The overall objective for the unit is for the students to gain a better understanding of contemporary migratory patterns both into the United States, and within it, as well. Furthermore, I want my students to understand that they live in a vibrant, diverse community whose relevance and importance reaches far beyond Grand Avenue. I believe that it is also important for all of my students to better understand the contributions that Latinos have made to their immediate community, as well as to the United States at large. Finally, my students will leave the class with a greater understanding of the wide range of people and experiences that actually make history.
There is clearly much that students can learn by examining the immigration stories that surround them everyday. An example of this can be found without even leaving the Fair Haven building itself. One of the two assistant principals at Fair Haven Middle School is Maritza Rosa. Ms. Rosa was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the mainland United States while she was in high school. She will very proudly point out that her grandfather was involved in the writing of the constitution of Puerto Rico. In fact, the pride she feels in her heritage is evident in nearly everything she does, from organizing Fair Haven's annual Hispanic Heritage Month activities to her role as a translator and general liason to the Latino community in Fair Haven. She attended college and went on to become a teacher, beginning her education career in New York as a bilingual education teacher. Her family subsequently moved to the New Haven area and her younger siblings followed her into education careers. In fact, her younger sister and brother both teach in the New Haven Public Schools.
Ms. Rosa has gone on to become one of the most active members of the burgeoning Puerto Rican community in the greater New Haven area. She has played a vital role in creating the Puerto Rican parade in New Haven and has helped to bring the Areyto festival to the annual Arts and Ideas festival in New Haven. She also helped to found an annual Puerto Rican scholarship pageant. She provides mentoring to younger women throughout the Latino community in New Haven, as well.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss with Ms. Rosa her feelings about the lack of Latino voices in mainstream American education. Her disgust was palpable. Not only is she frustrated by the lack of information about Puerto Rican history, she is also frustrated by the lack of information about the emerging Latino groups in New Haven. She said, "I had a speaker come in from Los Angeles to talk to our bilingual students this year. He runs a very successful community program in L.A. You cannot believe how proud the kids were to see this man speak to them. He looks like them and he could speak to them in Spanish and English." She was very excited at the prospect of the New Haven social studies curriculum adding more explicit information about Latinos
. My conversation with Ms. Rosa made the need for this curriculum unit even more clear to me.
It seems that immigration is one of the leading stories of the day. Furthermore, it is one of the central themes of American history. I begin my eighth grade United States history course with a brief lesson on prehistoric human migration. Very simply, students place flags all over the world map, tracing their role in the human migration out of Africa and across the world. We talk about the Bering land bridge and the subsequent population of the North and South American continents with waves of wandering people pushing south from Asia. We then talk about Columbus and the "discovery" of the New World. We discuss Spanish colonization and it is often difficult for my students to grasp the idea that, yes, they speak Spanish in Puerto Rico because it was a Spanish colony. Ultimately, we turn our attention to the British colonies, following their growth into the United States of America. In short, at nearly every point, we are discussing immigration, migration, or forced migration. There is simply no reason why we cannot, or should not, turn our focus to the migration stories that are all around them here in Fair Haven.
If this unit were to be taught in the context of the seventh grade curriculum, it can fit into the unit which addresses Latin America. While the focus of this unit is on the geography and culture of the region, it can certainly encompass emigration from the region into the United States. Furthermore, the entire focus of the seventh grade world cultures curriculum is on the emerging global community and the central place of the United States in that community. This unit can easily fit within that context, either as a short four week unit or as a more sustained year-long project.
When I began writing this unit, it was my intention that this unit would be taught near the end of the school year, placing the migration stories the students will tell in the context of the late twentieth and early twenty first century migration. The unit would also encompass a number of critical and historical thinking skills the students should have acquired by the end of the year. Considering that the focus of the unit is on the students and their community, this will hopefully increase students' facility with reading, writing, and historical inquiry in general. I also hope that a unit focused on Latino experiences will serve to empower the struggling readers and writers I have in many of my classes.
However, there is another way to look at this unit. This unit could be taught throughout the course of an entire school year, which would gives students the greatest amount of time possible to select, make contact with, and interview their subjects. It would also provide the opportunity for students to document the ways in which their attitudes and ideas about contemporary immigration have changed throughout the course of the year.
As I have stated above, many of my students, particularly those who are one or two generations removed from any sort of migration themselves, need to have some background information about general trends in U.S. immigration. To begin, students need to know how and why Puerto Rico became part of the United States, thus making movement from the island to the mainland not a question of immigration, but rather one of migration within one country.
Any kind of introductory lesson must begin by briefly examining the Spanish American War. Students should know that Puerto Rico was one of Spain's last colonial holdings and that Spain had mismanaged the island horribly for years. The U.S., for its part, was eager to eject any and all European influence from the Western hemisphere and very nearly leapt at the chance to do so. In the end, of course, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States, never becoming its own country. Passage of the Jones Act in 1917 made all Puerto Ricans United States citizens, clearing the way for the migration from the island to the mainland that would follow later in the twentieth century.
