How do Vail Valley kids talk about immigration? |

How do Vail Valley kids talk about immigration?

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Teacher Stephanie Gallegos, left, works with Yoselin Vasquez on a an assignment during social studies class at Minturn Middle School on Wednesday. Students were instructed to incorporate words into pictures to express ideas related to the theme of immigration. See story online Saturday.

MINTURN, Colorado ” Like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan before him, Lorenzo Toneatto has become a balladeer for the common man.

His first song is about immigration ” about how decades ago, a civil war in Mexico made life in the United States look mighty appealing for a working family across the border.

His chorus goes like this: “When Diaz was in command, the rich got more land, the poor got poorer and poorer, so they decided to cross the border.”

Charlie Richards took a more satirical route. While his verses describe a country overrun with corruption under the rule of Porfirio Diaz, his chorus takes the mocking, biting tone of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”: “Mexico is a great land, many great leaders came from Mexico, many great things came from Mexico.”

Through creating songs, these students at Minturn Middle School are learning some history, and at the same time, finding a new way to approach one of the most sensitive topics you could study in Eagle County ” Mexican immigration.

Why did it start? Why is it a problem now? Why are people so angry about it? Is there a solution?

Hopefully, by the end of the year, the students will have some answers.

Too often, debates about immigration dissolve into anger, hostility and misinformation, says teacher Stephanie Gallegos. She especially see this on web comments on the Vail Daily’s Web site and letters to the editor.

While the students are respectful of each other in class, the subject is still uncomfortable. They know some students are here illegally. They know many students have fathers who are day laborers, never knowing what their next job will be.

At the same time, some students might come from families with hostile feelings toward immigrants, who might be instilling racism and the “Deport ’em all” attitude in their children.

Those two sides meet every day in the valley, and it’s sometimes hard to find intelligent conversation on the topic, Gallegos said.

So, that’s why they’re taking a slow, historical, academic approach to immigration. By the end of the year, the students can have an intelligent debate on immigration, Gallegos said.

Before they even talked about Mexican immigration, they spent weeks studying why, in the 19th century, the Irish came by the millions to America. Today, talking about the potato famine is not at all controversial, but it carries the same themes ” people leaving their homes for a better life in the Unites States. Some people didn’t mind them coming here, many others hated it.

With Mexican immigration, they’re starting from the beginning, following history through the Mexican Civil war and the industrial revolution; through World War II, when Mexicans came to fill in the shortage of agricultural workers; to the situation here in Eagle County, where illegal immigration has obviously affected our schools and job market.

At the beginning of every class, students read a book called “Lupita Manana,” which is about a 13-year-old girl and her 15-year-old brother who lose their father in a fishing accident, and need to cross the border to get jobs and send money back to their families.

“By looking at the history of immigration, our hope is sort of take away our fear of the unknown, so we can understand other cultures and why they come here,” teacher Noel Falk said.

While the students learn why people leave their homes to come to the United States, they’ll also learn about some of the negative impacts immigration has had on us in the past, and the impacts being seen today.

“It’s so personal, and a lot of people come here for jobs, but we are a nation of laws, and we have to show that to the kids,” Gallegos said.

It will be perfectly fine for students to believe, after all this study, that the U.S. needs to become exponentially tougher on illegal immigration. Falk just hopes that students would come to those conclusions with some understanding of and respect for a different culture.

“We will present both sides, and they’ll make their own decisions,” Falk said. “But they’ll at least have compassion, they’ll agree to disagree instead of being angry.”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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