“We lived in a house on a small street and I could see the mountains from my window. When we got to Brooklyn I was like, ‘Where are the mountains?’”for real

This is how Lizbeth, a 13-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, begins her story. Underneath the words is a drawing showing mountains, labeled “Ecuador,” and buildings, labeled “Brooklyn,” connected by a bridge. The next page shows only a small window looking out on other small windows in an apartment outside. The description is short: “This is so different.”

The story is part of “for real,” a documentary about teenage immigrants in New York City told through a series of webcomics. The project is part of the website of Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, and it features the stories of three teenage girls: Lizbeth; Adriana, 17, from Venezuela; and Sonam, 14, from Tibet.

Instead of the typical narrative of how immigrants arrive in the United States, struggle to learn English and eventually proudly assimilate, the stories are told through brief “entries” about topics in the girls’ everyday lives. They are expressed in the same way that a girl might confide in her mother at the end of the school day, in the insecurities and victories of life as a teenager and as an immigrant.

“I don’t know what high school will be like,” narrates Lizbeth. “I want the girls to like me. Because if they don’t I’ll be like I don’t know… I’m gonna try to be friends with everyone so they won’t say stuff. Oh you’re Ecuadorian, or you’re different.”

I get the feeling that the website is still developing. There are only three entries, one without illustrations, and there are no male entries. But the biggest problem is in the website’s basic concept. It is designed to appeal to teens, with the title (a quintessential American teenage phrase), in friendly, accessible language and the webcomic motif fun and childlike. However, I’m concerned that teenagers may not be interested in the project. This is because the stories are about daily life. There is no drama, no excitement, no exclamation points anywhere. Readers must be genuinely interested in immigration before they can be interested enough to read the entries.

It is also exactly this ordinariness, however, that makes the project beautiful. The purpose of it is not to shock or excite or spur readers into action—it’s supposed to be “for real,” the simple yet disorienting experiences of teen immigrants in the United States.

The project is a conversation. Entries seem to be written exactly as they were told by the girls. This means that the stories are straightforward and unpretentious, with sporadic punctuation and almost no capital letters. The stories are also free of the metaphors and the flowery language of an American journalist writing on behalf of an immigrant.

This is important because the girls tell the story more elegantly than an adult could. Under the entry “giovana and me,” Adriana tells the story of growing apart from her best friend in Venezuela. “She came to visit me last December and it was just very awkward because both of us had drifted in different ways. I’m glad she came over but we are totally different people[.] When she left we were very understanding of each other[.]”

The drawings, which are done by illustrators, not the girls, are like doodles from the margins of a notebook: a nose is made up of two holes and New York City is a collection of rectangles stacked on top of each other. Everything is labeled with arrows and descriptions: “black pants,” “map 100% inaccurate,” “my best best friend,” are some of the labels.

I’m afraid for real is probably not a website for teens. It just doesn’t pack the punch needed to capture the attention of anyone uninterested in immigration. However, it enters the dialogue about immigration in a way that most other websites haven’t. In the imperfect and unembarrassed words of a teenager, it is told in a way that everyone can understand and no one can forget.