Every year, my classroom undergoes a transformation during the last few weeks of school. Students come to class smiling, their shoulders held high with pride. It’s all because of their final assignment: conducting oral histories on the theme of immigration and migration.
Aaron, Ignacio, Amber, Zoyla, and Jesus--students I’ve struggled to motivate all year long--join the ranks of the enthused. They tote typed transcripts of interviews they’ve done with members of their families and communities: mothers, grandfathers, classmates, neighbors, teachers, and cousins. They take an active part in class discussions about why people leave their homes in other countries or regions of the United States. And when it comes time to write down the stories of the people they’ve interviewed, their pursed lips are testament to their aspirations for perfection.
The stories my students document are rich with painful partings, oppression, hard work, joy, and, above all, hope--elements that make for heart-wrenching reading. Their final written projects are moving, but it’s discovering the stories that has the greatest effect on the students. My heart pounds when a wide-eyed student bursts into my classroom before school to tell me that her grandmother moved from Louisiana with three children and only $30. And I am speechless as I flip through a comic book that Martin Navarrete has written about his father’s emigration from Mexico. The drawings are vivid and the story so well told that I know he must have been working on the book late into the night.
My dad was born in Mexico. My dad moved from many places to many other places. A town called La Martha was the last one. This is the story of why and how he made it all the way to Los Angeles.
One day my father saw his mother crying. She had lost her job and had no money. My grandfather was getting worried and thought they wouldn’t make it. He left his family.
Now there were problems. My dad had to get money so he thought of work. Part of the plan was to leave school at sixth grade.
The stories bring history to life. Colonization, westward expansion, the civil rights movement, once intangible chapters in a textbook, suddenly become very real to students, and their pens dance at the opportunity to document them.
The stories range from horrifying to humorous. Claudia matter-of-factly describes her mother’s passage over the border under the hood of a blue pickup. Steven’s humorous narrative of his elderly Vietnamese neighbor’s first encounter with a soda machine captures the light-hearted tone of their interview. The subjects’ reasons for moving to Los Angeles are diverse. Shandana’s parents left their native Pakistan after seeing a tantalizing picture of wall-to-wall carpeting in the United States. Miguel’s family, on the other hand, departed El Salvador when civil war ripped apart his community. Some students retell stories they’ve heard around the dinner table for years. Others talk to family members for the first time about agonizing decisions made half a lifetime ago.
My father’s first job was to clean shoes. There was really no money. Then he got a job as a box boy. Still there was no money. No matter where he worked there was no money.
Finally my father thought of leaving La Martha for Los Angeles. He told his family about it. And with that he said goodbye and left.
As minority teenagers, my students are well aware that many Los Angeles residents feel nothing but fear and hostility toward them. To a large extent, they internalize this hostility and learn to question their families, their cultures, and themselves. Many feel that they already have three strikes against them: They are teenagers, live in the ‘hood, and are black or Latino in a country built around white privilege.
Yet a remarkable thing happens when students are given the opportunity to tell their family histories. Self-respect takes root, and many begin to see in themselves the hopes of their parents and the dreams of their grandparents. Shame turns to pride with remarkable speed. I see that despite their hard exteriors, many are still young and impressionable.
“My grandfather picked strawberries for 10 hours a day,’' one student brags. “My mom got her degree at night and is now a police officer,’' another says. A black student tells me that her aunt is from Japan; after interviewing her, the student says, she is able to see immigrant students in class with more understanding. Those who don’t have an obvious ear-bending story to tell ask their parents more questions, digging for the golden nuggets in their family histories.
My dad had a long journey towards the United States. He was almost there. My father went to Tijuana, but he didn’t know where he was. My dad had no idea what to do next. He heard people talking about coming to Los Angeles. He thought he would join them.
My dad jumped borders. He climbed mountains and crossed deserts. Then the Migra caught them. But my dad escaped and left for L.A.
As the end of the school year draws to a close, I read these vivid stories and share them with my friends and colleagues. They have a way of rejuvenating me, too. All of the struggles and hopes expressed in these very personal essays are history--a history not found in any book or newspaper.
They hold a simple humanity that can teach us much.
Years later, my dad still writes faithfully to his mother in Mexico:
Now I have a new job and will have to move to a new city called Inglewood. Me and my family are going to visit you soon. I will send money. The boys say they love you.
Martin (My dad!)
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Living History