In Jennifer De Leon’s debut YA novel, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, she focuses on the issues that POC teens face daily, and not just in a school setting. It is a coming of age story about Liliana Cruz. She gets accepted into a program that takes her from her current school that is familiar and has her best friend to a wealthy suburban, mostly white school that leads Liliana is grappling with her identity as a first-generation Latinx. When you start, you will not be able to put this down until the last page as Liliana deals with racism, immigration, identity, family, and a myriad of topics tackled in this thought-provoking honest read with diverse characters.
The author, Jennifer De Leon, has also published writing in multiple literary journals, including Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Guernica, and Best Women’s Travel Writing. De Leon is the editor of the University of Nebraska Press, Wise Latinas, an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Framingham State University, and instructor and board member at GrubStreet.
For the novel’s release, Porter Square Books and co-sponsored by 826 Boston, will be hosting a virtual launch on Crowdcast of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From. During the virtual launch, De Leon and special guest Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) will talk about the book and do a Q&A in this free event. The event that you can register for here will be on Tuesday, August 18, at 7 p.m. ET.
I want to start by stressing that this book should and needs to be read and taught in schools, which is also De Leon’s goal for the ninth-grade students at O’Bryant High School. Here is part of the official summary of the book.
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… 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.
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.
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!
It doesn’t take long to become attached to Liliana, the way she socializes and talks it is like she is addressing you, the reader. The vivid imagery and detail in De Leon’s writing bring out the overall tone of the story. This story and what Liliana goes through is current to the continuing protests that are happening now with Black Lives Matter and those separated from their families and detained by ICE.
At 15 in high school trying to figure out who she is, Liliana is about to be thrown some life-changing news and experiences. She loves to write and build miniatures, her overprotective mom does odd jobs when she can, helps with her two younger brothers, and her artist best friend is spending more and more time with her older boyfriend, and her dad is gone again. We learn that this is not the first time her dad has left before, but there is something different about it this time. Liliana overhears her mom on the phone, speaking frantically and hushed but knows it is about her dad and sending money for something, not to mention the deep depression that follows the calls. When she asks her mom what is going on and where her dad really is, she shrugs her daughter off. She later finds out that her father did not leave because he wanted to, but because he was forced to. He was deported back to Guatemala. And the money her mom is trying to come up with is to pay a coyote so her dad can get back home to them. When Liliana finds out, pieces of the puzzle come together for her, both her parents are undocumented. That is why her mom, who is from El Salvador, would work jobs that paid in cash. Learning that family secret, Liliana becomes more interested and concerned with deportation, the process, and what happens to those who pay a coyote to help them get back into America.
On how she gets to Westburg High, one day, Liliana gets called out of the classroom to be told she has been accepted to the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity (METCO) program. That is where she will attend the predominantly white school. She is obviously conflicted but gives it a try because her father signed her up for it. The program is a culture shock for Liliana, for sure. Discovering that she and the others in the METCO program are the minority in the school, plus students making rude and racist comments and remarks about them. To get through and deal with it, she becomes Lili. She doesn’t speak up even when she really wants to. She is balancing this big family secret, figuring out her identity, and dealing with the tension among the students. Her best friend Jade even notices the difference in her.
At this new school, Lili continually gets asked where she is from, and they are not looking for what Boston neighborhood do you live in answer. They think that because she is Latina, and she was not born in America, which she was. A student goes so far as to make a racist meme about Rayshawn when he becomes the starting point for the basketball team, and another for Liliana when she does speak up. You know one of the students knows who created it, but no one comes forward.
I love the character development and growth in Liliana as she and the METCO group do the assembly presentation even after the racist memes towards Rayshawn and Liliana. This one character, Steve, makes my blood boil the way his microaggressions get laughed off as a joke or go unacknowledged by those around him is infuriating. After the assembly doesn’t go as intended, Liliana takes the idea of a wall and turns it into something positive that starts a conversation. I am trying not to say too much about what happens, because I do want some of the story to be a surprise, but the ending made me cry happy tears.
If you would like to know more about Jennifer De Leon and her writing, you can find more information on her website and social media accounts, Instagram, and Twitter. Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From when it is available on August 18.