In this eye-opening and poignant true story about the experiences of four young Mexican women coming of age in Denver—two who have legal documentation, two who don’t—Helen Thorpe “puts a human face on a frequently obtuse conversation” (O, The Oprah Magazine), exploring themes of identity and friendship and exposing the reality of life for many undocumented immigrants seeking the American dream.
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?
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This reading group guide forJust Like Us includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Just Like Us journalist Helen Thorpe chronicles the true, coming-of-age story of four Colorado teenage girls: Marisela, Yadira, Elissa and Clara. All four girls have grown up in the United States, but only two have documents. As the girls attempt to make it into college, they discover that only the pair who have legal status can see a clear path forward.
When another immigrant without legal status kills a Denver police officer, the political climate shifts dramatically. Politicians begin a fierce debate about illegal immigration. The growing debate coupled with increasing familial difficulties and tensions over their differences threaten to drive a wedge between the four girls who have promised to stick together through thick and thin.
Just Like Us is a vivid account of adolescence, friendship, and identity. It also explores the realities of immigration, one of our country’s most complicated social issues. It challenges readers to question what makes us American, who gets to live here, and most importantly, what happens when we don’t agree.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Being born in London, but later immigrating to the United States at a young age, Helen Thorpe admits to feeling a sense of dual identity that the girls in Just Like Us also felt. How is her experience similar to that of the girls? How is it different? What does she mean when she says that she and the girls had “something in common and…nothing in common…” (p. 2)
While at Theodore Roosevelt High School, Marisela, Yadira, Elissa, and Clara face all the same “growing pains” that any other teenage girl would. How are their problems compounded by Marisela’s and Yadira’s lack of legal status?
Marisela pays state and federal taxes during her employment at a local supermarket, despite the fact that she is not a legal resident or a citizen. Thorpe writes, “even though she [Marisela] would never collect Social Security payments—she was padding the fund for America’s legal retirees.” (p. 39) Why do you think Thorpe chooses to mention this fact? How did you react to this statement?
Discuss the differences between “Chicanos” and “Mexicanos” at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Were you surprised to learn that there are divisions within the Latino community? Where do the girls fit in? What tensions does this division cause?
The author does not shy away from the tough issues that her husband, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, faced during her writing of Just Like Us. Why do you think she chose to make mention of his difficulties? Do you think he ever made questionable decisions related to immigration?
The girls bond over their common struggles. However, when Yadira, Clara, and Elissa obtain financial aid, they avoid telling Marisela. Yadira comments, “Now that I’ve got money, and she doesn’t, and I’m almost sure I’m going to make it—and that built a wall right there.” (p. 63) Do you think that the girls were destined to have these conflicts due to their difference in status? How is the financial aid experience a metaphor for the struggles that immigrants without legal status continue to experience?
How does the dance showcase at Theodore Roosevelt parallel Yadira and Marisela’s relationship? How does it speak to the lives they lead in contrast to the lives that want?
How does the shooting of Denver police officer Donnie Young cast an unfavorable spotlight on the immigrant community? How did the events surrounding the investigation of his death affect the girls? The author?
Irene Chavez speculates that race caused conflict for the girls in college. Do you believe her assessment that Yadira and Clara were trying to fit in with white students? How does their friendship with Luke exacerbate the problem? Why do they hide certain things from him? Is the conflict really that Yadira and Clara are trying to assimilate while Marisela cannot? (p. 134)
Do you agree with the author when she theorizes that opportunities for immigrants were “curtailed by their lack of documents—their illegality perpetually threatened to stunt their potential.” (p. 149) Do you think Marisela and Yadira rise to these challenges? Just Like Us was originally published in 2009. Discuss how the political climate surrounding immigration has changed. If the girls were applying to college in the present day, do you think they would have had a different experience?
In the introduction the author writes, “immigration is…inherently messy. The issue bleeds. And we are all implicated.” (p. 2) Do you agree? After reading Just Like Us what steps do you believe still need to be taken?
It is obvious that the author comes from a much different background than the girls she writes about. At the conclusion of the book Thorpe comments that she was looking at Marisela from “across this cultural gulf.” (p. 379) Is Thorpe’s comment one of disappointment or of acceptance? Will that gulf ever close?
Just Like Us begs the question “What makes us an American?” Is the answer any more clear to you after reading the book? What do you think makes someone “American”?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
Readers are first introduced to Marisela, Yadira, Elissa, and Clara on the eve of their senior prom. Have everyone in your book group share a story from their own experience at prom. Compare your prom memories and experiences to what prom was like for the girls in Just Like Us.
Trace your family origins—where do you come from? Who were some of your ancestors? When did your family arrive in the United States? Share your ancestry findings with members in your book club.
Illegal immigration was the political hot topic during the course of Just Like Us and continues to be headline news. Go online and research currents events relating to the on-going immigration debate. Bring an interesting discovery or related news article to share with your group.
Helen Thorpe was born in London to Irish parents and grew up in New Jersey. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her radio stories have aired on This American Life and Sound Print. She is the author of Just Like Us, Soldier Girls, and The Newcomers and lives in Denver.