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How a Boston Teen Changed the Way Teachers Approach Immigration History

In Isabelle Doerre-Torres' curriculum, students learn about El Salvador's civil war (1980-1992) that killed more than 75,000 people, and that the U.S. funneled more than $4.5 billion to the right-wing Salvadoran government in the name of fighting communism. (Wikipedia Commons)
In Isabelle Doerre-Torres' curriculum, students learn about El Salvador's civil war (1980-1992) that killed more than 75,000 people, and that the U.S. funneled more than $4.5 billion to the right-wing Salvadoran government in the name of fighting communism. (Wikipedia Commons)
January 20, 2020

By Anna-Cat Brigida
Broadcast version by Laura Rosbrow-Telem
Reporting for the YES! Magazine-Media-Commonwealth News Service Collaboration


BOSTON -- In the summer of 2017, before her senior year of high school, Isabelle Doerre-Torres met Carlos,* a Salvadoran immigrant on the verge of deportation. Doerre-Torres was an intern at a legal rights organization. She soon learned that Carlos came to Boston nearly two decades ago after he fled gang violence. He'd put down roots in a working class community, where his two daughters were born.

But like millions of immigrants in the United States, Carlos was undocumented, making his future in the U.S. precarious. When Carlos went to a routine immigration check-in that summer, he was told he had two options: buy a plane ticket and leave or be deported.

Through Carlos, Doerre-Torres discovered a part of history that her textbooks were eerily silent about: El Salvador's civil war from 1980 to 1992 that killed more than 75,000 people-and the depths of U.S. involvement. The U.S. funneled more than $4.5 billion to the right-wing Salvadoran government in the name of fighting communism. Salvadoran troops trained by the U.S. military carried out brutal massacres and caused the disappearance of alleged dissidents. All the while, the U.S. government, mainly under the Reagan administration, ignored human rights abuses in favor of carrying out their own limited foreign policy goals: containing the spread of communism.

Doerre-Torres was shocked by what she learned. She was further astounded that she had never studied this history in high school, particularly at a time when immigration debates fill the news.

"You hear about deportations and detention all the time-but along the border in Texas," Doerre-Torres says. "But it's happening in Boston, and that made me realize that people do in fact need to know about why people are coming here and why it's unsafe for people to go back."

Immigrants fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala frequently fill the headlines. Central Americans are one of the largest immigrant communities in the U.S. An estimated 2 million Salvadorans, 1.3 million Guatemalans and nearly 800,000 Hondurans were living in the U.S. as of 2013, according to demographic information compiled by the Pew Research Center. This number has likely grown in recent years. From October 2018 to July 2019, more than 560,000 people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were apprehended at the U.S. border. But the history of Central America, where the U.S. staged or supported dozens of coups and military interventions in the 20th century, rarely makes it into history textbooks, leaving students to graduate without a basic knowledge of a region inextricably linked to the U.S.

"There's definitely a gap in knowledge and understanding how we got here and in understanding the situation in each of the three countries," says Daniella Burgi-Palomino, a senior associate at Latin American Working Group, who also advises an initiative called Teaching Central America that focuses on including these topics in U.S. classrooms. That gap includes "the U.S. role in supporting right-wing dictatorships and military in those countries in the 1980s and fueling internal conflict," Burgi-Palomino says. "That was a precursor to some of the conditions that we are seeing now."

Designing a Curriculum

Teachers at Boston Latin School are rethinking their history classes, figuring out ways to incorporate Central America into their lesson plans for the first time. They are doing so in part because of Doerre-Torres' efforts to bring this gap in the history curriculum to the school's attention. When she returned to Boston Latin School for her senior year in fall 2017, Doerre-Torres was inspired by her experience with Carlos and her own experience as the daughter of an immigrant from Colombia, another Latin American country whose history is often overlooked in Eurocentric curriculums. As her senior capstone project, she designed a six-part curriculum about U.S. intervention in Latin America, with a particular focus on Central America and the Cold War.

"How are we going to have comprehensive discussions on immigration when the only facts we're armed with are about the Maya, the Inca, and Pitbull?" Doerre-Torres says to an auditorium full of her classmates and teachers during her capstone project presentation. "What are the real reasons for people coming here? What are the real reasons for people leaving there? What is the historical context for this influx in migration? Lastly, do we as the U.S. have a role in all this?"

The sample lessons of Doerre-Torres' curriculum cover "containment," the U.S. foreign policy goal of preventing the spread of communism and policies that the U.S. supported as a result, such as a campaign of state-funded repression, torture, disappearances and killings of presumed leftists in South America called Operation Condor.

The curriculum pays particular attention to Central America, where the U.S. funded state repression, massacres, and even genocide. An estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed in the country's civil war from 1960 to 1996. Most of the victims were indigenous Mayans. As New York University History professor Greg Grandin wrote in The New York Times in 2013, "genocide was indeed an option in Guatemala, supported materially and morally by Ronald Reagan's White House."

During the 1980s, the U.S. sent thousands of troops to Honduras and used the country as a base for their "containment" goals in the region. Over the past 100 years, the U.S. has supported, carried out or enabled multiple coups in Honduras, most recently the 2009 coup of democratically elected Manuel Zelaya, which ushered the country into an era of increased militarization and political instability. In El Salvador, U.S.-trained troops carried out the worst massacre in modern Latin American history, the 1981 slaughter of unarmed peasants in El Mozote. As Ray Bonner, one of the first journalists to report on the massacre, wrote in 2018, "one might think the United States owes the country's citizens an apology, rather than disparaging epithets."

