15-year-old Liliana Cruz, hero of Jennifer De Leon's debut novel Don't Ask Me Where I'm From (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books), has a lot on her mind. She's having best friend troubles, she's busy keeping her little brothers in line, she's dealing with her dad traveling yet again... and she's also trying to fit in at Westburg — the wealthy, suburban, majority-white high school she's just been accepted into.
But Liliana, who is half-Guatemalan and half-El Salvadorian, is struggling to make everything work, even as she learns code-switching in addition to world history. "So what if she changes her name? So what if she changes the way she talks? So what if she’s seeing her neighborhood in a different light? But then light is shed on some hard truths: It isn’t that her father doesn’t want to come home…he can’t—and her whole family is in jeopardy. And when racial tensions at school reach a fever pitch, the walls that divide feel insurmountable," the synopsis reads. "But a wall isn’t always a barrier. It can be a foundation for something better. And Liliana must choose: Use this foundation as a platform to speak her truth, or risk crumbling under its weight."
Teen Vogue has an exclusive excerpt of Don't Ask Me Where I'm From, in which Liliana's history class discusses Central America and immigration— and her teacher seems to expect her to speak up on behalf of all Central Americans. What follows is a crucial discussion between Liliana and her friend Genesis about racism, code-switching, and the value of each other as a support system.
Check out the following chapters from Don't Ask Me Where I'm From, which officially comes out on May 5, 2020.
In third-period World History—I couldn’t believe it— we were starting a unit on Central American immigration. It was part of a larger unit on immigration as part of a year-long theme of Reading Like a Historian. Guess who finally read that syllabus? I noticed that this school gave unique names to their courses, instead of the basic English, art, math, history, etc. Like, there was one senior English course called American Rebels and Romantics. But yeah, Central American immigration. Ugh. Why couldn’t we just study the Civil War or the Vietnam War or some other war? There were enough of them. Well, the teachers didn’t exactly do things like that at Westburg. At the same time, I was kinda curious. Maybe I could learn more about, I don’t know, my family, about Dad. At the same time, I didn’t want the extra attention on me. Sadly, it didn’t look like there were any other METCO kids in the class. So I knew the attention would be on me. Because, yeah. Double ugh.
Our teacher, Mr. Phelps, started things off by holding a class debate. First he projected the following sentence onto the whiteboard from his computer:
The United States federal government should substantially increase its legal protection of economic migrants in the United States.
He read it out loud a couple of times. All I could hear was the hot hum of his laptop. Why was he showing us this? Because of the president’s Build a Wall obsession? What kind of wall, anyway? And who would actually build it? If getting our brains spinning was his goal, he’d succeeded.
As if he’d read my mind, Mr. Phelps tapped his laptop, and up came a picture of the president wearing a blue suit and red tie and speaking into a microphone. A speech bubble said:
We want a great country. We want a country with heart. But when people come up, they have to know they can’t get in. Otherwise it’s never going to stop.
WTF?! I glanced around in outrage. But when I looked around the room, no one else seemed as upset—or else they had freakin’ good poker faces. Next Mr. Phelps played a short clip from a documentary about child migrants trying to flee Central America to the Mexican–US border by climbing cargo trains that traveled up through Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. In the clip, two teenage boys were lying on top of a massive train, the wind flattening their hair, the sun in their eyes, as they tried desperately to hang on tight before the train blasted through a tunnel in a mountain. My stomach dropped. The clip ended right before the train moved into the darkness.
We all moaned. Someone shouted, “Oh, come on! You can’t do that! Play the rest of the video!”
Mr. Phelps looked all smug, like his unit “hook” had worked. Well, it had. We were interested. Invested. Sitting up.
He then explained how the debate would work. We would argue for or against these quotes. Simple. Hands flew up left and right. Not mine! One kid said, “Who can’t get in? You mean, immigrants? Look, we’re all immigrants. Seriously, we should just give the country back to the Native Americans.” I nodded. I mean, she had a point.
