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Don't Ask Me Where I'm From

Illustrated by Elena Garnu
LIST PRICE $18.99

“A funny, perceptive, and much-needed book telling a much-needed story.” —Celeste Ng, author of the New York Times bestseller Little Fires Everywhere
“Written with humor and grace, with intimacy and empathy, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is the perfect coming of age novel for our time.” —Matt Mendez, author of Barely Missing Everything and Twitching Heart


First-generation American LatinX Liliana Cruz does what it takes to fit in at her new nearly all-white school. But when family secrets spill out and racism at school ramps up, she must decide what she believes in and take a stand.

Liliana Cruz is a hitting a wall—or rather, walls.

There’s the wall her mom has put up ever since Liliana’s dad left—again.

There’s the wall that delineates Liliana’s diverse inner-city Boston neighborhood from Westburg, the wealthy—and white—suburban high school she’s just been accepted into.

And there’s the wall Liliana creates within herself, because to survive at Westburg, she can’t just lighten up, she has to whiten up.

So what if she changes her name? So what if she changes the way she talks? So what if she’s seeing her neighborhood in a different way? But then light is shed on some hard truths: It isn’t that her father doesn’t want to come home—he can’t…and her whole family is in jeopardy. And when racial tensions at school reach a fever pitch, the walls that divide feel insurmountable.

But a wall isn’t always a barrier. It can be a foundation for something better. And Liliana must choose: Use this foundation as a platform to speak her truth, or risk crumbling under its weight.

Chapter 1 1
Picture it: me in the middle of Making Proud Choices class—that’s SEX ED for anyone not born in this century. You know, when you have to get a parent or guardian to sign a yellow paper that says it’s okay for you to be learning about all this stuff—like we didn’t already know about sex, but whatever. The guest speaker, Miss Deborah, had JUST passed out condoms. No big deal. I mean, I hadn’t had sex yet. But still, condoms = ain’t no thing but a chicken wing. My best friend, Jade, had a bunch of them hidden in her room. But what Miss Deborah was showing us that day were female condoms.

I know.

Have you ever even seen a freakin’ female condom? Don’t lie. Did you even know they existed? Don’t lie!

If my mom heard me talking about female condoms, she would say that’s some straight-up Americana gringa shit. For real.

I joined the rest of my class, including Jade, and hollered “Whaaaaat?” and “Noooooo” and “Huh?” until our real teacher, Mrs. Marano, who was sitting in the corner and like twenty months pregnant herself, told us to calm down or else.

Miss Deborah passed around a few of the (female) condoms. Jade got a pink one. I got one that was mint colored. It felt rubbery, kind of like the gloves Mom uses to wash dishes. It had zigzagged edges, like someone had actually gone to the trouble to make a nice design along the perimeter. I swear. So I was holding this rubbery thing in my hand when this cute boy, Alex, stopped in the hall and stared at me through the doorway. Of course. I froze. But then the Making Proud Choices lady, Miss Deborah, was packing up her things in a big black duffel bag and I had to, you know, return the female condom. Then Mrs. Marano waddled over to the front of the room. “All right, everyone. Take out your independent reading books.”

The class groaned.

“Yo, girl. Got anything to eat?” Jade whispered over to me.

“Nah,” I said.

Jade had grown up right next door to me. Our apartment bedroom windows faced one another, so we’d knock on our own window, real loud, three times when we needed to talk. Because one of us was always having our phone taken away, the knocking came in handy. Jade’s family was from Honduras (her favorite T-shirt had the word “Afro-Latina” printed across the front). She was a total sneakerhead—I swear she had about seventeen pairs, and she wore her hair different every day (a top bun, straightened, braided, or crazy curly). Jade and me, we were real cool, even though she was spending waaaay too much time with her boy, Ernesto, but whatever. She was family.

“Any gum or anything?” Jade pleaded.

“No, girl. I—”

“Girls,” Mrs. Marano said.

“Girls,” Jade mimicked under her breath. I couldn’t help it. I laughed.

“Liliana,” Mrs. Marano said.

I sat up straight and took out my independent reading book. “Sorry, Mrs. Marano.”

“I expect better from you, Liliana.” She reached for an Expo marker and wrote my name on the whiteboard.