The sample curriculum ends with a lesson on immigration, in which students can exchange their ideas-but only after learning about the history of the countries' migrants flee.

From Theory to Practice

All around the U.S., educators are discussing how to address the national immigration debate. At a time when immigration has become such a polarizing issue, these teachers are finding ways to build understanding of immigrants' experiences among high school students to humanize the debate and build common ground.

"If you talk to a school, they often think that talking about immigration is something for immigrant kids. They don't recognize that this is actually important for all of us," says Adam Strom, director of Re-imagining Migration, a project started by two UCLA professors to develop lesson plans on immigration for high school students. "We see immigration as an opportunity to start to think about the narratives that connect all of us."

Janna Ramadan, a former Boston Latin School student who graduated in 2018, says that with the curriculum she learned, it's easy to see how some people buy into the stereotypes about immigrants. "You can see how people become misinformed easily because you only see gangs, and illicit drug trade and immigrants, but you don't understand where they are coming from, why this is happening, the history behind it and how the U.S. actually created [this] situation," Janna Ramadan says.

Teachers at BLS have adapted their lesson plans to add important historical context to the current immigration narrative and prepare their students to think critically about immigration policy.

"I have 180 days to make sure that when they leave here, they're not walking out of here misinformed, first and foremost, or not understanding how to navigate through all that is coming their way, either news stories or historical events," says history teacher Cheralyn Pinchem.

In the last six weeks of her AP history course, when she had more freedom to digress from a history textbook because her students have already taken the AP exam, Pinchem allows students to decide what topics, countries, or issues interest them. Last school year, students were particularly interested in learning about the history of immigration after reading about children in cages and hearing comments from the president that all Mexicans are drug dealers.

"They hear about it in the news, so they want to know what has really happened and historically how have we treated people from other countries," Pinchem says. Each year, she also covers a few Latin American countries in depth that are not required by the curriculum. In the past, she has discussed Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and Colombia, per her students' requests.

Another teacher at Boston Latin School, Judi Freeman, has started incorporating an assignment in her class that requires students to document their own families' migration story using an app developed by Re-Imagining Migration called Moving Stories.

"It deepened the students' understanding of the fact that everyone in the classroom had an immigration story at one point or another no matter where in the world their family hailed from," Freeman says. "It definitely connected the kids to understanding what was happening at the border with more interest than they would have brought to it otherwise."

Her class, Facing History and Ourselves, an elective that teaches past injustices with a focus on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, also covers genocides such as Rwanda, the Belgian Congo, Guatemala, and the effects of colonialism around the world. According to Ramadan, who took the Facing History course, Doerre-Torres' project has started an important conversation, but she worries the school's curriculum still remains Eurocentric.

Teaching Central America

Boston Latin School is not the first to grapple with this issue. Since the early 1990s, when many Central American countries were transitioning out of times of intense conflict, the nonprofit Teaching for Change launched an initiative called Teaching Central America to advocate for Central American history to be included in high school curriculums. The initiative includes lesson plans, book suggestions, and other educational materials about the history of Central America and root causes of migration.

Teachers, who are often the first point of contact for newly arrived students from Central America, can use the material in their classes, or to educate themselves.

Wendy Bermudez, a Teaching Central America adviser, works as a bilingual resource teacher for the gifted at Claremont Immersion Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia where the student body is half native English speakers and half native Spanish speakers, including many students newly arrived from Central America.

She herself fled El Salvador during the civil war when she was 8 years old. In high school, she remembers feeling like an outcast. She didn't often see herself reflected in textbooks or lessons, except for the occasional mention of gang violence in El Salvador. Now, Bermudez works to make sure all her students feel seen and included, whether that means talking about Central American history during class or just introducing herself to a new student from Central America.

"Our job as educators is to learn about our students and where they come from. We create lessons that will interest them, lessons about their life experiences," Bermudez says. "That's how we get our students to learn because they are more interested when you make connections to their personal life."

These experiences are crucial for the growing number of students from Central America in U.S. school systems.

Elmer Vivas Portillo, the son of Salvadoran immigrants living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mainly learned about the Salvadoran civil war through the stories from his parents who fled the violence. But his history classes at Cambridge Rindge and Latin were mainly silent about Central American history.

"The possibility of learning more about your own history in an academic setting means that maybe you're more engaged in class and more likely to show up to school the next day to continue learning about that topic," Vivas Portillo says.

He finally had that opportunity during his first semester at Harvard College when he enrolled in a Latin American history class.

"I remember feeling so happy taking that class because I just felt a feeling for the first time that "Oh, wow. I can learn something that's so close to me in an academic setting,'" says Vivas Portillo, now a senior sociology major.

Still, students such as Vivas Portillo emphasize that teachers who are going to address this history with their students need to make sure they themselves fully understand what happened. Students can share their family's stories to enhance class discussion if they choose, but it's unfair to single one student out as the "representative" of that country, Vivas Portillo says. Plus, it could make them feel uncomfortable. "To be honest, for much of high school, I didn't have a full understanding of where I was coming from," Vivas Portillo says.

Still, he hopes more students have the opportunity to explore this history in an academic setting, whether that be in high school or college. "It would be a great disservice to overlook the role that the U.S. played in putting these countries in the positions that they are now," he says.

"This is fundamental civics," says Strom of Re-Imagining Migration. "We can't make good thoughtful decisions around refugee policy and around migration if we actually don't know our own stories."

*Name is changed because the work Doerre-Torres did was confidential.

This story was originally reported and written by Anna-Cat Brigida for YES! Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaCat_Brigida.

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - MA