Writing Program students help Latin American immigrants write their memoirs
While many students spent last spring semester improving their own writing, a group of graduate students in The College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics (LLL) spent the semester helping members of the Syracuse community explore their own literary voice.
The graduate students in the SPA 600 (Latin American Female Autobiography, Memoir and Testimonials) class collected the life stories of Latin American immigrant women in Syracuse at the same time they were reading 20th-century autobiographical writings by Latin American women. The students not only researched and wrote critical papers on the chosen texts, but also monitored the autobiographical writings of a group of Latin American women from neighborhoods in Syracuse’s Near West Side.
The project is consistent with a signature experience on the University’s Academic Plan, which places an emphasis on elegant writing.
Each student in the course- which was taught by Inmaculada Lara-Bonilla, a visiting professor in LLL from the University’s Division of International Programs Abroad program in Madrid, Spain-worked individually with the women from the community to provide assistance with their memoir writing in a variety of ways. Some of the women writing memoirs needed help crafting the story, while others relied on the SU students to be “sounding boards” for their ideas.
“The women- who all volunteered to write with us – really benefited from the therapeutic effects of sharing both the small and big events of their lives, memories and countries,” Lara-Bonilla says. “They also became very aware that, at the very least, they have a great story to tell and an interested, excited audience eager to listen and read those stories.”
The graduate students–Cruz Ces, Becky Curtis, Susana Delmar and Nick Lazor– had a variety of experiences in the course. All of the women in the community whom they worked with came from different Latin American countries and had diverse backgrounds.
“Each of us had a different experience, but they were all amazing experiences,” Curtis says. “I worked with a woman who had recently moved to Syracuse from Buenos Aires- where she had graduated from a university and held a high position. In Syracuse, though, she is having a tough time because she doesn’t speak English, is adjusting to life with a new family and feels she has lost her independence. Her story was really powerful.”
Ces, an international student from Spain who has become very involved with the West Side community since coming to Syracuse, worked with a woman from Puerto Rico who immigrated to Philadelphia as a child and now lives in Syracuse. Ces says the experience opened her eyes to a new reality of the Puerto Rican community in Syracuse.
“She went through many struggles growing up, someone even set her mother’s hair on fire one time in Philadelphia just because she was Latin American,” Ces says. “Her memoir became a collage of anecdotes about her life and it helped me realize how hard she is working to make a better life for herself and family.”
Delmar worked with a woman from the Dominican Republic who was forced to make a decision with only 10 minutes notice of whether or not she would leave her country. The woman decided to leave and had to leave her baby behind with her mother. She still hasn’t been able to bring the baby to the United States.
“Her story talks about the boat trip out of the Dominican Republic and making the decision to leave her baby behind,” Delmar says. “It’s a really tragic story, and I’m hoping she will decide to finish it at some point in the future with more information on what her experience has been like since coming to the United States. She has two children who live with her in Syracuse and she is trying to bring the son she left behind to the United States. It’s a great story without an ending right now.”
Lazor worked with a woman who was a teacher in Cuba before coming to the United States, and already had extensive creative writing experience. She took a metaphorical approach to her memoir, writing the different stages of her life as different seasons of the year.
“She was already a gifted writer who mainly struggled to find the time to write,” Lazor says. “She is attending classes at Onondaga Community College, teaches part-time at a local school and also has a family. She really enjoyed the experience, and especially got a lot from sharing her work with the SU community at the final presentation.”
At the end of the semester, most of the women who wrote memoirs came to campus and presented their work to an audience of nearly 60 people in the Hall of Languages. Lara-Bonilla and the graduate students are currently compiling the memoirs into a collection that will eventually be published.
“The results were incredibly rewarding,” Lara-Bonilla says. “The students have become more familiar with the Latino community of Syracuse in some of its great variety and size, have discovered simplicity or humor or have simply enjoyed the unexpected learning experience of travelling to ‘the other side.’