I must have turned red, because Jade leaned in and said, “She’s whatever, Liliana. Don’t sweat it.” Then she pulled her backpack up onto her lap, where she texted without Mrs. Marano seeing.

“Ernesto?” I don’t know why I bothered to ask.

“Yeah. He wants to go to this thing at the Urbano Project on Saturday. You wanna come?” Ernesto liked attending rallies and marches and poetry slams. I think he just did it to get girls. I mean, it had worked with Jade. True, the Urbano Project led art workshops too, and Jade liked drawing, but still.

“Nah. I’m straight,” I said.

“Come on, Liliana. Why don’t you bring your poems or something to read?”

“Like, in the microphone? In front of strangers? Yeah… no.”

I could barely hear Jade’s answer even though she was seated right next to me. Mrs. Marano could not control the class. No one was reading. Jade did take out a book, but she just left it on her desk. Aaron was playing with the paper cups that were supposed to stay in a neat pile by the water bubbler. He had one in his mouth like a megaphone, and he didn’t take it out even when Mrs. Marano wrote his name on the board. Chris R. was making a pyramid out of cups on his desk. Marisa asked if she could draw designs for a new bathroom pass that her dad, a carpenter, was going to help her build for our room. Mrs. Marano said no and started writing more names on the board. Chris R., Aaron, Marisa… Marisa took out a piece of paper anyway.

Finally, hand resting on her gigantic stomach, Mrs. Marano gave the Done With This countdown. “Five… four… three…”

I took out my journal. Started writing stuff down. Maybe I’d set a story in this crazy classroom. Maybe Mrs. Marano would go into labor right in front of the class, which was so loud that I didn’t notice that the vice principal, Mr. Seaver, was all of a sudden standing right by my desk.

“Liliana,” he said.

Oh snap. Was I in trouble? If anyone should be in trouble, it should be Yulian, who was crunching his water bottle over and over; or Johnnie, who was shooting an invisible basketball into an invisible net.

“Miss Cruz?” Mr. Seaver said, louder. His voice was all deep, and somehow that made everyone quiet down.

“Why she in trouble?” Jade asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Get back to your reading, young lady,” Mr. Seaver said. “Miss Cruz, I need to talk to you for a moment. In the hall.”

My face burned. I never got in trouble. I was an A… okay A-… okay B+… fine, sometimes B- student, so I didn’t know why I would be called out of class.

I stood up and followed him. From the corner of my eye I could see Chris R. wagging his finger in the air. Oh, please. He was so aggy. And his hair looked like Justin Bieber’s.

The hallway was much quieter. I was surprised Mr. Seaver hadn’t brought up the fifty-five rules being broken in the class, but that just made me sure that whatever he was about to tell me was important, or worse: really bad. At the end of the hall he opened the door to what we students called the bat cave—a small office that used to be a janitor closet—and asked me to step inside. It was where students went when they were really disruptive, like when Joshua called the substitute teacher an old-ass bitch.

Look, I don’t want to give the wrong idea. Not every class was crazy, and not every day. Just down the hall was Mrs. Palmer, who ran her class like a corporation. Every kid knew what to do and when and how, and it was peaceful and smelled like a cinnamon apple air freshener. Or even my nasty-breath math teacher—in his class we sat in rows and the volunteers from Simmons College helped us when we had questions. So, Mrs. Marano’s wasn’t totally the norm, is what I’m saying.

As Mr. Seaver and I sat down at two student desks because (a) his office was being treated for something called asbestos, and (b) a real desk couldn’t fit in the bat cave, he took out an envelope from the inside of his suit jacket with a flourish. “Well, Miss Cruz, you were accepted to the METCO program. A spot has opened up for you off the waiting list, and you start on Monday.” He raised his eyebrows and leaned back, clearly expecting me to leap into the air cheering.

I opened my mouth but no sound came out.

“Yes,” Mr. Seaver continued, “I realize it’s already a few weeks into the school year, but nonetheless, it’s a great opportunity. And it’s in Westburg.” He adjusted his glasses, still looking for that cheer.

I was still trying to understand You were accepted to the METCO program. Um… what?

