My student says she’s living in a golden cage as an undocumented immigrant, “the gold representing the opportunities immigrants do have, such as public education, the simplist thing as being able to go out and spend ten dollars in food. Back home (Mexico), those ten dollars are needed to pay rent, bills, and put food on the table for a whole family.”
If you are a child who is brought to a new country by her parents, you don’t have a choice. If you attend high school here for three or more years, graduate from a California high school or receive the GED, enroll in a community college, a Cal State, or a UC school, and sign a statement with the college saying that you will apply for legal residency as soon as you are eligible to do so—if you do all this, you can become an AB540 student, where you pay in-state tuition fees.
What the students really hope for is the “Dream Act,” where undocumented young people could be eligible for a conditional path to citizenship in exchange for completion of a college degree. They must also demonstrate what is termed “good moral character” to be eligible for it and stay in conditional residency. At the end of the process, the young person can finally become an American citizen. The Dream Act is one piece of the large pie of immigration legislation, and some say they should just push for it to be passed by itself since the Obama administration isn’t making immigration their top priority. Birds don’t require cages.
As my student says, “the gold doesn’t give us our liberty; we are still trapped in the cage with limited freedom.”
Not only is this student an exceptional one in my class, but she is at the top in achievement of all the students I’ve had. She is not only able to look close up as with a magnifying glass, but also look at the larger picture of whatever we are reading or discussing in my English composition class.
I teach at Laney College in Oakland, in the heart of Chinatown, where a diverse population comes together, including local African Americans who have gone through the Oakland public school system, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Chileans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Indians, Africans. The list goes on. But the classes I have been teaching since spring 2009 have been in the Puente Program, which attracts mainly Latinos, but is open to any other students.
I initially took the course over from another teacher who was going out on maternity leave, so didn’t consider what it meant to teach in this program, set up almost 30 years ago by a couple of people at Chabot College in Oakland who were concerned about the Latino failure rate. Because of economic and political conditions and lack of support, these students were at risk. So the program developed with three arms: an English class, a counseling class, and a mentorship. The same group of students would be in both classes and each student would have her or his own individual mentor, someone from the community to ask questions of and seek support from. The program now boasts a high transfer rate, higher than students in other programs and higher than the larger population of students who are not in any program.
My first semester teaching in the program in spring 2009, with only one week’s notice, I didn’t have time to adapt my pedagogy, so used my normal materials, and didn’t have an idea of who this population of students were. Attending an afternoon session at College of Alameda, put on by Edy Chan and her Diversity program, focusing on Latino students and family dynamics, helped flush out the picture for me. When the father lost his job, the student would be expected to find work to help out. When the mother needed the daughter at home, she would be told she couldn’t go to class.
These families were tightly knit, protective, and perpetuated traditional roles. Further, the family unit was a model for how the program was conducted. Students would be in their own “familias,” in class, though I did not use that model as the teacher of the counseling class did. I was supposed to co-coordinate the program with the counseling teacher, though at this point I still felt like I was temporarily taking over someone else’s class. I did not buy into the “familia” model entirely, because I thought, if the family model isn’t working at home, why bring it into the classroom?
It wasn’t until the following semester, fall 2009, that I began to understand Puente. Again, with a week’s notice, as the same teacher decided she was going to take time out to spend with her young son, I adapted the syllabus a bit, providing more Latino readings, as was dictated by the program. I used the same reader I had ordered for my regular composition class, but changed the focus, and supplemented this with six chapters from Sandra Cisneros “The House on Mango Street.” I devoted an entire unit to the chapters, assigning a group to each one to do a critical and personal interpretation.
What I gave, I received back ten fold. Each group presentation was a revelation. The students spoke of their fears and their joys—they opened themselves entirely for the class and for me. With “Hips,” the group of women asked two women students from the “audience” to walk up and back in front of the classroom swinging their hips. Then they asked two men to do it. This elicited laughter from everyone. With “Alicia sees Mice,” the group talked about the scary father in more hushed tones. One group looked at the imagery in the language of another chapter, unraveling its dense poetry.
Along with the presentations, for the same unit I assigned three personal writings: the photo assignment, where a student writes about a family photo—the day it was taken, what was going on, etc.; my name, where the student writes about where her/his name came from; and the quotation exercise, where the student must pick out a quote that inspires her/him.
I was stunned by the honesty and living color of these writings. I compiled them in a word document and had the students read from them at one of our program gatherings shortly afterwards. For each student, I had picked one of the three writings to put in the booklet.
To hear them read aloud to a roomful of fellow students and mentors at this luncheon was moving, but it was more of an echo of what I had just experienced with the class presentations—they were a breakthrough because I saw the benefit of a class that is tightly knit, attending two classes together in a supportive environment. The idea of the “familia” made itself known to me.
Other benefits of the program for students, along with being in two classes together and having a mentor, are activities such as visiting four-year colleges and doing lunches, as well as attending community cultural events. More central to the classroom, students stay with the same teacher for two semesters in a row, not typical for a college level class and not otherwise dictated or even encouraged. The fall semester is the pre-English 1A level class. At Laney it is called 201. Then in spring, the class moves into 1A, the four-year transferable class, if they passed 201.
