Crossing Borders, Building Empathy

By Bob Peterson

Reading about NAFTAand economic policy can feel distant and academic. But these policies enter the world as explosions in people’s lives. What begins as desperation in the Mexican countryside ultimately winds its way to the Mexico–U.S. border. Here, 5thgrade teacher Bob Peterson describes how he uses Pam Muñoz Ryan’s short story “First Crossing” to promote empathy for Mexicans entering the United States without documents. The NAFTA role play, in The Line Between Us, helps students consider some of the root causes of Mexican migration. “First Crossing” puts a human face on this migration. — the editors

As we shared a meal of beans and rice at the Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Juan Torres told me how badly he missed his two daughters — third and fourth graders who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. In a soft voice he spoke of being arrested in California a few days earlier for driving without a license, a license he can’t legally obtain because he is undocumented. He explained that he made his first crossing to the United States years ago as a teenager; after 12 years of not being able to visit Mexico, he had few friends or family back in his homeland.

Juan’s eyes moistened as he told me of his recent phone call to his daughters, who pleaded for him to return and said, “We miss you, Papi.” My mind raced, thinking of my own two daughters and how horrific a forced separation would be. I also thought of my 5th-grade students in Milwaukee, some of them separated for various reasons from their parents. I realized that when I taught about immigration in the future, I would try to help students look beyond the statistics and see the human realities.

Later, back in Milwaukee, I reflected on my trip to Tijuana. I also thought of writer Alfie Kohn’s admonition after the Sept. 11 attacks: “Schools should help children locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond country, to all humanity.” One story that can help do this is Pam Muñoz Ryan’s “First Crossing,” included in The Line Between Us. In the story, 14-year-old Marco attempts to cross the Tijuana– San Diego border with his father. As they embark on their dangerous journey, they encounter coyotes (people smugglers), the Border Patrol, and Marco’s fear of separation from his father and his family in Mexico.

I teach in a two-way Spanish-English bilingual elementary school and many of my 5th graders belong to immigrant families. I decided to use “First Crossing” at the beginning of the year to initiate our year-long discussion of immigration and to begin to break down the barriers of “self” and “country” that Kohn warns against. Like Kohn, I want my 5th graders to regard themselves as part of a broader human family and to think critically about the border and the way it legitimates “us” and “them” divisions. I thought that “First Crossing” might be a good way to honor the experiences of some of my immigrant students, and perhaps be an invitation to them to share their stories in a supportive environment.

Before we read Muñoz’s story, I asked the students what they knew about immigration, and if they had any questions we might address throughout the year. The students’ knowledge ranged broadly. They knew there were lots of immigrants, “especially Hispanics and Russians” (there’s a growing Russian immigrant community in Milwaukee), that some were “illegal,” some “without papers,” and some stayed and some returned home. One immigrant student explained that “the migra kicks people out of the country.” I asked what he meant by “the migra” and he said, “the border police.” I noted that for many people “the migra” referred to any government official involved in immigration enforcement and was not limited to just border officials.

When I asked why they thought people left their home countries, students said that people wanted “more space,” “jobs,” “a home,” “because they don’t get paid a lot [in their home country]” and “to start new lives.”

The questions they had about immigration were varied and thoughtful. They ranged from “Why is there a border between Mexico and the United States?” to “What are documents for?” to “How many people immigrate to the United States?”

I told students that the story we would read over the next three days wouldn’t answer all their questions, and in fact might elicit more. I explained that we’d start by looking at immigration from the point of view of a boy about their age. We could have read the story more quickly, but I wanted to give my students time to enter into the difficulties and choices faced by Mexican immigrants. I hoped that the longer my students spent with Marco and his father, the greater the likelihood of nurturing their empathy.

I explained that Marco’s father has crossed the border into the United States illegally several times to make money to support his family in Mexico. This time he is taking his son with him. It could be dangerous.

