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

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

by Helen Thorpe


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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?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416538981
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 05/03/2011
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 401,238
Product dimensions: 8.22(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt


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, and could not fly from Phoenix to Denver, as he lacked the identification needed to board an airplane. Therefore Fernando had set out by car that morning at four A.M. to make the 930-mile journey in time to join them for dinner.

The second difficulty was what to tell Marisela's parents, who had forbidden her to see Fernando ever again. Both Fabián and Josefa had grown up in small towns in rural Mexico. They disapproved of Marisela's freewheeling American lifestyle, and Fernando struck them as the type to lead their rebellious daughter further astray. Marisela had lied and told her parents she was going to the prom with a young man named Vicente, who had promised to pose with her for a formal photograph to bolster her story. Her parents were suspicious, however, which was why her father thought she needed a chaperone. For days, Marisela had been trying to convince Fabián that parents didn't go to proms in America, but Fabián found her claim highly questionable.

As soon as Marisela's mother left the bedroom, Clara asked for an update on Fernando's progress. Marisela disclosed the latest drama: Eight hours after he'd left Phoenix, Fernando's car had broken down, leaving him marooned somewhere on the side of Interstate 25. He had convinced two friends from Denver to pick him up, and the rescue mission was now in progress, but Marisela did not know when he would arrive.

"Maybe he'll be fat and ugly!" said Clara gleefully.

"I haven't seen him in six months. Who knows?" replied Marisela with equanimity.

Marisela was waiting for a professional hairdresser, and offered to help the other girls arrange their hair until the stylist, Yolanda, arrived. Clara wanted to leave her hair down, but Marisela pronounced this idea unacceptable. Both Clara and Yadira agreed to let the Benavídez girls put up their hair in twisties, which involved parting their hair in a checkerboard pattern, pulling each square into a small ponytail, and inverting the ponytails. Clara sat cross-legged on the floor before Rosalinda, and Yadira sat before Marisela. Marisela's big-toothed comb proved unwieldy, however, so she decided to use a pen. "I won't write on you, I promise," she told Yadira. "Oh, never mind! I'm writing on you already."

Then she announced to the room, "We should have bought more hair spray, you guys."

"I have hair spray," said Clara.

"I have hair spray, too," said Yadira.

Yadira wondered out loud if the twisties were going to give her a headache.

"Just sit down and have the boy rub your head," suggested the girl in pajamas.

Yadira said she was hungry, and Clara said she was, too, but Marisela decided that nobody could eat. Then Yadira said she was bored, and Marisela told her that she was complaining too much. Clara scrunched up her face in pain as Rosalinda began inverting her ponytails. Yadira pronounced that she did not like her twisties, and Marisela began using a skinny curling iron on her hair instead. "Oye! You are burning me!" Yadira protested.

Unconcerned, Marisela applied a cloud of hair spray and unrolled one perfect ringlet, immobilized in a tight coil.

"Look! Todo así," urged Marisela.

"Do all my hair like that? It's going to take forever!" objected Yadira, who had slipped into a black mood.

I began to appreciate why this might take some time.

"Okay, I am getting dizzy," conceded Marisela. "I need food, too."

Marisela left and returned with a bag of pan dulce — white cake with shockingly bright pink icing.

"Yolanda is making me nervous because she's not here yet. What can I do? Do you want me to do your makeup, Clara?"

Clara, who almost never wore makeup, seemed alarmed. "Um, you could do my nails," she said.

"What? You don't like the way I do my makeup?" cried Marisela. "I wasn't going to do it like mine!"

Yadira pulled her hair into a ponytail, swathed herself in a furious cloud of hair spray, then took the ponytail down.

"I hate hair," she pronounced.

"You're lost, huh?" said Marisela's little sister sympathetically.

"Yeah," said Yadira miserably, picking up the pan dulce. "I think I'll just eat."

At last Yolanda arrived. She was a large woman in stretchy pants and a striped T-shirt. After Marisela selected an image of a smiling model with straight hair and a wild topknot of curls from one of the magazines that Yolanda had brought, the stylist set to work. Yolanda pulled mousse through Marisela's hair and cordoned off a section of it. Stiff with mousse, the topknot stuck straight up in the air. The hairdresser plugged in a fat curling iron with bristles that blew hot air from its vents. With this tool, she started curling Marisela's topknot, but then Yolanda got some of Marisela's hair stuck in the bristles and spent several minutes yanking it out. The topknot looked worse than ever.

