A powerful and moving account of four young women from Mexico who have lived most of their lives in the United States and attend the same high school. Two of them have legal documentation and two do not. Just Like Us is their story… and the story of many others. This brilliant, fast-paced work of narrative journalism is a vivid coming-of-age story about girlhood, friendship, and, most of all, identity — what it means to fake an identity, steal an identity, or inherit an identity from one’s parents and country. No matter what one’s opinions are about immigration, Just Like Us offers fascinating insight into one of our most complicated social issues today. The girls, their families, those who welcome them, and those who object to their presence all must grapple with the same deep dilemma: Who is an American? Who gets to live in America? And what happens when we don’t agree?
I was struggling with what I could possibly write as a review for this universal and human story. To attempt to support the positive praise and add credence to this important immigrant experience only brought nerves to the pit of my stomach, fear, and resentment. This is an emotional experience, no doubt, for Helen Thorpe and her reader. Immigration is emotional. After all, to have to make the decision to leave a home, a community, a culture, the familiar for a faraway place has to be one of the most difficult decisions to be made by an individual, more so for a family. It is a courageous decision in order to survive and make a home in a new culture, a new language, and with the rejecting Other. These are survivors and the United States was built by them and the nation continues to succeed because of them. Why am I emotional? Perhaps because I am a member of the Girls Like Us club.
I decided to read other book reviews to get a rational perspective on the subject, a more reflective sense. Clearly the close nature I have with this issue dulls my thinking and sharpens my feeling and will. I have not read a mediocre review, nor have I encountered a scathing commentary. On the contrary, all the reviews I’ve come upon are of value and motivational for the thorough and meaningful journalistic work Helen Thorpe has done and the importance of Just Like Us as an example of worthy storytelling. And I agree. I would also venture to add that not only is this story worth telling but also a story of significance and priority. Truly a must read.
Why a must read? When state legislators are considering banning ethnic study programs and collecting data on undocumented students in public schools, with the threat of withholding much needed funding, it is apparent to me that those legislators are working out of inexperience. Inexperience with the Other. There is nothing wrong or offensive in the desire to share one’s culture, one’s language, one’s ethnicity. As an educator I invite and welcome all to my class to learn about me, to learn my language, and to share my culture. I do not designate my programs to students of a particular ethnic group, in fact, I target the Others. It is the Others with whom I wish to share my Otherness. However, sadly it is mostly those of my ethnicity that my program interests. Current U.S. society has not realized the priority of the multicultural experience and therefore educators of languages, culture, ethnicity, and translation studies have been lumbering through opposing, apprehensive forces for affirmative recognition and adequate funding. Moreover, there is nothing fearful in sharing a classroom with a diverse student body. Indeed, this in itself is a cultural learning experience. Imagine the conversation, visualize the sharing. It is akin to participating in a discussion at the United Nations, where the experience of the Other is infectious. That is a classroom in which all present are learning from each Other, including the teacher. It is a most desirable classroom, certainly not one where the Other is intimated and fears her participation.
I invite you, fervently, to experience Just Like Us, if only to achieve a small encounter with the Other, without intimidation, without fear. And I welcome your impressions of this journey. Helen Thorpe has taken the perilous voyage into the Other and has transcended the dreaded cultural divide, only to return with what could be described as none other than a cultural treasure.
Helen Thorpe is a freelance journalist whose magazine stories have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, Texas Monthly, Westword, and 5280.
Previous works by Helen Thorpe include published stories in national and regional magazines. Here are the links to her previous work.
¨ Story in The New York Times Magazine about the economic boom in Austin, Texas.
¨ Story in The New York Times Magazine about a used clothing warehouse on the U.S.-Mexico border.
¨ Archive of stories published in Texas Monthly.
¨ Archive of stories published in New York Magazine.
¨ Summary of personal essay in 5280.
¨ Slate Diary.