Personal Histories, Universal Themes – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Personal Histories, Universal Themes

In Associate Professor of American Studies Beth Belanger’s “Critical Family History” course this spring, students examined how their ancestors’ stories have been shaped by national and global forces that remain not only relevant but urgent today.

For the course’s final project, a digital narrative, Lalaine Vergara ’21 “wanted to focus on the ideas of home, immigration and assimilation for first-generation Americans like me.” She notes that while there may be a conception that “the assimilation process tends to overpower one’s own idea of their racial and ethnic identity,” she wanted “to show that with my family the opposite stands true.”

“With us immigrating to the United States, it was very important for my parents to have their kids grow up not only comfortable being American but also Filipino. That included teaching their kids to speak the native language, eat Filipino food, and understand Filipino beliefs and traditions,” she says.

Depicting her parents’ immigration to the U.S., Lorena Robelo-Lara ’21 created a video exploring how socio-economic and environmental factors intersect with an individual story. In taking a wider historical view, capturing the fraught history of the U.S.-Mexico border though the present, Robelo-Lara says her video reflects “the hardships of Latinos immigrating to the United States, or (as you’ll see in the video) coming back. With xenophobic rhetoric spewed in the media, I produced this video that displays the hypocrisies behind anti-immigrant sentiment.”

In tracing her ancestry on both her mother’s and her father’s sides, Mackenzie Barrall ’22 produced a case study of one of the central themes of the history of U.S. immigration — the “push, pull, punish, privilege” concept.

The concept describes a pattern whereby immigrants have tended to be “pushed to immigrate by bad situations in their home country and…then punished by the American population for being immigrants,” Barrall explains. On the other hand, there have been immigrants from privileged backgrounds “who were pulled to America to see what opportunities they could find, and [often] weren’t really seen as immigrants because of where they came from…My mother’s side [is] full of immigrants who had been pushed and punished and my father’s side full of immigrants who had been pulled and privileged.”

“As a History major and American Studies minor I often view history as a story but never my story,” says Alexa Rosen ’19.

But as she researched her great-grandfather’s journey from Poland to the U.S., she was able to see how his success story — from newly arrived Polish immigrant, to fruit peddler, to grocery store owner — “was a part of a much larger picture in regards to Polish-Jewish immigrants in the United States…This class allowed me to dig deeper into where my family fits into history.”