Real 'Just Like Us' women: 'Our story is the story of millions'


The ‘Just Like Us’ talkback at Westminster High School drew two of the real women in the story. Photo by John Moore.

Just hours after the Paris terror attacks, Westminster High School students performed the play Just Like Us, an intensely local story of four Mexican-born, straight-A students whose paths from a Denver high school to higher education vastly differ based on their immigration status.

But the specter of what happened in France hung over the performance nearly 5,000 miles to the west, and that was acknowledged during an emotionally charged discussion following the performance. Two of the four real women whose stories were the basis for the play joined the cast onstage and took questions afterward.

In the play, adapted for the stage by Karen Zacarías from former Denver First Lady Helen Thorpe’s acclaimed book, two major real-world events brought on a severe backlash that made immigration rules much more restrictive. The 9/11 attacks took place just six weeks after the Dream Act was first introduced in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan proposal to create a legal path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people currently living in the United States remains unpassed. Closer to home, undocumented immigrant Raúl Gómez-García shot and killed Denver police Detective Donnie Young in 2005. After an international manhunt, police sweeps were stepped up throughout Denver, and immigrants took to the shadows. Both events made efforts to get two undocumented Denver high-school seniors from Just Like Us into college much more difficult.

On Saturday morning, government officials confirmed what many at the play had been speculating the night before: At least one of the attackers entered France by posing as one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Turkey in recent months. Now there are fears of another backlash against reform efforts in this country. A conservative radio host in Denver on Saturday declared Donald Trump “the winner” in France because of his campaign promise to deport all 11 million Mexicans living in America without legal documents.

DCPA’s Kent Thompson visits cast of Just Like Us

The Friday night performance of Just Like Us, meanwhile, drew a capacity crowd to Westminster High School, a standing ovation from the audience and a spirited conversation afterward. This was the first high-school production of Just Like Us since the play was commissioned by the DCPA Theatre Company and first staged in 2013. Another production is in the works at a Dallas high school.

Thorpe, who becomes the narrator in Zacarías’ stage adaptation, followed the four high-school seniors for five years. All four were born in Mexico and brought to this country as infants. Two have legal documents, and two do not. The two talkback guests who joined the cast onstage Friday were the two who did not have legal status in high school.

The woman whose character is named Yadira said watching Friday’s performance was an emotional roller-coaster; even traumatic at times. The woman whose character is named Marisela said she got the chills “because it’s not just our story. It’s the stories of millions and millions of people and their families.”

They encouraged the students at Westminster to become politically active at their school, which is made up of 40 percent undocumented students. The woman who is known as Marisela told them to share their stories with the state legislature, and to work both locally for the passage of in-state tuition for immigrants, and nationally for the passage of the Dream Act.

“No matter what, we have to continue fighting,” she said. “We can’t give up.”

The host for the discussion was University of Northern Colorado professor Gillian McNally, who has a personal stake in all of this: Just Like Us Director Andre’ Rodriguez, was once her student at UNC in Greeley. Together, they have embarked on a year-long collaboration between their schools. McNally recently hosted 70 Westminster students for a campus tour, and the school has waived its fee for any of those students who apply for admission there. In addition, the UNC theatre department will produce an original bilingual play in the spring, and perform it at Westminster High School. 

McNally commended the Denver Center and Artistic Director Kent Thompson for commissioning the writing of Just Like Us as a play. “That’s walking the walk,” McNally said. “I think the Denver Center took a risk by producing this play, and I would argue that you here at Westminster took a risk by presenting it.”

Rodriguez let his guests do the talking during Friday’s conversation. But in his program notes, he wrote: “It is ironic that in a country where dreams live free, fear also consumes. This is especially true for the thousands of undocumented young people who dream of the same opportunities as those born to the light, but are limited by the shadows and borders that oppress.”

Given the rare opportunity to address the women who have for the most part protected their anonymity since the beginning of Thorpe’s reporting on their lives, the DCPA NewsCenter asked their thoughts on their nemesis, former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo (who also is a character in Just Like Us).

Tancredo not only ran for the Republican Party nomination for President in 2008, he has twice run for Colorado governor, each time centering his campaigns on the issue of illegal immigration. When the DCPA introduced Just Like Us two years ago, Tancredo – also a frequent conservative talk-show host on Denver’s KOA 850 AM – publicly accused Thorpe of making the four women up. Citing his unsuccessful efforts to identify them, he called Just Like Us a work of fiction.

“Well … here we are,” the woman known in the play as Marisela said on Friday to applause and laughter. 

She continues to work for understanding on the issue of immigration, but she has nothing to say to Tancredo, she said, because he represents “pure hate.”

“Throughout the course of my life, I have learned not to deal with those people,” she said. “They don’t budge. When in-state tuition (for immigrants) was being discussed at the state capital, (former state senator) Chris Romer bought a copy of Helen’s book for every house representative and every senator, and left it at their desks. When they voted, in-state tuition died. But a lot of them changed their votes, and they quoted the book as their reason. Those people, I can have a conversation with. I don’t think I can have a conversation with Tom Tancredo. It’s just pure hate.”

The women talked further about how messy and surprising the immigration issue can be. They praised Ralph Nagle, the millionaire Republican who provided much of the funding for their scholarships to the University of Denver. Nagle also significantly contributed to  the first staging of Just Like Us at the DCPA.

“What I want people to understand is that our story is the story of top students who just happen to be undocumented,” said the woman whose character is named Yadira. “We were in AP (advance placement) classes at our high school. We got straight-A’s. We were involved in our school and in our community. So we’re not the type of students who can hide in the shadows. But when Marisela says in the graduation scene, ‘I started with a freshman class of 712 students and now 200 of us are graduating’ – That’s true. That really happened. So that’s 500 students who went missing. They dropped out, they were pushed out, they gave up. A lot of students give up hope for many reasons.

“So yes, our story is powerful, but I think it’s important we remember that so many other students fall through the cracks. One of the reasons we said yes to Helen when we met her was not just so that she would tell our own personal stories – but tell the story of everyone.”

A JUST LIKE US 6002The ‘Just Like Us’ talkback at Westminster High School. Photo by John Moore.

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