Conn College senior's project puts immigrants in spotlight
New London — When Connecticut College senior Emma Race returned from her internship with a Chile publishing house last year, she knew she wanted something tangible to come of it.
But she also knew her idea — to go out into the city’s immigrant community and encourage storytelling — was ambitious. What if the immigrants she met didn’t want to talk? Perhaps more important, what if telling their stories put them in danger?
Months later, as Race and those she met along the way prepare for their first public event — it's being called an "immigration story slam" — she knows her concerns were for naught.
Armed with instruction from area playwright Carlos Canales, seven immigrants on Friday will visit Conn College to share their stories of immigration, ideally celebrating the hardships they’ve overcome while informing their neighbors about who they are. They’ll do the same again on the evening of May 4 at Writer’s Block, which is at 12 Masonic St.
Some of the stories belong to the immigrants telling them. Others are the stories of their friends or family members. Each story will be printed in English and Spanish in a booklet, so all guests can follow along. And each is the product of several months’ and meetings’ worth of work.
Race in the fall partnered with Canales to begin hosting Spanish-language storytelling workshops. In the ensuing months, Canales combined lectures, group work and individualized instruction to teach the participants how to effectively engage audiences.
As Canales worked with the seven volunteers — they represent Peru, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and are between 35 and 53 years of age — they grew more and more bold.
“When I got here, people were scared to talk,” said Lizbeth Polo-Smith, a 49-year-old native of Peru who came to the United States about 16 years ago. “But people are now saying, ‘I’m going to use my voice.’”
Polo-Smith is active with DREAMers’ Moms Connecticut and Step Up New London, both of which aim to empower parents to address inequality. She’ll be participating in the upcoming story slams that Race spearheaded.
Polo-Smith flew from Peru to Mexico before she ultimately crossed into this country illegally — a harrowing journey that almost didn’t work out. The whole time, she said, she had the goal of providing a better life for her children. Ironically, she had to leave them behind to fulfill it. She later married a U.S. citizen.
It’s the pain of leaving her children that Polo-Smith will focus on when she speaks publicly. After departing her country, she didn’t see her two youngest children until six years later, when their father came to the United States with them. It was 14 years before she saw her oldest child — he visited the country in 2016 while he was on a ship with the Peruvian navy.
“It was hard to connect when they got here,” Polo-Smith said, “because I was not there for them when they were growing up.”
Polo-Smith said she wants to tell her story because she knows so many others share the same one.
“All people sacrifice when they come here,” she said. “If I can talk, everybody can talk. And I don’t want to stop.”
Marleny Bencosme, a 35-year-old who was born in the Dominican Republic, also feels passionately about using one’s voice to inspire change, and is participating in the story slams that Race has lined up.
Bencosme is a bus driver in New London. As such, she hears directly from the city’s diverse youth about what issues face them. She started working with Step Up near its inception in part because she believes a strong connection between a parent and a child can help keep that child out of trouble.
Bencosme, also a mother of three, overcame the odds last year and purchased a house on her own. It's among her proudest accomplishments, she said.
She wants her neighbors to understand what many immigrants encounter when they get to the United States. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to learn necessities such as computer skills, for example — especially in Spanish.
“I love New London,” Bencosme said. “I want to see the community be even better. I’m always thinking about how I can help. And I know we need to work together."
Like the participants, Race has grown over the academic year. She raised more than $4,500 to cover the cost of the workshops, which chiefly entailed paying Canales for his instruction. She partnered with the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center and will be selling items to benefit the nonprofit at each of the story slams. And she feels more rooted in the New London community than ever before.
“This project is connecting people who are passionate about letting their voices be heard in an effective way,” Race said. “It’s an idea I had, but it came into reality because of their expertise.”