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Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe Scribner, 387 pages, $27.99 Some readers will pick up Helen Thorpe's Just Like Us because it's written by the wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. But by the time they finish this moving, intelligent, and nuanced inquiry into the situation of illegal immigrants in contemporary America, they may begin to think of Hickenlooper as the husband of the writer Helen Thorpe. Thorpe begins by plunging into the preparations for prom night of four engaging west Denver girls in April of 2004. Marisela is flamboyant, driven, "dramatic," and wears "twice as much makeup as anybody else in her circle." Yadira is strong and reserved and "never gave away anything important with her facial expressions." Sensitive Clara usually dresses like a tomboy, and Elissa is a star athlete. They are all eighteen, all top students at their Denver public high school, and each of their families immigrated from Mexico. While Clara has a green card and Elissa was born in the U.S., Marisela and Yadira remain illegal immigrants, born in Mexico but raised in the United States, with American ambitions and the skills to realize them, but with the host of insurmountable obstacles that living in this country without citizenship cause. Simple privileges that their peers enjoy, such as getting a driver's license, boarding an airplane, or qualifying for in-state tuition, are out of their reach. When legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition in Colorado fails to pass, the girls manage to cobble together scholarships or funds from benefactors to go to college, and three of them decide to attend the University of Denver, while the fourth, Elissa, heads to Regis College in Denver. Helen Thorpe will discuss her book at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on September 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Growing Up Illegal in Denver: Helen Thorpe’s “Just Like Us”

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America
by Helen Thorpe
Scribner, 387 pages, $27.99

Some readers will pick up Helen Thorpe‘s Just Like Us because it’s written by the wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. But by the time they finish this moving, intelligent, and nuanced inquiry into the situation of illegal immigrants in contemporary America, they may begin to think of Hickenlooper as the husband of the writer Helen Thorpe. Thorpe begins by plunging into the preparations for prom night of four engaging west Denver girls in April of 2004.

Marisela is flamboyant, driven, “dramatic,” and wears “twice as much makeup as anybody else in her circle.” Yadira is strong and reserved and “never gave away anything important with her facial expressions.” Sensitive Clara usually dresses like a tomboy, and Elissa is a star athlete. They are all eighteen, all top students at their Denver public high school, and each of their families immigrated from Mexico.

While Clara has a green card and Elissa was born in the U.S., Marisela and Yadira remain illegal immigrants, born in Mexico but raised in the United States, with American ambitions and the skills to realize them, but with the host of insurmountable obstacles that living in this country without citizenship cause. Simple privileges that their peers enjoy, such as getting a driver’s license, boarding an airplane, or qualifying for in-state tuition, are out of their reach. When legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition in Colorado fails to pass, the girls manage to cobble together scholarships or funds from benefactors to go to college, and three of them decide to attend the University of Denver, while the fourth, Elissa, heads to Regis College in Denver.

The girls had become friends in middle school, and Thorpe met them with the intent to follow how their lives unfolded through the completion of college. Thorpe shares her personal stakes in the issue of immigration: her parents were Irish, she grew up in the U.S. with a green card, and became a citizen when she was twenty-one. During the years the book takes place, Denver becomes one of the centers of the immigration debate, with congressman Tom Tancredo bringing attention to his stance that all illegal immigrants must be deported, and chiding Mayor Hickenlooper for running Denver as a “sanctuary city” for illegals.

But Thorpe doesn’t portray Tancredo as a villain. After she attends many of his speeches and accompanies him to the north Denver streets where he grew up among Italian immigrants, she begins to better understand his views. Although her concern for the girls she’s following is paramount, Thorpe learns that there are no simple solutions to the problem of illegal immigration.

In May of 2005, an illegal immigrant named Raul Goméz García shot and killed Denver police officer Donnie Young, who was working off-duty as a security guard at Salon Ocampo, a popular gathering place for Mexican families in Denver. The subsequent investigation determines that Goméz García had been employed as a dishwasher at the Cherry Cricket, a restaurant partially owned by Mayor Hickenlooper. When he became mayor, Hickenlooper placed his restaurants in a blind trust so that he wouldn’t be involved in their day-to-day operations, and had nothing to do with the hiring of Goméz García, but essentially, as Thorpe writes, “The mayor had employed an illegal alien who had killed a cop.”

