Immigrant teenagers take stage at USC to share stories

January 24, 2019

In an emotion-filled night, local students describe hardships of adapting to America

By Ross Brenneman

At an event commemorating the USC Rossier Centennial, a student who immigrated from El Salvador, Kevin, speaks lyrically about his experiences in the United States. (Photo/Brian Morri)

On the stage in USC’s Bovard Auditorium, 16 immigrant students stand in front of a small audience, to explain how they got to the United States, and what they learned in their struggle to get here and fit in.

Even as a week of storms and a teachers’ strike within the Los Angeles Unified School District sapped attendance at the evening event held on Jan. 17, the audience sat rapt with attention as students poured out their hearts, many in their native language.

Brought together by a project called I Learn America, the students embodied the effects of policy and legal decisions.

“As they share their unique stories, our new Americans educate us and bring about positive change within their schools and their community,” said Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean Karen Symms Gallagher.

Founded by filmmaker Jean-Michel Dissard, I Learn America began as a documentary about immigrant students at a Brooklyn high school. The film follows five teenagers attending the International High School at Lafayette, who face their own unique trials assimilating into America.

Since then, Dissard has created a “human library” of immigrant stories through high school workshops that develop immigrant youths’ literacy and storytelling skills.

Trials and terrors

All 16 students at the Bovard presentation attend LAUSD schools, but immigrated from all over Latin America.

Through tears and the occasional laugh, the students shared their experiences about why they left their home countries, about enduring the hardships of those journeys, and in some cases being put in detention facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE.

“I have more opportunities now. I’m going to help my mom, because she is my motivation to get up each day,” said Floriselda, a student from Guatemala, reading a poem. “I want to show some gringo people that see me as a criminal that I’m not—I’m just a dreamer, a dreamer who wants to graduate and go to college, a dreamer of justice, and more opportunities for education.”

Lizette Becerra MAT ’18, one of four USC Rossier student teachers who helped mentor workshop participants at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, brought the project to the attention of Professor of Clinical Education Margo Pensavalle, who helped organize the documentary screening and student presentation as part of USC Rossier’s ongoing Centennial celebration.

“The stories of these students are stories that no children should have to experience,” Pensavalle said. “The event brought them into a more visible place. I felt we could make a political statement in a very real way.”

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