A Small Window Into My Family’s Immigration Story

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A recent book review of my upcoming picture book, A Charmed Life, has me thinking a lot about my family’s immigration story. While I don’t have a problem with the book reviewer not liking the picture book, some of the comments in my opinion, are a bit off the mark.

A Charmed Life is based on my personal experiences growing up. My mom did clean houses on the weekends and I was never asked to help out while my mom worked. She expressed in earnest that my sole job was to graduate from college so that I could get a job where I would be financially independent and be able to provide for myself. I remember how much I detested having to spend a Saturday watching my mom clean. She always replied, “There’s no shame in doing an honest job. Dale gracias a Dios por este trabajo,” or “Watch yourself, you are no better or no less than anyone and you never know when you might find yourself in this situation. Life is unpredictable.”

My mother immigrated to this country from El Salvador, a single woman in the early 1970’s. She wanted to go to school and to have freedoms she was not going to have if she stayed.  She is by nature a force to be reckoned with. She is headstrong, a dreamer, goal oriented and the most hard-working person I know. She speaks her mind, is audacious and has moved heaven and earth to make sure her two daughters were given the opportunity to go to school, even if it meant she would work three jobs. Naturally, being a woman ahead of her time – she raised us to be the same. And so, I am fiercely independent, a dreamer, a child who asked lots of questions and an adult woman who is still curious and eager to learn.

As an educator, I try to convey to my students that everyone has a story and that their story is worth telling. And while it might not make sense to anyone, the truth of the matter is that every person has their own perspective based on their own experiences.
When I read A Charmed Life to my students a few asked if the mom was mad. I took this opportunity to ask:
“Why do you think the mom is mad?”
“Could she be something other than mad?”
The students said that the mom was probably running late, tired of working this hard or maybe she had other stuff she was worried about.”  I asked them what grown ups could possibly worry about. They answered bills, work, not having enough time and being tired. I shared that in my personal life my mom was often tired and overwhelmed with the demands of life, particularly since we didn’t have enough money or an extended family network.
I have always envied large families. I still do.  I loved the idea of celebrating with abuelos, tías, tíos y primos. But that wasn’t my experience. It was just my parents and my sister. We often spent the holidays with other orphaned families who for various reasons: political, economic, education, civil war, persecution, were here in this country alone and without extended family. But we shared a common language and these strangers who became my family bonded over a lost country, an unforseen future and the hope they would be able to buy a casita and their children get educated.
The women who helped raise me were no-nonsense, had a strong work ethic and had a set vision for their children to be educated. They weren’t traditional mothers and as an adult I understand their stories and their plight for survival.The woman who helped raise me worked in a factory sewing. The woman who helped raise me left Cuba with her new husband and provided a loving place when my parents got divorced. The woman who helped raise me picked strawberries, while finding a way to survive and protect her children from domestic violence.  The woman who helped raise me almost lost a husband to the atrocities caused by Pinochet when her husband, father of her children was taken prisoner. The woman who helped raise me babysat while their mothers went to work. The woman who helped raise me worked at a school cafeteria and told us to study and get ahead.
Interestingly, it is through the male figures that I came to understand and appreciate the need for the arts, writing, and the place that resides in books that calls you to be something bigger, to break apart and cry and to find courage for a different tomorrow. My dad, has always told me that while my home, my country, and my family might be taken away – no one would ever be able to take away my education, the things I have learned, the stories I have read and my desire to want to learn.
Stories are powerful. Every story is valuable and every story has its own history. What I love about books is the opportunity for educators to provide a platform for perspective building.
What are some reasons people immigrate?
Is there just one immigrant experience?
How does class and socio-economic levels affect this?
Who benefits from immigration?
What is the American Dream?
Is such a thing attainable today?
What is a charmed life?
Who defines what a charmed life is?
What is your definition of a charmed life?
While this is just a small window into my story, there are many other stories waiting to be told and understood. And as I type this in the safety of my warm home, on my home computer, I am once again eternally grateful for my education, the opportunity to share and the vision my parents had for me.

