Three years ago in my sophomore history class, a young woman sat in the corner, deliberately placing herself outside the circle of activity in the room. I recall we were busy fund-raising for money to send books to a school in Mississippi, and later in the year for disaster relief in Haiti. Students were proud of the money they raised, and I busily snapped their pictures as they packed up books and carried boxes out to my car. Only one student resisted my photography — the young woman who sat apart from the others. I jokingly asked her if she was in the witness protection program and managed to coax a smile from her, but she adamantly refused to be photographed. This young woman became my challenge and I worked hard to find what she cared about. I remember saying to her in frustration: “You don’t do anything, so how I am supposed to grade you?” Her reply spoke volumes: “Just give me a 60 per cent like everyone else does.” The class wrote a regular biweekly column for the Gazette based on topics that interested them, and one day the reluctant scholar made the mistake of showing me that she loved to write. Like all writers, she expressed her deepest thoughts in her writing. Throughout that year she wrote some amazing pieces for the Gazette that gave readers a unique window into the life of an immigrant community, and her own struggle to find her place.
The young woman in question was Ana Carolina Nascimento, who came to the U.S. at the age of 12 to join her mother whom she had seen only infrequently since she was four years old. She had lived with her grandparents and her extended family in Brazil and her arrival in Oak Bluffs was her first visit to the country where she would live for the next seven years. Recalling those days now, Ana speaks of feeling cold and being afraid of the other students and of the teachers: “There I was, a great big girl of 12 holding my mother’s hand. I was afraid to let go.” Learning to read and write in another language is a huge challenge and one that Ana mastered to find her own passionate voice. When she writes she speaks from the heart and addresses the profound topics of memory, identity and advocacy for her community. Writing in the Gazette in 2010 she spoke of the desire of Brazilian American students to wear their national colors when graduating from the high school. “It is important to understand that the students who will be wearing their Brazilian colors are not wearing them to disrespect America. They are proud to be part of multicultural America, and wear their colors with pride,” she wrote. “We have come on a long, hard journey and we wear the colors of Brazil to honor our parents, our nation and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.” And reflecting on the question of how change is created, she wrote: “Fighting for something is not just about asking for something once, listening quietly and giving up when you hear no for an answer. Fighting means making your point and holding your head up high at all times, no matter what happens.”
Ana thinks deeply and honestly about all questions and her writing is always authentic. She says that she can only write about things that she cares about.
It can be confusing to live in two cultures. I always ask my Braizilian students what language they dream in, and usually the answer is Portuguese, their mother language. Ana dreams in Portuguese but writes in English. For many immigrant students, the adjustment to another language and values that sometimes conflict with those in their homeland can be painful. Reflecting on this, Fillipi Gomes who graduated from the high school in 2010, said: “It’s like living a double life because everything is different. Not only language, but the things that you say and the things that matter are different. In school you are one person and at home another. It’s not just language, it’s everything.”
In 2011, Ana traveled to Brazil to spend an extended vacation with her family and found herself torn between the person she had become during her time in the U.S. and the person she would have been if she had never left Brazil. Writing from Brazil for her Brazilian history and culture class in a piece published in the Gazette, she said: “Though I love my country very much, I must say that I see things here that make me extremely upset. I was driving around with some friends and I closed my eyes for three minutes and when I opened them again I saw a situation that brought tears to my eyes. I saw these 10-year-old kids waiting for the cars to stop at a red light so they could ask the drivers for coins. My friends looked at me and saw the tears pouring down my face and asked what was wrong. When I explained that we don’t see things like that on Martha’s Vineyard and that I never go to the big cities in the U.S. where life is tougher, they just shrugged and said that I had to get used to it.”
In June of this year Ana graduated from the high school, an achievement in which she takes great pride. “This is a dream come true for us, the dream of finishing four long years of high school and starting a new life as young adults. We are the first generation of our families to do that,” she said. As part of her life on the Vineyard in addition to her school work and her church, Ana worked three jobs and looked after herself and her family.
Now she has made a decision about where she wants to be, and in a few days she will fly to Brazil on a one-way ticket. She will work there and study and hopes to be able to attend college. Her spoken Portuguese is excellent and she is working on writing in Portuguese rather than English. This remarkable young woman will take the memories of good and bad times with her, and she said the friendships and shared experiences that she has with the other young Brazilian American women will always be treasured. “There have been hard times and struggle and there have been many good times and laughter. It’s time now to leave it behind and face a new challenge. I am a risk-taker and I have skills such as being able to read and write English. I want to study and see what comes next,” she wrote to me.
I feel honored to have been Ana’s teacher and mentor. This reluctant, polite young woman who had decided to contribute nothing in her classes was persuaded to write from her heart, publish her work and in so many ways act as a voice for her community and for justice. I feel proud to have been part of that and so, Ana, my parting message to you is this: “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back and until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and a frequent contributor to the Gazette.