“Yeah, but . . . then what happens to all of us? There are like, half a billion people in the United States. Where are we all supposed to go, huh?” a girl in the front row asked.
Another student raised his hand. “Well, that quote you showed kind of raises a good point. If people think they can just, like, keep getting in, then yeah, it’s never gonna stop. You know what? We should build a wall.”
A guy in the back—I’d seen him hanging around with Dustin—jumped in next. “Well, I don’t know about the wall. And I’m not against immigrants or whatever, but they should come educated, and like, without any diseases.”
Wow. And Dustin hung with this dude? It got me wondering what Dustin would say if he was in the class.
“Totally,” two other guys said simultaneously.
“That’s totally unfair. Didn’t Europeans bring over smallpox or whatever?” a guy by the door asked.
“Whatever. We’re talking about today,” the girl beside me said.
“Don’t whatever me,” Door boy said.
All the voices started to blend in, and I couldn’t tell who was saying what. I just know that the next comment was from the kid in front of me. “I’m sorry, but this is just . . . wrong. You can’t deny people their human rights. They go through all that trouble to get here, and then what? We’re just going to send them back? Or spray tear gas on them when they’re steps from the border?”
If I slouched any lower, I’d fall out of my seat.
Then, Mr. Phelps did something I abhorred (vocab word). He called on me directly. “Miss Cruz, do you have anything you’d like to add to the discussion?”
Oh crap. “No,” I said fast.
“You sure?” He was so aggy. I dug my nails into my thighs. “Yup.” Now everyone was staring at me. I could feel it. Mr. Phelps squatted beside my desk like he was my personal coach. Gahhh! “The class may seem hard now, but stick with it,” he said in a low voice. Then he stood up and clicked to the next screen, some pie chart with statistics. Humiliation complete. I flipped up my hood.
Hard? I was used to hard. Like two weeks’ worth of laundry in one day because Mom never left the couch anymore. Like standing over Christopher and Benjamin until they brushed their teeth and flossed. But explaining my perspective on immigration to a bunch of white kids in a richie-rich school? That wasn’t hard. Nah. That was just annoying.
Okay, to be totally honest, it wasn’t just annoying. And okay, maybe it was hard. But hard in the sense of, why did I have to talk? Be the one to make like, an official statement or something? God. I didn’t know everything. But—but, but, but—I did want to be there, in that room, part of that discussion. It’s just that, well, I wasn’t used to being the only brown person. At my old school I was in the majority. Besides Missie, the minority consisted of like one Irish kid named Casey, who everyone called Casper. Was it like this for every- one in METCO? How would I even know? It wasn’t like the other METCO kids were exactly winning awards for going out of their way to be helpful. Well, except for Rayshawn. But he was always surrounded by other kids, or at basketball. And there was Genesis. She seemed to weave in and out of groups—METCO, theater club, Honor Society—like it was nothing. She fit in. I bet she didn’t get asked for her perspective. But she was always mad busy. Then again, she was my buddy.
Time to buddy up.
I asked Genesis to meet in the library during study hall, and by “asked” I mean “begged” over text: PLEASE, GIRL. I found her at the round table by the window. She had just added a second blue streak to her hair. She was taking selfies and messing with the filters on her phone, adding all sorts of graphics and whatnot. I stood there waiting for her to, well, acknowledge me. She didn’t. She was swiping away at her phone. Finally I couldn’t help it, and said, “Look, I need to ask you something.”
“Sure. What?” She sucked in her cheeks. Press. “So how do you do it?” I asked.
“Do what?” Now she was pouting her lips, holding her phone at arm’s length. Press.
“Like, go back and forth? You, like, cruise around, acting like yourself, but also, at the same time, kinda white—and then what? You go home and eat arroz con gandules and platanos fritos and call it a day?” There. I’d asked it. She was the first person I’d ever spoken to like this, could speak to like this. Her eyes softened suddenly, went younger, despite the fact that she was wearing fake lashes. She didn’t look mad or anything, just kind of introspective (vocab word). But I was already regretting asking.
