Journalist Helen Thorpe brings a unique perspective to her riveting first book, Just Like Us, which follows the lives of four Mexican girls as they graduate from high school and attend college in Denver. Two of them are legal U.S. residents, while the other two, whom Thorpe calls Marisela and Yadira, do not have papers. Thorpe’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Texas Monthly, and 5280. Thorpe’s husband is Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and this allows Thorpe to portray the city’s many layers, and brings an additional dimension to the story when an illegal immigrant, Raul Gómez García, murders a Denver police officer, and it turns out that Gómez García was employed in a restaurant owned by Hickenlooper. I interviewed Thorpe via email about how she chose and wrote this story, how she convinced the four girls to open up to her, and her trip to a Mexican nightclub.
New West: You’ve said that you were interested in the topic of immigration in part because you grew up in the U.S. as an Irish citizen with a green card. Was there also a more recent event that prompted you to begin work on this book, or did it grow out of topics that had always intrigued you?
Helen Thorpe: Yes there was an additional prompt. It was that I was curious about how Denver was changing, and I started looking at the demographic shifts in the city over recent decades. That actually led me to think about writing about immigration, because the numbers of immigrants coming to the city was so huge.
NW: How did you convince the girls to open up to you, particularly when the girls you call Yadira and Marisela are so guarded about telling people that they are illegal immigrants?
HT: The first thing I did, when I met the girls, was to tell them about my own background. I think it helped them to trust me, hearing that my parents had immigrated from Ireland, and that I had grown up with a green card. But I didn’t have to work terribly hard, because these young women wanted to talk. They wanted to tell their stories. They felt they were experiencing something important, that they wanted the rest of the United States to understand what it felt like to be in their shoes. I was actually surprised at the speed with which their stories tumbled out. They wanted to educate me and anybody else who would listen about what they were living through.
NW: Did you initially meet with more girls than those you’ve featured in the book? Did you know at the outset you wanted to write about Mexican girls specifically, and if so, why?
HT: At the outset, I knew that I wanted to write about undocumented students. I went to several different high schools and talked with almost a dozen different students over a period of time, just trying to understand what their lives were like. When I met the girls, it didn’t really occur to me at first that I should write about their foursome – I thought maybe I would focus on one of them. And then I realized that the fact that there were four friends who were divided down the middle in terms of their immigation status made the story so much more interesting. Because it was in their relationships that the issues really came to life. When the two legal girls got money for college or could do things like obtain a legal driver’s license, and the two illegal girls couldn’t, and their friendships suffered as a result – then the issue started to become truly real for me.
NW: Did you have a set number of years in mind that you’d need to follow the girls to tell a good story?
HT: At first I just hoped to follow the girls through the completion of their senior year of high school. I figured the story was just about whether they could all manage to get into college. And I did complete a radio documentary about the four girls that focused on that question. Then I thought I was done.
I stayed in touch with the girls after they entered college, however, because they were so charismatic and their lives were so interesting. And then when Yadira’s mother was charged with using a stolen identity to work, then I realized that the story wasn’t over yet – there was much more to say about the girls and their families. After that, Marisela became involved in politics and started giving speeches, and I realized that I should follow the girls all the way until they finished college.
NW: Were you able to go incognito into the world of the girls, or did many people recognize you as Mayor Hickenlooper’s wife?
HT: Grownups sometimes recognized me – particularly teachers. But the kids rarely did. And they were surprisingly oblivious to my presence. I think that college students are really only interested in other college students – adults don’t seem to register in the same way – which proved to be convenient for me. I was able to spend a lot of time with the girls on their college campuses without other students ever really asking very many questions about why I was always around.
NW: In the afterword, you said that when your story turned dark, you “became uncertain about whether to press forward,” but Malcolm Gladwell convinced you that you “should not let the awfulness of what had happened scare [you] away.” Those darker elements, the deportation of Yadira’s mother, and the murder of Officer Donnie Young, are the parts of the book that made it especially powerful and multi-layered. Have you learned anything about writing or life from reporting on those aspects of the story?
HT: I think I have learned a lot about life by getting to know Kelly Young, who was married to Donnie Young. She’s an incredible human being. For me, one of the completely unexpected benefits of writing this book was the privilege of getting to know Kelly. She is a woman of extraordinary grace. To see somebody suffer that kind of harm, and then watch them respond with love and understanding, instead of hatred – it fills me with awe.
