Julia Alvarez virtually visits Narraguaguas Junior High

As part of IRW’s Food for Thought program, students at Narraguagus Junior High School enjoyed a virtual visit with author Julia Alvarez, hailed as one of the most influential Latina writers of our time. All seventh and eighth graders had read her novel, Return to Sender, that tells the story of a small New England dairy farm that must rely on the strength and contribution of a migrant Mexican family. In the story, they discover friendships and loyalty, and share their special customs.

Narraguagus students hail from five neighboring towns in Washington County. They had prepared thoughtful questions for Ms. Alvarez, and were able to ask some of them while interacting with her live via Skype.

Here are a couple examples from the Q&A session:

How long did it take to write this book? “All of my life…A story is like a pebble in my shoe.”

Why did you write about immigration? “I did not chose to write about immigration. I was more interested in the characters and their stories, not the abstraction. Things become more human.”

She also told students, “A writer is a writer all of the time. You gather information that you access later on.”

Julia introduced herself as a storyteller/medicine woman and shared how her experience of translating for local dairy farmers and their undocumented workers near her home in Vermont, and tutoring some of those kids, sprouted the idea for this story. Julia believes in the power of stories in helping us understand what is going on in our lives and the lives of those around us.

She talked about sustainable agriculture: “Take care of the land. Take care of the people. Nurture the soul.”

She inspired children: “What story is missing? The one that you’re going to write.”

She advised the brave: “Write to find things out.”

In preparation for the author visit, students made posters representing their own family background. Students discovered they came from all over; Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, Lithuania, France, Native American… “We are all immigrants,” was the theme. They also did reports on farming in Washington County – from blueberries to clams to maple syrup.

They had a Day of the Dead table set up that mirrored the custom described in the book to honor and memorialize someone dear who had passed away. Everyone throughout the school was encouraged to bring in a photo or item to display. Traditional rock skulls were painted and colorful skull pages were hung along the edge.

Since Ms. Alvarez had shared a virtual greeting before the visit, students created a video for her representing their community; the coast, forests and barrens of Washington County. They also included their school, surrounding areas and the migrant farmer housing that dots the side roads nearby. They learned a lot about Ms. Alvarez, the power of story, and most importantly, themselves.

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