Latino and Somali immigrants exchange stories through Pangea’s Hyphe-NATIONS project

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“When my brother turned seven, my father was deported.”

“They took him on a Wednesday, and by the next Wednesday he was gone,” Celia Hernandez-Payan told a group of around 30 immigrants, allies and community members at Sunday’s Hyphe-NATIONS immigration forum. “I didn’t have the knowledge of what it meant to be undocumented. My parents, in order to give us a better life, they didn’t tell us.”

Hernandez-Payan’s parents arrived in the U.S. from Mexico two decades ago. They were newlyweds starting a new life with their new family. Their children were born here, citizens. Her father worked three jobs, and they bought a house, two cars.

The day Hernandez-Payan was called to her school office was her brother’s birthday. “It felt to my mother like a kidnapping,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me see him. The only thing we were allowed to give him was a suitcase with all his belongings.”

Hernandez-Payan’s story was not the same as the other panelists who spoke Sunday at Pangea World Theater’s East Lake Street space. Alejandra Cruz-Nava talked about being an undocumented student at Augsburg. Ifrah Mansour described the cultural clashes she witnessed as an East African community liaison at the outwardly neutral public library. And Nashad Muse discussed her desire to make connections with the Latino community through her work with the Somali Action Alliance.

Struggle was the common theme and one that panelists and audience members could relate to. The panel was part of Pangaea’s Hyphe-NATIONS: Immigrant Matters project. Hyphe-NATIONS’ goal is to create a safe space where immigrants of different backgrounds can connect with each another and allies through theater, workshops and a language and cultural exchange.

One of Sunday’s first orders of business was to hand out electronic headsets. Although around half the audience understood both English and Spanish, the rest listened to program coordinator Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz translate back and forth. After December, a Somali translator may be necessary. The project will shift focus from Latino to Somali immigrants, and leadership will pass to Somali community members, who organizers hope will build on the conversation already started by the Latino group.

The panelists’ stories evoked strong reactions from some audience members. Scarlett, a 12-year-old Hyphe organizer whose mother asked that her last name not be used, wept as she described the put-downs she hears at her mostly white Edina school. “A week went by, a couple weeks, and I realized that I didn’t have any friends,” she said. “I really like to fight and to struggle. I like to step up to the challenge, but in school I don’t feel like I’m valued.”

Another Latina parent in the audience said her daughter’s Edina teachers asked the 14-year-old more than once what her immigration status was, “She said, ‘Look at my file because this is very racist,’” Elsa Sanchez said.

Somali audience member Farhiyo Abdulkarim was inspired by the dialogue, “I didn’t realize how much I had in commonality with other immigrants,” she said.

Hyphe-NATIONS Latin America will culminate on December 17 with a performance organized through all-Latino theater workshops in November. Paso-Doble a Spanish-English language partnership program, where participants discuss social justice issues, finishes in November, and the last of this session’s community workshops, on community organizing in the arts, is scheduled for November 20th.

The day after Hernandez-Payan’s father was deported, her mother came into her room and told her to get ready for school. “She said, ‘The anger that you’re feeling, now you have to put it towards something useful,’” Hernandez-Payan explained. “That’s what we have to remember as immigrants. We’ve all got that courage. We’ve all gone through something.”