SHOW THEM YOU’RE GOOD
A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year Before College
By Jeff Hobbs
Immigration narratives are often only about the journey, but what happens when a migrant arrives at his or her destination? And what happens to his or her children after they’ve been there a while and grown-up? That’s the story Jeff Hobbs tells in “Show Them You’re Good,” a portrait of four exceedingly bright and ambitious Central American and Mexican-American high school seniors in California who find themselves after years of straight A’s and stellar extracurriculars hoping to gain admission to Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, and other top-tier colleges.
It’s senior year, 2016. For Carlos, the most promising of the group, Trump’s presidential victory two months into the school year is particularly worrisome; unlike his friends, he’s undocumented, an applicant for DACA, and the possibility of deportation threatens to destroy his shot at the American dream.
The boys attend Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School in Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school district, in a city that ranks fifth from last in spending per pupil.
They live in Compton, surrounded by neighborhood gangbangers and I.C.E. agents, of whom they live in fear; their parent’s clean houses or drink too much or struggle to support their families on meager wages. But the boys are harder to pin down, fresher as types, and their stories, Hobbs writes, “represented exactly the immigrant narrative that had been celebrated through generations as central to American ideals — except that this narrative was neither celebrated nor idealized when the flesh of its central characters was not white.”
Carlos, whose older brother (likewise undocumented) received a full scholarship to Yale, studies all night after school in his family’s cluttered illegal shack in another family’s backyard. Tio is a skateboarder and prom king with a 4.0 G.P.A. Luis and Byron take A.P. courses, play pranks, and aspire to be engineers.
Immigrant youth, especially undocumented students and so-called Dreamers, have been shoved around as political pawns, alternately lionized and vilified, but we don’t have much in-depth, nuanced reporting about who these youth really are, how they think and live, how they navigate and interact with American institutions beyond border walls and detention camps.
This has started to change in recent years, most notably with Eileen Truax’s “Dreamers” (2015), an oral history of DACA youth, and with memoirs by undocumented writers like Jose Antonio Vargas’s “Dear America” and Marcello Castillo’s “Children of the Land.”
Hobbs’s carefully observed journalistic account, written with the detached intimacy of ethnography and reported over a year and hundreds of hours spent watching and interviewing his subjects in class, at dances, sporting events, assemblies, homecomings, proms, graduations and in the students’ homes, helps flesh out this larger body of work with an empathetic but objective eye, and in so doing widens our view of the modern “immigrant experience” to include that classic crucible: high school and college admissions, specifically, the experience of first-generation overachievers and the unique challenges they face in this regard.
As Tio explains, when he and other students across Los Angeles organize a walkout in protest of Trump’s presidential victory, kids like him must “stay together and say what we know to be true about us.”
Curiously, the book also follows five students at Beverly Hills High School, 22 miles across the city from Compton and one of the wealthiest districts in the country. The Beverly Hills students mostly don’t have to worry about money, or the law, and suffer a more tedious form of ennui and anxiety, like that experienced by Owen, son of a very wealthy Hollywood writer and former actress, who “felt spoiled, a little undeserving, as if he’d been born to parents so intelligent and caring that they’d deprived him of the rite of stumbling clumsily through youth’s travails, as most kids did, knocking into chairs and corners, gaining wisdom from poor choices.”
Hobbs contrasts the experiences of the two groups of boys and is interested in how both groups struggle to carve out lives from the expectations prompted by their origins — the Latinos slandered by Trump as “bad hombres” and “rapists,” the Beverly Hills kids resented by Middle America as spoiled brats. But his attempt to link their senior-year struggles through the supposed “stigma” that results from their origins feels facile and ignores meatier discussions of race or class that would better illuminate the boys’ two worlds — and the gulfs between them. The inclusion of the Beverly Hills students makes the narrative feel unbalanced, especially given the wildly lower stakes of their challenges compared with those of their peers in Compton, and by the end of the book, one doesn’t have a much greater understanding of the factors that structure the lives of both groups of boys, nor, really, why some have succeeded while others failed.
Upon graduation, the Beverly Hills students go off to top tier colleges where the most privileged among them “didn’t have to factor money into [their] decisions at all.”
In Compton, Byron doesn’t get into any four-year school and must choose between work and the military; Luis goes to the University of California at Santa Barbara; Tio is heartbroken that, despite his 4.0 G.P.A. and extracurriculars, he’s denied acceptance to every school except the less prestigious U.C. Riverside, where he’ll study agricultural science.
Carlos, meanwhile, achieves the near-impossible, gaining the right to a two-year legal stay in the United States as a DACA recipient and earning a full ride to Yale even while his family is evicted from their illegal home.
Hobbs celebrates Carlos’s victory as “the completion of some fantastical cycle by which his parents had come here together, alone and moneyless and without the faintest inkling of prospects, and now, almost 20 years later … the sons they’d brought with them might both attend Yale University — together.”
Readers of Hobbs’s last book, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” — about his former roommate at Yale, a Black student who can’t disentangle himself from his roots in Newark and is ultimately killed in a drug deal — will know that the value of getting into an Ivy League school, absent relief from broader systemic racism and economic disadvantage, is often dubious.
Oddly, Hobbs’s subjects seem to understand this better than Hobbs himself. We learn in the epilogue of “Show Them You’re Good” that at Yale, Carlos becomes an outspoken critic of what he sees as the unfair treatment of undocumented and poor students on campus, and he’s criticized in turn for being “ungrateful.”
Tio, meanwhile, feels betrayed by his ambitions, by the “encouragement” that “had brought him to override his own cynicism, layered over 18 years of life, about the idea that a system that had rarely worked in favor of people who looked like him might have begun to change. That it had in fact changed for Carlos, Luis, his girlfriend, and others in the hallways at school, but it hadn’t for him, further concentrated his melancholy.”
As deportations of undocumented young people increase, as thousands of migrant children end up in cages and as President Trump disparages Latinos whenever it’s politically useful, readers aren’t likely to be convinced by Hobbs’s broader suggestion that the American dream, that “fantastical cycle,” has simply been picked up and revived by the newest generation of ambitious immigrant youth like Carlos, Tio, Luis, and Byron.
But despite the book’s perhaps unfounded optimism and the baffling juxtaposition between Compton and Beverly Hills, “Show Them You’re Good” is an admirable addition to the growing body of literature that humanizes the struggles and expands the scope of our understanding of the lives of immigrant youth at a time when they’re under near-constant threat of dehumanization.
By Wes Enzinna