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

Through Ms. Thorpe, we get to meet the families and friends of the four girls. Like all immigrant families, the children learn English first, and often become the translators and ambassadors to the larger world. To get a job, the girls and their parents can either make up a Social Security number or take someone else's identity, both risky choices. Marisela pays taxes, "even though she would never collect Social Security payments." The girls and their families hover around the poverty line, with parents chasing better jobs, moving often. Marisela, in high school, works a 40 hour a week job at a supermarket, while at the same time taking honors classes and finishing with top grades. And the money she earns? Much goes to support the household. All four girls make it to college - three to the University of Denver, one to another local school, and all manage to get financial aid. Much of the story Ms. Thorpe tells revolves around how similar their experiences are to Anglo students, and yet, how very different, like being taken for "the help" on occasion. And much of the story revolves around the ramifications of their very different status from each other - legal vs. illegal, light vs. dark skin, ability to pass or not (sound familiar?). Most important, Marisela and Yadira, the girls without papers, live with a constant, underlying fear - who to confide in (very few), how to conceal their illegal status. The girls "craved legitimacy", but it was always out of reach. The story is complicated by the murder of a Denver policeman in a social club by an illegal resident from Mexico, who happened to have been employed by Helen Thorpe's husband's restaurant. Helen is married to John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver (who, by the way, was born and raised on the Main Line, attended the Haverford School, is a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the farthest thing from an illegal immigrant!). Helen's own circumstances, too - an immigrant herself - are also of interest. At the same time that the girls are struggling to achieve the American Dream, a congressman from Denver, Tom Tancredo, is working hard to deport all illegal immigrants. "Tancredo fascinated me because he possessed an immigrant's heritage (Italy), and yet he stood for closing our borders", says Ms. Thorpe. She follows Tancredo around Denver as he campaigns for the Republican nomination for president in 2007-08 on an anti-immigration platform. Tancredo, like us, is a lucky one, a beneficiary of America's largesse. But unlike him, many of the lucky ones - most everyone reading this review, for example - who benefitted from our country's generous immigration policies of the past - have chosen to empathize with the Mariselas and Yadiras, to identify with their struggle, and to assist their transition to legal status. Although their stories come 100 years later, and although they come from provinces like Durango instead of Galicia, and in spite of the relative legal ease of our grandparents' immigrant paths, our families and the girls' families' immigration experiences are much the same. Unlike former Rep. Tancredo, however, we at JSPAN are lending a hand, not erecting a barricade, to equal citizenship. JSPAN continues to actively address immigration reform issues. "Just Like Us" by Helen Thorpe offers all of us an opportunity to reflect on the need for immigration reform, one of this country's most complicated social issues today, through our own Jewish lens.