Conn Col­lege se­nior’s project puts im­mi­grants in the spot­light

The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By LIND­SAY BOYLE Day Staff Writer

— 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 in­di­vid­ual-

ized 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-yearold 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.”

SARAH GOR­DON/THE DAY

Car­los Canales of Nor­wich, orig­i­nally from Puerto Rico, works with Liz­beth Polo-Smith of Gro­ton, orig­i­nally from Peru, on edit­ing her nar­ra­tive as part of an im­mi­grant his­to­ries project in New Lon­don.

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