by Joanna Klonsky
CHICAGO, IL—Cesar Chavez, one of the most influential and important labor organizers in U.S. history, once said, “The end of all education should surely be service to others.”
Chavez never made it past the eighth grade. He had to drop out of school to work in the fields and help support his family.
This March, more than 15 years after Cesar Chavez’s death, high school students around the country participated in a month of service learning projects in his honor. In Chicago, the participants learned about Chavez’s legacy and ideas about immigrants’ and workers’ rights. For many, the project was also about reexamining their own families’ histories.
As part of Chicago’s Cesar Chavez Service Learning Month, students from several Chicago high schools conducted extensive interviews with immigrants preparing for their citizenship exams.
Through the interview process, the students learned about their interviewees’ difficult journeys to the United States, and about their struggles upon arrival.
“We ask them questions of when they came here, how were their lives before, the work they used to do before, over there, and once they arrived here, and the difference between their lives in the place where they came from, which was Mexico, and now their lives here,” says Maydel Sanchez, 18, a senior at Kelly High School in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood. “Also, we ask them how they used to work, how they feel now that they are in the United States, the reason why they came here, and what age they were when they came here.”
Cristina Quintanilla, a junior at Kelly, was deeply affected by her interviewee’s story. “He had to come here and work so he could maintain his mom and his brothers. He used to work at McDonald’s downtown. At first he wanted to learn English, but he had two jobs so he stopped going to school. He faced discrimination at his jobs because he didn’t speak English and had no experience.”
A Family Connection
For the Chicago students, most of whom come from immigrant families themselves, the experience has been a reality check, says Daniela Serrano, a teacher at Kelly. “A lot of them don’t realize what their parents went through just to come here.”
Now, she says, “They are able to question themselves more about their own heritage. Like, ‘what is the reason I was born here to begin with? Why did my parents bring me here?’”
Quintanilla says the interview made her think of her own mother. “I really admire her that she was the smallest girl in the house and she had to come over here. I know she’s always up on her mom and giving her money and everything.”
Recording, Broadcasting and Celebrating
After completing the interviews, the students wrote about the stories they had heard.
Then, they traveled to Radio Arte, an independent radio station in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, to record and broadcast their writings about the experience.
Adjovi Connissaire, who emigrated to the United States from Togo in 2006, read her piece live on the radio. “I was so excited and so happy to read it,” said Connissaire, a sophomore at Chicago’s Community Discovery Academy High School.
At the end of the month of service, all the participating students in Chicago gathered for a final day of activity commemorating Chavez.
After a performance by traditional Aztec dancers, students heard from Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, executive director of ENLACE, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and well being of residents in Chicago’s predominantly Mexican Little Village neighborhood.
Then, students split off into workshops on murals, drum making, youth organizing, poster making, street theater and poetry.
When the workshops were complete, the entire group marched with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, granddaughter of Cesar, down 18th Street, Pilsen’s main artery.
“The culminating event really showed the involvement of the students,” says Cristina Salgado, Chicago Public Schools’ Service Learning Program Coordinator, who spearheaded the Cesar Chavez project. “We had students come up and talk about their experiences. One student who spoke said the immigration project made him want to learn more about his own roots, his own history, his own culture.”
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator