On one of my first days of school in the U.S. a young boy approached me and asked: What color are you? I had never been asked this before and remember showing him my arm, confused that this poor boy didn’t know his colors and answered: I’m tan. Later when I told my mom what happened, she laughed and said if someone asks you that again just say you’re Mexican. Easy enough.
However, as I grew up, I realized the complexities of race in the U.S. I grappled with my own cultural identity and picking the right “label.” It’s all so complicated and made more so by the fact that no matter how I identify, my brown skin always calls so much into question. You know the ones: Where are you from? What are you? No, really where are you from? We all have a story like this–where we are othered and our connection to this country is questioned. And it’s because of those experiences that I was so thrilled to receive a copy of American Like Me to review.
This book is a compilation of essays of different artists and activists discussing the othering they’ve experienced in their lives. Lead by America Ferrera (who is amazing), the book shows a deep connection between those of us that are questioned, viewed with curiosity, and never truly accepted as just “American.”
There are 32 different essays presented in different tones, formats, and focus, which makes for a great read because I would cry reading one essay and then laugh out loud the next. I also appreciate that it isn’t just a sad retelling of grit and perseverance, but shows how identity is formed. Some stories focus on specific experiences growing up, others are a little more broad and cover their overall childhood. Those that are writers by trade provide solid, moving pieces–I especially loved Roxanne Gay’s piece on her Hatian parents. But even those that aren’t natural writers provide compelling stories–Joy Cho, for example, who is a lifestyle blogger guru, created a visual essay about her childhood. I read it and kept nodding along with because all the things she did to feel more American, all the ways she implored her parents to change–even though we grew up in different states, with different cultures, her experience were things I completely understood and experienced growing up, desperately trying to feel “American”
Overall, that is what I liked most; this feeling of a connection with so many different people, from different backgrounds and cultures. That even with all those variances, there is a common thread immigrant/first-gen kids experience growing up–a longing to belong to a country that has such difficulty accepting us. And how our American identify is questioned and formed is worthy of dissecting and discussing because these are the kids that grow up to create American culture (Lin Manuel Miranda), change American politics (Linda Sarsour), and inspire next generations to be better (Laurie Hernandez).
This book is such a gem and perfect for anyone questioning our place in this country. What American Like Me makes clear is that regardless of how many times we’re asked “where are you from,” or “what are you,” we know we’re a special type of American and know that we have every right and privilege to participate in the progress and betterment of this country.