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“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.

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.

"Narrator Inés del Castillo gives 15-year-old Lilliana an authentic-sounding voice as she speaks directly to the listener. This timely novel examines immigration, legal and illegal, as well as the shortcomings of well-meaning but poorly executed attempts to diversify schools. Del Castillo's teenage vernacular is realistic as Lilliana deals with a life-changing opportunity and the uncovering of family secrets. Years ago, her parents signed her up for METCO, a program that gives inner-city Boston students an opportunity to attend a better suburban school. Finally, sophomore year, she's in. Del Castillo captures Lillianna's varied emotions as she tries to fit in among the wealthy suburbanites, learns her family's secrets, finds her voice, and moves to connect her worlds."

– AudioFile Magazine

More books from this reader: Inés del Castillo