In a café like every other Bay Area café—with a charismatic owner, a perfectly sunlit patio, as many expensive chai lattes as one can consume, and Latino laborers doing the dirty work in between and underneath tables and out of sight (though not earshot)—in the alleyway on the other side of a leaf-covered fence where they break down boxes, bail waste and banter in different dialects of Spanish, the novelist Micheline Aharonian Marcom explains why she founded the New American Story Project (NASP). She expounds what exactly the project, and its flagship program, “Welcome Children,” are doing in Oakland and San Francisco.
NASP was inspired by the unacknowledged toil of immigrant laborers. “We live in California, an economy,” she notes, “which is predicated on immigrant labor, much of it undocumented labor. It’s just part of what we are as a state.”
Micheline is laid-back: dressed casually, California-slow in her speech. Traits which belie the intensity and purpose of her work. The grandchild of a refugee from Turkey, Micheline is best known for her trilogy of novels about the Armenian genocide, especially, the series’ first volume, Three Apples Fell from Heaven. When she came to write, The New American—a novel about Guatemalan-American “Dreamer,” Emilio, brought by his parents to America at age two, who, at twenty-two, while studying for a degree at Berkeley, commits a traffic infraction that results in his deportation to a home country he has no memory or knowledge of—Micheline’s research took her deep into the developing crisis on the United States’ southern border: A cauldron of cartel and gang-related violence seethed inside Mexico and the triad of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The New American is about Emilio’s harrowing return from Guatemala to America both on foot and atop cargo trains in the company of four equally desperate Honduran migrants.
We live in California, an economy… predicated on immigrant labor, much of it undocumented labor. It’s just part of what we are as a state.
While The New American is a novel, its fiction is more than matched by reality: The violence in Central America has made life untenable for millions of ordinary citizens. Young boys are often at risk of induction into the transnational gangs or, in more moderate cases, at risk of violent reprisals for failure to join. It is not safe to be a child or a woman there, as there is virtually total impunity from prosecution for crimes of all kinds. Escape north across Mexico and into America is hardly less harrowing. Along the way, Central American migrants face extortion, kidnapping, bodily harm, and rape. “The likelihood of girls and women getting raped while crossing Mexico is somewhere in the eightieth percentile,” Micheline recounts. “So much so that many poor girls and women will take a birth control pill before they leave home as a precaution.”
On top of it all, the journey is expensive. Smugglers charge $8,000 to $10,000 for a migrant seeking passage to America, and that number is rising as smugglers benefit from the recent haste to get across the border as Trump’s restrictions on immigration—both legal and illegal—increase. Yet many stream into the United States each year. Migrant males looking for work, women with children, and children by themselves often appear in the Bay Area. Though unaccompanied minors have immigrated to the United States for decades, in 2009 their numbers rose precipitously. In 2014, the crisis reached a nadir point. Perhaps as many as 68,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border as they sought asylum from the violence in their homelands.
The New Americans
Micheline led a creative writing class Spring 2015 for “newcomers” (recent immigrant children) at Fremont High, a public school in the heart of East Oakland. As the crisis on the border reached its apogee, she found that instead of the immigrant Mexican kids who typically were enrolled in the course, twenty-eight of the twenty-nine students hailed from the Central American countries that she had read and written so much about. Oakland, as it happened, had come to host one of the highest concentrations of refugee unaccompanied minors. This happened at the same time that Donald Trump was stoking the fires for a political campaign that would focus its ire upon immigrants and refugees from Latin America, visiting these issues with cartoonish anger that both revolted and riveted American eyes.
The imperative, Micheline figured, was clear. Instead of telling these children’s stories, it was time that the kids themselves be given a platform to tell their own stories. What began in the desperate confusion of a high school classroom weighted over with unspoken terror and tragedy has become the New American Story Project. Micheline and then Mills College graduate student Claire Calderón began interviewing the children and placing their testimonies online at http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org. Micheline has tried to locate the witness bearing that is at the heart of the project outside the narrow parameters of political debate. “I don’t want to present the stories or advertise the stories using political language.” When asked to explain the particulars of the New American Story Project, she typically directs questioners to the words of the child refugees themselves, to their stories: “I just want these stories to be told, to be heard. I don’t know if other people find them moving— I find them moving. I want us to see each other better.”
The stories, such as those of a K’iché-Maya Guatemalan girl and a seventeen-year-old Honduran boy, are extremely harrowing. Thus far, Micheline has conducted twenty-two interviews with unaccompanied minor refugees, offering them the forum to tell their stories.
Monica, a young Honduran woman, tells the story of how she was forced to quit school at the age of twelve after one of her friends was kidnapped from the school grounds by gang members and found dead two hours later. Her sister, too, was forced to quit school. Confined to her family’s home, she saw no future for herself in the country. Eventually, even though she was still a child and knew she would be without her mother, she made the journey north. Monica has been granted asylum and lives in Oakland now.
Carlos, a Jehovah’s Witness whose faith required that he proselytize door-to-door in El Salvador, was repeatedly threatened by cartel hitmen. A fellow Jehovah’s Witness and friend of his, was killed. After that murder, in fear for his own life Carlos sought asylum in the U.S. “There is no safe place in El Salvador,” he states flatly. Re-location within the country only delays the inevitable for those marked for death because they have resisted the reach of the cartels.
