Young actors explore migrant experience

LINCOLN — At first glance, the classroom-turned-dressing room at the Lincoln Community School looked on Tuesday night like the staging grounds of your average elementary school play.
Fifth- and sixth-graders bustled to and fro, snatching up pieces of their costumes and patiently waiting turns at makeshift hair and makeup stations. Teacher Alice Leeds darted from school gymnasium to classroom, from classroom to gymnasium, herding volunteer musicians into place as the students prepared for their first dress rehearsal.
But then sixth-graders Finn Brokaw, Emma Ober and Megan Hughes flopped onto a couch in the classroom-turned-dressing room. As they waited their turns to change into costumes, the three 11-year-olds debated immigration policy and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and suddenly it became clear that this “average elementary school play” was anything but average.
Students at the Lincoln Community School this week staged an adaptation of Weybridge author Julia Alvarez’s book “Return to Sender,” a young-adult novel about Mexican migrant workers who live and work on Vermont dairy farms.
In the process, the students dove into the murky story of illegal immigrant labor in Vermont, a situation most of the students knew nothing about until they began tearing through Alvarez’s book and documentaries like “Under the Cloak of Darkness,” directed by local filmmaker Bjorn Jackson.
“I had no idea it was happening,” said Brokaw, who in the play portrayed a farmwife whose family decides to hire migrant workers. 
It wasn’t long, though, until students not only understood the issue, but were speaking out for change. The fifth- and sixth-graders wrote persuasive essays to send to local, state and national officials about immigration policy and NAFTA, and after weeks of study they formed strong opinions about just how the country could tackle the problems.
Hughes, her hair powdered gray for her role as a grandmother in the play, argued vehemently for reforming the system by which the United States issues visas to immigrants. Ober wanted to see NAFTA signatories agree to uniform, fair wage rates, a solution she thought might alleviate the pressure some Mexicans feel to head to America, where wages are higher.
Brokaw, meanwhile, expressed concern that most Americans have no idea how much the economy relies on immigrant labor.
“If we were to deport all of the Mexican workers overnight, our economy would come to a screeching halt,” Hughes said.
In many ways, the students’ understanding of this complex issue mirrors the story they portrayed in “Return to Sender,” which Leeds adapted for the stage with Middlebury playwright Dana Yeaton.
In the story, a Vermont farm boy named Tyler struggles to understand why his family of law-abiding, patriotic Americans chooses to break the law and hire illegal immigrants to work on the family’s dairy farm. Meanwhile, Mari, the daughter of Mexican laborers on Tyler’s family farm, withstands bullying at school, and tries to cope with the fear and secrecy that goes hand in hand with living in America as an illegal immigrant.
The two children forge an unlikely friendship as they face mounting challenges, including prejudice in their Vermont community, the danger that comes with smuggling workers across the border, and crackdowns from the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement department (ICE).
Alvarez was inspired to write “Return to Sender” after seeing how confusing the topic of immigration was for children of both Mexican and American origins.
When Alvarez moved to Vermont in 1988, she said she and her friends joked that Vermont was “Latino compromised.” So when Alvarez slowly began to realize how many Mexican laborers were working in secrecy in the state’s dairy barns, she was shocked. She began translating for some farmers who couldn’t communicate with the workers, and the situation really hit home when Alvarez saw the culture shock that Mexican children suffered in schools.
The immigrants, she said, were leading a painful secret life. Meanwhile, Vermont children were baffled, and asking themselves why their “law abiding, America-loving” families were breaking the law.
“We need a story here to understand what’s happening to us,” she said. “A lot of the stuff was scary, and a lot of it was murky and confusing.”
A story, she said, offered a way for students to “enter imaginatively into the dilemmas that aren’t simple or easily resolved.”
Alvarez said she was inspired to see students not only read her book, but bring the story to life. The story, she said, had come full circle because it had not only spoken to the students, but had “sparked them to create something themselves.”
On a simple stage, where the set included the spare outline of the Green Mountains and a small barn, students morphed into Alvarez’s characters. They spread their arms wide to represent the border early in the story, and danced and sang Mexican folksongs. A few stormed the stage in black sweatshirts with the ICE emblem, and in a particularly rousing scene the students reenacted a heated Town Meeting Day debate about the role migrant labor should play in Vermont communities.
In some of the play’s most moving moments, students between the scenes recited quotes from dairy farmers and Mexican workers collected for “The Golden Cage,” a Vermont Folklife Center exhibit of photographs about migrant workers.
The fifth- and sixth-graders take to the stage at the Lincoln school every year to perform a play that ties into their curriculum. Last year, the students put on a performance of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” after studying the Middle Ages.
But according to 11-year-old Eliot Brett, who played the lead character of the Vermont farm boy Tyler this year, performing Shakespeare and reenacting a modern social issue are worlds apart. The students agreed that portraying a serious, complicated modern issue was in many ways more difficult than inhabiting Shakespeare’s magical world.
“It was a lot different studying a real life issue,” said Brett, “especially a local issue. It was different than being a fairy.”
Students like Brett, Ober, Hughes and Brokaw said they hoped the audience left their play with a better understanding of the challenges facing both farmers and migrant laborers. In the program notes, Ober dedicated her performance to her grandfather, “in hopes that he will change his mind about the Mexicans who work here.”
Though “Return to Sender” has no simple happy ending, Alvarez and fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Alice Leeds see at least one “happily ever after” in this story: The students at the Lincoln Community School took their curtain call this week having grappled with a complicated current issue and come away with opinions of their own.
“It’s a great way for kids to think about issues in our county and our state in ways that are real, and not abstract,” said Alvarez. “When kids have to get inside the story and act out the characters, they never forget.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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