Until recently, Yanci Almonte Vargas told anyone who asked he was from Madison, where he’s lived for the past four years.
Now, after nearly a year sharing his story of immigration from the Dominican Republic, he’s got a new answer.
“Something shifted after this book, now I just say Dominican Republic,” Vargas said Wednesday night during an event at Madison College. “Even if I have lived here for almost four years, that’s where I grew up and that’s where I was raised.”
The Madison Memorial High School graduate’s story is among 30 documented in a new edition of "Green Card Youth Voices," a five-book series celebrating the stories of immigrants. The series, first launched in Minneapolis in 2015, now includes a book with stories of 12 current and former Memorial students and 18 from Pulaski High School in Milwaukee.
“It’s a very empowering process,” Green Card Voices executive director Tea Rozman Clark told the Cap Times on Monday. “The pinnacle of this process is when they hold the book in their hands for the first time and have a public reading for the first time.”
That “pinnacle” is set for the public book launch from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday night at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, where the Memorial students featured will read their stories and meet with audience members. The group held a Milwaukee book launch Tuesday night.
Green Card Voices staff interviewed the students last November on camera, and Rozman Clark — who immigrated from Yugoslavia at the age of 20 — said the organization and the UW-Madison English Department worked with each student to “polish the story” and get it ready for publishing.
The stories offer a different view of immigration than the hot button political topic it has become in recent years, Rozman Clark said, and can provide an important perspective for people. While the stories they've published from Minnesota are great, adding other areas helps “make it real for people that these are people you might run into on the street,” she said.
“When you share stories authentically and locally, you give opportunities for neighbors to meet their neighbors,” she said. “It’s really important that sometimes people don’t just hear about immigration on TV or through politics or policy, but they have that human experience they can engage with.”
The birth countries of the featured Madison students include Mexico, Syria, Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Ghana, Kenya, Nicaragua and Iraq.
Memorial became part of the project last year after the school settled on a previous version of the Green Card Voices series as its school “all read.” The organization then asked teachers to connect them with students who wanted to be involved in sharing their own stories for a new edition.
“There was a lot of buy-in at that particular high school,” Rozman Clark said.
Both Vargas and fellow Memorial graduate Stephanie Janeth Salgado Altamirano — now both UW-Madison freshmen — shared parts of their stories Wednesday with educators through a state Department of Public Instruction event meant to show how storytelling can play a part in education.
They told the dozens of educators in attendance to encourage their students to share their own stories after making personal connections, which they told the Cap Times were key to their success at Memorial.
“I really hope that everybody that has a story has an opportunity to share it at some point in their life like this,” Salgado said.
In the book, Salgado documents her initial excitement when her parents informed her and her sister they were moving to the U.S. and how she learned to take pride in being an immigrant.
“I thought it would be such an eye-opening experience even though I had to leave everything behind, including my identity,” she writes in her essay. “Some Hondurans in American ask if I am ashamed to be Honduran because they say we are not viewed as a trustworthy people, but I would always respond, ‘It does not matter what type of people belittle you but instead what you do to change it.’ When you come here and you realize you are a minority, you kind of embrace it.”
She told the Cap Times that even with that attitude, and her heavy involvement in school clubs and challenging classes, she often faced negative assumptions from people who doubted her abilities based on her accent or the color of her skin. In her essay, she celebrates getting a 3 score on the Advanced Placement World History exam her sophomore year, a class in which “nobody looked like me.”
“At the end of the year, my teacher told me, ‘I don’t think you’re going to pass the AP test because your English is not at the same level as the other students,’” she recalls. “I realized that a grade, even though it doesn’t define you, can tell you that your work will pay off.”
Vargas first came to the U.S. as a 12 year old, living in Pennsylvania. Soon after, he moved back to the Dominican Republic with his mother, who had a friend in Madison. She encouraged him to give the U.S. one more try, and told him he could come back after a month if he was unhappy again, he writes in his essay.
“The family where I live now is basically like my family here because, even if we’re not blood related, they treat me like one,” he writes.
He and Salgado hope sharing their essays, especially as part of a larger group documenting their experiences, will encourage other immigrants to take pride in their identity and change the minds of people who make assumptions about them.
“I just want to tell the people, keep going — especially immigrants,” Vargas writes in his essay. “I know it’s really hard right now but keep going. Never let the darkness turn off your light.