This is the individual and collective story of a group of Latinx women in New York City. Over the course of a year, twenty-four women participated in Story Circles, with three to seven participants in each group sharing their journeys to the United States: the trauma beforehand, the obstacles and brutality of migration, and the struggles, challenges, and opportunities they encountered in the United States. The women (cisgender, heterosexual, LGBTQ+) came from Latin America and the Caribbean. They are undocumented; most live in western Queens, and most have children.
I have to get stronger than ever. I can’t show that I’m not okay.
A multidisciplinary team from Equity for Children, StoryCenter, and Voces Latinas designed the project with the support of the Spencer Foundation. We used the digital storytelling method to facilitate their creation of recordings and videos that reflect the stories of themselves that they wish to tell and to use the power of storytelling to empower them in their own lives. With the women at the center of knowledge production, the narratives build community among those at the margins of society, challenge the perceived wisdom of those at society’s center, and open new windows into the reality of those at the margins. We aimed to pay renewed attention to what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o characterizes as “‘the politics of knowing’: interrogations of the location of knowledge, which knowledge is valued, and who is positioned as knowing…” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle,1198, p.19–36; Ngũgĩ 2012).
Six videos were created by the women, giving voice to a significant and vulnerable population that is often overlooked and silent in the general public discourse. Ten others created digital recordings.
Each of the testimonies has a value in itself. Their voices provide a glimpse of the difficult trajectories they went through until arriving in New York City and how they adapted despite many barriers. They illustrate the centrality of community network support.
The story circles illuminated how people learn from one another and enter relationships across cultural boundaries. The testimonies place stateless and undocumented communities at the center of knowledge, bringing forth not simply new knowledge but new epistemologies, or “moments in which the image of the modern world system cracks.” (Migonolo 2011a, p.23)
The story circle process built trust in the groups and opened the possibility of expressing their fears and accomplishments. The decision to migrate to the United States is set in motion by traumatic situations—poverty, abuse, and violence, which are often overlapping realities. Each of them had a long journey, facing harsh difficulties and brutality during the migration process. Some had connections from their country in New York, but nonetheless adapting to a new country, culture, and language presented new issues for them and their children. They had to navigate different systems—healthcare, education, the legal system, and others. Their experiences in New York also include food and housing insecurity, racism, and the challenges of being part of an informal and “marginal” workforce. They learn to draw on the support of community networks, local grassroots organizations, and social services. For the trans community, the support of community was especially important.
When I got here, I changed my name; it was a new beginning. Here, the “Maria” who was beaten and humiliated died…Now I am “Adriana.”
I have always been discriminated for being who I am.
—Sandra, El Salvador
After the initial adjustment, all of them show what we label post-traumatic growth. Even though they still face different obstacles and challenges, they are better able to use the opportunities the city offers to move ahead in their lives, with their children and family.
When I came to the United States, I worked in a bakery, and they treated me like I was stupid. I missed my world. Now my happiness is gathered here.
The process of storytelling was also a process of healing. In the conversations, we witnessed a cross-pollination of knowledge between participants and between the project members and participants as well as an understanding of their personal lives in the larger social and political arena, giving them a sense of self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-confidence. The voices in the video speak from a position of strength and leadership. They make visible the ties of the networks that help them move forward and give them the extraordinary motivation to build on these relationships and to give back to the community and to others.
The eternal power of telling stories one at a time and then repeating them, honed over thousands of years, remains a vital, communal human tool that binds us. The videos and the recordings give agency to each individual in a lasting way. Equal to the collective impact of acting to integrate people into their communities and reduce inequality, we learned that the power of each video created a resonating voice for each facilitator and researcher, as well as for every participant, which they will carry forward for the rest of their lives.
Finally, at the moment of creating their videos, all of them show deep appreciation for the possibilities that are open for them and their children, being in NYC, the improvement of their situation in relation to the past, and their commitment to moving ahead in their lives. The experience served as a motivational catalyst for seeking more opportunities and engaging even further with the Latino community.
I would like to be that voice that does not close the door on anyone.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
Equity for Children focuses on “translating” academic knowledge into useful tools for all those who work in the defense and promotion of child and adolescent rights. They aim to promote innovative political actions and to build effective solutions that guarantee the well-being and the rights of children and their families.
Researchers: Alberto Minujin, Gabriel Crespo, Ximena Gonzalez
Voces Latinas was founded in 2003 with the mission to reduce the rate of HIV transmission and violence among immigrants by empowering, educating, and providing leadership and advocacy trainings that enable Latinos to have a voice and to make healthier decisions for themselves and their families. The participants in the project are clients of Voces Latinas.
Researchers: Nathaly Rubio-Torio, Lissette Marrero, Tania Batres
StoryCenter promotes healing, growth, and social change by creating spaces for listening to and sharing stories. They believe that storytelling inspires connection and action, and are committed to helping people from all walks of life use the power of their own voices and experiences to build a just and healthy world.
Researchers: Allison Myers, Andrea Spagat
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- Alberto Minujin is a professor at the New School University, New York. Minujin is the founding executive director of Equity for Children/Equidad para la Infancia, a nonprofit working to improve living conditions for deprived children (equityforchildren.org). A UNICEF senior officer from 1990 to 2005, Minujin is a mathematician with training in applied statistics and demography. From 2013 to 2018 Minujin served on the Board of Comparative Research on Poverty (CROP), a scientific committee at the University of Bergen. He has authored volumes, including Leaving No Children and No Adolescents Behind, Ibidem (2021), Tackling Child Poverty in Latin America, CROP-Ibidem (2017),Global Child Poverty and Well-Being, Policy Press (2012). In 2010, Minujin was awarded the Bicentennial Medal by the government of Argentina in recognition of his decades-long work on behalf of the world’s most impoverished children and adolescents.
- Marilyn Kohn has had a long career in fundraising. Most recently she was vice president for development at Temple Emanuel-El in New York City. Her seventeen years at Columbia Business School included running the executive MBA program. She also worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering and, prior to that, as a consultant. Her clients included Cancer Care, Facing History and Ourselves, and the Jewish Home and Hospital. She is on the boards of ROOM and Equity for Children.
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