To make conversation, Yolanda asked what Marisela was planning to do after she graduated from high school. The hairdresser must have expected to hear that Marisela was going to work or to marry, as that would have been typical for a student from Roosevelt, but instead Marisela told Yolanda that she was waiting to hear back from the University of Denver, a private institution with a high-caliber faculty.

"Oh, yeah?" Yolanda asked, obviously surprised.

"Yeah," said Marisela, with pride.

"Waiting to hear — when?"

"Next week. I'm nervous."

The possibility of going to the University of Denver had just come up, and Marisela viewed it as her only chance to get a college degree. If she had been legal, she would have been able to afford community college, but the state of Colorado classified immigrants who lacked documents as international students, which meant they did not qualify for in-state tuition. Because she did not have a legitimate Social Security number, Marisela also did not qualify for a Pell grant, financial aid, or many private scholarships. The unspoken question hanging over the girls at the moment was whether Marisela was about to be left behind. Clara and Elissa both had legitimate Social Security numbers, and each of them had received substantial offers of financial aid. Meanwhile, in a surprising twist, Yadira had secured a private benefactor. Only Marisela still had no idea how she would pay for higher education — unless she won a private scholarship to the University of Denver. Her only other hope was that some government body might act in time to help her. Members of the state legislature had been debating what to do with undocumented students since the beginning of the calendar year, and members of the U.S. Congress had been discussing the subject, too, but so far neither group of officials had taken any action.

College-bound students were likely to lead stable, middle-class lives, while students who went no further than Roosevelt were likely to live in rental houses and do menial work. Which kind of life was Marisela going to lead? She had one foot in the orderly world of Advanced Placement classes and one foot in the precarious world of her parents. Meanwhile, watching Marisela encounter so many difficulties had unnerved the other girls, who were used to considering her an expert on matters they considered important, such as math, boys, and grooming.

Now Rosalinda handed Clara a mirror to show her the twisties.

"I'm done," Clara declared.

"Clara, come here," ordered Marisela. "It's too simple."

"I'm simple! Let me be simple!"

"Okay, do your makeup," Marisela conceded.

Clara began to apply blush, but Marisela said she should apply foundation first. Clara picked up a small black compact.

"Is that powder?" Marisela asked. The compact contained powder in a shade that matched Clara's fair skin. "Oh, yes," commented Marisela. "White, white powder." She wiped a streak onto her face, where it stood out like flour. "Look!" she giggled.

Irene Chávez arrived, bearing boutonnieres and corsages. Irene, who served as a mentor to the girls, had fine brown hair and merry brown eyes. Although many people mistook her for Latina, she was actually Anglo — her maiden name was McKenna — but during the 1960s and 1970s Irene had participated in the women's movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the Chicano movement. She had met Justino Chávez while they were both serving on a volunteer committee to support the United Farm Workers of America. Irene and Justino remained active in various political causes, and when the girls were in their sophomore year of high school, the couple had recruited them to help stop a political initiative that would have banned bilingual education as it was being practiced in Colorado. Halfway through Yadira's senior year of high school, her family had abruptly decided to relocate to California, and at that point Yadira had moved in with Irene and Justino. Now Irene had bought each of the girls a corsage and a matching boutonniere, anticipating that their own parents would not know enough about American culture to supply these accessories.

"Okay, these have to go in the fridge," Irene pronounced and bustled off.

Clara pulled a long black dress dotted with tiny red roses out of Marisela's closet, where she had hung it up earlier.

"Where did you get that dress?" Marisela asked in Spanish.

"JCPenney," Clara replied.

Marisela reached out to examine the price tag, and saw it had cost $150.

"Ciento cincuenta!" she exclaimed. "Por qué?"

"Because it's one of a kind."

"So is mine!"

"Are you sure?" taunted Clara. "Wait till you get there."

"I'm sure! Wait till you get there!"

When Irene returned, Marisela asked to borrow her cell phone so that she could call Fernando, saying dramatically that she couldn't use her own phone, because her parents might check to see what phone numbers she had dialed. Irene was older than Marisela's mother, but her relationship with the girls was part guardian angel, part older sister, and she happily gave Marisela her cell phone.

"It's so romantic!" cried Irene. "He's on a mission to take her to the prom. It's like a novela!"

