In America: Words have the power to unite

By Miryam Wiley
MetroWest Daily News (11/15/03)

If you wonder how people who don't know each other can suddenly talk like longtime acquaintances, the answer may be literature and poetry.

There is something to be said about the initial silence in a group that just read the same poem by an author they've barely heard of, but whose experience speaks volumes. Candid views seem to flow easily afterward.

So it was when some 20 of us met this week at Framingham State College for a seminar dubbed "From Minas to Massachusetts," but that included backgrounds such as Italian, Cuban, Polish, Portuguese, French, Brazilian and Russian.

The event was organized by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life of Brandeis University and the Center for Global Education from Framingham State College. For part of the day, even state Sen. David Magnani, D-Framingham, was among the guests that included local educators, social workers and public safety officers.

The premise was to bring to the table the experiences of immigrants and those in their new communities, to allow for reflection and gain perspective.

We were encouraged to read, ahead of time, stories by and about immigrants, including newspaper stories, but once there we started from poems we didn't know, by authors such as African Abena P.A. Busia, "The Meal," and Bracha Serri, "The Maid," translated from the original Hebrew.

Serri writes of how the world perceived her as a maid, a nanny, someone unemployed or new, all of these misconceptions hitting close to home for at least one participant, although her graciousness never wavered.

"My husband (an Irishman) was more bothered than I was," said Ilma Paixao, who was often seen as the nanny to her own children.

Among the readings mailed to us were excerpts from the book "The Other Americans," by Joel Millman, who recounts the experiences of many Brazilians in MetroWest and Valadares, Brazil. But the main discussions were around the , "Who is Irish?" by Gish Jen, and "Refuge," by Lucy Honig. Both described the loneliness and other inherent qualities of being uprooted and spending one's life not quite sure of new ways versus old memories.

Jen ends up invited to move-in as a "permanent resident" in the home of her daughter's Irish mother-in-law, with whom she develops a special friendship beyond her struggles as a foreign grandmother trying to discipline her American granddaughter.

Honig's beautifully written tells of her tremendous difficulty in forgetting her suffering in Cambodia. She also describes the torment caused by a hazing-like experience from American co-workers.

From both these stories, there was a common thread of the human experience that seemed to speak to everyone at the seminar.

For immigrants and their new settings, misunderstandings and misinterpretations, we heard, have gone both ways. The key issue remains, as put by Dr. Flavia Vidal, a professor at Andover Academy and one of the facilitators, "We all must learn to make no assumptions and to know assumptions."

Framingham police officer Duarte Galvao, the son of Portuguese immigrants, said he has learned to appreciate how his life is much easier than that of his parents. He also knows that knowing the language has been crucial for his work with the community.

"I think that the common feeling of engagement that the seminar group emerged with at the end of the day is a good example of how the humanities can be used to advance the efforts of people working on issues of contemporary importance," said Brandeis anthropologist Leigh Swigart, one of the organizers. "Literature is a highly interpretive medium, with each person viewing it through the lens of his or her own experience, professional or personal. Using poetry or short stories as a point of departure allows potentially difficult themes such as dislocation, marginalization, and cultural conflict to be discussed subjectively, but with the end result of group understanding and cooperation."

Framingham's Potter Road School Principal Maria Iglesias, originally from Cuba, said that she went to gain some perspective and insight and appreciated the discussions.

"Knowledge about the culture, their challenges and dreams can be very helpful to me as I find better ways to serve the students and their families," she said. "I think meetings like this are very helpful as the first steps in bringing the various community agencies that work with the Brazilian immigrants into a dialogue about identifying successes, needs and next steps."

Paixao said after the event, "I think they opened a drawer that has a lot of things that will need to come to the table. We are one community with many facets. A discussion such as this can help us identify needs as well as ways for immigrants to contribute."

(To reach Miryam Wiley, e-mail

Accessed 11/19/03