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.