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Students document migrant experiences through creative writing course
Posted: 12/07/2009
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Growing up in a migrant farmworker family has given Nancy Chapa a life full of rich experiences, and this semester at The University of Texas-Pan American she is learning how to document her life's story through creative writing.

Chapa, a freshman majoring in nursing, enrolled in a Spanish course for migrant students, which helps them explore and preserve their migrant journeys while strengthening their Spanish creative writing skills.

Pictured from left to right are UTPA students Erika Salamanca, Yesenia Cardenas and Aracely Estrada discussing their class project with visiting poet Tato Laviera.

"I think this course is a great experience," Chapa said. "I've learned that there are so many students who have gone through the same things as I did. Since we are all migrants, we all feel comfortable around each other and we can all relate to each other's stories."

The course is taught by Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, assistant professor of modern languages and literature, and Tato Laviera, one of the best-selling Latino poets in the United States. During the class, students participate in oral history and intensive writing workshops. Laviera shows the students how to turn their knowledge into an original and creative piece of literature. The course is part of a larger project known as Cosecha (Harvest) Voices, which was formed by Alvarez and Laviera.

Alvarez said the course is beneficial to migrant students because they are one of the most vulnerable groups of students in the school system.

"It's estimated that two-thirds of migrant students drop out before they are able to graduate from high school, so there are very few who make it to college," Alvarez said. "By offering them this course, they not only get academic credit for the Spanish language skills they acquire during the course, but they also come to have a greater understanding of self, higher self-esteem, and motivation to end the migrant cycle by graduating from college."

Students develop their written testimonies throughout the course and present their digital story to the community at the end of the semester.

Chapa said the class has given her a sense of courage she didn't know she had.

"I've learned to be more outspoken about my experiences and to share them," Chapa said. "I've always been a bit hesitant because I've wondered what people were going to think, but after this course I realized that people are never going to fully understand my experiences unless I share them."

She said she hopes to use the skills she learned in the course in her nursing career.

"I would love to be able to translate for migrant families because I did that a lot for my parents and I know how important it is in the healthcare field to have someone you can communicate with," Chapa said. "I think that would be such an awesome feeling for me to be able to help in that way."

Alvarez thinks the course is not only important for the students, but the entire community.

"For every single person, understanding one's own history and experiences are vital to becoming successful. Being able to understand the experiences of others is important too," Alvarez said. "The migrant experience is one that is rarely discussed in the classroom, history books and even within students' own families. Their documentation and sharing of their experiences with the public, could potentially allow society to gain a better appreciation and understanding of the contributions migrants make to the U.S."

Alvarez said the students are very fortunate to get to work with Laviera because he brings his own experiences and skills as a writer to the classroom.

"Tato is a poet who specializes in performance poetry, so he helps students to get their voice out," Alvarez said. "For most students that is difficult, but for the migrant student it is even more difficult because most of their life is spent in silence, especially about that migrant experience. So, he plays a very important role."

Laviera said he loves working with migrant students from the Rio Grande Valley because he believes each of them has such unique stories to tell.

"I found it very interesting how much family is valued here, how the father is still a major figure in the home and how the family shares their money," Laviera said. "This tradition is unprecedented in the United States and needs to be documented."

A second-generation Puerto Rican writer, poet and playwright, Laviera has taught creative writing at more than 100 colleges, universities, and community centers. He said he developed the Cosecha Voices course with Alvarez in hopes of creating a curriculum that can be used at other schools.

"These students are survivors of these experiences - sometimes attending two or three schools in one semester," Laviera said. "We try to teach them the value of their sentences and recording these experiences that they have had. We want them to embrace the mike and tell their story. I encourage them to control their words and cherish them."

For more information about the Cosecha Voices project and course, contact Alvarez at 956/381-3445.