Following this thread, it is important to note at what point Puerto Ricans began migrating to the Northeast in large numbers. The United States took control of most of Puerto Rico's sugar industry, making it increasingly more difficult for Puerto Ricans to make money farming, something they had done for centuries prior. The dire implications this had for Puerto Ricans living in rural areas must be addressed, as U.S. interests left rural dwellers in a desperate state of extreme poverty. In fact, the first half of the twentieth century, many Puerto Ricans found that life under U.S. colonial rule was far worse than what they had experienced under Spanish control
As American companies began to set up factories in Puerto Rico's cities during the post-war era, Puerto Ricans from the country side flocked to the cities for better paying jobs. The only problem, of course, that there were far more workers than there were jobs. To ease unrest in the cities, Puerto Ricans were encouraged to come to the mainland for better opportunities, and to provide a new supply of cheap labor for growing agricultural and industrial concerns. This migration was further aided by the availability of cheap airfare from the island to the mainland in the last fifty years of the twentieth century. While the overwhelming majority of these Puerto Ricans settled in New York City, they also moved through the Northeast and, to a lesser degree, into the Rust Belt areas of the Midwest
Puerto Ricans were also actively recruited to come to Connecticut, as well. Beginning in the 1940's, they were brought to Connecticut to work in the tobacco fields of the Connecticut Valley. As that industry fell apart throughout the 1960's and 1970's, they began to work in Connecticut's factories. Because of this, Puerto Ricans established large communities in Connecticut's cities
Whereas the story of Puerto Rican migration into New Haven has a much longer history, it does have something in common with the story of Mexican immigration into the city. It has been noted that many of the Puerto Ricans who have settled in New Haven can be traced back to one or two small areas of the island. This chain migration has also been quite prevalent among the Mexican community. Mexican immigrants have also been attracted to New Haven for its cheap housing stock and a perception that many jobs were available.
Just as the students must have a clear understanding of the reasons surrounding Puerto Rican migration to the mainland, they should also understand the driving forces behind the rapid growth of Mexican immigration to this country. The Mexican population of this country predates the British colonial period; a fact that should be underscored in the context of this unit, as it establishes the important place Mexican history should take within any balanced understanding of U.S. history. Following that, students should understand something about the annexation of Texas from Mexico and the ensuing Mexican-American War, as it too relates to the United States policy of Manifest Destiny. In particular, students should be made aware of the land that was stolen from Mexican, now Mexican-America, families during this time period. It is also interesting to note that the boundary between the United States and Mexico was something the United States government created, making some Mexicans Americans almost overnight.
Explaining the reasons behind contemporary Mexican immigration is more problematic, as it has a great deal to do with United States government policies governing the economies of both the U.S. and Mexico. Yet, again, a comparison can be made between those policies and those of the U.S. in Puerto Rico. This is an important fact to note, as it further strengthens the ties between the two communities. For at least the past century, American agricultural industries have actively recruited Mexican labor into the United States. This became more formalized with the Bracero program in the 1940's. Thus, it has become a well-established reality that Mexican laborers are willing to come to the United States and work in low-paid sectors of the economy, including agriculture and the hospitality and service industries.
As trade regulations between the United States and Mexico have steadily eased throughout the twentieth century, and were entirely eliminated with the passage of the North American Free Trade agreement in 1994, agricultural and industrial businesses have increasingly established themselves in Mexico. Large agribusinesses have taken land from Mexican farmers, while manufacturing industries have set up factories all along the Mexican border. This policy has had a similar effect on the population of Mexico as it had on the population of Puerto Rico. While a few Mexicans have profited from the arrangement, most Mexicans have become increasingly impoverished. The jobs created by the establishment of U.S. factories in Mexico are far greater in number than the workers available to fill those jobs, creating a grave labor surplus. Understanding the basic economic forces driving Mexican immigration why so many Mexicans are willing to risk their lives to come to the United States illegally
Again, another important point to raise to students concerns the most recent debates in the national media over illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America. As I stated earlier, many of my students see the term immigrant as a put-down. What they often fail to realize is that the current debate often attacks all Latinos. Certainly, the push on the part of white conservatives to make English the country's official language is a point sure to inspire common anger among all Spanish-speaking students in my classroom and will help to further illustrate the commonalities among various Latino ethnic groups. The immigration debate, with its overtly racist overtones, should provide an opportunity to establish common ground with African-American students, as well.
Students should also have some knowledge, however limited, about the history of the Fair Haven neighborhood itself. The neighborhood began as the hub of a bustling oyster and fishing business and evolved over time into an immigrant community. By the 1920's, Fair Haven was regarded as a largely Italian neighborhood. By the 1970's, the transformation of Fair Haven from a predominately Italian neighborhood into a Latino neighborhood was already well underway. This transformation was expedited by the construction of Interstate 91 and 95, which virtually cut the Fair Haven neighborhood off from the rest of New Haven. In fact, it is quite possible to be well acquainted with other neighborhoods in New Haven and have virtually no knowledge of Fair Haven at all. Today, Fair Haven is predominately Latino. Certainly, the largest ethnic group is Puerto Rican with the percentage of Mexican and Central American residents steadily increasing. Yet a sizeable African-American community remains, as do many white families. Fair Haven exists as the most racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhood in all of New Haven
. One will also find a number of locally owned businesses and restaraunts that cater to the diverse Latino community along Grand Avenue.