My main complaint about this pacing was that normally at Laney, students are required to do two semesters of 201. Why then, I wondered, was the Puente program accelerating students through it in one semester, and a lot of them second language speakers who could use more time than this hurried pace allowed? This was considered a benefit? I couldn’t comprehend it.
As various teachers stated at a Puente conference I attended, “the model isn’t broken, so don’t fix it.” It was their mantra.
What I realized when I was planning for the spring semester, finally with enough notice to know I was going to teach it, was that I didn’t have to repeat everything I had taught them the previous semester. Sure, there would be reminders and a few exercises to strengthen what they had learned, but I wouldn’t need to build a house from the ground up. Usually at the beginning of an English 1A class I lay foundation in summary, paraphrase, and quotation, for instance; this time, I did a review of the first two and distributed samples of quotation from the previous spring Puente class, which I had the students read aloud in class. Instead of doing an entire day’s worth of paragraph study, we did a brief topic sentence exercise.
Their organization on the first essay assignment was better at the beginning of the semester than most English 1A classes I’ve had. This model, then, seemed like a good one, after all, going from one semester of 201 directly into 1A. Additionally, by having the same teachers, the trust was already built, and could be made even stronger. The students felt even more comfortable in the larger class discussions, confident that their voices mattered. Students helped each other without my suggesting that they do so. They were teaching each other, the foundation of teaching in action.
I encountered the word “undocumented” the first semester I worked in Puente, in spring 2009. We were talking about immigration. It came up, of course, because it will come up in a Puente class, as it is related to everything. We were talking about the American Dream, and one student revealed that she was “undocumented,” a term that I had heard before, the new term for “illegal immigrant.” The idea is that people who have come here against all odds and work and live their lives here would like to be legal, and therefore, are not criminals. Rather, they do not have the proper documents.
When the student revealed her status, it was like a secret had just come in with the wind. I saw that more than being ashamed, she was afraid. It would take me some time to understand the importance of her revelation to me fully, and it would not happen that semester. Her classmates knew, obviously—it was with me that she was taking a risk, a new Puente teacher. To her credit, she ended up writing about the undocumented in her research paper.
These immigrants are consumers who pay into the U.S. economy, yet are taken advantage of by employers who pay them less than minimum wage. When my grandparents came to the United States, from, on my father’s side Russia, and from my mother’s side the Austro-Hungarian Empire (what is now Poland and the Ukraine), they were treated as second-class citizens. Whoever made it past Ellis Island was a new citizen, and as Jews escaping persecution they were happy to be here and start a new life, however difficult that was.
My step-grandmother’s sisters, who had come before her, sold their wedding rings to bring her here, their father watching as she faded into the snow, away from him. Those who did not immigrate eventually died in the concentration camps in WWII. The Jews, along with the Irish and Italians, started from the bottom and built themselves up, and eventually moved out of tenements into more surburban dwellings. Both my parents were raised in walkup apartment buildings in Brooklyn.
There are other examples of immigration. The Chinese came over to pan for gold and to build the railroad and were treated like animals. Early Mexican migrant workers in the California valley had no rights and worked intolerable hours until Cesar Chavez stepped in. What is the excuse for the crime being committed today, every day? Why can’t we come farther in treating people as equals in this country which prides itself on equality?
As another student in my class says, “They have the proof from Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., but I’m still not equal. They said all men are equal, but I guess that’s false for immigrants. So then the land of new opportunities is false too?
What he means about proof is that others have blazed a trail of hope for equality, and he wonders why this doesn’t extend to him.
He tells his own story: “I was three when I arrived in Oakland. I went to school like everyone else, had the same education, felt totally equal, until my class organized a trip to Mexico. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait. Until my mother told me I couldn’t go. She came up with the lamest excuse—I had a dentist appointment—and I thought, well, just re-schedule it. She ended up telling me many excuses until I asked her why she didn’t want to let me attend the trip. She said she wanted me to go, but I couldn’t. Not because they could afford it, but because I wasn’t equal.”
If he had gone to Mexico, he wouldn’t have been able to return to the U.S. because they came here illegally.
As he says, “I’m really happy for my parents. They brought me here for a better future. But I sometimes wish they could have came four years earlier than they did.” Then he would have been born here, an American citizen, with all rights afforded to him.
It has taken these students’ words to make me understand what it means to be undocumented. And now I understand why they need a program like this. What it means to be “at risk,” means that without the program they won’t have the support they absolutely need with teachers who appreciate their situation, teachers who won’t balk if they have to go with their parents to see an immigration lawyer; if they have to get a job to help support their family; if the mother keeps the daughter home out of concern that she’s getting a cold.
Latinos are the largest population in California, and we need this generation to be highly skilled, to enter the workforce and be a full part of society. Many of the parents of AB540 students—students who have a legal right to attend school here—have gone home to Mexico, Honduras, or Guatemala, leaving the young person alone. What are we going to do with all these children? We are creating a nation of children without families.
As one mentor in the mentor-student luncheon said, “You have to find the golden key to open the golden cage, it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It will be discouraging, but you must keep trying. It can be done.”