American Like Me is a compilation of essays about what it means to live in America, from actors, athletes, writers, and activists who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The general theme of the book is celebrating the multiculturalism of the United States while also celebrating the many opportunities this country offers.
This book was a refreshing change from the negativity and hate we see spewing against immigrants, especially non-white immigrants (a difference I’m very conscious of as my father and grandparents were all Eastern European). Everyone who comes to this country has a story, and in some ways those stories are similar: people looking for opportunities, freedoms, and better lives for their children.
You’ll see plenty of names you know in this collection, among them Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kumail Nanjiani, Randall Park, Al Madrigal, Padma Lakshmi, and Michelle Kwan. Ferrera is clearly trying to cover a very diverse group of writers in terms of both ethnicity and careers. Some of the stories are lighthearted, some are incredibly positive, and some deal with difficult subjects, mainly struggling to succeed in a country where you or your career choice are not accepted, based on what you look or sound like.
I saw many commonalities in these stories. If you’ve seen Hasan Minhaj’s new show, Patriot Act, he jokes about his father coming to this country with $6 in his pocket. He jokes about how every immigrant says something like that and it must be true, because nearly every one of these stories features a parent who came to this country with a small amount of money in their pocket and a lot of hopes for their family.
We are kids with no key chains, daughters carrying history in the gaps of our teeth. We are the sons of parents who don’t speak of the past, inheritors of warriors’ blood and mad bargaining skills. We are the grandchildren of survival: legacies, delivered from genocide, colonization, and enslavement. We are the slayers of “impossible.”
Many of the contributors to this compilation are successful in fields where they weren’t expected to succeed. Because of that, a common theme relates to what helped them succeed, like hard work, determination, and family sacrifices. Many describe their devoted, encouraging parents as being critical to their success. Some describe challenges faced as children that made them tougher. And what I found most interesting was that many trace their success, their ambition and their confidence to close-knit, multicultural neighborhoods – something I bet many of us didn’t have growing up. These multicultural neighborhoods seem to have allowed these authors to see past racial stereotypes and societal expectations to what broadly unifies people. It may mean they can relate to many ethnic groups in a way many of us are uncomfortable doing.
Another common theme was interest in music during one’s teenage years, and how music really helped those who struggled with their identity. I know that for me, music was really formative, exposing me to new ideas and a new idea of myself – as well as helping me to express what I couldn’t in my own words.
And not surprisingly, food also plays a big role in these stories. Many of these writers talk about the food of their homelands and how much more flavorful and healthier it is than most American food. And it’s of course an important connection to their cultures. The experience of becoming an American is one of adapting and blending home cultures with the other cultures that are prominent in this country.
At times I wished these essays weren’t all from highly successful individuals, since then we would see a broader spectrum of experiences. At the same time, there were many people in this group of writers that I knew little about, and it does make sense that America Ferrera reached out to the people she knows.
Each of these stories is personal and interesting. They are also brief and in most cases, you’ll want more from these authors rather than less. They are inspiring and a good reminder of the many positive things about this country, while also highlighting the amazing contributions of many who came to this country from somewhere else. It’s also an important reminder it isn’t easy to figure out who you are in a country that mostly places value on those who are white and American-born. I think this book will inspire a lot of young people to value their cultures and their family and to really think about their own identities in a more positive way.
In a time when Republicans would have us measure the value of each immigrant before they even come to this country, one writer noted that:
My grandmother showed me that people who start out with nothing—those who would be considered worthless under new immigration standards—can be the seeds that bear significant contributions to American society.
I was already extremely impressed with America Ferrera, and it was her own story about going to Honduras and learning about her father that was the most moving. Plus she makes important points about her own experience as a girl named America, and what the term America really means (hint: it’s not just the United States).
As the daughter of an immigrant, this book resonated with me in many ways, as I’ve been able to see my own father’s sacrifices and those of his father. I think this book is important reading for all of us.
Note: I read this book for the Read Harder 2018 challenge (collection of essays) and the Nonfiction challenge.