The story of undocumented youth in America is selling out a theater in Denver

The World
The play "Just Like Us" follows four young immigrants from Mexico and looks at how their legal statuses impact their futures.

“Just Like Us” is the story of four young women from Mexico. They were all brought to Colorado as young children by their parents, illegally.

As they grow up, their fortunes start to change. Two of the teens get papers to remain in the US legally. Two do not.

The play, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, begins with all four teenagers getting ready for the prom. An older Latina woman is doing their hair, clearly impressed the girls are all going to college.

One of the teens, Marisela, who is undocumented, clarifies her hopes of actually going to college. “Trying, trying,” she says.

In the corner of the stage sits the character Helen Thorpe, a journalist who wrote the book Just Like Us, upon which the play is based. (Thorpe was also married to Colorado’s Democratic governor John Hickenlooper, though the couple is now legally separated.)

“I wanted to give people an opportunity who had no first-hand experience of this to really walk miles and miles in the shoes of these young people,” says Thope, who followed the four young women for five years.

“I found that the debate over immigration law was so incredibly superficial, generally, people didn’t even understand the laws that they were debating. So I wanted to engage readers to capture their attention by how dynamic and vibrant and charismatic these young people were, and then slip a lot of immigration law along.

“I wanted the reader to care about them as human beings, and then understand the immigration predicament that they caught themselves in. And then I wanted the reader to make up his or her own mind about what they think the law should be,” says Thorpe.

The book got noticed in Colorado. So much so that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts asked Thorpe if they could create a play based on it. Thorpe said yes and playwright Karen Zacarias got involved.

“I am a Mexican immigrant myself, and I am a straight-A student like these girls,” says Zacarias. “And this is a story I don’t see on stage, the story of the good girls, the story of the hardworking families, the story of not the gangs and the barrio and all of that, but the story of millions and millions of people who are in this country just working and trying to get through every day.”

In the story, the two undocumented teens can’t qualify for scholarships or in-state tuition. They watch as their childhood friends — those with papers — get ready for college. But then their luck turns. Benefactors emerge, including a prominent Republican-backer, to pay for the young women to go to the University of Denver.

In college, the women hide their legal status. It was a tense time in Colorado, when former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo led the call to tighten immigration controls and take a hard line against undocumented immigrants. His speeches on that are in the play. 

It’s also a time when an undocumented Mexican immigrant shoots and kills a Denver police officer. Raul Gomez-Garcia, who was sentenced to 80 years in prison, had worked in one of Govenor Hickenlooper’s Denver restaurants. (Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver at the time and had put his co-ownership of the restaurant in a blind trust.)

Overall, the play is a sympathetic portrayal of the young women, and by extension, undocumented immigrants. Playwright Zacarias says she felt a visceral connection to the women.

"People are moved because theater humanizes an issue, and seeing those four young ladies on stage night after night, you can’t help but think, ‘Oh, this is not just politics, there’s people,’” she says.

When I saw the play, the 700-seat theater was sold out. Many in the audience, an ethnically-diverse crowd, were crying.

The play has its critics though.

Mexican actress Yunuen Pardo has had direct experience with that. Pardo plays one of the women without papers, Marisela, who Pardo describes as “a firecracker.”

Marisela is brash and outspoken and dreams of going to law school.  But after college graduation, she puts that dream on hold while she raises a child.  In the play, the character of Helen Thorpe — the journalist — seems disappointed in Marisela’s choices.  Pardo describes how this scene played out one night in the theater.

“There’s a moment where I say, ‘So you think that excelling at school is American, and being pregnant is Mexican.’ And this guy said, ‘Well, that’s the truth!’ But he screamed it from the audience,” says Pardo.“That day I was so fired up.”

Of course, Marisela isn’t a fictional character.  The real Marisela has seen the play five times.  We met outside the theater, and I asked how she deals with people like this heckler.

“That’s a very hard question. Sometimes I feel like those people, it’s not even worth spending our time on. I don’t think that you can really change people’s minds who are that hateful.”

I also met the real-life Yadira, the other undocumented woman depicted in the play. Yadira’s mom brought her to the US from Mexico when she was 3. She’s now 27. I asked why her family should get a pass to stay in the US, when they came here illegally.

“Our parents, and many parents, come in to this country to give their children a better life,” says the real-life Yadira. “We came to this country because it was a matter of survival.”

In one particularly moving scene, Yadira’s mom, a single-working mother of three, is caught using a phony ID. Rather than risk time in a detention center and then likely deportation, Yadira’s mom tearfully says goodbye to her family and boards a bus for Mexico.

“In the play, it shows her leaving pregnant. So, I’ve never met my little sister,” says the real-life Yadira. “It would be life changing for me to be able to meet my little sister and see my mom again.”

She hasn’t seen her mom since she left in 2005.

Stories like this — of family separations and deportations — have multipled under the Obama administration.

But the real Yadira got some good news last week when she qualified for President Barack Obama’s program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It basically blocks the deportation of young people who are in good standing.  

Yadira still lacks certain rights though. For example, she can’t travel legally to visit her mom in Mexico.  

The real-life Marisela got tired of living this way.

Her husband is a US citizen, but that doesn’t give her an automatic right to become one too. Because she was living in Colorado illegally, she had to first leave the country, come clean, then apply to return. There’s no guarantees though. For some couples, the wait to come back can be 10 years, or longer.

“So we ended up taking the risk, and I did leave. It was almost a year of waiting in Mexico. My husband lost his job, my son went back and forth, it was a very traumatizing experience but they approved it, and I’m back,” she said.

The real Marisela now does multicultural outreach work at public schools in Denver and has a two-year provisional visa. I asked her if she’s sleeping better at night.

“Oh yes, it’s changed my life in so many ways. But at times I feel some sort of guilt and privilege, because so many of my friends and family members, and millions, don’t have the same opportunity that I have,” she says.

The play “Just Like Us” has finished its one-month run in Denver. The people invested in the play told me they hope another city picks it up. They said it’d be nice if it ran in Washington, DC, and if some members of Congress would plan a night out at the theater.

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