What the children’s autobiographies of displacement could not provide in terms of context for the cartel violence, Micheline found others could: “I began to interview immigration attorneys, law professors, human rights activists, and scholars to understand better what’s going on there, its connectedness to us here, and how laws are in place to protect people like these children seeking asylum in the U.S.”
Among those featured on the website are Professor John H. Carter, who historicizes the rise of Honduran drug cartel activity, chronicling the situation of a nearly failed state where the rule of law is no longer extant. Thomas Boerman is a Central American security specialist, immigration trial consultant, and expert witness who contextualizes the current cartel violence in Central America within the larger sweep of American military intervention in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, leading to the destabilization of each. This contextualizing work is especially important given American attitudes toward history, which typically range from blank indifference to calculated denial of phenomena and consequences. This is no different in California, perhaps with increased forms of amnesia.
Micheline’s interview of Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez is a primer on the consequences of American realpolitik. The journalist details how the American government’s intervention into El Salvador’s politics in the 1980s led to an internal war that flushed thousands across the American border into isolated ethnic communities in Los Angeles—where the MS-13 gang came into being and flourished. As gang members racked up criminal charges and were deported back to El Salvador, the strange fruit of American inner-city streets spread its seed in that Central American nation. The war over drug territory and trade routes cut a swath of terror that chased thousands from their homes and eventuated, ironically, in a refugee crisis at the American border in 2014. Where America had deported violent gang members, now children and families escaping that exported violence were doing all they could, in ever increasing numbers, to be allowed into a country that largely associated people of their skin color and immigrant status with squalor, violence, the burden of poverty, and the threat of job competition.
As the debate over what to do about the refugees became just more flotsam in Donald Trump’s rhetorical trash heap, the New American Story Project re-calibrated its approach, taking its work on behalf of America’s Central American refugees to the streets with large format poster installations of refugee and immigrant faces that personalize an all too abstract and degraded discussion.
New American Story Project
“The project has now evolved to be a digital and public arts project,” Micheline explains. “The internet isolates people. I think we need to be together in public spaces. These are our cities. Why not see ourselves reflected, see beauty, see each other in our own neighborhoods? I hope, through this artwork, we can raise awareness about the refugee crisis and humanize a very polarized and mostly misunderstood story.”
The first installation of artwork, created by artist Micah Bazant from documentary photographs by Ed Ntiri and Lori Barra, still hangs at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
No refugee’s face has been matched to their name, but each face and each name is real and present. Not simply art for art’s sake, these protest banners strike me as a profound resistance formation both of and not of our political moment. They rise above the moment and the current administration’s imposition of draconian restrictions on legal and illegal immigration to proclaim a humanity that is personal, individual, and compassionate.
“Two years ago,” Micheline remembers,
when I was teaching that newcomer class at Fremont and we were trying to figure out what was happening locally among the advocacy groups in the Bay Area, I went to a gathering of advocacy and immigration rights groups and there was a gentleman there from Catholic charities who was one of the speakers. He came to the podium and he stood there, just stood there and didn’t say anything for a long moment. And the room got quiet. And then he said, “Welcome children.” And that struck me deeply, reminded me: we are speaking of children.
Poise and intensity enters Micheline’s tone:
Most people don’t have any understanding, myself included when I began this work, of what our immigration system is, how it works, what is going on at our southern border, the incredible militarization since 9/11 that has occurred there, how many people Obama deported—and then this man stands up and says simply, “Welcome Children”—reminding me that we are speaking of children. Why wouldn’t America, a country that has long been a beacon of hope for so much of the world, including for my own family, not open its arms to children who are fleeing for their lives? We have to remind people of the moral situation.
Our interview winds to its close. The Spanish of the morning laborers has been replaced by the Americanese of people privileged enough to enjoy an expensive noontime latte on a weekday under the perfect California sun.
Most people don’t have any understanding, myself included when I began this work, of what our immigration system is, how it works, what is going on at our southern border.
“One of my obsessions,” this writer of books who knows that the best stories are on the streets, reflects, “has been to help us see each other better, with more compassion, more understanding…. I don’t know if [NASP] is going to do anything. Maybe people have already made up their minds, but we’re doing this for those who want to know more.”
Micheline’s aim is to let the stories of individual refugee persons be heard. She is humanist, not political— but humanism has become a political choice in 2018. The question she concludes with has resonance beyond the particular identity of the woman whose portrait now adorns shop windows and storefronts across the Bay Area. It is a question that in this time of global upheaval, of displaced populations, of blood and soil nativism, the United States itself must answer. “Maybe people see the story of the woman who’s on this poster and they wonder about how this happened: Who is she?”
- Poster art is by Micah Bazant, photographed by Lori Barra. Posters are hung in the following locations: Fruitvale Station, East Oakland; City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco; Laurel Bookstore, downtown Oakland; B Street commercial district, downtown Hayward, among other locations throughout the Bay Area.
 Miguel Angel, “Journey to the North,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/journey-north (22 October 2016).
 John H. Carter, “The Violence of the Free Market,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/the-violence-of-the-free-market (17 October 2016).
 Thomas Boerman, “A Completely Disempowered Population Living Within a Fully Criminalized State,” http://www.newamericanstoryproject.org/a-completely-disempowered-population-living-within-a-fully-criminalized-state (18 October 2016).
Keenan Norris teaches American Literature and Creative Writing at San Jose State University. His novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award.
Copyright: © 2018 Keenan Norris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/