Thorpe’s sympathy for Donnie Young’s family and her anguish over her own family’s role in this murder is palpable as she follows the developments in the case, meets with Young’s widow, Kelly, and attends the trial of Goméz García. This narrative serves as a striking counterpoint to the story of the girls—they are the examples of the best possible illegal immigrants, striving to obtain an education, and Goméz García is the worst possible example. Thorpe writes:

“If Marisela or Yadira had gotten equal time on the news with Raúl Goméz García, perhaps the rest of Denver would have been left with a more balanced view of the most recent arrivals, but the girls led quiet, unnoticed lives. And so the narrative of Goméz García perpetually threatened to hijack the collective understanding of who these newcomers were, even though nobody who was associated with Salon Ocampo would have considered him a fair representative of the people who congregated there. We were one city after all, I thought; the problem was that we just couldn’t see it.”

Just Like Us is as entertaining as it is important, packed with memorable scenes that Thorpe records with clarity, in three-dimensions. Thorpe places into the foreground the people who usually disappear into the background, such as the kitchen workers and janitors at restaurants and society events. She follows the girls to dance clubs, family parties, and sorority meetings, and attends many of the girls’ classes at DU in which immigration or issues of class are discussed. Marisela and Yadira do not share with their classmates or professors the fact of their lack of citizenship, and the reader feels how cutting the remarks of students from more privileged backgrounds are to the girls. In one of the most moving episodes of the book, Thorpe travels where Yadira cannot, to visit Yadira’s mother in rural Mexico after she has been deported for using another woman’s social security number to work. Yadira misses her mother desperately, but can’t visit because she can’t cross the border.

Just Like Us is an accomplished book that should be added to the short list of essential works of journalism investigating the lives of underclass people in America, such as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here and the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting of Katherine Boo. Thorpe plumbs, as she puts it, “the intersection between the terrible mystery of our being and the inevitably flawed fashion in which we govern ourselves.” This sharp and intensely personal narrative provides a riveting portrait of the city of Denver from the perspectives of all its inhabitants, legal and illegal, revealing the intimate lives of some human beings at the center of the fraught political issue of illegal immigration.

Helen Thorpe will discuss her book at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on September 22 at 7:30 p.m.

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19 comments

  1. Illegal aliens are a labor union creation in many ways. A way to hire people who will work, not bitch all the time, and will get the job done. The underground compliant work force glad to have a job, and happy to have much more than they did in the countries from which they came.

    The Mexicans are here to work, and following them, as camp followers always have, is a group intent on parasitizing their fellow countrymen for profit and gain through extortion and robbery. The drug cartels now have them captive here as illegal aliens, and their families captive in Mexico as hostages in a lawless land of murder and mayhem. The illegals work here at great risk, and the camp followers are present with arrogance and distain for US custom, culture and law. The US deportation threat has become part and parcel of the drug cartel strategy to have a compliant work force here. It makes you wonder how corrupt our politicians and public servants are becoming, and how deep the bribery has become along the borders.

    The thing that particularly galls me is that aliens are courted as prospective voters by the Democrats, and therefore the problem is never addressed by legislators. It only grows.

    I am the only non-Mexican on the farm I work for, owned by a naturalized Mexican US citizen. He needs pickers in late summer, and for all the complaining about who takes whose job, I have never seen an Anglo family or individual come to work, nor African Americans or Native Americans. We have a contingent of Hmong people and Mexicans, all of whom fill out employment papers, present required IDs, and do the work. Our problem this year was there were so many who wanted to work, and it appeared that we let too many out of concern for their welfare and need. Our picking rotations were short and intense leaving our paid overhead without work for days at a time, doing make-work jobs. Not a great way to run a railroad. Where would the owner be without illegals working I don’t know. But he is but one of hundreds of thousands of employers who use that work force while millions of American citizens stay home and earn unemployment or welfare paid for by the very taxes withheld from those who do show up to pick.

