PITTSFORD — Flipping through flash cards on a table, the Nazareth College Spanish-language students were playing “Simon Says” to give Spanish-speaking migrant workers a lesson in English vocabulary.
At the same time that the workers were learning to say “finger” and “leg” in English, the students were learning what it’s like to live as a migrant farmworker.
On Dec. 3 the students shared what they had learned by showing documentaries they made about the lives of migrant workers. It was all part of the Nazareth College class “Border Cultures: Mexico and the USA.”
In addition to the service-learning English lessons and the documentaries, students read books about immigration issues and history, created a Web site for the project, discussed immigration issues through a blog and posted podcasts of their interviews with migrant workers.
Professor Hilda Chac√≥n — who has a doctorate in Latin American literature and cultures and who previously worked as a television journalist and documentarian — noted that the project’s goal was to look at theories underlying immigration law and how those theories corresponded with reality.
“The idea of these video productions was to bridge the gap between theory and practice,” she said.
Students in the class were Lindsey Buzard, Alexandra D√≠az Rivera, Emma Ertinger, Caitlin Harrington, Kate McKee, Alyssa Pantano, Chelsea Pease, Katrina Shields and graduate assistant Amanda Lynch. In addition to Chac√≥n, others from Nazareth College who collaborated on the project were Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, director of Women’s Studies Program; Marie Watkins, director of the center for service learning; and Luke Barnum, senior video-production specialist from media services.
The students said the project was a very positive experience for them.
“I’m absolutely grateful that I was in this class,” said Pantano, a sophomore from Buffalo. “I would never have had the opportunity to meet these people.”
“We were completely unaware of the presence of migrant workers in our community,” said Ertinger, a senior from Liverpool, Onondaga County, who is majoring in Spanish and anthropology.
On weekends, the students traveled to an orchard in the Sodus area to meet up with the migrants for teaching, interviews and filming. The students also visited the Board of Cooperative Educational Services Geneseo Migrant Center one day. Though the workers were initially shy and hesitant to be filmed, they eventually grew eager to have their pictures taken and to learn more about the project, the students said.
In the documentaries, workers told the students that they wake up at 5 a.m. to eat, so that they are able to work a 10-hour day without stopping to have a meal. One undocumented worker told the students how she had lost a finger in a factory job, and she was told she would have to leave her job because she was a liability to the company. Many workers told them of the pain of being separated from their families while trying to provide for those families.
“There are no jobs in Mexico, so they have to come here,” said McKee, a junior from Syracuse.
“They come over the border, and they know they need jobs,” said Shields, a junior from Guilford, Chenango County. “If they have a family member or a friend who is already in the U.S., they get in touch with them as best they can.”
The students learned that farmers have a difficult time finding workers other than migrants who are willing to harvest crops.
“Farmers go into a panic every year because they don’t believe they will be able to contract enough labor for their harvest,” Ertinger said.
The students also learned about the fear that migrant workers live with, since Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials wait outside areas that migrant workers frequent, Ertinger said. When a roundup occurs, workers are taken to a detention center in Batavia, where it is determined whether the workers are in the country legally or illegally.
“Basically, people are just getting picked up on appearance,” Ertinger said.
Barnum, who trained the students on how to shoot and edit their documentaries, said the students did well at creating a culture of trust, something he documented when he shot his own footage of the students interacting with the farmworkers.
“There was no doubt about it,” Barnum said in the voiceover to his documentary. “This was a challenging assignment outside of their comfort zone and into a very very frightened community.”