I then said, “I want you to pretend that you are Marco. Get inside his thoughts and write down what he might be thinking. Write as if you were Marco, so use the word ‘I’ in your writings.” I also asked them to predict what might happen, reminding them, “When you make predictions and think about a character, your reading comprehension — your understanding of the story — improves.”

The students wrote in their reading-response journals and then shared in pairs. Many wrote that they were “scared” and already “miss home.” Many predicted the police or Border Patrol would catch Marco. One wrote: “I don’t know if I really want to be here. But what choice do I have? I need to go with my papa so we can have a better life. I’m scared.”

I distributed copies of “First Crossing” and we started reading together as a class. Early on, Marco explains that his father originally left Mexico to help his family survive. Marco thinks back to the time when “six days a week, Pap87 had carried 50-pound bags of rock and dirt from the bottom of a crater to the top of a hill” for a “pitiful $5 for his nine hours.” We paused and figured out how much per hour Marco’s father earned in Mexico and then compared it to Marco’s father’s statement that in the United States he makes “$30, $40, $50 a day, maybe more.”

I had students calculate the difference between the two wages in terms of a day, a week, and a year — at first by themselves and then as a class. The students figured out that in the United States Marco’s father could earn in one day what it took him a week to earn in Mexico.

“That’s not fair!” exclaimed one student. “No wonder people want to come here,” said another.

Stopped by the Border Patrol

Marco and his father travel standing up in the back of a van so full of people they can barely breathe. I paused to point out Muñoz Ryan’s descriptive language, “Their bodies nested together, faces pressed against faces, like tightly bundled stalks of celery. Marco turned his head to avoid his neighbor’s breath and found his nose pressed against another’s ear.”

I had taped off an area in the classroom to demonstrate the approximate dimensions of the van. I asked a dozen student volunteers to stand in the “van” while we reread that part. I then asked for a few more volunteers to act out the van being stopped by Border Patrol agents, the migrants being taken in and fingerprinted. The students particularly enjoyed giving false names as Marco did in the story.

In the short story, the Border Patrol sends Marco and his father to Tijuana where they find their way back to the coyote. They now try a different way to cross the border, one even more brazen than the first. They are to hide under the hood of a car that has a platform inserted next to the engine. They must travel one at a time and are to meet across the border.

Again, I paused and asked students to write a brief interior monologue.

Mario* wrote, “I feel very scared because I want to see my dad again. Maybe the migra will send him to a different place and then where am I going to go?” Tonya wrote: “I am scared because I might get burned by the engine, or I could get caught by the migra, I am also scared because my dad might not be there when I get there, if I can get there. I wonder if I am ever going to see my hometown and my mom and sisters again. . . . I wish I could go home to see my mama and sister and never come back.”

A student who speaks limited English and whose family has had immigration problems wrote in Spanish: “Marco tiene miedo de crusar la frontera porque puede estar la migra y lo puede regresar a México y su familia tambien tiene mucho miedo.” [Marco is afraid to cross the border because the migra might be there and they might return him to Mexico and his family is very afraid too.]

Miguel referred back to the time Marco was waiting in the coyote’s house watching an Aladdin video and wrote, “I feel nervous my dad is going to get caught; I wish I had a magic carpet too.”

Others were optimistic. Jaime wrote, “I feel good ’cause we’re going to the United States. I will be happy because we gonna live more, save, and work and we can go shopping for clothes and some shoes and go to parties.”

‘Scrunched Like Sardines’

When we got to the section of the story when the coyote demands that Marco lie quietly in the car next to the motor, I asked for a volunteer to do the same in a taped off section on the floor. While we read this excerpt very slowly, Jaime lay absolutely silent. The children watched Jaime lie without motion and followed along in their copies.

After getting up from the floor, I asked Jaime how he’d felt. Jaime said it was hard to lie that still and that he had pretended to hear the car engine. “It would have been worse,” he told some kids, “if I had been really inside that car.” Time didn’t permit the many other volunteers who wanted to lie silently on the floor, although I did compliment Jaime again and playfully reminded other students that such stillness could be practiced any time in a seated position during a lesson.