    When you have cultural and racial minorities with diametrically opposed solutions to their own welfare, with some groups working several jobs to make ends meet and others not working generationally while getting by on public assistance, you do wonder how a solution will ever be gained. That equality for all has been lost in the struggle is apparent. How we solve the problem is not. Many books will be written before a solution becomes reality.

  2. I daresay there are not many of us living in the good ol’ USA who could follow our family trees back more than a few generation before finding illegal immigrants pretty close to the trunk of the tree…

  3. When my grandfather retired as State Treasurer (CO) in 1908, he devoted much of his time trying to get the federal government involved in building schools in Mexico, along our border. Discovered several of his letters a few years ago, in which he often stated, “having an uneducated population on the opposite side of our southern borders, will eventually create huge problems for our nation.” He also happened to be a Republican.

  4. Here is how the school deal works. You leave your home in Mexicali in Mexico on the border, cross the border to your day job in the US, go into labor, have your baby in El Centro, CA., don’t pay for the birth, stiffing the hospital and doctor, leave and go back to Mexico with a baby who has a US birth certificate, who will then cross the border to go to school on the US side of the border in Calexico, Heber, or El Centro every morning, paid for by local California property taxes, and costing the kid and his folks not one thin dime because they live in Mexico. Grandfather’s idea is working. Just not the way he thought.

  5. In 1908 the Republican party made room for progressive thinking people like Theodore Roosevelt and apparently your grandfather.

    Now the party has room for few but snaggle tooth yokels whose major worry is queers, furriners, and other people’s sex lives…

  6. Harry, for being so opinionated, you sure have some “l’arnin’ ta do” in history. You flunked. Dunce. Don’t know the facts. But spout your misinformation in a public forum. You’re not smart enough at this time to hate the conservatives or make stupid remarks to that end.

    TR was a Republican when he was elected vice President. He became President when McKinley was shot by a lefty anarchist in 1901. He served almost two terms, and elected NOT to run in 1908. Taft, a conservative Republican ran and won the election. TR was not happy with Taft, his lifestyle and Presidency, ran as a Progressive in 1912. TR was shot while making a speech in Milwaukee. He finished his speech, bleeding vigorously, and survived. He was the Ross Perot of his age, and his third party Progressives almost won the Presidency, but Woodrow Wilson beat him in a squeaker. Almost all the planks of the Progressive platform became law.

    If you had paid attention in school, or attended even, you might have learned about TR’s politics. As it stands, you don’t know sour owl poop from a good grade of apple butter.

  7. Hmmm, harry thinks today’s GOP “has room for few but snaggle tooth yokels whose major worry is queers, furriners, and other people’s sex lives…” After looking at so many of the comments on NewWest topics, I can sure see how he might think that and, well, if the shoe fits, you gotta wear it.

  8. Bearbait appears to have an average knowledge of history; butapparently, no ability to read with understanding.
    Where is the “new info” you were attempting to pass on to me in your post?
    I suppose just about everybody knows the story of Teddy Roosevelt; but my point was simply that Republicans–in spite of neanderthals like Mark Hanna–made room for progressives in the late 19th and early 20th century.
    Mitch McConnell would probably be considered progresssive by the current crop of right wing crazies.

  9. The history as an aggragate is probably a bit iffy; but the points made in these comments are pretty typically schizmatic for the early 21st century.

  10. How about Amcanexico, or Uscanmex?

  11. Hey Jenny,
    Nice review.

  12. Sounds like a fascinating book — an investigation of the gray areas that lie between, and the real lives that are involved.

  13. Unfortunatley, the comments by DelawareBob and bearbait are closest to the truth. Look at the statistics of LA and San Diego gangs and you will find huge numbers of illegals. There are even books written on how to come here illegally and live off the system. Look at what it costs taxpayers per year in health care and prison costs. Yes there are the hard working families just trying to have a better life, but they need to do so legally. but spend some time in California if you really want to see the depth of the costs incurred.

    The republicans and democrats are both guilty on this issue so stop poking at one or the other…they both have their own agendas…like usual.

    The only way to stop the flood is to really crack down both on employers and anyone convicted of any crime, including identity theft and deport them. Then come up with a strong, fair guest worker program that allows those who want to work access to those who want to hire them through a legal process. Get rid of the instant citizenship for babies born to those who are already felons by being here illegally.

