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February 4, 2010

Book Notes - Helen Thorpe ("Just Like Us")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Helen Thorpe's Just Like Us follows the lives of four young Mexican women in the suburbs of Denver for four years. Two of the women are legal residents and two are undocumented, and Thorpe intelligently and elegantly examines the complex issue of immigration through her vivid exploration of these women's lives.

Much like Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives in McSweeney's Voice of Witness oral history series, Just Like Us opens our eyes to the issues facing undocumented immigrants in the United States, and is a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

The Washington Post (which named the book one of its best books of 2009) wrote of Just Like Us:

"Thorpe, a veteran reporter, brings a journalist's eye to her story. Her narrative is quick-paced and full of incident and clamor. Like her predecessors, she goes across the border to bang around in trucks and cough in the dust clouds. Yet her attention to ambience and detail lends a vibe that is enriched by her empathy."

In her own words, here is Helen Thorpe's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America:

I didn't know much about Latin music when I began writing Just Like Us. The book tells the story of four girls growing up in the western United States, after their families immigrated from Mexico. The girls had Mexican parents but American lives, and they came of age during intense debate over the presence of immigrants in their adopted society. As it happened, the foursome was split down the middle in terms of legal status: Marisela and Yadira lacked documents, while Clara and Elissa had papers (not their real names). The two girls with legal status could obtain real driver's licenses, board airplanes, open checking accounts, qualify for aid to colleges, rent movies from Blockbuster—while the other two could not. At times, the inequities between them caused division, jealousy, and misunderstanding. Eventually they resolved their internal difficulties, but life always remained harder for the two girls without papers. During the five years we spent together, the girls often went to clubs or quinceañeras, and the music they heard provided a critical form of solace. No matter what else might be happening, the familiar beats made them feel at home, and the lyrics spoke of their experience—Latin music provided the girls with an acknowledgment that was otherwise absent in American culture. Mexican bands would often drive thousands of miles north to play cumbia or norteño songs for the immigrant families who'd traveled here in search of jobs, or sometimes the girls would dance to Latino DJs who played a fusion of reggaetón and rap.

This playlist includes ranchera, cumbia, reggaetón, salsa and merengue, and it could be used as a primer on Latin music, with the qualification that I'm hardly an expert. The girls taught me about these songs they loved as they told me about their lives, and I wound up loving these songs too. Music was important to all four girls, but particularly Marisela. If life caused her suffering, she escaped by blasting music on her stereo.When she was in a sentimental mood, her favorite artist was Vicente Fernández, "El Rey" (the King) of rancheras. You could call Fernández the Mexican equivalent of Elvis Presley, mixed with a little Hank Williams. Fernández has recorded over fifty albums, so it's hard to pick just one song to represent him. Two that I like are "Estos Celos," and "Para Siempre," but undoubtedly the song he is most famous for is his classic "Volver Volver." The ranchera is so popular among Mexican immigrants that when native-born Latinos at school wanted to make fun of newcomers like Marisela, the native-born Latinos called the mexicanos "ched," or "cheddar," a derogatory term derived from the word ranchera. Marisela's parents also loved rancheras; it's a form that spans the generations.

If either Marisela or her parents were in the mood to dance, however, they might find some cumbia, another genre whose popularity crosses generations. On the one hand there is old-fashioned cumbia, and then there's the newfangled stuff. In high school, Marisela and Yadira choreographed a cumbia-inspired routine to "Mi Gente," by the Kumbia Kings (with Ozomatli). The Kumbia Kings hail from Texas, and have a long and complicated history, but the band is most closely associated with A.B. Quintanilla III, brother of the late Tejano music star Selena. And when Marisela went to clubs, bands that were visiting from Mexico often played cumbias. She once took me to hear Liberación, a hugely popular Mexican band that plays primarily cumbia norteña, the cumbias from northern Mexico. (The band members dressed in matching suits and had incredible James Brown dance moves.) Cumbia is generally associated with Colombia and Costa Rica, but there's a whole branch of Mexican cumbia. The girls also liked the newer fusion genres such as tecnocumbia and cumbia rap.

Most late nights also involved reggaetón. Wildly popular with young Latinos, reggaetón is what happened when rap migrated to Puerto Rico, and transformed into its Latin cousin. One reggaetón song I often heard while with the girls was "Lo Que Pasó Pasó," by Daddy Yankee (a.k.a. Ramón Luis Ayala Rodríguez). I wound up naming the third section of my book after this song, because those years in the girls' lives were full of Daddy Yankee and reggaetón, and because some of the twists of fate that the girls lived through were so incredible that you could only say, "Lo Que Pasó Pasó (What Happened Happened)." For what it's worth, I also like Daddy Yankee's popular hit, "Rompe."

Yet if I could only pick one song to represent the time I spent with the girls, it would have to be "Suavemente, by Elvis Crespo." "Suavemente" might be the sexiest song ever written. It's a merengue—a genre that originated in the Dominican Republic, although Crespo was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico. Horns create one line of sound, while percussion pulls in a different direction, forming a complicated tapestry of sound. Then there is Crespo, singing urgently that he wants someone to kiss him softly, to kiss him again, to kiss him a little more, to kiss him gently and without hurry, that his lover should "Dame un beso bien profundo que me llegue al alma"—give him a kiss so deep, it would reach down to his soul. The girls were entranced with this song, and in my mind it became the theme for their coming of age. It was the song I heard most often when with them; it was the song that pulled them all onto the dance floor; it was the song they played at special times. It was the anthem of their lives.

Two more songs have to be mentioned. If I had never met Marisela, Yadira, Clara and Elissa, I might never have discovered Juanes, the Colombian-born rock star who now lives in Los Angeles. He has a forceful, unforgettable tenor that gets under your skin, and his modern ballads are a spectacular fusion of American and Latin traditions—it's rock with a Latin twist ("rock en español"). "La Camisa Negra" was the first song of his that I heard and it remains my favorite. It's a fast-paced dirge about a man who is haunted by a lost love. I associate this Latin hit with Marisela and Yadira because they once blasted it as they drove across the country on an epic road trip. Usually the two girls without legal status avoided traveling for fear of running into federal agents, but in this case they were determined to attend a conference on immigrant rights, and drove with legal friends from Colorado to Georgia in three days. It was a quintessentially American journey set to a Latin soundtrack.

Another song featured on that road trip was "Rie y Llora," by Celia Cruz. And what's a Latin playlist without a salsa? Of course salsa is too big a category to be represented by just one song, and I don't mean to imply that "Rie y Llora" should stand for the entire genre; rather, the song is important to me because of the title. Rie y Llora recalls a saying popular among Mexican-Americans: "Laugh now, cry later." Many Latinos wear these words tattooed around the mask of comedy and the mask of tragedy. It's a saying that captures everything there is to say about how hard life can be for a mexicana growing up in the United States, and how important it is to remain undefeated. This is why music provided the girls with such balm. The songs spoke to their condition.

Helen Thorpe and Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
the book's video trailer

The Atlantic review
Bookmarks Magazine review
A Brooklynite on the Ice review
Denver Post review
Don't Need a Diagram review
Hollywood the Write Way review
Jewish Social Policy Action Network review
La Voz Nueva review
Library Journal review
Miami Herald review
New West review
The New Yorker review
Oprah Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
Speak/Hablar review
Story Circle Book Reviews review
Tina Says... review
Troubadour Books review
Washington Post review

5280 Magazine profile of the author
New West interview with the author
Princeton Alumni Weekly profile of the author
Vail Daily profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (a yearly reading project)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics & graphic novel highlights)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)