Inside my brain a dozen questions were zapping around, but the first that bubbled out was, “Where’s that at?”

“About twenty miles west. Listen—”

“Does this have to do with the essay thingy I just won? Because I told Mrs. Marano I wasn’t reading that at any assembly or whatever.”

“Well, that certainly would have helped your application all the more. Liliana—”

“Mr. Seaver, I don’t even know what METCO is.”

“Here.” He handed me a glossy pamphlet. “It stands for ‘Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity.’?”

“Huh?”

He began again. “It’s a desegregation program.”

I ran my finger across the pamphlet. Oh wait! I had heard of this. A girl from the church we go to was in METCO. She talked like she was white. But she did get into college, so. Oh yeah, and another kid from down the street was in METCO too, I think. I saw him once, waiting for the bus when it was mad early and Mom was taking me to a doctor’s appointment before school. But me, really? I was accepted? I sat up straighter. Cool. But I had plenty of other stuff going on and didn’t need to add a new bougie school on top of it all. So yeah, no.

“Mr. Seaver, thank you,” I said in my most polite talking-to-the-vice-principal voice. “But I’m not interested in that program. I’m good here.”

Now he lowered his glasses. “Excuse me?”

“I’m not interested in switching schools,” I said, opening the pamphlet up. Yep, total bougie vibe! “Besides, my parents would never let me go.”

He adjusted his glasses once more, then said, “Your parents are the ones who signed you up, in fact.”

“They did?” My parents?

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Years ago, in fact.”

Why did he keep saying “in fact”? We weren’t in court.

And all of a sudden we heard shouting. And the sound of feet pounding. “Mr. Seaver! Mr. Seaver! Mrs. Marano’s having her baby!” It was Jade.

Whoa! It was like my story idea had come to life! Mr. Seaver bolted out of the bat cave, and I bolted after him. When we reached the classroom, Mrs. Marano was gripping her stomach with both hands, and her jaw was mad tight. Jasmine was bringing her a paper cup of water while Aaron held a little battery-operated fan up to her face. The rest of the kids were going wild, standing on chairs to get a better look. Other teachers stormed in and instantly got on their cell phones. Somehow that gave kids permission to do the same, only they weren’t calling 911. They were taking pictures and going on Snapchat.

I ran over to Jade. What. The. Hell. No way I was going to some other school in some other whack town called Westburg. I would miss this world way too much. Besides, I was the best writer in my class here. I had a winning essay to prove it.

I stuffed the METCO pamphlet into my backpack and reached for my phone. What is METCO?? I texted Mom. She didn’t reply.

Jade was hitting me with questions. “Liliana? Hello? Do you not see that our teacher is gonna have a baby? And what did Mr. Seaver want?”

“Nothing.” I shooed her away.

“Dang. What’s good with you?”

“Nothing.”

Mr. Seaver and another teacher helped Mrs. Marano out the door and down the hall toward the elevator. I could hear sirens outside. Then another teacher came in and took control of our class. She passed out worksheets, but I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t stop thinking about METCO and Mr. Seaver and how he’d said my parents had signed me up in the first place. Parents—as in Mom and Dad. Did my dad really know about it? Sometimes one of them signed me up for something without telling the other. Plus, right now things were… complicated with him, as in, he’d taken off—again. Truth, he had to know. He was the one who got me all into reading, which got me into writing, in the first place.

And now I couldn’t even ask him. I had to find out more about this METCO program.
A Reading Group Guide to

Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From

By Jennifer De Leon

About the Book

When Liliana Cruz, a Latinx teen who lives in Boston, gets accepted into a wealthy and predominantly white high school, she makes a decision to reinvent herself. From the way she walks and talks to her name change, she’ll do anything to fit in. But as her family troubles are revealed, her new life becomes harder to sustain. Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is a timely metaphor about walls and assimilation, set in a Massachusetts suburb.

Discussion Questions

1. In the opening chapters, Liliana learns her parents have signed her up for the METCO program without her knowledge. At first, she resists the change, but after talking it over with her guidance counselor and her best friend, Jade, and getting into an argument with her mother, she agrees to join the program. What makes her change her mind? Do you think she’s happy with her decision?

