Freshmen Investigate the Immigrant Experience
by Jeffrey Lesser

This year my students had an opportunity to do a different kind of research and presentation in a History 190 seminar for incoming freshmen entitled “The Immigrant Experience in Latin America.” The course looked at immigration to and from Latin America from theoretical, economic, social, political and policy perspectives and included the analysis of monographs, films, videos, oral histories and photographs.

I was eager to have students understand that Latin America, like all regions, is not just a contained physical space but also a movable cultural one. Put differently, Latin America could be found here in Atlanta among the tens of thousands of immigrants and their descendants who now call the city home. With this perspective in mind, we created a group oral history project that became the focal point of the seminar. I must admit here to some luck since all the students in the class spoke Spanish well (and some fluently) and this allowed us to enter into Latin American Atlanta in ways that English-speakers might not.

Our project was based initially at a fascinating location on Buford Highway that is today called “Plaza Fiesta.” Prior to the arrival of Latin American and Asian immigrants to the area, it had been a bastion of working class Atlanta culture, with a Marshalls and a Burlington Coat Factory as the economic anchors. Those still exist, but the stores that surround them suggest a different kind of Atlanta. There are Vietnamese pho shops and Chinese dim sum restaurants. The large supermarket sells primarily Asian products while most of the workers are Latin American. The long commercial hallway that separates the stores has been transformed into an imagined Mexican plaza, complete with fountain and balconies, as well as storefronts selling everything from discs by “Los Tigres del Norte” and long distance calling cards, to restaurants that serve orchata and taquitos.

While the students were very comfortable doing oral histories with Mexican immigrants in Atlanta, they were less so in showing their work publicly. Nevertheless they created an impressive web site and a public presentation attended by friends, family and a number of Emory faculty members. Both forms produced excellent results The web site, by Christina M. Jordan, Frances M. Prochilo, Ito Garcia-Sanchez and Robert J Hesketh, contained all the elements of a traditional paper plus distinctive features not possible in a words-on-paper format. I was particularly pleased that a number of History colleagues commented on how deeply engaged the students were in everything from research, to public speaking, to technology. The project can be viewed at: http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~cmjorda/