    You want to talk to people who are angry about the illegal issue…talk to those who are patiently slogging through our system trying to be here legally…those folks are really angry.

    We are the only country in the world who is so screwed up with their policies towards illegals, naturalized births etc. Try to go to Mexico illegally and demand “rights”…this is truly a double standard.

  14. No. The people who are most upset are the people like you and delaware bob, and barebate who are scandalized when people not quite as white as yourself are able to take advantage of the capitalist economy for a chancve to live like human beings should live for awhile.

  15. Horst
    I’m sorry you see the world thorugh those glasses.
    I own a very multi-cultural business and as an employer sponsor folks from several countries including Colombia, Tiawan, China and India at my expense..an H1B visa costs about $4000 that I pay for, so no, I am certainly not opposed to those from other countries wanting to have a piece of the capitalistic economy. I just believe that we are a country of laws, and when a group of individuals determine for themselves that the laws do not apply to them, then we have mob rule. I don’t care if you are purple, you are not above the law.

  16. Sure, Vag, it is easy to advertize your progressive qualities from behind the anonymity of your handle.
    I’m calling BS on your claim that you’re not in fact just another teabagger…

  17. Half the CEOs in Silicon Valley are Asian, Asian born. We have a vigorous LEGAL immigration program for bright, educated people to drive technology. The south of the border illegal is lucky to have a second grade education. We get the most desperate of the poor, and because they are here illegally, they don’t live a free life. That is their problem of their making. The are preyed upon by anyone seeking an advantage over their situation, and other illegals of the criminal variety are a great part of that problem.

    On the other hand, I watched as the house across the street got a tear-off, re-sheeting, and new roof, all in one 8 hour day. I heard not one word of English spoken all day. The trash truck had an Anglo name on it, and a construction board license number. All the people were Hispanic. 8 of them. It was all assholes and elbows on a day where the temps only got into the 80s. 1600 sq ft 1960s ranch house got a new roof for five grand, architectual shingles of the 30 year roof life and 1/2 inch CD under it. I will bet the labor got paid cash under that table, maybe a $100 for the day. $1200 for plywood, $800 for labor, $1900 for shingles, and misc. of $300, and the contractor walked away with $800 for his profit for the day. No state taxes withheld, nor federal, no workers comp or unemployment. And a good job, fast, and a one day disruption to the single lady’s life. It was a good deal. Except the true cost of labor in a legal transaction was avoided to those who try to be competitive in the legal contracting world. The government employee who owns the house got a new roof, but no money to support the government that pays her salary at the university. Academic salaries are low at state institutions, and the professors are part of the problem. The State is not collecting all the taxes due, and there is not enough money to pay higher salaries. It is a classic “chicken and egg” deal. Only she doesn’t see that not only does she get shorted in the salary deal, but those guys on the roof are getting subsidized by someone in rent relief, WIC, food stamps, free education for kids, the list is endless in this country when it comes to what the human welfare agencies will pay for with the money they collect from legitimate business and labor. Berate capitalism, but it is lax border enforcement that is the problem. There are not enough legitimate employers to pay the illegal alien freight and there will be less next month, and the month after. The model is broken. Time for a national sales tax? I wouldn’t know. I do know that there is an infrastructure to scam the system, and the above board workers and employers will be fewer and fewer. Unless, of course, you work for government or a government run or owned company. Selling corn dogs to each other only works for a while. Ask AIG. Or Lehman brothers.

  18. Barebate, on the other hand makes no pretenses about his lack of progressive thinking. He regularly and systematically votes for the shill who promises lower taxes still complaining about federal failure to police the southern border.
    Old barebate is a real deep thinker compared to the professors and government employees he disdains in his post..!

  19. Not sure about the extent illegal labor is paid in cash under the table. Probably phony Social Security are being used in most cases which means Federal & State taxes, SSI, and Medicare is being taken out of the illegal’s paycheck, which has a positive effect on the economy and the illegal will not receive the benefits in return. So wetbacks are making transfer payments to old gringo geezers which the wetback will never get back. That’s why after you subtract cost of services required by wetbacks, they have a net positive effect on the the economy.