2. When Liliana first encounters the other METCO students, many of them, such as “Dorito girl,” are unfriendly to her. Why might students in this program be unwelcoming to the new girl? What does this reaction say about the experience of being an outsider? Explain your answers.

3. Describe Liliana’s relationship with her best friend, Jade. What was the friendship like when they were younger? How has it changed now that Jade has a new boyfriend, Ernesto? How does the relationship continue to evolve after Liliana starts going to school in the suburbs? What brings them back together at the end of the story?

4. Why does the narrator change her name from Liliana to Lili? Do you agree with her reasons for making this change? Explain your answer. How does this change speak to her evolving sense of identity? Have you ever changed your name or adopted a new persona? If so, describe the circumstances and the outcome. How did the experience make you feel?

5. As a new student at Westburg High, Liliana experiences countless microaggressions, such as teachers asking if she knows where the tutoring centers are, and students asking “What are you?” and “Where are you from-from?” How does she feel in these moments? How does she react? Explain your answers using examples from the book. What is the impact of microaggressions on people of color and other disenfranchised groups? What do you think can be done to help tackle this problem?

6. Dustin pulls the fire alarm to get to talk to Liliana for the first time. What does this say about his character? Why doesn’t he react when Steve says he has “jungle fever”? Do you think his feelings toward Liliana are genuine?

7. After Liliana sees the miniatures of Ana Serrano at a museum, she becomes “obsessed” with making tiny buildings from her community out of cardboard. Why do you think this becomes so important to her? What do these buildings represent to her? What is the particular significance of Sylvia’s Salon, which she builds for her mother?

8. Describe Liliana’s relationship with her mother. Why is her mother so protective, and how does Liliana react to these restrictions? Why doesn’t her mother reveal the truth about her father? As her mother becomes more withdrawn and less able to take care of Liliana and her brothers, what role does Liliana take on within the family? What does this reveal about her character?

9. How does Liliana react when she learns her father has been deported and her parents are undocumented? When her Tía Laura says, “‘You are your father’s daughter,’” Liliana says, “She couldn’t have possibly known how good those words made me feel.” Why do you think she reacts this way? What does this say about her relationship with her father?

10. What role does writing play in Liliana’s life? How do her feelings about writing change over the course of these pages?

11. In her creative writing class at Westburg High, Liliana writes about an incident of domestic abuse she witnessed at Jade’s house; her teacher says, “‘I hope this is fiction.’” What do you think of this exchange? How could her teacher have handled the situation differently? How does this creative writing class compare to the class with Ms. Amber at 826 Boston?

12. Why doesn’t Liliana answer when her history teacher expects her to participate in the immigration debate? What changes between this first debate and the moment in history class when she confronts Erin over her statement that “‘everyone in America should be expected to speak English’”? Do you think Liliana has an obligation to speak up in these moments? Explain your answer.

13. Liliana’s METCO buddy, Genesis, advises her to “act a certain way” at Westburg in order to get what she wants. “‘Stick it out . . . take it in stride or whatever. Get yours. Do you.’” Do you think this is good advice? Do you think it is possible to learn how to code switch and stay true to yourself? Explain your answers.

14. How does Liliana’s relationship with Holly change when she visits Holly’s house and Holly visits her home in Boston? Why does Liliana’s mother think Holly is “rude,” and why does she have such a strong reaction to Liliana using tampons? Do you think the two girls are able to form a real friendship despite their different backgrounds? What are the benefits and challenges of intercultural friendships?

15. On her drive home, Liliana observes that “the closer we [get] to the apartment, the more cop cars we [see]. More stop signs. More drunk dudes chillin’ on the corners. More tagged apartment buildings . . . I hadn’t really . . . noticed this stuff before.” How is her perspective on her own community changing? Do you think this shift is helpful or harmful? Explain your answer.

16. “‘I am American,’” Liliana says. “‘But . . . I’m also Latina.’” How does moving back and forth between Westburg and Jamaica Plain complicate and deepen her understanding of what it means to hold both of these identities? Explain your answer using examples from the book.

17. How do different members of the school community react to defacement of Rayshon’s photo and the meme of the noose? Why do you think Dustin’s, Steve’s, and their teammates’ reactions are so different from the reactions of fellow METCO students? How does this incident draw Liliana closer to the other METCO kids?