Fernando didn't answer.

"I'm wearing too much makeup," Clara worried, scrutinizing her face in the mirror.

"Let me see," ordered Marisela. "No, you're not. Put blanco here." She pointed to Clara's brow bone.

"Blanco?" questioned Clara.

"O algo," said Marisela, with a wave of her hand. Or something.

Clara decided to consult Yolanda, who was, after all, a professional.

"Qué color?" she asked Yolanda, holding up her black and red gown.

"Azul," said Yolanda decisively.

"Azul," repeated Clara doubtfully. "Okay, Marisela, do you have blue?"

Marisela pointed to a large black leather case. Inside, Clara beheld various shelves of eye shadow, grouped by color — there were eight different varieties of blue.

Soon Marisela had a flourish of perfect curls on top of her head, held in place with silver and paste clips. She inspected Yolanda's work in a hand mirror.

"Sí! Me gusta!" she pronounced enthusiastically.

Yolanda methodically applied hair spray to Marisela's elaborate coiffure, continuing long past the point that seemed healthy. Marisela left to show her mother, and after a moment we heard howls of laughter from the next room. When Marisela came back, she explained Nestor was entertaining the rest of the family by joking that he wanted to get ready for the prom, too, and had just announced that he needed to borrow some of his sister's fancy undergarments. "My brother wants to come in and look for a bra," she said wearily.

Then Clara accidentally sprayed everybody with deodorant. She had intended to aim for her underarm, but had pointed the aerosol can in the wrong direction. We all turned in her direction.

"Whew!" said Irene.

"I feel watched!" yelped Clara, one arm still pointing at the ceiling.

In a surprising move, Clara had applied dark pink eye shadow, along with brown lipstick, and now looked vaguely punkish.

Marisela borrowed Irene's phone again and this time she reached Fernando. "He's only half an hour away!" she reported. Marisela disappeared into the bathroom to put on her gown, and came back a vision in clingy aqua. The dress was backless, and from behind she appeared half naked. Too preoccupied to enjoy the impression that she made, however, Marisela knelt down and spoke urgently to Clara. Apparently Fabián and Josefa wanted to speak with Marisela's friend, who went to church faithfully and never frequented nightclubs. Adults viewed her as utterly reliable.

"They're going to interrogate you!" warned Marisela. "You have to talk to them — but you can't tell them anything!"

"What do I say?" asked Clara fearfully.

Marisela instructed Clara to confirm that Vicente was Marisela's date. Clara should also say that in America it was not customary for fathers to accompany their daughters to the prom.

"They want to go with me!" Marisela moaned to Irene.

"I want to go, too, but I'm restraining myself," Irene replied nonchalantly.

"You guys, we only have one hour left!" warned Yadira, waving a mascara wand around.

Yolanda began to apply Marisela's makeup. In a few minutes, Marisela wore a little blush, a lot of lip gloss, and vast oceans of blue eye shadow. She wondered out loud if her father would approve. "It's always too much for him," Marisela said with a sigh.

Yadira hadn't begun to dress, but her head was now covered in perfect, shiny ringlets.

"Your hair looks great, Yadira!" complimented Marisela.

"See, none of those twisties or anything," replied her best friend.

Clara came back and flashed Marisela an okay sign. It seemed that she had survived the interrogation without disclosing any secrets. Marisela waltzed into the living room and pirouetted before Fabián and Josefa, who sat on the sofa looking dazed by their daughter's transformation, while soccer players stormed unnoticed across the television screen. The few strings holding Marisela's dress in place seemed barely adequate to the job of keeping it on her body. "Okay, Papí?" she asked. Fabián wore his forbidding expression, but nodded silently. Back in the bedroom, Yolanda began spraying silver body glitter all over Marisela. Then Clara, who typically dressed like a tomboy, appeared shyly in her dress, which had a halter-style neckline and a hem that came up over one knee. She had traveled farther than the rest from her usual self — we were catching a glimpse of some future, grown-up Clara, in her elegant attire and strange makeup.

Yadira pointed to the large gold crucifix that her friend always wore.

"I don't take it off," said Clara firmly.

Marisela handed her fake ID over to Clara, saying sotto voce that her parents would probably search her purse, although they did nothing of the kind. When Yadira put on her slim navy sheath, she looked even more willowy than usual. She wore silver sandals and her toenails were painted silver and her eyes gleamed with silver shadow — she had become a silver and blue sylph. Marisela was spraying Yadira with body glitter when their dates arrived. The young men trooped into the apartment wearing ill-fitting tuxedos and foolish expressions. They nodded affably to Marisela's parents and tried not to stare too much at the girls.

"Oh, the flowers, the flowers!" cried Irene, running to the kitchen.

Fabián manned a Polaroid. He took a shot of Marisela alone, a shot of Marisela with the boys, a shot of Marisela with me, a shot of Marisela with Irene, and a shot of all the girls. Soon every member of Marisela's family was waving a damp Polaroid around in the air. Then one of the boys, oblivious to the danger they were in, asked casually if Fernando had made it yet. Marisela hissed at him to shut up, shut up, then called out loudly, "I just need to brush my teeth!"

"I just have to do my hair!" squeaked Nestor in a falsetto.

Rafael translated this for his father, who howled.

"You guys!" chastised Marisela.

As Marisela brushed her teeth, her brothers performed a wild pantomime of spraying themselves all over for the benefit of the crowd. They were still horsing around when she returned. "Vámonos!" cried Marisela. And she slipped away to meet her real date. The seniors gabbed excitedly as they strolled down the concrete walkway toward their cars, a bright cavalcade of unexpected glamour passing through the dreary courtyard. The adults who were being left behind spilled out to witness their eye-catching departure. Josefa called out to her daughter in Spanish to lift up her dress, which was dragging on the ground, and Marisela heeded her mother's advice, but did not look back. In the end, Fabián's threats of chaperoning proved empty. Once he had been able to keep his daughter safe within his orbit, but now she had traveled beyond his control, and maybe that was what all the fuss had been about.

Fernando was waiting for Marisela at Cinzetti's, just as attractive as ever. He had brought along the two friends who had rescued him on I-25, and Marisela immediately invited them to come to the prom, too, pointing out that neither Clara nor Annalisa had dates. After consuming large plates of pasta, everybody squeezed into several cars and drove in a caravan to the prom. It took place at a rented social hall, where a DJ played both hip-hop and reggaetón, the fast-paced music from Puerto Rico. Marisela objected that the DJ didn't play enough Mexican music — she would have preferred to hear música norteña, ranchera, or cumbia — but she spent a lot of time on the dance floor anyway. As the evening progressed, one of Fernando's friends fell for Clara, looking lovely in her black dress with the red roses on it, but she spurned his advances and he left early. Meanwhile, Yadira and Juan were like an island unto themselves. Fernando had such a good time with Marisela, he asked if she would be his girlfriend again. She declined, however, unwilling to go that far in defying her parents' wishes.

All the girls who had gotten ready at Marisela's plus their friend Elissa eventually made it back to the apartment in Lakewood somewhere around four in the morning. Then they started drinking — christening the special commemorative glasses inscribed with the date of their prom — and fixed a late-night snack. Just as the sun started to come up, they all piled into Marisela's big double bed together, having abandoned their dates to spend the night with one another.

The four girls had forged their bonds from myriad nights like this — from years of secrets, squabbles, and private jokes, years of outmaneuvering their Mexican parents, years of figuring out adulthood and America, which for them often seemed like one and the same thing. Now they wondered whether their friendship would survive the changes that loomed before them. The prom had served as a temporary distraction, but once it was over they became preoccupied again with the issue that had concerned them for more than a year: All four of the girls shared the same kind of dreams about the future, yet only two of them appeared to have a clear path forward. Yadira had figured out an interim solution to the problem of her illegal status, but Marisela had not yet arrived at a solution of any kind. Now no major event stood between the girls and the moment when they would graduate from high school, in exactly one month's time. At that point, Marisela would have to solve the question of how to create a meaningful life in the United States without a green card or Social Security number. She still had no answer for this riddle, and because she was the kind of student who was accustomed to having the right answers all the time, being without a response to a query of such vast proportions filled her with unease. Being a teenager, she worried about this predicament primarily in terms of what it would mean for her socially, because she would have to watch her three closest friends achieve a type of success that appeared to be out of her reach. And Marisela had good reason to fear that she might lose her friends in the process, for the subject of college had already caused the four girls to suffer their first major rift. Copyright © 2009 by Helen Thorpe

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Just 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.


  1. 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)
  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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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)
  10. 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?
  11. 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?
  12. 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?
  13. 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”?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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