- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006


Seven high school students from immigrant families answered a museum’s call to help create an exhibit on local immigration, but there was a hitch.

The students — who came from Mexico, South Korea, Russia and China — didn’t want to use the word “immigration,” not even once.

“Their friends and neighbors hear the word ‘immigration’ and make so many assumptions,” said Sheila Sibley, education manager at the Newton History Museum, just west of Boston. “The word for them came with too much baggage.

“They didn’t want to use it as a noun.”

Nowhere in the museum’s “Hyphenated-Origins” exhibit does the “I-word” appear. Instead, the seven students tell their international narratives with their own words, keepsakes, pictures and poems.

The exhibit accidentally coincides with a growing national debate as Congress wrestles with an immigration bill. While senators argue about numbers and sweeping national policies, “Hyphenated-Origins: Going Beyond the Labels” spins seven tales of opportunity, heritage, assimilation, fear and change.

“We decided not to do an academic exhibit,” said Susan D. Abele, museum curator. “We asked them what their life was like, how they got here.”

The museum is housed in a Colonial mansion that belongs to the Jackson family, who first settled across the Charles River from Boston in 1600s. Formerly called the Jackson Homestead, the Newton History Museum is a certified stop on the underground railroad that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom.

“Hyphenated-Origins” documents a more contemporary journey. High school junior Yin Yue Wong, who emigrated with her parents from Hong Kong six years ago, will never forget when she first stepped off the plane.

Yin wrote in her display: “I thought I had landed on planet Mars until I realized there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to the United States of America.’”

That sentiment is shared by others. Each student is represented by a life-size photographic cutout that shows them holding a sign that reads, for example, “Hi, I’m … Chinese-American.” The cutouts can be rotated to reveal bulleted facts about each teen.

Ken Zhao, for example, was born in 1989 in Shenyang, China, and moved to Quincy, Mass., in 1994. His favorite word is “yes,” because it is “so positive.”

The idea, Miss Abele said, is to go beyond ethnic labels and humanize the world.

Next to each cutout is a collage displaying writings, personal artifacts and pictures that help illustrate each student’s story.

Beata Shuster, a Russian Jew and a senior at Newton South High School, fled her homeland as a 1-year-old with her parents because of anti-Semitism. Her collage includes a picture of her as a 2-year-old slurping her first American ice-cream cone, with melted vanilla dripping off her chin. The image is juxtaposed with traditional black-and-red Russian napkin holders and other details from their heritage the family had to leave behind.

Andrea Jacqueline Navarro Lujan came from Mexico City at age 4 in 1989. She included a Mexican Barbie doll and a recipe for pork and hominy soup, an indigenous dish they now make with organic ingredients from American supermarkets.

She wrote that it was fascinating to grow up in “a strong Hispanic community” in the United States where there is a “real sense of communal struggle.”

At 16 and a senior at Newton North High School, she has watched her mother and uncles work through language and assimilation classes and fight forces beyond their control.

“The stereotypes are real, and my family and I battle them everyday,” Andrea writes.

Her family and others who have come from faraway places journey on, buoyed by what Andrea calls “the fire inside us, burning with memories of our culture.”

The exhibit is open through February 2008.

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