Students use drama to talk about being immigrantsby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
Immigration continues to be the subject of fierce debate nationally as Congress works on a comprehensive reform bill. Recent raids by immigration enforcement agents around Minnesota have brought that debate closer to home. Some fourth graders at a St. Paul elementary school are taking a creative approach to the topic, performing a play they conceived and wrote about what it means to be an immigrant.
St. Paul, Minn. — The fourth graders at the Academia Cesar Chavez school in St. Paul are bubbling over with anticipation as they run through their last dress rehearsal. They've been working on their play, "Two Cultures, One Path," since March and they can't wait to perform.
Teacher Sarah Reichert is explaining to the students how the dress rehearsal will work.
"We're going to pretend that this is the day of the show," says Reichert.
The six-scene play has a simple plot that tells a complicated story. It follows Esperanza, the daughter of immigrants, as she struggles with her hyphenated identity as a Mexican-American, and strives to be comfortable speaking both English and Spanish.
Reichert says the character's conflict is one her students know well. For many, it has often been a painful subject.
"There's such a taboo about speaking about immigration. I think that the raids that are going on right now really send a message that immigrants, in particular Mexican-American immigrants, don't matter," says Reichert. "Therefore nobody talks about what was it like to move here, and who are they and how they define themselves. Our students just don't talk about that."
Reichert dreamed up the play as a way to help students voice their feelings about being bicultural and bilingual. She hopes that memorizing their lines will also help the students hone their language skills.
The play is based on stories the students collected from family members, and it opens with Esperanza getting in trouble at school after she refuses to speak Spanish. The other students laugh at her, and one boy teases her.
Walking home from school later that day, she gets frustrated when a friend asks her to help him write a letter in Spanish.
"I said I don't know any Spanish, now leave me alone," cries Esperanza.
Esperanza is more than able to speak Spanish, but she tries to hide it out of embarrassment.
Reichert says anxiety about language fluency is something all her students relate to.
"What I was most surprised about was how my third, fourth and fifth-generation students -- which are the bulk of my students -- how self-conscious they felt about not being able to speak Spanish fluently," Reichert says.
Academia Cesar Chavez aims to address language anxiety by requiring that all students take 45 minutes of Spanish every day. All other subjects are taught in English.
The University of St. Thomas-sponsored charter school opened in 2001 as a K-5 school and now goes up to the sixth grade. Nearly all -- 97 percent -- of the students are Latino. The remainder are Caucasian and African-American. Almost all are American-born, but a handful are not legal citizens.
Francisca, 10, from White Bear Lake, plays the lead character Esperanza. She explains how her character changes when she hears her grandfather tell the story of coming to the U.S.
"She has a big change after she talks to her grandfather, because her grandfather tells her you can be American and you can be Mexican at the same time," Francisca says. "You can speak Spanish and you can speak English."
Near the end of the play, the boy who made fun of Esperanza is reciting a poem. When he can't remember his lines, she comes to his aid. Then she reads her own poem, in Spanish. The class erupts in applause and Esperanza beams with pride.
Teaching assistant Rosario Preciado moved from Mexico to Minnesota when she was 5 years old, and says she understands what students like Esperanza are going through.
"I can see that they are stuck between both cultures and they don't know which one they should lean toward. Should they lean toward the American side or to their Latino side?" Preciado says.
Francisca's family is from Texas, Minnesota and Mexico. She says working on the play has helped her understand more about herself.
"I think it gives me a lot of information about myself," Francisca says. "It's important to know who you are, so you can follow your dream and do what you want to do."
Francisca hopes to be a professional actress. "Two Cultures, One Path" will be performed Monday for family, teachers and students. School officials say they hope the play will help spread a positive message to the wider community about Latino culture.