Friday, March 5, 2021

Don't Ask Me Where I'm From - Jennifer De Leon

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Liliana is fine, thank you very much. It’s fine that her best friend, Jade, is all caught up in her new boyfriend lately. It’s fine that her inner-city high school is disorganized and underfunded. It’s fine that her father took off again—okay, maybe that isn’t fine, but what is Liliana supposed to do? She’s fifteen! Being left with her increasingly crazy mom? Fine. Her heathen little brothers? Fine, fine, fine. But it turns out Dad did leave one thing behind besides her crazy family. Before he left, he signed Liliana up for a school desegregation program called METCO. And she’s been accepted.

Being accepted into METCO, however, isn’t the same as being accepted at her new school. In her old school, Liliana—half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadorian—was part of the majority where almost everyone was a person of color. But now at Westburg, where almost everyone is white, the struggles of being a minority are unavoidable. It becomes clear that the only way to survive is to lighten up—whiten up. And if Dad signed her up for this program, he wouldn’t have just wanted Liliana to survive, he would have wanted her to thrive. So what if Liliana is now going by Lili? So what if she’s acting like she thinks she’s better than her old friends? It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.

But then she discovers the gutting truth about her father: He’s not on one of his side trips. And it isn’t that he doesn’t want to come home…he can’t. He’s undocumented and he’s been deported back to Guatemala. Soon, nothing is fine, and Lili has to make a choice: She’s done trying to make her white classmates and teachers feel more comfortable. Done changing who she is, denying her culture and where she came from. They want to know where she’s from, what she’s about? Liliana is ready to tell them. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: The first page of this book is perhaps the most engaging, most telling first page I’ve read in a book for a long time. There were many things I loved about it, but mostly, I just loved that it gave an exceptional introduction to the main character’s voice. I loved the main character’s voice in this book—she is sassy, intelligent, honest, but also just so teenage girl that I couldn’t help but love her and how realistic she felt. Yeah, she has the normal issues that a teen would have, and yeah, she’s obviously not a completely reliable narrator because the book is first person, but her voice was so authentic and realistic feeling that the strength of her character development alone carried the book.

It didn’t need that, though.

This book is well-written. The story is compelling and feels like real life—frenzied, full, yet still nuanced. I loved the main character’s relationship with her family, and the different peripheral characters who were obviously important to the story in different ways. I thought the author did a good job of recognizing South American culture, and how it varied from other Latin cultures. I am not Latinx myself so I can’t claim to how one from a Latinx culture would feel about the representation offered in this book, but as a person looking in from the outside, I really appreciated the situations in the book that allowed the characters to tell the reader what it was like to be part of a minority culture in a mostly white school. The situations were realistic and the reader was able to be educated without it feeling forced or unrealistic. I think it’s important for young readers (and all readers, actually) to be exposed to other cultures and to understand that other cultures don’t feel the same way about their mainstream representation as the dominant culture might feel, and this book provides ample opportunity for that. I think it could actually be an exceptional book to be read in English classes everywhere so that students can be taught what questions to ask, what not to ask, how to embrace others from different cultures, and to let people from theses cultures to tell their own stories.

The main story in this book is one of immigration and one that is, obviously, very timely. It gives the reader an opportunity to see close-up what deportation means to a family, what it’s like to be an illegal immigrant in this country, and the perils it takes to try to get back. The news of late, especially with the former administration, has not allowed a narrative like this to exist just because of the complexity and weight of the issues, and this book allows a space for discussion.

 I really liked this book. If you are into very well-written characters, especially strong female protagonists, you should check this out. It is also one of the more engaging and enlightening books I have read on the plight of Latinx identity in this country, and even I, who live in an area of 25-40 percent Latinx people and try to make myself aware of these kinds of situations, learned a lot and really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it for teen reading, and if you’re into YA Fic as well, you should totally check it out.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and discussion of sex.

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