Don't Ask Me Where I'm from
by De Leon, Jennifer

"Liliana Cruz does what it takes to fit in at her new nearly all-white school, but when family secrets come out and racism at school gets worse than ever, she must decide what she believes in and take a stand"-

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.

When half-Guatemalan, half-Salvadoran Liliana, writer supreme at her inner-city Boston high school, discovers that she's been accepted into a very "white," very "bougie" academic program she never applied to, she must decide whether or not to let this new school determine who she is and who she wants to be. Adding to her angst is the mystery of her dad's absence, about which no one in her family seems to have answers. De Leon takes readers on an action- and dialogue-packed emotional roller coaster that explores self-identity and pride in one's diverse roots, centering on the perspective of a typical high-schooler worried about not only boys and grades but also the safety of her family. Readers will truly feel for and understand who Lili is, rooting for her as she discovers herself and begins to participate in social justice activism. 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. Grades 9-12. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

An inner-city Boston student is accepted into a high school desegregation program. Liliana's dad's absence has been occupying her mind ever since he disappeared at the end of summer. This isn't the first time he has gone away, but this time feels different: Her mom keeps having hushed, frantic phone conversations and won't tell her where he is. Even more stress is added to Liliana's life when she is pulled out of class by the vice principal and told that her acceptance into the Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity (METCO) program means she'll be commuting 20 miles to a predominantly white school in the suburbs. When she arrives at Westburg High, Liliana is surprised to see some other METCO students, like her peer mentor, Genesis, or the basketball team's star, Rayshawn, completely immersed in the school's academic and cultural activities. After finding out the truth about her dad's absence, Liliana begins to analyze her own identity and biases in order to survive and excel at Westburg. While the aspiring young writer theme feels tired at times, De Leon's debut deals tactfully with the tensions that race relations and the stress of keeping family secrets can bring on teenagers, producing an honest and empathetic portrayal. Liliana's mother is from El Salvador and her father's from Guatemala. A thought-provoking tale about navigating race and immigration issues. (Fiction. 14-18) Copyright Kirkus 2020 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

Chapter 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.&;?&;


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?



&;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?&;


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.

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