Personal, political, fight against oppression
Micheline Aharonian Marcom (MFAW faculty) is working on an oral history website called The New American Story Project. The project is in part to accompany a novel she wrote, The New American, about a young Guatemalan-American college student who gets deported and then makes his way back to the U.S.
The New American Story Project includes an oral history website, and represents an oral history and art collaboration that seeks to tell the stories of undocumented men, women and children.
Micheline creates a space for these members of her community “to tell their stories in ways that are cathartic for them, educational to the rest of the community, and artistically and visually poignant.”
Even though the website is currently under construction, Micheline has already documented the stories of a dozen unaccompanied Central American minors living in Oakland, California. In addition to having the children tell their stories in their own words—via short audio and video clips, text, and photographs—she is interviewing people who are working directly in the field to thereby give a greater understanding of the historical, legal, political and policy issues at play, in addition to the psychological and social impacts. She wants to understand the reasons that these children are fleeing.
Micheline shares: “We hope to give a very human face to the human rights crisis happening on the U.S.-Mexico border and in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Furthermore, we hope to foster greater understanding of the complexities around the issues of immigration, immigration reform, and the 11 million undocumented in this country. As storytellers ourselves, we believe in the power of stories to affect change, to inform the public, and to enhance empathy where there might previously have been ignorance or indifference.”
The project thus far has involved interviewing 12 Central American unaccompanied minors, several immigration attorneys, a policy person, a human rights’ activist, and two local school administrators along with teachers who are working directly with the children. Micheline plans to interview a historian and an economist as well.
Here are some excepts from the stories that Micheline has gathered:
“They killed my father. Then they tried two times to kill me also. My father didn’t have any problems with anyone, that’s why I don’t understand for what reason they killed him or why they tried to kill me. The police didn’t do anything because supposedly no one saw it happen. Or perhaps there were people who saw how he was killed, but nobody can talk [in Guatemala] because everyone is afraid.” –Vielma, 17, Huehuetenango, Guatemala
“My motivation comes from what I saw my mother suffer from the time I was a small child. And I have also seen many people living on the street, and many who got involved in narco-trafficking. And from all this there is a motivating force in me that one day I can graduate from university and be able to help many people, be able to help children who are on the street so that they can study too. My motivation is to one day be able to say to everyone that even from the lowest beginnings one can rise. Sometimes it feels impossible, and I get down and I feel alone and I don’t want to keep going. But in the end I always keep going because if you don’t try and you don’t keep your spirits up, no one will do it for you. If you want to achieve something, you’ve got to do your part—that’s what I tell myself.” –Jose, 17, Olancho, Honduras
“I’m here without my parents. They are in Guatemala. I’m here just with my brothers. Children need to be with their parents, we should let the parents be with their children. Guatemala has a lot of violence and discrimination. We should support the children.” – Teresa, 17, Totonicapán, Guatemala
“We didn’t eat anything that night. We didn’t sleep that night; we didn’t have a place to sleep. The coyote just left us in the middle of a city. We didn’t know anyone. We didn’t know where we were. That was the worst part [of the journey through Mexico].” -Darlin, 17, Progreso, Honduras
“I left El Salvador because I wanted to see my mother again.” –Yamileth, 18
Micheline, in her role as artist activist, facilitates Goddard’s conversation with the world to unmask a global tragedy through story. With this unmasking, she is able to reveal the faces of children who suffer in their alienation from home and family.
The narrative quality of Micheline’s work transforms statistics to storyline; in doing so, she connects hearts and minds in ways that stir activism and, subsequently, may inspire a brand of social action and change that may save lives.
Note: an abridgment of this story appears in the article, “Is Activism Dead?” in the Clockworks Fall/Winter 2015 issue on page 8.