out against this backdrop of intense debate over whether they have any right to live here.

Just Like Us is a coming-of-age story about girlhood and friendship, as well as the resilience required to transcend poverty. It is also a book about identity—what it means to steal an identity, what it means to have a public identity, what it means to inherit an identity from parents. The girls, their families, and the critics who object to their presence allow the reader to watch one of the most complicated social issues of our times unfurl in a major American city. And the perspective of the author gives the reader insight into both the most powerful and the most vulnerable members of American society as they grapple with the same dilemma: Who gets to live in America? And what happens when we don’t agree?” (Scribner ©2011)

I have a lot of thoughts, but let’s start with this one: anyone who wants to talk about immigration in the United States should read this book. In my opinion, the policy makers in this country are too focused on economics and re-election numbers, and forget that their decisions have a a real-world impact on families who are simply trying to provide a better life for their kids.

Thorpe’s writing is easy to read, and she does a good job of balancing the heavy issues with lighter moments. The narration jumps around, from the girls school experiences, to the courtroom, to the author’s own life as a political figure. Some of these sections dragged (like the in-depth explanation of who said what at particular state meetings) but overall I liked seeing each side and how they all tied together.

This would be a good choice for someone who is interested in learning about immigration politics, but doesn’t love nonfiction. The information is there, but you don’t get bogged down with too many statistics. The majority of the book reads more like a novel, which I enjoyed.

It’s not perfect, though. The author is a white woman, married to a politician, and it shows. There are a few passages that felt really judgmental and it was obvious that the author was writing from an outside perspective. Thorpe herself is an immigrant, but that’s where the similarities end. To be fair, the author points this out in the introduction and makes it clear that she does not have the same life experience as the people she’s writing about, but sometimes the comparisons were a little tone-deaf.

Generally speaking, I think Thorpe does a good job, and I walked away from this book with more sympathy and understanding. When you have the privilege of citizenship, it isn’t obvious how many pieces of your life rely on your identification. I like to think of myself as well-educated and open-minded, but I’ll freely admit that I hadn’t truly thought about every aspect of citizenship. When I think of being a legal citizen, I think of voting rights and the ability to work. I don’t tend to think about scholarship eligibility or the ability to travel between states.

As a naturally-born citizen of my country, I was ignorant about the scope of the challenges faced by illegal immigrants. I’m not pretending to be an expert now, but this book really did help me to have a better perspective, and I’m glad I read it.

At the time I’m writing this, the events of the book are nearly ten years old, and unfortunately the debate on immigration has only gotten uglier. Part of Trump’s win was his promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico- he has suggested mass deportation and his views have been unexpectedly popular.

I want to believe that bringing a personal element to the policy debate would make politicians more compassionate. At the very least, I hope that books like ‘Just Like Us’ will help the average American citizen to see that immigrants are not so different from their own families. If we can build that empathy, I think the world would be a better place.

It’s not a coincidence that I’m writing about Mexican immigration on the day of Trump’s inauguration. Today, when I am feeling heartsick about the political climate in my country, I choose to focus on bridging the gap on issues that divide us. I don’t expect to change everyone’s opinion, but if just one person is willing to give this book a try, when they would have otherwise passed it by, I’ll consider that a victory.

Like I said in another post, immigration doesn’t have to be an us vs. them issue. Though our documentation may differ, we are all working towards the same goals: better lives and opportunities for our families. In fact, you could say that “they” are ‘Just Like Us’.

3 thoughts on “Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

  1. This isn’t my usual sort of read but I’m tempted to try a copy just to get a better understanding of the situation myself. Sadly, I don’t think the people who really need to understand about immigration and citizenship will read this book – even though they are the ones who need to read it the most.
    Great review #ToTT

    1. I completely agree with you- it would be a hard sell to the people who need it most. I think for those of us who care about immigration issues, but don’t feel like we have a firm grasp on the situation, it’s helpful. If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy and you’ll have to let me know what you think!

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