The history of Los Angeles is in large part the history of moving populations of people. The story of those journeys has often been told by people who study immigration, a process that even with the best intentions can obfuscate the individual voices of immigrants themselves.
This was the premise of a compelling assignment in “The History of Los Angeles,” a course in Interdisciplinary Studies and Urban Studies offered at Woodbury for the first time during the spring 2019 semester. Dr. Emily Bills, who taught the class, designed the assignment of collecting the stories of immigrants as a way to emphasize the importance of letting individuals tell their own histories while ensuring that students were highly vigilant about anonymity and gaining interviewee permission.
“I knew we had to be respectful of people’s privacy, particularly in the current political climate,” Dr. Bills stated. “And the precarious citizenship status evidenced in many of these stories bore that out.”
Students relayed the words shared by friends, family members, work colleagues, and even fellow Woodbury classmates who were brave enough to tell their stories with a starkness that resonated with students more than an article might.
“I knew my friend for ten years,” Hayley FitzGerald says about her interview experience, which for lasted for over four hours, “but I never really knew what he went through.” Her essay told of his experience as a young child in Guatemala: his father’s physical violence, how at age five he was forced to work in the fields, and how he didn’t have shoes until the third grade. At age 15 he took control of his life and made the treacherous journey to the U.S. where, at an immigration detention center, he thought he would die from hunger and cold. He is now a nursing school graduate in Southern California and plans to give back to underserved communities.
This was only one of the many stories told by Los Angeles History students. None of the students had completed a project like this before but, for Sejal Bahety, it was the best way to start a class on L.A. history because it allowed students, particularly an international student like herself, to connect with local history through personal stories. Angel Escobar stated that these multiple perspectives were just as important to locals.
The project made them consider how, in a city of immigrants, many people have stories to tell, that those stories that are still vivid parts of their identity, and how identity can be in a constant state of transformation.