Photo by Adam Rogan
BY ADAM ROGAN
For the majority of sophomore Jose Garcia-Fuerte’s life, he felt unable to talk about his birth status. As a 3-year-old, Garcia-Fuerte crossed the Mexican-American border illegally with his parents. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, but now attends Drake University as a law, politics and society major.
“Growing up as an undocumented student in Denver, I had zero opportunity to tell my story,” Garcia-Fuerte said. “Nobody knew my identity, who I was.” His parents didn’t want him to speak Spanish in public for fear of being outed.
Drake University partnered with Des Moines Public Schools to help tell the stories of people like Garcia-Fuerte: not necessarily illegal immigrants, but anyone living in the U.S. who wasn’t born here.
13 DMPS high school students participated in a three-week summer course where they developed podcasts telling the story of an immigrant. Each student in the class was either an immigrant themselves or a first-generation American, meaning that they were born in the U.S. but their parents were not.
For the first two weeks of the class, students were instructed on how to use audio editing software, as well as podcasting and interviewing techniques.
“Many of them were unfamiliar with podcasting,” said 2014 Drake grad Nadia Valentine. “They hadn’t really done audio storytelling before. They came in fresh-faced and a little intimidated by the things we were doing.”
Valentine’s role with the class, along with Drake senior Drew Finney and professor James McNab, was tangential. They worked as “audio experts” by helping guide the students along through the creation of their 13 individual podcasts.
The third week was spent editing the final podcasts telling the stories of immigrants, using interviews conducted by the students of a family member or mentor.
“It was giving them the voice to tell someone else’s story,” Valentine said.
Besides equipping students with audio storytelling skills, one of the other goals of the class is to disperse the stories of those whose American experience is vastly different to that of most Iowans.
There are about 44 million people living in the in the U.S. who were not born here, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s 13.7 percent of the population, and the majority of them came to the U.S. legally.
That population is strongly represented in Des Moines, even if it isn’t always obvious. Louisa Dykstra, a candidate for the Des Moines School Board, says that students in Des Moines Public Schools alone were born in 111 different countries.
“I think most people can’t even comprehend that,” Dykstra said.
Dykstra says that this fact isn’t very well known amongst Central Iowans. And that this is odd, considering how mixed Des Moines’ business community has proven to be.
“Our business community is really focused on ‘We are a global community,’” Dykstra said. “A lot of our big businesses have offices all over the world, they have employees from many different countries, so they are looking for more and more people who are able to work with people from all different countries. Even if it’s a podcast of 13 different stories, that can start having a big effect.”
Eleanor Zeff, a Drake political science professor and expert in immigration policy, says that the lack of communication between natural-born Americans and immigrants is incredibly challenging for newcomers.
Many immigrants, especially refugees, don’t speak English. Without language skills, finding a place to belong or a job can make life incredibly difficult.
“Many of them have things like post-traumatic stress syndrome, because it’s such a shock to change cultures, especially if you can’t speak the language,” Zeff said.
Refugees receive only 90 days of aid from the government; it used to be 18 months. This is hardly enough time to get a grasp on English and find work. Kids oftentimes are able to learn the language thanks to their youthful brains and education, but not so much for their elders.
“What’s happening is the children are learning English, and then the parents still are having trouble because they become isolated,” Zeff said. “… Pretty soon there’s a gap between the generation that came over and their children. Grandparents aren’t able to talk to their grandchildren.”
The release for the podcast is scheduled for Sept. 24. There will be a listening party that day where the students can share their work. The podcasts will be posted online soon after. Where the party will take place and where the podcasts will be uploaded are still factors to be determined.
“It’s essential, it’s crucial that these kids’ voices be heard,” Garcia-Fuerte said. “Times have completely changed now. Three, four years ago, ever since DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was implemented, there has been a larger undocumented community movement towards creating a legal path to citizenship and residency.”