Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America

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9781416538981: Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America

Now updated, the powerful account of four young Mexican women coming of age in Denver, two who have legal documentation, two who don’t, and what happens to them as a result.

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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About the Author:

Helen Thorpe was born in London 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Prom Night

Three-quarters of the way through her final year of high school, Marisela Benavídez ran into a problem. Her father wanted to attend her senior prom. Marisela went to an inner-city public school in Denver, Colorado, that I will call Theodore Roosevelt High School. On Friday, April 23, 2004, twenty-four hours before the prom, she took a break from arguing with her father to appear in the school's annual dance recital. Halfway through the performance, Marisela breezed into the auditorium looking like a Vegas showgirl. She wore tight black satin trousers, a see-through white shirt, a revealing black camisole, copious amounts of makeup, and a liberal application of silver body glitter. Her hair was a froth of curls. It was intermission, and Marisela had come in search of her friends, still wearing her dance costume. As soon as she appeared in the audience, a group of peers moved into orbit around her -- in their galaxy, she had the gravitational pull of a large star. One of the girls asked about Marisela's ongoing negotiations with her conservative Mexican father.

"I don't know what to do!" cried Marisela. "He still says he's going to come!"

For several years, Marisela and her parents had been warring over the pace at which she was growing up and the extent of her Americanization. Marisela was a straight-A student -- AP chemistry, AP calculus, AP literature, Chicano studies, sociology, and dance -- who also liked to party. She divided her time equally between boys and books. The question of whether she would be allowed to go to the prom without her father marked the latest in a series of battles over how much freedom she should be allowed. As usual, Marisela was using the conflict to entertain her peers. Her best friend stood beside her. Yadira Vargas and Marisela Benavídez were wearing exactly the same attire but remained a study in opposites. Marisela was dark-skinned and had a round face and a full figure. She wore twice as much makeup as anybody else in her circle, and her shoulder-length hair changed color often. At the moment, it was auburn, but the month before it had been brown with gold streaks, which had highlighted the unusual gold tint of her eyes. This was not their natural color -- she wore gold contact lenses to enhance her appearance. And yet, in spite of all this artifice, Marisela's features constantly betrayed her emotions. In contrast, Yadira was slender, had lighter skin, wore modest amounts of makeup, always kept her long black hair its natural color, and never gave away anything important with her facial expressions. While Marisela was loud and boisterous, Yadira made such a small emotional footprint that, were it not for her striking coltish figure, it might be possible to forget she was present at all. Right now she remained quiet as Marisela announced her woes with abandon.

"I'm getting cramps -- right before prom!" Marisela told us.

Despite their differences, the two girls had become close because they both faced the prospect of graduating from high school without a Social Security number, their main concern for months until they got distracted with the prom. Now all that mattered was what color dresses to wear, how to fix their hair, and what to say to Marisela's father. They settled on getting ready at Marisela's apartment. It would take about five hours, they calculated, and they were going out to dinner before the prom, so they planned to start primping at noon the next day.

Recently Marisela and her family had moved to Lakewood, a suburb west of Denver where rents were cheaper. At twelve on Saturday -- the day of the prom -- I pulled up at their new apartment complex. It consisted of a vast warren of boxy cinder-block structures, all painted light green. The complex had the air of a place that had seen many tenants come and go, and the dilapidated cars in the parking lot suggested that their owners did not have a lot of money. A concrete walkway led to the ground-floor apartment where Marisela's family now lived. Outside, I found her father, Fabián, with her mother, Josefa, and their younger daughter, Rosalinda. Fabián worked for a janitorial company called National Maintenance, waxing the floors of commercial properties at night, and Josefa worked for a maid service, cleaning houses. Josefa was a pretty thirty-four-year-old woman with a round face and full figure like Marisela. While Josefa had a warm, jolly manner, Fabián looked more severe. He was forty-two, and had high cheekbones, a long nose framed by grooved lines, and a goatee. At the moment, his face wore a forbidding expression. Fabián was mercurial -- he could be gregarious, but he could also fly into a fury without warning. Now he seemed preoccupied with thoughts of what Marisela might be up to this evening, as she had been behaving secretively. Fabián was almost as Mexican as he had been when he first came to the United States, but his daughter was a hybrid -- someone he could not fully understand. Fabián explained in Spanish that Marisela wasn't at home; she had gone to pick up several friends. Then two roly-poly boys emerged from the apartment, and Fabián's mood lightened. He grabbed one of the boys and began tickling him furiously.

