“I don’t know how she gets the courage to speak about all the things she described; her life. It was amazing and touching.” This was one of the comments made by Tyson Laa-Deng while reflecting on a class last Friday, October 28, that was fully run by Ashley Arana ’12. Ashley visited this section of Spanish II to share her family’s story of coming to the United States from El Salvador and Guatemala. Spanish II has been focusing on issues of Central American immigration and deportation as part of the cultural component of the class this fall, and the myriad perspectives, controversies, and meanings surrounding these topics. Ashley’s visit illuminated these conversations and gave them a human dimension.
Ashley described how her mother, one of seventeen children, and her grandmother came to this country after the earthquake in El Salvador in 1986, and lived in Texas and California before settling in Trenton, New Jersey, where Ashley was born and raised. Her mother met her father there. Much of Ashley’s extended family also lives in Trenton, which has a significant Central American population.
Ashley’s presentation included descriptions of the deportations of her father, when she was nine, and her aunt, when she was seven. Ashley’s father was deported during a restaurant raid at his job; Ashley’s aunt, who had been granted refugee status because of the earthquake, had not completed necessary paperwork to stay in the country. Ashley described being present at the deportation of her aunt: waking up early in the morning to police raiding the house and taking her aunt away. The experience was degrading, terrifying and resulted in Ashley’s young cousin suddenly finding herself without a mother. Two of Ashley’s uncles were also deported. Both were murdered upon returning to Guatemala, which has been ranked as a the 4th most dangerous country in the world due to its murder rate.
The students in Spanish II, including Tyson Laa-Deng ’13, Tyler Jones ’14, Ikea Wadsworth ’14, Riley Jacobs ’13, Reef Rogers ’15, Danny Harrington ’15, Jesse Garrett-Larsen ’15, Eli Ingendahl ’13 and Jessica Scharf ’13, asked Ashley a variety of questions. One of the first was: “What do you and other Guatemalans living in the US miss about home?” Ashley responded: “We miss the lifestyle…everything in Guatemala is more slow-paced, more focused on the true meaning of life, taking the time to enjoy and appreciate each other and the things around you. Here, everyone is always working, working, working, and in a hurry. Even in terms of the way we greet each other, there’s a difference; back home, when you enter a room, you have to go up to every person and kiss their cheek. Here, people usually just say hi and walk past each other or wave from a distance. We also miss our code of morals. At home, we have great respect for our elders; we can’t be rude to our parents, or call them by their first names. When I see or hear kids in this country talking to their parents, I’m shocked. We also love our grandparents and would never take them for granted or put them in a nursing home. The way we see it, the elders hold the spirit of the family.”
Another student asked, “How has deportation defined you or your family’s experiences?” Ashley replied: “I wouldn’t say it’s defined me, but it’s definitely affected me. Basically what it comes down to are broken families; me growing up without my dad, my cousin growing up without her mom. You learn to move on, but that has changed your life.”
Ashley, a high-honors student and 2-year proctor, said that one of the worst aspects of being Latino in this country is the way in which people assume that she is somehow less worthy or less competent than any other person: “Sometimes people have talked to me as if I were stupid or I didn’t understand English. I think this doesn’t only apply to Latinos, it happens to other minorities as well, but we often feel that as a whole we are treated less equally, given less opportunity, and considered less capable than a ‘white’ person. That’s one reason I get so angry when I see other Latinos at home making mistakes, getting involved in crime, or joining gangs, or not trying for something better– it reflects badly on all Hispanics and makes it harder for us to be taken seriously and get ahead. We as a community, all Latinos, needs to work together as a group, not be divided and bring each other down. At the end of the day, I’ll tell anyone where I’m from, and I’m proud to be Guatemalan.”
The Spanish II students responded to Ashley’s visit in writing. Excerpts from their responses include the following:
"The story that touched me the most was that of her uncles’ deportations. I found it interesting how much the deportation changed the course of their lives. When she told us how they were shot when they went back, I wondered how different their lives could have been if they stayed in America…One question I had going into the talk was, ‘Is the pain worth it? Is American all it is said to be’ Before I even was able to ask it, she answered it by saying both yes and no…Yes in terms of the education you can receive and the safety; but no when it comes to the culture and customs you lose by leaving Guatemala.” - Tyler Jones
“All of the stories she illustrated about gang violence and children eating off of piles of garbage [back in Guatemala]- make me so angry that people have to live that way. The most obvious questions like, ‘Why can’t we all just work together,’ are the most difficult to answer…Most people can relate to compassion. I think if we made a bigger effort to shed light on the reality of how people are living in other countries, more people would support each other.” -Jessica Scharf
“The one argument that was always on my mind when Ashley was talking is related to work and jobs. The illegal immigrants and legal immigrants can bring gang violence and supposedly take our jobs. That is what all the Americans are arguing about, but the truth is, “we” don’t want most of the jobs that they have…We also assume that immigrants are all in gangs and are increasing violence in America. This is not true at all. There people like Ashley all around us, I bet.” -Reef Rogers
“Ashley’s visit to our class was really inspiring. When hearing about the troubles of immigrants through stories or through movies you really don’t get it. At first you are shocked, but because it’s a story you put it in the back of your mind, and think that it doesn’t really happen. I believe that most Americans do pass off the horrific tales that they hear about immigrants and the border as just stories. Ashley coming to our class and being able to talk to us about the troubles her family experienced was really amazing. Because she came and talked to us it finally clicked in my head that things like this really happen to people every day, and we are just completely blind to it because we choose to be.” –Ikea Wadsworth
We thank Ashley for sharing her family story with us.
Photos on this page courtesy of Ashley Arana