After we completed the story, for homework I asked students to choose an event in the story, draw a picture of it, and write a caption.

Many children drew the van and coyote when they “were scrunched like sardines.” One student wrote: “I drew Marco and his dad when they were going to cross the border but the police caught them.” Others drew “when Marco was to hide in the engine.”

Others stressed the positive: “This is the dad crossing the border [where he is] going to make more money.” One Mexican-American student drew a picture of a car with a Mexican flag in the wind, with the caption, “This is when they get to buy a new car in the United States.”

I found it interesting that while students seemed to express real empathy for Marco — either in writing or in discussion — students of immigrant families were more likely to speak about the economic benefits of coming to this country. As a final in-class activity, I asked students to write Marco a letter of advice. I encouraged those who had come to this country as immigrants or moved to a new school to draw on their own experiences.

Students’ advice ranged from how to get along in school, to dealing with a new language and how to deal with the migra. Some students clearly recognized that undocumented families must be vigilant. The personal nature of the letters and the sensitive advice showed that students cared for Marco.

A Mexican-American girl whose family immigrated to the United States wrote, “My advice for you is to fake to be somebody else and try not to get caught.

And if you do just take a break and wait for a couple of weeks or months. After that you can go back and fake you are somebody else and if you get past I would be really happy for you. Good luck. Sincerely, your friend.”

Lucy, who has complained about living with her strict grandfather after her mother abandoned her, wrote, “Dear Marco, You are a brave and courageous boy. You did not cry when you were in the hood of the car. Let me tell you now I would have cried until my eyes were swollen. You are just like me, I wonder when my magic carpet will come!”

Tonya, who is African-American, wrote, “Dear Marco, I hope you don’t get caught. I am rooting for you and I also support you. Do you want to go home to see your mama? How did you feel when you finally crossed the border? If I were you I’d want to go home. I wish you good luck Marcos and papa! Buena suerte!”

Roberto, who had pointed out that as a Puerto Rican he didn’t have trouble going back and forth to “my country,” wrote, “I think [your story] was great. I was sometimes sad, sometimes happy and sometimes anxious. Don’t you wish your family had papers?”

Jaime related his own immigration story to Marco’s writing: “I’ve been thru those problems too. I don’t have papers but I came here thru the desert. There was hot water [to drink] but I really didn’t care. Then I almost got caught with a coyote in a van with seats and they told me and my mom to stay quiet under them. The coyote had them covered so they won’t see us. They asked the coyote what is that [the seat covers] for and he said so the seats stay clean.”

New Respect

After Jaime shared part of his story, it seemed that students gained new respect for him, as other class members encouraged him to share more. He declined, at which point one girl, hoping for more stories, said, “Why don’t we have all the people in the class who don’t have papers raise their hands?” A few students agreed saying, “Yeah!” I quickly vetoed the idea, pointing out that it was a personal matter for each student and their family and there was no need for people to share that information if they didn’t want to. I said, “In our classroom we treat people the same regardless of whether they have papers or not.”   One student seated close to where I was standing said to students seated nearby, “The government oughta do the same.”

As we concluded our reading of the story, the students were indignant not only at Marco’s treatment at the hands of the Border Patrol, but also at me when they realized that it was the end of the story. Because I had shown students the whole book, entitled First Crossing, they had assumed that we had read only the first chapter, and would be able to continue the story in subsequent chapters.

As I mentioned earlier, I had limited goals in using “First Crossing.” Later in the year, we will explore some of the causes of migration from Mexico and look at aspects of the origins of the border. And we’ll look more at the immigrant experience in the United States. I wanted to begin this inquiry with a story that gently but profoundly calls into question the outlawing of people who were born on the “wrong” side of a national boundary. Should Marco and his father (who, of course, represent millions of other undocumented migrants) be captured and deported to Mexico? That’s a political and a moral question that students will confront later in the year. But answering it should begin from an appreciation of our shared humanity.

*All students’ names have been changed.

Bob Peterson (Contact Me) teaches at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools.