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Documented Immigrants

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Early this August, I took a Greyhound bus from Tucson to Houston and back. It was a 24-hour trip that impressed my middle-class family and friends as rugged and somewhat risky. I was proud of myself for doing it, proud, too, that I made friends with my seatmates and enjoyed chatty forays into their worlds for the hours our travels intersected.

My favorite seatmate was Juan, a lanky Mexican-American in his 20s with a shy smile that belied a wicked sense of humor. He was returning from a three-day wedding in Mexico (a short one, he assured me) in the village where his wife lived with her family, waiting on the tectonic pace of Citizenship and Immigration Services to advance her application for citizenship. She and Juan, who has his Green Card, had met, wooed and married in America, borne two daughters and built a happy life together. Their contentment was overshadowed by her undocumented status, and they eventually decided to undertake the arduous, expensive citizenship process. His wife had to return to Mexico to wait for permission to re-enter legally. “She can’t stand being away from the girls,” Juan said. “It drives her crazy.” Juan admitted they were the lucky ones, though. Juan works as a foreman for a premium scaffolding crew and could support his children and his wife’s trip and application. He spared me stories of other families separated with no hope of reunion, but they hung in the air between us.

Late in the night, the bus crawled to a halt, kicking up dust and gravel, and the lights came on, waking everyone. Wordlessly, the bus rustled to life and passengers began rummaging for purses and wallets. The doors hissed open, and a Border Patrol officer mounted the steps and creaked along the aisle, asking passengers if they were American citizens. When he approached us, I looked up at him with my pale face and green eyes and said, “Yes,” a defiant little frown on my privileged face. I didn’t offer any documentation. His eyes flicked to Juan, who proffered his Green Card. The officer studied it with a flashlight, front and back, scrutinized Juan, looked again at the card and returned it. The bus was silent until the officer left, and it was silent for a long time after.

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America is a masterwork of narrative nonfiction that speaks to many of the stories untold in the silence of that Greyhound bus.

In this first book, author Helen Thorpe details four young Mexican women—one American citizen, one who has her Green Card, and two who are undocumented—from their senior prom through graduation from college. Merely to record the emotional, financial, legal and logistical travails of her subjects’ quest for an education would have been an impressive contribution to the immigration debate, but Thorpe incorporates grass-roots histrionics and congressional fumbling that threaten to arrest the girls’ progress (or parents).

Thorpe brings her subjects to life with insightful, often tender characterizations (she introduces her pivotal figure, Marisela, as having “the gravitational pull of a large star”). She lets the girls’ own personal dramas drive the narrative, from unruly prom hair to how to pay for college. Their boy problems, secret passwords and shifting alliances share space on the page, as they do in the girls’ minds, with deported parents, abandoned siblings, legislative turbidity and the ever-present question: What will happen when we graduate? The reader cannot help but care about these straight-A students, born into circumstances they didn’t choose, saddled with nearly incomprehensible challenges and committed to whatever progress they can make with what is not denied them.

Thorpe met the four girls in early March of 2004. A “friend of a friend” introduced her to Elissa (the names have been changed), the group’s star athlete who gives pep talks to her companions about homework and punctuality. When Thorpe arrived at the Old Country Buffet in suburban Denver to meet Elissa, all four friends were waiting. She met Marisela, “the dramatic one,” with a penchant for chameleonic hair color and body glitter, and Yadira, the reserved one who “took up 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.” Completing the group was Clara, the sensitive one, who dressed boyishly and cried easily. If Marisela was the first to experiment with everything, then Clara was the last. “Looking them over,” Thorpe observes, “I could not discern who had documents and who did not, although I knew the group was bifurcated along lines of legal status.” It’s a brief aside but is the kind of thoughtful pause in the narrative that Thorpe allows throughout. She invites readers to reflect, as she did, on what makes a person “seem” illegal and how valid or fair that assessment might be.

Thorpe orients readers into the simultaneous booms of retirees and new immigrants during the ’90s that turned Denver into a Petri dish for the nascent national immigration “crisis.” “Inside the Old Country Buffet, the clientele fell into two categories: aging white people and young Mexican-Americans. In the center of the country, America’s two fastest-growing demographic groups were eating side by side at a restaurant where they could purchase a cheap lunch.” This device is a Thorpe specialty; she stays aware of macro and micro in the story and is attuned to the moments that let one represent the other. The technique allows readers to follow the girls’ joys and failures in an evolving political environment that fills them alternately with hope and fear. Tying the two together, as Thorpe does repeatedly, is not mere stylistic cleverness but an important part of why the book works.

When an author uses any device regularly, there are bound to be less successful attempts. Thorpe’s employment of the environment usually feels like a stretch. At the end of Chapter 4, Thorpe writes, “… politics was always on the horizon whenever I spent time with Marisela and Yadira. The ongoing debate over illegal immigration occupied a hulking presence in the emotional geography of the two illegal girls, much in the way that the Rocky Mountains dominated the physical landscape.” Oh, that she had stopped there. One sentence later, she elaborates, “As locals used the snow-capped mountains to orient themselves in space, the two illegal girls used the fiery political debate to orient themselves with respect to the idea of America.”

Don’t let this and a few other clunky constructions dissuade you from Just Like Us. It is a feat of journalistic empathy, an epic journey through the realities of undocumented life and its scope reaches from the most-powerful to the most-powerless in the drama of Mexican-American immigration. Every American—documented or not—deserves to meet Marisela, Yadira, Elissa and Clara. They defy classification, label and stereotype. The four, and through them the millions they represent, are complex, complete individuals, worthy of love, health, education, consideration, human rights and—the reader can hardly help but conclude—citizenship.

Emily DePrang is a contributing writer for the Observer.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.