IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Worlds apart but on common ground
“What does the American dream mean to you?” That’s the question a student asks of three immigrants who cook and clean in the University of Colorado Sewall Residential Academic Program, where the student lives and studies.
The immigrants speak little English, so a translator assists.
“Progress, a better life,” answers Sonia Mejia, a worker who comes from El Salvador, which was wracked by civil war from 1980 to 1992. She hasn’t seen her mother for a decade.
“It’s really hard in our countries,” Mejia continues. “If you have the means, you can keep studying. Otherwise, you can’t. We know that without education, we won’t be able to get a job.”
Juan Contreras, a native of Mexico who has worked in the United States for 24 years and is seeking citizenship, says coming here allowed him to get ahead. “I really love working and making some money.”
Manuela Corchado, also from Mexico, says the American dream is elusive. “People in Mexico think we’re going to make all this money easily, but it’s not like that,” she says. “It’s really hard to achieve the American dream. First of all, I would like to learn English. I learn really slowly.”
Like many immigrants, Corchado works more than one job, which makes it hard to find time to learn English.
A student, one of about 20 in this classroom dialogue, notes her own experience. She came from South Africa to the United States about a year ago. But her family’s motivation was safety, not prosperity. In the past year, South Africa has suffered a wave of violence, much of it directed against immigrants.
Pilar Prostko, who is facilitating the discussion and interpreting between speakers of Spanish and English, summarizes: “The American dream is an idea,” she says. “We all come here for different reasons.”
Prostko knows whereof she speaks. She is an American citizen who emigrated from Peru.
Karen Ramirez, Sewall’s associate director and the instructor for this class on “The American West,” notes that in the course, students had discussed times in which the “American dream” involved the acquisition and development of land.
“It’s a different perspective where the goal is education or financial well-being. It broadens what we’ve studied in this class,” Ramirez adds.
The classroom cultural exchange is part of a series of discussions called Dialogues on Immigrant Integration. Ramirez and fellow Sewall instructor Ellen Aiken, who jointly began this program, emphasize that the primary goal of these classroom discussions is educational.
Bringing students and immigrant workers face to face helps broaden the students’ understanding of other people and cultures. It helps them think critically about social issues, historical events and economic trends.
A byproduct of the dialogues is less academic but no less important: they engender greater respect and understanding among students, faculty and staff.
As Prostko explains, students and immigrant workers inhabit two overlapping but separate worlds. “Some of these employees have been working here for 15 years, and nobody has ever said ‘hi.’”
With the dialogues, though, that is changing.
The dialogues arose because of the efforts of Aiken and Ramirez to teach civic-engagement courses. They were looking for themes that complemented the focus of their classes on the American West.
They found a program sponsored by Boulder County that featured discussions with immigrants about “hot-button issues.”
As Aiken recalls, “They got people with very different points of view to sit down and talk with each other. … The whole idea was this respectful exchange of viewpoints on the issue of immigration.”
“This would be an effective way, I thought, of helping our students learn about immigration,” Aiken says.
They didn’t need to look far to find immigrants to join the dialogues. CU Dining and Housing Services, which serves Sewall and other residence halls, employs immigrants from several nations, many from Latin America, but some from places such as Laos.
In Sewall, the dialogues have taken two forms: There have been Immigrant Integration Dialogue Days and in-class discussions on immigrant perspectives. Together, these events, which Sewall began in 2007, have expanded students’ academic and social horizons.
Workers’ responses have been positive. Before the dialogues, no one had asked—or seemed to care—what they thought, they said.
“There isn’t a position or an agenda” behind the dialogues, Ramirez emphasizes. “It is really designed to open a discussion about immigrant integration.”
Aiken, Ramirez and Prostko note that students have become more aware of the people in their midst who cook and clean for them. Workers say that since the dialogues began, students have created fewer messes and have become friendlier.
“It makes them aware of who’s cleaning up after them,” Aiken says.
Aiken, Ramirez and Prostko are expanding their program. Now, instructors of six courses in Sewall and seven courses in other residential academic programs have incorporated dialogues into their syllabi. Plans are in progress for more dialogues during spring semester.
Back in Ramirez’ class, a student is asking for the workers’ views on U.S. immigration law.
Mejia answers: “In some ways I agree, and in some ways I disagree. I agree that when we come here illegally, we are breaking the law. I understand that, and I understand that there should be a punishment for that.”
But, Mejia says, families shouldn’t be separated as a result of the enforcement of immigration laws. “I don’t know if you know what I mean by ‘separated.’ … They take parents back to home countries, and they leave children in the U.S. … The children have food and they have clothes, but they don’t have love and protection of parents.”
As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported this year, the United States deported nearly 2.2 million immigrants between 1997 and 2007, and more than 100,000 of the deportees were parents of U.S. citizens (children born in the United States).
The report did not specify how many U.S.-born children were left behind and how many were deported with their parents, but both scenarios are known to exist.
Also this year, a Pew Hispanic Center study reported that 52 percent of the 16 million Hispanic children in the United States are “second generation,” meaning they are daughters and sons of at least one immigrant.
Contreras falls into this category. With a son who was born in the United States, Contreras has applied for citizenship. Eight years after applying, his application is still pending.
He adds, “For me it’s been really hard to learn English. This is why I haven’t been able to become a citizen, because I can’t speak English. I just study, but I have two jobs, so it’s hard to find the time.”
Aiken, Ramirez and Prostko are passionate and positive about the dialogues.
“It’s actually the most rewarding thing I’ve done at the university,” Aiken says.
“This is something that just came to life,” she adds. “It filled a need and grew of its own accord, so we know we’re doing something valuable.”
Prostko adds: “I like to stress that this is a project for everybody at CU. … It’s not for the workers, the students or the faculty. It’s for all of us.”
Reprinted with permission from Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine.
A bimonthly publication produced by the Department of University Communications
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