Class Project Unearths Stories Of Immigrants The stories of immigrants have, in many ways, redefined American history. But their journeys to the U.S. often remain untold, and sometimes unknown even to their children. Nancy Foner, a New York sociology professor, wants to change that by assigning students to interview immigrant family members. Foner tells how the experience affected her students.

Class Project Unearths Stories Of Immigrants

Class Project Unearths Stories Of Immigrants

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The stories of immigrants have, in many ways, redefined American history. But their journeys to the U.S. often remain untold, and sometimes unknown even to their children. Nancy Foner, a New York sociology professor, wants to change that by assigning students to interview immigrant family members. Foner tells how the experience affected her students.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the one and only Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. She'll talk about performing on Inauguration Day.

But first, we talked in the last segment about one author's view about how this country treats kids, some kids, poor kids, but what about how kids change this country?

Immigrants have shaped this country since its beginning with each successive wave, reshaping the nation, but children of immigrants often find themselves between two worlds: their parents' homeland and theirs, the United States.

In New York, one class has tried to reconnect those two lives. As part of our Freshman Honors Seminar at Hunter College, children of immigrants interviewed a close relative about their immigration stories to learn more about their families' journeys to the U.S.

Joining us now to talk about some of these stories is Nancy Foner, who leads the class. She is a distinguished professor of sociology at Hunter College and Graduate Center at City University of New York. Welcome. Thank you so much.

Dr. NANCY FONER (Professor of Sociology, Hunter College and Graduate Center, City University of New York): Oh, I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Now Professor Foner, you've studied the issue of immigration for many years. Are the stories still emotional for you to hear?

Dr. FONER: Yeah, I think that's the amazing thing to me because I have studied immigration for so long, and not only have I studied immigration for so long, I've taught many, many classes about immigration in which I have students do these interviews.

And yet every, single time when my students, you know, read their stories in class and tell their experiences, I am just incredibly moved by them. Their stories are amazing.

MARTIN: Let's find out why you say that. The New York Times interviewed some of your students and taped those conversations. Here is Danilo Rojas(ph) from Honduras.

Mr. DANILO ROJAS: Right now, my dad is still a union laborer. He never became a citizen and doesn't really plan on it. He has only visited Honduras three times and has lived in the U.S. for 23 years, as opposed to 17 years in Honduras. However, he still considers it his homeland. So he'll probably never live there again but doesn't rule out the possibility.

MARTIN: Tell me more about Danilo. What did he learn? Was it surprising to him to hear his dad talk about it?

Dr. FONER: Well, he said that what he learned - he hadn't really realized the incredible struggles that his father to go through. His father, who is now a legal immigrant I should say and is here perfectly legally.

MARTIN: Legally, just want to make sure people heard that.

Dr. FONER: Yes. He is a legal immigrant, his father, came here illegally, snuck across the border. His father came from a very, very poor background and had a very, very difficult time in Honduras.

When he came here, he's really like this classic study of upward mobility. He was, you know, a laborer and a dishwasher in a restaurant. He now owns several houses in Brooklyn, and of course, Danilo is in the honors college at, you know, at Hunter College. He's doing very well, but Danilo didn't really realize the struggles that his father had to go through.

You know, I guess when you're living in a house, your parents sort of tell you stuff about their lives, but it's one thing for them to sort of tell you stuff about their lives and scatter it through your daily life, it's another thing, I think, when you sit down and actually interview them.

MARTIN: Yeah. You know, parents are never people to the kids, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: I think that's true.

MARTIN: Yeah, it doesn't matter if they, yeah, I walked to school with paper in my shoes. Yeah, yeah, sure.

Dr. FONER: Exactly. And, you know, they don't sit down and, you know, I'm sure a lot of the times his father said things and they went in one ear and out the other. But when he had to do this for the class - and also, I should say the class is focusing on immigration and the immigration experience - I think, you know, it really hit him in a different way. I mean, he realized, you know, how difficult it had really been for his father. And I think he had a new respect for his father.

MARTIN: Let's hear from another student, Ilirian Jumbalai(ph). He's 19 years old. He's an American Albanian. His people - his folks are from Montenegro. His parents moved to the Bronx in 1980, but in 1992 his father died in a traffic accident. Let's hear Ilirian talk about that.

