Today, I am so excited to share a book that instantly spoke to my own life – one of those rare, brilliant shimmers of belonging. You know the feeling. When a book knows you so well, it puts words to your inarticulate emotions. When a book is a beacon light of not-alone-ness.
Growing up, I didn’t think that Filipina girls were important enough to be the heroine. Happily, I was wrong. Read on, and maybe, in ways different from mine, this book will be a light for you, too.
Somehow, I know I’m holding my future in my hands. The one I’ve worked so hard for. The one my parents have dreamed of ever since we moved here from the Philippines when I was only nine years old… I’ve come to think of America as an open window – open to new possibilities, to the new life promised to those who journey from far away to reach its shores.
It’s the beginning of senior year, and sixteen-year-old Jasmine de los Santos is on a sure path to achieving her dreams. She pours her heart and pride into being captain of the cheerleading squad, and she’s a sure bet for valedictorian. And the best yet: She’s just been named a recipient of the prestigious National Scholarship, which offers her a full ride to the college of her choice.
But there’s a catch, and Jasmine’s is particularly grave. She comes home aglow, only for her parents to give her heartbreaking news: She needs to be a legal resident of the United States to accept the scholarship, and the family’s green cards expired years ago. Jasmine, her parents, and her two younger brothers are living in the country illegally.
Brief aside: I had so many similarities with the narrator, Jasmine de los Santos, it was almost uncanny. If ever there was an #ownvoices review of an #ownvoices book, it’s this one.
Undocumented but undeterred
Deported? Oh my god. I didn’t even think of that. It’s not just about not being able to go to college. We might lose our entire life here. The cold that’s settled around my body turns to ice. There’s no way I can go back to live in the Philippines. I can barely speak Tagalog. My life is here. In America.
Jasmine’s story is significant because it’s one every American should be aware of. Her daily life, and the central conflicts she encounters, are reflective of the realities of the estimated 5.5 million children growing up with unauthorized parents in the United States – children who are “living in the shadows.” With power, humor, and authenticity (Melissa de la Cruz also immigrated from the Philippines as a child) Something in Between casts onto these stories light and hope.
One central reality that the book addresses is the unwieldiness of the U.S. immigration system, and the shaky pathway to citizenship. It’s a frustration that I know well: Though we’re citizens now, my mom still remembers how scared she was that the government would lose our papers while we were applying for citizenship. Our close family friends were not so lucky; they had arrived in California, settled in an apartment, and had three kids before finding out their lawyer had swindled them, leaving them hapless and “illegal.”
“Why won’t ‘illegals’ get in line?” is a question commonly asked about undocumented immigrants. Immigration scholar Carola Suarez-Orozco challenges this misunderstanding and writes that “in reality there is no line to join.” The route to citizenship is ambiguous and often misleading. Wait times for lawful citizenship by way of immediate family citizenship, employment-related visas, and green cards are between four and twenty years. Jasmine’s parents’ loss of employment, which led to the expiration of the entire family’s green cards, shows how fragile residency status can be, even after entering legally.
Despite their challenges, the the soul of this book is de la Cruz’s depictions of Jasmine’s family. Even in their everyday quarrels and more serious confrontations, the de los Santoses are a close, supportive family whose members are fiercely devoted to one another. I relished Jasmine’s mature reflections on her gratitude for her family’s sacrifices, and her parents’ tireless love and determination to give Jasmine and her brothers a better life.
Questions of belonging and displaced patriotism
Something in Between couldn’t have been a more apt title. Like many people who immigrated as children and children of immigrants, Jasmine identifies as American. She’s a perfect student. She collects empowering quotes from U.S. presidents about immigrants.
But when the news hits her, Jasmine’s can’t accept that the country she’s loved, been proud of, a country in which she’s been recognized as an exemplary young person, could want to take away her and her family. The tenderness with which de la Cruz describes this precarious, hurt-filled time in Jasmine’s life is striking. I almost couldn’t handle a section in which someone close to Jasmine is target of a physical hate crime. While de la Cruz depicts this pain unflinchingly, she emphasizes family and community’s role in healing.
Jasmine proves resilient, and the ending chapters are particularly exhilarating as headstrong, gritty Jasmine navigates the forces against her. The last quarter is breathlessly fast, as Jasmine’s time left in America dwindles and the situation becomes more dire. When she’s thwarted, it’s heart-stopping. But when she picks herself up again, she’s cleverer and more determined than before, more adept at navigating her in-between identity.
There’s obviously a lot more to Jasmine’s life than her legal status. Best friend drama and cheer drama abound. Jasmine’s Lola (meaning Grandma) Cherry is endearingly hilarious. Plus, you will swoon for Jasmine’s romance with Royce.
This romance, besides being so darn cute to read, makes Jasmine a much more complex narrator. It shows Jasmine isn’t perfect, and that’s what makes her such a great narrator. Royce comes from an extremely privileged, politically conservative family. But the judgment and prejudice isn’t one-sided. Jasmine recognizes her biases about his family too, and has to deal with that discomfort.
My sole concern is tiny: Some of the words on a sentence-level struck me as forced or outdated. “Horsing around” and “bimbo” do not strike me as words I would have used at Jasmine’s age, and I was relatively recently Jasmine’s age. But it’s clear these weird turns of phrase don’t take away from the power of the book.
Even though this moment is supposed to be mine, it’s bigger than that, bigger than me. It’s not just about one undocumented immigrant, but for everyone with a dream and a will to succeed. I love my country, and I won’t stop until I count myself among its citizens.
The value of the book is its nuance and triumph. Jasmine’s parents made a courageous journey – leaving language, family, memories, home – to make sure their children led better lives than they did. This value is no different in my family, or anyone’s family who has experienced immigration. It can be difficult to understand without having experienced it, but it’s true: Immigration is nothing less than an act of bravery and love.
Of all the narratives largely imposed on immigrant and first gen youth, the narrative of the undocumented family is the most stridently demonizing. (See my last post on the term “illegal aliens.”) Something in Between on one hand a gripping picture of the injustice of the American immigration system and sobering reality of the “American dream” – but it’s ultimately joyful, a celebration the courage of a Filipina girl who is also American, if not on paper then by her irrepressible tenacity.
Something in Between brings to light the intensely complex human stories behind immigration and, with hope, sheds light on the shadows for all readers.