 

Fireboat Field Trip!

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Fireboat 2 – San Pedro, CA

Today, I experienced our class field trip to the fireboat through the eyes of a child. Earlier in the school year my team teacher suggested we visit the fireboat as a means to tie in the social studies theme – “World of Work”. Confused because I had never in my entire life heard of a “fireboat” I asked, “What’s a fireboat?” I came home that night and asked my family and my childhood friends, who like me, are college educated professionals, products of hardworking immigrant families where English was our second language and Spanish was the home language.  None of them had ever heard of a fireboat. A fellow colleague (also from an immigrant family) shared a book with me and chuckled – “Don’t worry, I had no idea what that was either!” As I read and perused the pictures in the book, Fireboat, I waited for this special day with much anticipation.

When we arrived to the Fireboat Station in San Pedro, I couldn’t wait to put a real life experience to the book that I had read with much curiosity. The fireboat was out, doing a dance with the water. It reminded me of the Bellagio Water Show in Las Vegas.

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Then we walked inside the station and it was the most awesome thing ever. It was dark, mysterious and beautiful. While we waited for the fireboat to dock, we were given an informative tour. I really appreciate how the firefighter leading the tour emphasized how every firefighter helps clean, cook, organize and maintain the fireboat. It was a natural tie-in to the theme, “World of Work” – a study of the many systems in place needed to keep and maintain a community thriving.

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After the tour, our little ones were given the opportunity to handle a fire hose. They held onto the long hose, waiting patiently to get wet…and boy did they get wet!

fireboat.jpgWhile the little ones waited to get their turn at spraying water from the hose, a student ran up to me and said, “There’s a girl firefighter here, like your book. You have to talk to her.” I eventually talked to the girl firefighter whose name is Valerie (shout out to Valerie and all the other girl firefighters!). I loved that Valerie said that where she’s from, she was raised with the belief that she could be whatever she wanted to be when she grew up. I shared with Valerie that my picture book, Pink Fire Trucks aims to inspire this important message. I could see how significant this was for my female students since it was mentioned a few times on our drive back to school.

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Thank you Fireboat Station 112 for your time and dedication. Today was exciting! It’s important for students of all ages to not only be able to conceptualize concepts they are learning, but to experience them. Field trips are important. And for an adult who had never heard of the word “fireboat” – today’s field trip was extra special.

Visualization Activity: Drawing to Enhance Reading Comprehension

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One of the perks of being a teacher is that I get to share my story ideas with my students. I’ve been working on this particular story since the fall. I’ve gone to several critique groups through SCBWI and used their feedback to revise and edit.  This week I shared the newly revised story and asked my students to visualize it in their minds. I explained that active readers/listeners are able to create a movie with pictures or scenes in their brains as they read, to fully grasp the depth of a story.

I read the story and asked a few questions to make sure they were following the storyline. I then asked them to draw an image or scene from the story. I have to say, I got really emotional when I looked at their drawings. Some of them were so sophisticated and moving…and to think that my little ones are between the ages of 5-7.

These beautiful drawings also confirmed how important visual cues are for readers, particularly struggling readers. It saddens me that in some educational structures, taking the time to draw and color are no longer viable methods for checking understanding. Little people come with so much to express. It’s important that we educators take the time to really get to know our students and their strengths, not just their stretches.  If I were to solely base their academic abilities on standardized tests, I would never be able to see and appreciate their soul. I hope you enjoy their drawings. Granted, I am not providing the story text -their beautiful and creative images tell a story of their own.

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“This story reminds me of the olden days.”

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“I felt the grass with my hands when you were reading.”

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“The girl was really mad at her grandpa.”

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“It’s a far away place.”

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“Did you see the designs I used in my drawing?”

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“My grandfather died.”

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I wanted to make the water really blue.

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“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” – Henry David Thoreau