Mr. ILIRIAN JUMBALAI: My mom not only had to deal with, like, the death of her husband, but she also had to deal with trying to raise these three kids by herself. And she had this conservative culture that she was living in, and they weren't letting her get a job.

MARTIN: Tell me more about Ilirian.

Dr. FONER: Well, he - when he read his interview in the class, it was very interesting because he came - his mother came from a tiny village in Montenegro. He said there were 30 or 40 people there. And one thing he told the class was about how his parents were married, they had never met and not only that his mother, when she got married, didn't realize that they were going to be going to America.

And the whole class kind of just looked, you know. And, you know, and then he told about the experience of his father dying and how the community, Albanian community in the Bronx, wouldn't let his mother go out to work. She was on welfare. And, you know, eventually, after many years, she insisted on going to work. She was a domestic worker in a private home.

She now is - works, I think, at the Metropolitan Opera, where she's a coat checker. She's very proud of her working. And Danilo, who has done incredibly well in his - very - he's very proud of her. And also…

MARTIN: Ilirian.

Dr. FONER: Yes, Ilirian.

MARTIN: He's very proud of her.

Dr. FONER: Yes. He's very proud of his mother. And I think he has a new feeling that he's in America and there are different attitudes towards women than his mother had to deal with.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, you said he's very proud of his mother, are any of the students not wanting to tell these stories? Is - are any of these stories a source of shame for them?

Dr. FONER: Well, that's another thing that I think is somewhat surprising and even perhaps a little surprising to me. Because, you know, in the classic immigration literature, particularly about immigrants, you know, 100 years ago or those of the second generation growing up in the '20s and '30s is that, you know, immigrant children, you know, wanted to distance themselves from their parents.

They were ashamed of their parents if they spoke - the parents, their culture. And so you started to think, well, gosh, these parents have very difficult situations. These, you know, their children are on the way up in American society. Maybe they would be really embarrassed by their parents, but that is not the case. The students are very proud of their parents and their parents' struggles and their parents' achievements that really comes out when they do these interviews.

And actually, some of the students, I think, who were the most proud are those whose parents have had the most difficult time. So, you know, it isn't really what you expect. And that's another thing, by the way, that is incredibly moving about these students.

MARTIN: I wonder where we got this idea, though, that kids should be ashamed of their parents. I find that - I think it's an interesting point. Where did we get that idea to begin with?

Dr. FONER: Well, I guess many teenagers who are born in America to American-born parents and have American-born grandparents are ashamed of their parents, right? I mean, it's not unusual for teenagers to find their parents embarrassing. I am a - my grandparents were immigrants. My parents are native-born New Yorkers. And I'm a native-born New Yorker. And I may say that my daughter, in many cases, has been ashamed of me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And embarrassed of my (unintelligible). So I'm sure that actually in some circumstances these students are embarrassed by their parents. But it's the question of whether they're embarrassed by their parents' cultures and their parents', you know, that they're parents came, in many cases - this is different in the class - and, in fact, that's another interesting thing worth talking about, because they're from many different countries.

I've got a class of 24, and, you know, I've got, you know, 16 or 17 different countries represented there. But there are also great class differences between them - in their backgrounds. And actually, for example, Danilo, his father came from a very poor family, and yet, there are other students, for example, a Russian student in the class, you know, his father was a doctor, a very prestigious doctor in the former Soviet Union. His mother was an engineer.

You know, there are students who have parents who were professionals in the home country. And then there are students whose parents were, you know, poor farmers, you know, with very little or no land, you know. So that's a big difference. And I thought that would be something that might be an issue, but even that, at least in the presentations, didn't seem to be.

I mean, the students - I mean, it's actually a wonderful experience. We talk about - maybe we can talk about this a little more, but, you know, we talk about multiculturalism and diversity, you know. And here I've got students from all over the world in my class.

MARTIN: Okay. We'd love to hear more at some point in the future. Nancy Foner is a distinguished professor of sociology at Hunter College in the graduate center at City University of New York. She joined us from our studios in New York. Professor, thank you so much.

Dr. FONER: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. If your parents immigrated to the U.S., we'd like to hear from you. What have they told you about their homeland, about what brought them here. Do you ever find yourself conflicted between embracing your American identity and honoring the heritage of your parents?

To tell us more, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again, 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave your name. You can also log on to our Web page. Go to npr.org. Click on TELL ME MORE and share your story.

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More Stories From Foner's Students