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This Story of Mexican Immigrants is a Story of America

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Helen Thorpe's Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America has been named one of the five best books in the West for 2009 , and just days ago, one of the best books of 2009 by the Washington Post. Thorpe has been a journalist for over twenty years, and is also the wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. While the book has understandably received a great deal of attention here in Colorado, where Thorpe documented the lives of four Mexicanas, the story she weaves is truly an iconic American story.

While the issue of undocumented immigration gets a lot of airtime, Thorpe gives it the attention it truly deserves, painting a deeply nuanced portrait of four close friends, two legal, and two undocumented. Readers follow their lives throughout high school and then college. She gives the issue a human face that I have not seen conveyed before. We come out of the story not simply able to empathize with these four amazing girls, but with a deeper, clearer understanding of the complexities of their lives and the issue of immigration. Thorpe beautifully weaves their personal stories into a larger story about immigration policy, American history, and the meaning of citizenship. It the rare kind of book that both captures the readers' attention with a compelling story and complex characters, but at the same time deepens our knowledge and pushes us to ask new questions about an enduring issue.

I interviewed Thorpe to learn more about what drew her to this topic:

What inspired you to write this book?

My parents immigrated to this country with me when I was a small child. They both grew up in Ireland - my Dad grew up on the "wrong" side of Dublin (he can't read Angela's Ashes, as he said the book is too close to home), and my Mom grew up on a dairy farm in rural Co. Cavan. They met in London, England, after they had both moved there in search of opportunity. I was born there, and then they immigrated to the US.

We had legal entry visas, and I grew up with a green card, but the experience made me curious to know what it would be like to be brought here illegally. I knew that I hadn't done anything to earn that green card - it was given to me when I was one year old. So it was easy for me to imagine inheriting different circumstances - such as being brought to this country without papers.

Did you find similarities between your own experience and that of the girls?

I thought at first that we might have a lot in common - and indeed there are many parallels to our lives. For example, I can only remember living in the United States, even though I was born elsewhere. And the student who goes by the name Yadira in the book also can only remember living in the United States. She has no memories at all of Mexico, as she was brought here at age three.

But my parents arrived with fair skin, professional degrees, and speaking English. My father found a job here as an electrical engineer, and my mother as a nurse. So they are very different than the parents of the students that I wrote about - those parents arrived here with less education and no English, and they've worked as maids, janitors, and restaurant staff. There is a huge socioeconomic difference between my family and the families I was writing about, and I personally have no experience of what it means to be ethnically different than the majority of US citizens.

For all of these reasons, and because two of the students that I wrote about lacked papers, they faced far more challenges in their lives than I ever did in mine. And I was always conscious of the fact that I had done nothing to "earn" my own green card, and that the students I was writing about had also done nothing to "earn" their own circumstances.

Did you set out with the goal of comparing the lives of legal and undocumented immigrants?

At first I was trying to find one undocumented student. And then I stumbled across four close friends, who happened to be divided in terms of their immigration status. Two of the girls had legal status, and two did not. Watching them interact illuminated the obstacles that the pair of illegal girls faced, because at every key juncture life was harder for them than it was for the legal girls.

Eventually, it became clear to me that telling the story of their relationships was the most compelling way to show what the subjective experience of illegal immigration was like, because it was in their daily interactions that the story came to life. The pain of the experience lay in the inequal opportunities that were available to the girls. Two could earn Pell grants; two could not. Two could obtain legal driver's licenses; two could not. Two could rent movies from Blockbuster, fly on airplanes, open credit card accounts, get into nightclubs easily and without much hassle; two could not.

It is particularly ironic, as your book highlights, that the two girls that have citizenship have maintained a stronger connection to Mexico than the other two girls. The legal girls have had opportunities to return to visit relatives, spend summers there, etc. On the other hand, the two girls who are not US citizens were brought across the border at a young age, and never able to travel back to Mexico. The only life they have ever known is in the US. What motivated these young women to keep going, in the face of the many obstacles they continuously encountered?

I think a lot of it had to do with their relationships. They supported each other. And they are clearly resilient - maybe more so than the average person. They also had very strong parents, who remained invested in their well-being. And they had incredible mentors, who could teach them a lot of skills that their own parents were not able to provide.

I also think they were inspired by the hope that they could make a difference. They've fought hard to make their own community and their own country a better place. They never quit believing that this country might one day embrace them, and they never quit working to make that a reality for themselves, and for everyone who finds themselves in a similar situation. I think in their darkest hours, they were inspired by the idea that they were living through a terrible injustice, and that perhaps if they spoke up, they could help to fix things - they could register voters, they could help elect true leaders, they could lobby government officials, and they could demonstrate. They wanted to be part of an effort to make this society more just and more inclusive.

I was struck not only by the close relationship you developed with these girls and their families, but with your simultaneous attempt to really understand and present the perspectives and worldview of those who are ardently against extending rights to undocumented immigrants. You are both honest and self-reflexive regarding your own position, while also trying to fairly represent and convey where people are coming from on all sides of this highly emotional issue. Did you find that difficult?

I am often asked which side of the immigration debate I fall on. It seems that most people view immigration as something that one must be "for" or "against," while I look at immigration as something that simply is. Millions of newcomers have made this country their home in recent years, and we don't know very much about their lives. So I'm on the side of describing the experience, as honestly as possible.

I do think it's important to say that I feel a sympathy toward immigrants - from watching my parents and their immigrant friends make their way in this country, I know that immigrating is hard - and I concede this in the book. At the same time, I also went out of my way to describe the point of view of those who believe that immigration should be curbed, out of desire to compensate for my own bias.
But in the end, I'm not trying to make a policy argument. My goals are journalistic. I am trying to describe a particular slice of reality - one that I think we don't understand very well, despite the extent to which we talk about immigration. I'm trying to tell real stories. And I believe these stories are some of the most interesting and compelling stories unfolding in America today.