I answer that question with joy. Too much joy perhaps because my face lights up (or at least I feel my face lights up) when I say I am from India. And when I see a glimmer of recognition or some encouraging words from the questioner, I expound more on my birth country. Sometimes the person asking that question encourages my exuberance and sometimes, s/he gets glassy eyed. I have matured enough to know the signs when to continue and when to stop. This question is not difficult for me. I am a brown woman who speaks English with an accent, who came to this country in her mid twenties, lived here for years and ultimately became a naturalized citizen. There is no doubt of the fact that I am originally from a different country.
But if this question is asked to any other brown skinned person who was born here, that is stereotyping and racial profiling. This is the premise of the book Don’t Ask Me Where I am From by Jennifer De Leon. Liliana Cruz is a 15 year old girl who lives in Boston with her parents and annoying twin brothers. Her mother is from El Salvador and her father is from Guatemala. And although Liliana is a citizen of United States, her parents are both undocumented. Liliana’s family is not rich but they are relatively happy. She is a gifted writer who goes to Boston public school where she has friends who look like her, understand her culture, share similar background. Her seemingly uneventful life, however, is rudely disrupted when her father vanishes one day. Liliana does not know where her father disappeared. All she sees is that her mother is anxious and is trying her best to remain under the radar of authorities and earn as much money as she can. During this turmoil in her life, Liliana finds out that she has qualified under the METCO program to go to a predominantly white school in a suburb of Boston. METCO stands for The Metropolitan Council for Educational opportunities. “METCO is a school integration program that enrolls Boston students in grades K-10 in participating suburban public schools to reduce racial isolation” – according to their website.
Liliana is devastated to leave her old school and friends, but she chooses to go because she knows her papa would be proud of her and would have wanted her to sieze this opportunity. She soon realizes though, that although the initiative of this integration program was a noble one, the ground reality in her new school is completely different. There is another form of segregation where the METCO kids stick together and the rich kids have their own groups. The METCO students try to prove their worth by exceling in sports, academics, extracurricular activities yet they never become part of the main student body. They are different than the rest, inferior somehow because of their skin color, their style, their way of speaking. And then there is that invariable question that they are asked, “Where are you from?” When they answer that they are from Boston, the follow up question almost always is “No, but where are you from-from?” Liliana is of Hispanic origin but she was born in Jamaica Plains, MA, USA. That is where she is from-from! Many Americans like her, who are people of color, are asked this question and Jennifer De Leon makes a powerful point in this book through this story about insensitivity ingrained in that question, especially when posed to people of color. People are here, they are part of the community. Accept them, acknowledge them, respect them, dignify them.
Liliana’s father, we find out along with her, has been deported. Liliana’s world crashes around her as she discovers how vulnerable she is. Her parents could be taken from her anytime by authority and then what would happen to her? Despite the uncertainty and huge unrest in her life, Liliana grows strong, faces her challenges and searches for solution to end racial inequality instead of wallowing in self pity.
De Leon confronts some difficult issues head on. Liliana is a 15 year old girl who speaks in a lingo I am not familiar with and I do not particularly like. I found the narration of the story in Liliana’s voice somewhat detrimental to fully appreciating the story but I am not the target audience of this book. I wonder if young readers will relate to the narration. I recommend this book for the issues and the way Liliana grows in character.
‘Where are you from’ perhaps is a valid question if it comes from a place of honest curiosity to learn about a different country/culture. The follow up question, “No, but where are you from-from?” is the one to avoid.