18. Why does Liliana choose to reveal to Dustin that her parents are undocumented? How does he react to this revelation? How does this impact their relationship? How does Dustin’s past treatment of Genesis and his failure to say anything when Steve called her “Dora the Explorer” change the way Liliana feels about him?

19. When a racist meme circulates with Liliana’s head on a piñata coupled with the word “wetback,” how does she react? Why does her mother want to withdraw her from school?

20. What do Liliana and her fellow students hope to accomplish with the Hope Assembly? How does Liliana end up in a leadership role? What do you think about her decision to reveal that her parents are undocumented? How do things progress from the original applause and open dialogue to the “White lives matter” chant? What does this say about the Westburg High community?

21. Liliana and her friends plan a project that allows students to anonymously share their truths with the rest of the school. What are some of the messages, both positive and negative, that emerge on the mural? How does this project build communication? Do you think public art can play a role in creating unity and healing? Explain your answers.

22. How does Liliana feel when her father returns? What does she learn from the story of his experience? What does he notice about how Liliana and her siblings have changed? Why does Liliana choose this moment to give the miniature salon to her mother?

23. When Liliana meets Yasmina, the new METCO student, how does she react? What does this say about how far she’s come since her own first day at Westburg High? What has led to these changes? What kind of future do you foresee for Liliana?

24. Why do you think the book is called Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From? Why is this a problematic question, and how does context impact the way the question is received? Are there questions like this you wish people wouldn’t ask?

Extension Activities

1. “Don’t ask me where I’m from” is Liliana’s response to a prompt in Ms. Amber’s class to write a six-word autobiography. Other examples from that class include “No I do not eat dogs,” and “Write poems, eat, sleep, then repeat.” Write your own six-word autobiography. What is the meaning behind these six words, and what do they say about your identity?

2. Liliana builds miniatures to depict important places in her neighborhood, as well as places she wishes might exist in her community. Design and build miniature models of buildings in your community that have special significance for you. Who would you want to share these miniatures with?

3. Social media memes play a prominent role in this story, as racist memes impact Rayshon and Liliana, harming not only these individuals but also the creation of an inclusive school community. Conduct research on these kinds of memes and their impact on individuals and communities; then design an anti-racist meme for a social media campaign. How can you bring your community together? What kind of imagery and language would you use?

4. Liliana comes to understand her family history and background, as well as her father’s current situation, by reading books such as Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario and The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande. Read these books and consider how they are in conversation with Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From. Ask a librarian or teacher to recommend books related to your heritage or something you’re grappling with, and then read the books and write a response about how they have deepened your understanding.

5. One of the major themes of this novel is the impact of deportations on the families of undocumented migrants. There are many aid organizations, both near the border and throughout the country, that support undocumented migrants and their families. Research organizations that do this work in your community and consider volunteering to support their mission.

6. As a reaction to the failed Hope Assembly, Liliana and Jade conceive of the idea of a mural on which members of the school respond to the following questions: What is it that you want us to know about you? What is it that you never want to hear again? What can we do here at Westburg to help? Design your own mural or public art installation and choose three questions for people to interact with as part of the project. Display the installation in your community in a place that will create conversation and build mutual understanding.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

Jennifer De Leon is an author, editor, speaker, and creative writing professor who lives outside of Boston. She is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, the 2015–2016 Writer-in-Residence at the Boston Public Library, and a 2016–2017 City of Boston Artist-in-Residence. She is also the second recipient of the We Need Diverse Books grant. Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is her debut novel.

"A thought-provoking tale about navigating race and immigration issues."

– Kirkus Reviews

"An energetically paced, boundary-pushing novel that raises important questions of race, identity, belonging, true friendship, and how to stand up for a cause you truly believe in."

– Booklist

"Familiar territory for readers who straddle two cultures, for anyone who has had to be a newcomer, and, in this era, anyone who has ever worried about the impact of deportation on families. A timely addition to most collections."

– School Library Journal

"De Leon’s debut handles issues such as immigration, deportation, assimilation, and Trump-era racial tensions in a humorous yet resonant way."

– Publishers Weekly