"This is Rafael, my youngest son," he said proudly in Spanish. "He's the fattest in our family, too!"

Fabián pointed to the older boy, Nestor. "He is just like Marisela -- straight A's."

"All of our children are good students," interjected Josefa, also in Spanish.

"That's right," echoed Fabián. "They all get good grades."

Fabián and Josefa spoke almost no English, and my Spanish was scant, but whenever we failed to understand each other, the boys would translate for us. We expressed wonder at the idea that Marisela and her friends planned to spend five hours getting dressed. What were they going to do for that copious amount of time?

"Dad says that Marisela puts on so much makeup, she looks like a clown!" Nestor hooted.

Josefa called Marisela to check on her progress. "Cinco minutos," she reported.

"Quieres agua?" Fabián asked.

I accepted a glass of water and Fabián joined me. He had recently stopped drinking alcohol and his body had started aching as a result. He had been much happier when he drank, but admitted that he could not do so in moderation and had sometimes consumed up to thirty beers a day. Drinking helped him sleep during the day, enabling him to work nights. But Fabián could no longer afford to court oblivion so assiduously -- not when his older daughter was challenging his authority.

"El carro!" shouted Rafael, announcing the arrival of Marisela's car. "They're here!"

We all stared as Marisela, Yadira, and two friends walked up the concrete walkway carrying gowns, shoe boxes, suitcases, and bags filled with makeup. Marisela and Yadira belonged to a close-knit foursome along with two other girls who had similar backgrounds, and one of them, Clara Luz, had opted to dress at Marisela's house, too. The fourth girl, Elissa Ramírez, was going to meet them later at Cinzetti's, the Italian restaurant where they were having dinner. Meanwhile, a friend named Annalisa had tagged along to get ready at Marisela's, even though she was not part of the foursome.

The girls marched into the apartment and through the living room to Marisela's bedroom. Frilly curtains framed the windows and a shag carpet covered the floor. On the walls were two portraits of Marisela: the first showed her in a vampy pose, wearing a red strapless dress, while the second caught her looking pensive, holding her chin in her hand -- the sexpot and the thinker. Her sister Rosalinda pointed to the photographs and said breathlessly, "Everybody thinks she should be a model!"

Eight of us crowded into the bedroom: the four high school seniors, Marisela's mother, Rosalinda, me, and a teenager wearing a pair of striped flannel pajamas who had shown up unexpectedly. She turned out to live next door. Marisela turned on the TV to a Spanish-language game show, which everyone ignored, and Yadira carefully unpacked her suitcase. It contained silver jewelry, three different curling irons, her gown, which was navy blue with swirly silver lines on it, and a black sweater with a faux fur collar. Yadira carefully hung up her clothes to make sure they didn't get wrinkled. The other girls unpacked in a more helter-skelter fashion, and within minutes, Marisela's bed was covered in hair ties, bobby pins, body glitter, cosmetics, bags of cotton balls, shoes, purses, and brand-new costume jewelry still pinned to white cardboard backing.

Yadira's cell phone rang. "I just wanted to tell you that we got a boutonniere for you," she said. There was a pause. "It's like a corsage, but for guys," she explained. Her boyfriend, Juan, was a junior at a different high school. Juan spent his free time fixing up cars or driving them around. He aspired to become an auto mechanic, although like his girlfriend he did not possess legal status or a legitimate Social Security number. Nor did the boy who Marisela had invited to the prom. A few weeks ago, she had started dating a tall, attractive sophomore at Roosevelt High, but their relationship seemed highly flexible, as she had invited a former boyfriend, Fernando, to be her date instead. She considered Fernando the love of her life, much to the dismay of her parents. Marisela had started dating Fernando two years prior; they had met at a Mexican nightclub in Denver. (Although she was underage, Marisela had no difficulty getting into clubs with a fake Mexican driver's license that added three years to her age.) Marisela had dated Fernando until he moved to Arizona to work in construction. The major drama of the past few weeks had been the question of whether Fernando and Marisela could achieve their hoped-for reunion, given certain logistical challenges. The first difficulty was the matter of how Fernando would travel from Arizona to Colorado that day. He had to work the day before, an...

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