When Cal State Long Beach Professor of Spanish Maria Carreira saw her father’s tears, it inspired her to write a book titled Voces: Latino Students on Life in the United States.
The journey began about 10 years ago when Carreira had students read the novel Cajas de carton. The novel is about an immigrant family and migrant workers in California decades ago.
“As we started to talk about it,” said Carreira, who co-authored the book with former student Tom Beeman. “I began to discover that some of my students shared some of the experiences of the characters in the book. When my students would write their reactions to the book I started seeing these amazing stories that they would share with me. I was blown away.”
It was while reading one of those stories to her father where the idea to write a book came from.
“I remember I was reading this story to my dad and he started to cry,” said Carreira. “We started to talk and he said we shouldn’t be the only ones learning from these stories; everyone can learn from them. And it was at that point I began to think this would be a powerful thing to put into a book.”
And so it began, the pulling together of stories that had been written for one of her classes along personal interviews conducted with individuals and families. She also got assistance from colleagues and friends who, knowing the work she was doing, would forward things to her they thought were meaningful experiences and would fit into the book.
In all, Carreira estimates approximately 300 individuals were involved in the project, resulting in the book which will be available beginning Nov. 1. But this is not a book about feeling sorry for people, according to Carreira. On the contrary, it’s a book about resilience and, eventually, triumph.
“I didn’t want to make this book about hardships. To be sure, there are plenty of heart wrenching stories,” said Carreira, “but, more than that, I wanted to feature the triumphs of these students who overcame in some cases extreme poverty, in other cases being undocumented, and in other cases separation from family or discrimination. These students, as I discovered in the process of writing this book, have incredible wisdom, strength, powerful live histories and all these things enrich us if we just take a moment to hear them.
“What’s amazing about the youth featured in the book is that they don’t focus on the hardships,” she added, “As they are telling their story they very quickly turn to, ‘This is what I learned from it, this is how I got past it and this is how I reacted to it.’ So that’s where resilience, a topic I come back to many times in the book, comes in. Resilience is the ability to overcome difficult circumstances. These youths exemplify resilience and how to confront adversity with resolve, grace and wisdom.”
Another common thread throughout many of the stories was family, the importance of it and the sacrifices made.
“The family is a central player is many of the stories because many immigrants are poor, they don’t have connections in this country and they don’t know very well how to navigate some of the things in this country,” said Carreira, who noted it’s not just Hispanics, but for all immigrants for which the family is very important—it’s a unit of support because they are isolated in a way.
“It’s rare when an individual can get ahead on their own, so what you have is the strength of the family, where family members help each other. Older siblings take care of the younger siblings while the parents are at work and because of that some of the immigrant children have to grow up very quickly because they don’t have the luxury of an extended childhood. And while having to grow up quickly has its challenges, it also brings growth because it forces immigrant children to take responsibility for their wellbeing and that of others.”
The book also focuses on transformation of lives, not only the students, but their families and communities as well as a result of their success. Many who shared their story talked about how they want to make the lives of others such as themselves better.
“Many of them tell me they want to be teachers because they know what immigrant children go through in a school situation and they want to help those children succeed in school,” said Carreira. “Others want to be social workers, others want to be lawyers, but there is a common theme—they want to contribute, they want to give back.”
And while absorbing these stories for a decade and then going through the process of writing this book, Carreira herself could not help but learn more deeply about her students’ lives.
“I had been teaching these students many, many years and I thought I understood them, but this has been one of the great learning lessons for me,” she noted. “Where many of us might see formidable hardships, my students see opportunities for enormous growth and they see themselves becoming very strong as a result of these difficulties that they faced.”