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High Schoolers Interview Their Relatives To Draw Out Family Histories

Dianna Douglas
Students in Heather Mackenzie's journalism class at H. Grady Spruce High School

Journalism students at H. Grady Spruce High School in East Dallas recently got a challenging assignment: interview family members and turn their memories into news stories. Most of the stories were news to the students, many of whom are children of immigrants.

Alondra, for example, wanted to know what her older brother Sergio remembered about his childhood. She knew they had been poor in Mexico and sometimes begged at churches for spoiled milk and stale bread. The assignment gave Alondra a good reason to ask him about it.

“Originally, Sergio was left behind as a three-year-old in Mexico with his grandmother. His mother sold everything she had to enter the United States, looking for a better future,” she wrote in her final paper, a summary of the interview with characters and quotes and dramatic tension.

Alondra wrote the story of her brother crossing at night as a four-year-old, shivering under the cold, hiding from police under a bus and watching his mother tremble with fear.

Alondra’s assignment was to turn these memories into a narrative.

“He had a teddy bear that he calls Toto," she wrote. "When he was walking across the border, he never let go of it, because that was his first teddy bear.”

Her class stayed quiet as she read her story.

A Classroom Full Of Immigration Stories

Rosario’s dad also had a story, about working for the rights of Mexican-Americans in Crystal City, Texas.

“Mexicans were openly mocked in the school newspaper with crude drawings and jokes," Rosario said. "Even worse was the fact that the school staff had approved of the drawings and enjoyed them as much as the students. When Lionel realized this newspaper was too far gone, he created his own.”

Astrid’s story involved mental illness: “David originally wanted to have 12 kids. Victoria agreed to deliver every child, but only achieved 7. David Marcellino Rodriguez committed suicide years later in their backyard. He had hung himself on a tree because he had severe depression. …”

Edith’s family had a story about alcoholism that spanned generations, and then abruptly stopped.

“Marcello’s love for alcohol was tearing the family apart. The only thing that was strong enough to keep the Dominguez family together was the love of Julian’s mother, Isabella.”

And Chris once had a street fighter in the family: “After the fight, he and his friend went to celebrate at a bar. As he walked out of the bar, he heard his name. It was the same guy he fought. He had .44 in his hand, pointed it at him, and said, ‘I don’t like to lose.’ Roberto tried to run but it was too late.”

'The Latest Version Of America's Story'

There are many reasons not to pass along immigration stories or family histories to children. Child endangerment, trauma, and poverty aren’t exactly glorious memories. One in three children in Texas is an immigrant or the child of immigrants. There’s a lot of family history that isn’t getting passed on.

“They’re just telling the latest version of America’s story. And it’s moved me tremendously,” said their teacher, Heather Mackenzie. It’s her first year teaching, and she found that convincing teenagers to listen to a parent or grandparent long enough for a story to emerge is a tough sell, especially when the adults are reluctant to talk.

“What they’re learning is that everybody struggles, and they’re not alone,” she said.

And they're learning that all it takes to find epic tales of love and joy, loss and regret, is a little bit of sitting still while mom remembers her place.

You can read some of these students’ stories at It’s part of KERA’s American Graduate Yearbook Project.