a beginning

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
― Augustine of Hippo

Moving, putting the things I believe I cannot live without in storage, preparing for next school year, getting my car registration renewed, seeing friends, sending letters, selling furniture, still booking tickets for the last leg of the journey.

In true fashion, everything moves at once and in less than a few days I’ll be in El Salvador, a country where most of my Latino students’ parents were born. My first stop on the trip will be to El Amate, a small village in the mountains of southeastern El Salvador, and Intipucá, a beach side town an 8-minute car ride away from las montañas.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the liner notes.

A special shout out to the Fund for Teachers for giving me the money to make this a possibility and my coworker Mr. Gonzalez, who helped me write the El Salvador portion of the grant proposal. I will be staying with his grandmother, meeting his family and those of my students while I am there. I am thankful for both and hope the work I do this summer will honor their commitments to the students, families, and teachers they serve.

As this movement begins, it’s important that I spend a little bit of time discussing where I’m headed and why.

During the 2012-13 school year — because teachers measure our time in that valley and crest of August to June or whenever school begins and ends — I ended the school year with an expedition about migration and identity. In literature circles, students read The Dewbreaker by Edwidge Danticat, a Hatian-American writer, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, a Dominican-American writer. Both books touch on issues of migration — both physical and ideological, historical and conflict-ridden, familial and not — and identity.

The latter element, identity was especially important for me to unpack with my students. Identity is something constantly changing; hey, it should change. For me, so much of my identity is wrapped in something I have no control over: the histories of people who came before me. And how can I even begin to know myself if I am not listening to and asking questions of my parents, grandparents and other elders in my family and community? With 52 percent of the student body identifying as Latino and so many other students in my class having family roots that began outside of DC (in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Vietnam, the Deep South, way below the Mason Dixon), I was especially curious about what they knew of their families’ histories, specifically around the act of coming to the DC-area, and how those events had a direct impact on their lives.

For the purpose of the project, we defined migration as something that was as much a physical movement across a border as it was a mental or ideological one. Before one moves, there’s something happening in the synapses, something compelling that movement forward; then it becomes physical and tangible and real. Then, it’s something people outside of one’s self can see and experience.

We experienced a migration together when we read Danticat’s and Díaz’s fiction, but afterward they had to put the books down and discover someone else’s. The assignment was for them to interview, write and perform someone else’s migration narrative. We read the work of poet Staceyann Chin and playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith. Both writers touch on work of identity and using a very powerful writing and speaking voice to discuss the fissures that exist in identity. The students asked intimate questions of their moms, dads, cousins, neighbors, and grandparents. An alumna, Rosemary, came and helped them embody their characters, real people who they knew and loved.

There’s more to this, but I don’t want this post to become a project description. Over the course of a quarter these students tackled difficult issues of immigration, racism, class, love, hopes realized and deferred (some, perhaps, forever), they tapped into a character’s pain and healing, finding the beauty that exists in the imperfection. They got it. They trusted themselves and each other with the stories. They laughed at funny parts, cried and grew silent at the parts that touched them, asked questions when they did not understand. I could not have asked for more. But I was left with questions for myself.

What are the stories of those who stay behind? What experiences, cultures exist in the places they and/or their family members come from? How can I make the project more robust? How can I bring more rigor to this expedition on the “Languages of Identity” as I called it?

Now, I begin my own migration, packing and storing with the expectation of returning, I don’t know if this expedition is wholly about just those questions. I want to know about the people who stayed behind, whether by choice or circumstance. They have migration stories, too. As I prepare to teach another year and implement the project, I am doing this summer with the promise that when the project happens this year, it will be a layered experience, both rich in literature, their own writing and performance, but also larger explorations of the factors that cause migration to happen, behavior to change.

I want them to know that whenever they decide to leave and place roots elsewhere — sometimes all at once and, hopefully, with some peace of mind — that they also realize that they follow the steps of those who trod before them. I hope they get mad curious and ask questions. Then, I hope they go there, whether the there is to plow the field inside of themselves and make something beautiful or a physical place, I hope they are filled with enough courage to cross every border they need and want to, then have the language tell their stories.

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