Harvard Immigration Project

Researching the Lives of Children

by | Apr 7, 1999

From left to right: Eliane Rubenstein-Avila, Carola Suarez-Orozco )in back row), Charlene Desir, Alex Cantave (in back row), Jeanette Adames, Mariela Paez.

A refrigerator is the most important thing in life, the 10-year-old immigrant child reported in a matter-of-fact sort of way.

And even though children most frequently responded with answers like “education” and “family” in a sentence completion exercise about “the most important thing in life”, Harvard Immigration Project research assistant Charlene Desir was saddened and intrigued by the boy’s answer.

“When a child tells you that, it’s like the experience of being poor really comes alive,” she told some of her fellow research assistants in a recent round-table discussion.

“Students talk about how they miss their experiences back home. Their life here is a struggle, but they are still so motivated,” added researcher Mariela Paez. “All of those things I used to read about, suddenly they come alive.”

Desir, Paez, and the three other round-table participants are just a few of the 27 research assistants on both coasts of the United States working with Harvard Immigration Project’s co-directors Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Carola Suárez-Orozco, senior research associate and lecturer, to track the adaptation experiences of five different groups of first-generation immigrant adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14, for a period of five years.

Now in its second year, this ambitious project, officially entitled Longitudinal Immigration Student Adaptation Project, is researching the psycho-social development and acculturation of 425 adolescents who represent the major groups of immigrants arriving in the United States today: Dominican, Haitian, Central American, Mexican, and Chinese.

The bilingual researchers are looking at the homes, visiting the schools, and interviewing the parents, children, and teachers. They are trying to understand the cultural context and the immigrant child’s place in the society in general. The process is an intimate one, sharing lives and stories and hopes and frustrations. Like the children, many of the researchers are immigrants themselves.

Boston-area researchers-a Haitian school psychologist, a Brazilian teacher, a Puerto Rican linguist, a Dominican social worker, and a Haitian academic program director-got together recently to discuss some of their observations and their motives for becoming involved in the project.

“What drew me to this project was not only my interest in immigrant children and their families, but the fact that it’s one-of-a-kind,” said Paez, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “It’s the first of a kind too. There hasn’t been any longitudinal work that looks at different groups of immigrant children.” Paez became involved with immigrant children and their families through her work in linguistics and language development.

“I was fascinated by the process of learning two languages and the connections between being bilingual and what that had to say about cognitive development,” she explained. “Soon before graduating, I realized I was missing the entire thing. I was looking at children’s nouns and pronouns, but it was really much more than linguistics: it was about the context, the family, the culture.” She went to study at an applied child development at Tufts, and then came to Harvard to study under Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who shared her interest in education from a psychological, anthropological, and sociological viewpoint.

Immigration project researcher Alix Cantave, director of the Haitian Studies Association, saw the project as a way to understand more about his community, “One of the difficulties has been the lack of data on immigrant children, and most specifically with the Haitian population in the United States, and in Massachusetts and Boston in particular. This study is a way of at least beginning to get some baseline data about immigrant children and their level of adaptation to the society. I see the need for data, more scientific data.

“And there’s a need to be out there,” added Cantave, “I think it’s an exciting involvement in defining how you analyze the data, just finding the data.”

Like the others, Eliane Rubenstein-Avila found her own cross-cultural experience sensitized her to the immigrant children. Her parents immigrated to Brazil before she was born; then the entire family went to Israel, and then Rubenstein-Avila came to the United States by herself in her early 20s. She also considers her move from California, where she first lived, to Cambridge as a quasi-immigration. “So there’s a whole lot of immigration experience there,” she jokes.

And yet, there were many surprises. One was that with new immigrant groups Rubenstein-Avila is researching, many families are separated for long periods of time. Then, there’s the whole question of how the groups are perceived, an issue that almost all the researchers raised.

“On the West Coast, they think of immigrants as people who come here to work real hard. Even people who were against immigrants thought they came here to work real hard,” she observed. “On the East Coast, it’s more loaded in terms of immigrants being thought of as usurpers of the system, of using services and so forth.”

Jeanette Adames, a Dominican social worker, nods her head, “I was born in the States, but I didn’t come to study here until I was 11 years old. I can relate so much to what I am hearing from the kids, what it’s like to be in a classroom when you look different, that’s something that I’ve experienced to a certain degree. I don’t look at school and the relationship with school in the same way mainstream Americans do.”

Children sometimes are seen negatively by teachers, even when they are of the same ethnic background. The teachers can be overburdened, forced to teach on several different levels at once, ill-prepared and over-stressed, or just culturally insensitive, researchers said.

“I remember the case of a kid,” recounts Cantave. “The kid was standing by the principal’s office, and the teacher walked by, and says, ‘Well, she’s a bad kid’ so this girl bursts into tears. She’s new to the country, she’s living with a family she’s just exposed to for the first time, and she’s just this little girl, all by herself. The teacher wasn’t trying to understand, she’s just reinforcing in the kid’s mind that she’s a bad girl. The poor child was in tears. That’s how her day began.”

In another sentence-completion exercise, many students declared that they were perceived negatively by Americans, and used strong words like “garbage” and “trash.” Many of them have had to deal with violence in their own countries, and now experience violence in their new cities.

Yet, for many of the children, school at home was an escape from the streets, a privileged and orderly place where rules had to be followed. There’s often a disconnect with American informality in the classroom and the separation of the school from the community. Many of the parents have never been inside a child’s school. Sometimes they are working too hard at many jobs; the school is often far from their neighborhood, and they are fearful about language communication.

“School is kind of a first introduction for immigrant children to adapt in the greater society,” observes Desir. “As the kids go further in their education, there’s a kind of disconnect.”

‘as the kids go further in their education, there’s a kind of disconnect.” Charlene Desir.

The Suárez-Orozco’s and their cadre of research assistants are trying to understand the nature of that “disconnect.” They say that the idea immigrants assimilate naturally, to participate in a mythical “national destiny,” is now challenged by the complexities of the new immigrant experience in the United States. While some immigrant children do brilliantly in schools, the school performance of many other immigrant children actually worsens the longer they stay in the United States. Far from fulfilling the American Dream, many successive generations of youths from immigrant backgrounds are performing more poorly than their foreign-born, first generation peers.

The researchers are learning from their subjects, and hope the children can also benefit, not only from future findings, but from the experience itself.

“I think that the piece that is the most important to me is the fact that I work with these students and that I work with these families, gaining their experience,” explains Desir. “We’re coming in and we’re asking these students, I want to learn from you, I want you to explain to me what you go through. We’re reaching out to the parents and saying, your voice counts, we want to learn to learn from you, we want you to tell us how to service your child. I think that is the most important part of the project for me, validating who these children are.”

Adds Adames, “I’m glad that Marcelo and Carola have approached the project, not just from the perspective of gathering data, but from that of teaching us to be better researchers. That’s reflected in our training and in our weekly meetings. Marcelo and Carola are two people who validate not only the voices of the participants, but it’s amazing how they validate us; each one of us brings very different skills to this project, as the result of our personalities, our experiences, our schooling. They are able to touch the best of everyone.”

Spring 1999

June Carolyn Erlick, DRCLAS NEWs/ReVista editor-in-chief

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