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Salinas students share family stories of immigration as part of a language course.

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Students from Alisal, North Salinas and Everett Alvarez high schools wrote stories and poems in Japanese

Students from Alisal, North Salinas and Everett Alvarez high schools wrote stories and poems in Japanese, narrating each of their family’s immigration story. Photo by Celia Jiménez

Celia Jiménez here, wishing I was fluent in Japanese so that I could read Our American Stories Volume 2. It’s a book that was created by high school students in Salinas and released by students from Salinas Union High School District in May. Included on the pages is work by students from Alisal, Everett Alvarez and North Salinas high schools, aided by their teachers. 

The student-writers contributed prose and poetry to the volume, all focused on their families’ immigration journeys to the U.S., their struggles coming to a different country, learning a new language, feeling accepted and making this new place their home. 

Professor Cameron Chien oversees the project and the Japanese language course at North Salinas High. He says in class students learned about Japanese-American history and the challenges Japanese Americans faced during World War II, when they were labeled as potential threats, were displaced from their homes and corralled into remote camps. Then students went a step further and interviewed their own families to learn about their immigration experience. “A lot of our own families here, we didn't just end up in America. We emigrated at one point and we have similar stories to tell,” Chien says. 

It sounds pretty straightforward. But sometimes—especially for a teenager—it isn’t easy to sit down and have a conversation with an adult family member. There are benefits, and that’s what Angela Cristeros, a recent graduate from North Salinas High, experienced. Cristeros says talking with her parents was eye-opening and helped her understand them a little better. Both her parents are from the Philippines, and learning the hardship they faced growing up, understanding why they work so hard, has made her more sympathetic. 

The xenophobia that Asians and Asian Americans experienced during WWII has resurfaced during the pandemic. Chien says this shows a lack of empathy or understanding among people: “We're all human beings with different voices coming from different parts of the world.”

Chien says speaking or writing about these experiences can be liberating and now, thanks to the book, they can share these stories with other Japanese speakers. “This opens our stories and our voices to be heard by those who are non-English speakers,” he says.

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Cristeros designed the cover and she read the stories, as well. “I realized how similar our stories are,” she says. The cover depicts a road, a broken guardrail and a green landscape that drew my eyes across the paved street. I asked her why she decided on the image. Cristeros explains that it signifies choosing a different path. “I just thought about moving, going away instead of staying in one area,” she adds.

Chien says his personal goal is for students to become global citizens. “We’re becoming closer with the internet. But even though we're getting closer…our hearts are not getting closer because we're not understanding each other.”

Not only did the students develop the stories and write the content in the book, but they practiced their Japanese language skills by writing it entirely in Japanese. The book is 61 pages and is available on Amazon

Learning about it made me think of my own family’s immigration journey—and I have to confess I know just the scraps of the story. It’s a topic we haven’t discussed in depth, yet. If you want to share your family’s immigration story, remember that I’m only one email away.

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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