NW: Your account of your trip to visit Yadira’s mother in Mexico was moving and eye-opening. Why did you decide to make that journey?
HT: I really wanted to talk to Alma, Yadira’s mother. She had been accused of a crime, and I wanted to hear her side of the story. That was the main reason I went on the trip. But once I got to Mexico, I realized right away that the true benefit of having made the journey was it gave me a chance to describe what these families were trying to leave behind. It is important for the reader to see what Alma’s living conditions and working conditions are like in Mexico, I think, in order for the reader to grasp why these families are willing to come to the United States illegally and work at the jobs they do for the wages they accept.
NW: Many times you describe the girls having conversations with janitors and other blue-collar employees around DU campus, something few of the other college students did. When you’re at a society event, do you feel more interested in talking to the workers there?
HT: Yes. And I always credit Marisela, in my mind, when I chat with somebody who is cleaning up. She taught me that it’s important to recognize these workers.
NW: Do you feel like you know the city of Denver better after having written Just Like Us?
HT: I feel as though I got to see an entire side of the city that I would never otherwise have seen at all. I don’t imagine I would ever have set foot inside of a Mexican nightclub, except for knowing Marisela, and wanting to see where she spent so many of her evenings. And it was a revelation! The music was incredible, the sense of community was so strong, the dancing was unbelievable.
NW: My review of your book prompted some polarized responses the comments section on New West; it made me wish the commenters would actually read your book, which seems balanced and honest to me. Is illegal immigration a topic that’s so politicized that people can’t even have a conversation about it?
HT: Well, it’s certainly a subject that elicits passionate responses. I’m sure that there are people on both ends of the political spectrum who have black and white views on this subject, and aren’t open to nuance. But I hope that there are many more people in the middle – can I call them the silent majority? – who will enjoy reading about the real people who are caught up in this situation.
NW: What was your writing process? Did you write parts of this as you went along, or did research for several years before you started writing?
HT: It was tricky. From 2004 to 2006, when the girls were roughly 17 to 19 years of age, I was just reporting. But from 2006 to 2008, or when the girls were 19 to 21, I was still reporting, but also writing at the same time. I never want to do another project where I have to report and write simultaneously again as long as I live! It was very discombobulating to be in the present time frame as a reporter, and then go home and on the very same afternoon have to mentally shift to a time frame in the past. I found it continually jarring.
NW: Are there any books that influenced you as you wrote yours?
HT: Random Family, by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, was a huge influence. There’s a part of me that still wishes I had been able to remain an observer, with no role in the book myself, as she did so brilliantly in her book.
Also, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. She did an amazing job of parsing the two cultures in her immigration story – Hmong and American. (And I felt very heartened when I read in the acknowledgements that it took her such a long time to write the book, because she was parenting two children at the same time.)
I also admire William Finnegan and Susan Sheehan tremendously. I think in particular of Sheehan’s Is There No Place on Earth for Me, and Finnegan’s Cold New World.
NW: You’ve thanked a number of Colorado and Texas writers for reading drafts. Are you part of a critique group?
HT: I have a writers group here in Denver. We meet once a month for coffee (with occasional interruptions). Mostly we just talk; sometime we critique each other’s work, but often we just catch up on each other’s lives and projects. So far I believe four books have come out of the group. It’s an incredibly supportive collection of people, and I depend upon them for company. Writing can be isolating, and it’s been a huge relief to have these friends.
NW: Have the girls read the book, and if so, what did they think?
HT: They did read it. I gave it to them in manuscript form, with my editor’s permission, after we had a final draft. I wanted to get their feedback before the book went to press, for several reasons. I wanted to be sure it was accurate – because my Spanish isn’t great, and there were tremendous cultural differences to bridge. And I wanted to be sure that there weren’t details that would accidentally identify exactly who they were. The girls said that they liked it a lot, but it also made them depressed to read about their struggles all over again. I was writing about some of the hardest years of their lives, and I think it was rough for them to relive everything. Recently Yadira also added that she thought my tone was off in a certain places, meaning (I think) she would have given certain passages a different spin or inflection. And I’m sure that’s significant. I think there’s no way to get around the fact that I’m Anglo and in my forties, writing about Latinas in their teens and then their twenties. I know that my perpective just isn’t the same as their perspective, no matter how much I may come to understand them. I’ve told Yadira I think she should write her autobiography. Because she’s a beautiful writer, and the story would be different if told by her, with her choice of tone, and her perspective. That’s a book I would love to read.