“Forget it,” I said quickly. “I gotta go. I have to study for my French quiz anyway—”
But she put her phone down.
“Lili,” Genesis started. I could feel a speech coming on. She scootched up her chair. Nodded to me to sit. Yup. I was right.
“Listen, girl. And I mean, hear me. You have to get this right.” She tapped the table with a fingernail. “So . . . this school right here is like the world. What I mean is, you have to act a certain way. Or, more like, you have to carry yourself a certain way—in order to get what you want, and what you need.” She looked me head-on.
“When I first got here, I was all ‘This place is whack. I’m going back to Boston.’ But even after a whole bunch of shit happened, I realized that I didn’t want to go back. What for? I had so many more opportunities here, and I’m not bullshitting you. I really did. You do too.”
She paused at last, but before I could even open my mouth, she didn’t give me a chance to respond, going on with, “What I’m saying, Liliana, is that you have to stick it out. It’s not perfect, and yeah, some kids and sometimes even some of the teachers say racist shit, but just take it all in stride or whatever. Get yours. Do you. They have this many AP classes at your old school?” She didn’t give me time to answer. “Don’t get it twisted. I love being Latina. I wouldn’t trade my identity or my situation for anyone else’s, and that’s facts, girl. Here, it’s actually an advantage to be different.”
“It is?” I wasn’t quite following.
“Yep. Think about it. There are like twenty METCO students and a thousand resident students. There are only like three other black kids in the whole school who aren’t in METCO. And everyone thinks they are anyway. So, look. Work it. Raise your hand in class. Speak up. Do your assignments. Don’t give them an excuse to say that you’re just another lazy blah, blah, blah. You get up at what, five a.m?”
“How many non-METCO kids start their day that early? Lazy, my ass.”
I nodded again.
“And the other thing—you have to get involved. Join a club at least. They mentioned a ton at the gym the other day. Rayshawn gave me the scoop. There has to be something you like. It really does look good on your college applications; they love that shit. And volunteer for something. Like, last spring I went to Guatemala to do Habitat for Humanity.” My mouth literally fell open. “You’ve been to Guatemala?”
“Yeah. It was tight.”
I was speechless. Genesis had been there? And I hadn’t? And that’s where my dad was. I felt some kind of way. I really did.
“And I’m trying to go to Sweden this summer. Some program that Guidance told me about...,” she was saying, but I was stuck on Guatemala. You could do volunteer projects in Guatemala? What if I did something like that—but Genesis interrupted my thoughts by slapping her hand on the table. “Oh shit. I think the deadline is coming up! Come to think of it, you wanna help me with the essay? You like writing, right?”
I nodded yet again.
“Thanks!” Then she gave me an I’m serious look. “Liliana, here’s what I’m saying. Make the system work for you. You won’t remember these fools twenty years from now when they’re calling you up trying to get internships for their kids at the TV station you’re working at, writing scripts and shit. You’ll be spinning around in your chair in your corner office, being all like, ‘Who are you?’”
We both laughed. Truth, I really appreciated her telling me all this. And, maybe because she’d been to Guatemala, I had the urge to tell her about Dad. But I knew I couldn’t. Mom would slay me if I told anyone.
So instead I asked, “Hey, Genesis?” “Yeah?”
“So, what do you tell your mom when you want to stay after school?”
She gave me a look. “That I need to stay after school.” “Fine. Okay, but what about when people ask you, ‘Where are you from?’ I swear, like three people have asked me that since I started here.”
Now it was Genesis’s turn to nod. “No doubt. Say, ‘I’m from my mother.’”
I laughed. “Okay. What if they ask, ‘What are you?’” “Then I say, ‘I’m Puerto Rican. What the f*ck are you?’” I laughed again.
“For real, though. Everyone is from somewhere,” she said.
Don't Ask Me Where I'm From by Jennifer De Leon (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books) will be available to purchase on May 5, 2020.
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