“I’m reading a really interesting book and would like to share some of it with you in class today.” I hold up Just Like Us , which tells the story of four Mexican teenagers growing up in America. Faces show interest and curiosity, until the next words leave my mouth: “We’ll also be discussing the topic of illegal immigration and what kind of impact it has.” Now I notice hesitation, averted eyes.
Though all of the students in my adult ESL class are documented, I know this is a delicate subject. Some may have entered the country illegally themselves, but all certainly have loved ones who are living here under the radar. I didn’t plan this lesson to make anyone squirm, though. Just Like Us resonates deeply with me: it not only strikes a chord with my personal experience of having a foot in two cultures, but it brings to mind the numerous immigrants I’ve befriended—some with papers, some without. In her book, Helen Thorpe movingly chronicles the internal and external struggles of four young women as they face the obstacles and tensions brought on by the lack of a green card.
My students soon relax as they catch on that my intention is not to judge but to listen. I am floored by their candor and soon forget this is a foreign language class; their limited English is no hindrance as they poignantly voice their experiences:
Marta: “The thing is that we do everything for our children. We bring them here so they can have a better future. But then they get big and they ask us, “Why did you bring me here?” when they see how hard it is. They had no choice to come here, and they complain. But for us it hurts because we brought them so their lives could be better.”
Yesenia: “I tell my kids, “You are lucky! When you know another culture, your mind becomes open [her closed fists burst open to demonstrate]. Maybe other kids make fun of you for being different, but we wouldn’t have the rainbow without all the colors. We need everyone: white, black, brown, people with covered heads, everyone—they make life beautiful.”
Luisa: “You know, the quality of life is better there [in Dominican Republic, her native country]. There you have all your family close. And it’s your culture. But there are more opportunities here.”
Oscar: “Which one is wrong, the American government or the illegal immigrant? I can’t say that one is wrong. Do we have to blame someone? Everyone wants the same thing: a chance to work, a better life.”
In ESL class today, I became the student. My carefully crafted lesson plan took a back seat as I listened, engrossed, as these adults opened my eyes to their world, letting me in on some of the internal and external issues they and their children face.
American or Mexican, documented or not, teacher or student, we all agree with Thorpe’s statement in her introduction to Just Like Us: “In the end, though, this is what immigration is like: inherently messy. The issue bleeds. And we are all implicated.”
Iris Clement, a graduate of Lee University, works in North Carolina as an English as a Second Language instructor. She grew up in Romania as the daughter of Campus Crusade for Christ missionaries and recently spent a year teaching in Colombia as a Fulbright grantee. She is involved in local ministry to Latino families.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, contact [email protected].