Yesterday, I wrote about identity and assimilation, and how those topics surfaced at a bilingual reading circle last week in Brentwood, what we call “welcoming circles.”
On the night after the Brentwood event, another group met in Port Jefferson. While some of the same themes emerged there were definitely differences.
Again, we read “To Hold You in My Arms,” a memoir piece developed in the Herstory Writers Workshop, telling about a young girl’s trip from the Dominican Republic to JFK Airport to reunite with her parents. The author, Stephany Ramírez, read her story at the Brentwood gathering but was unable to attend the reading in Port Jeff due to transportation difficulties stemming from the weather that evening. Although she was not there to lend her voice to her story, the evening’s attendees were moved by her story and many said they wished they could have met her.
We decided to read Stephany’s story in Spanish to attempt to capture the authenticity of her experience, since Spanish is her first language. Even people with a low level of fluency in the language attempted to read, which impressed me. Several of the participants in the audience expressed their desire to learn Spanish after hearing others read, an interesting parallel to the night before, when a Spanish-speaker in Brentwood had expressed the same desire to learn English.
The discussion that followed the reading highlighted the struggles that immigrants have experienced throughout time, regardless of the country of origin. Everyone in the audience understood that despite the differences in the actual immigration experience, immigrants from all over the world go through hardships when settling in a new country. It was heartwarming to hear people who’ve had immigrant roots in America since the early 1900s express the desire to spread the word about modern-day immigration experiences. The group definitely saw the common themes of immigration through the years, like one person who spoke about his/her family in Germany.
The group asked me to explain how the welcoming circles served as a tool for Welcoming Long Island. I believe that the welcoming circles are important on Long Island because they help us all connect on a human level and forget about the social and political divides that exist outside of the circle. If only for a moment, we can stop and simply listen to a story.
During one semester as an undergraduate in college, I took a course that used the technique of reading circles to instill empathy in people, while teaching us to be more skilled writers. The course helped me grow as a person and build bonds with people that will last a lifetime. However, once the course was over, I couldn’t help my fellow classmates in a time of crisis or be there to comfort them during difficult times. For Welcoming Long Island, it is different. The reading circles are the first step, because it is our hope that people will be inspired to become involved in our initiatives that work to connect our neighbors and our communities.
I came away from the reading circle inspired by the enthusiasm on Long Island toward establishing bonds with our neighbors, regardless of the cultural or ethnic differences we share. In the coming months, I will be working to develop and establish initiatives stemming from the relationships that have been formed from the Welcoming Circles; this is a very exciting time for Welcoming Long Island and for me.