Newswise — After learning how to incorporate documentary filmmaking into his teaching, Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez worked with students in his “Puerto Rico: Diaspora Nation” course to conduct oral histories of Puerto Ricans in nearby Holyoke, Mass., home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans per capita in the contental United States. Then, over Spring Break, the professor and his students went to Puerto Rico to interview relatives of the Holyoke interview subjects. They’ve turned the resulting footage into a 22-minute documentary film. Below, the professor describes the class, and some of the students describe the trip.
Professor of Spanish
When I arrived in Amherst two years ago, I was struck by how culturally homogenous the town felt, at least relative to everywhere else I had lived in the past. Then I learned that Holyoke, a town only 30 minutes away, is more than half Puerto Rican, and as a Puerto Rican myself I decided to learn more about the town’s history and people.
At around the same time, Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein invited faculty to submit proposals to integrate travel into our courses, and I took this as an opportunity to combine my newfound interest in Holyoke with my longstanding commitment to creative pedagogical practices.
The pedagogy aspect turned out to be as fulfilling as anything else about the course because it centered on oral histories and the creation of a documentary, two things I had never done with a class before. I found a great not-for-profit by the name of Civic Life that trains teachers on how to incorporate projects like these into humanities and social science courses, and this led me to include workshops on skills such as how to do effective interviews and how to work a camera and microphone.
We started early and fast with the workshops so that students would be ready to go out to Holyoke and nearby communities to do their first round of interviews before Spring Break, when we were scheduled to travel to the island to interview relatives of those first interviewees.
Needless to say, I could not have pulled it off without the help and support of many people on and off campus: Peter Marvin in IT; Megan Lyster in the Center for Community Engagement; Janna Behrens in the Office of Global Education; Eileen Crosby at the Holyoke Public Library; and Spanish Studies Abroad, an Amherst-based provider of academic programs in Spain and Latin America whose academic director, Michelle Duran, is an Amherst alumna from the class of ’93, and like myself, is Puerto Rican.
This course has been a true team effort, not least for the students, who worked in small groups to do the interviews, and who in the process bonded in ways that I believe they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
A public screening of the documentary was held at Amherst on April 27, and another one at the Holyoke Public Library on April 28.
Helena Burgueño ’19
I’m a film and media studies major with a focus in Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino studies, so getting hands-on experience working at the intersection of my academic interests was really exciting. This class reminded me that there is much to be learned beyond the classroom walls. The conversations we had, on camera and off, during our trip to Puerto Rico was my favorite part of the experience. Everyone we spoke to—Uber drivers, waiters, students—became integrated into the fabric of the project.
Jeffrey Suliveres ’20
This documentary has unexpectedly become one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Having never taken a Spanish or film class, I was nervous about even considering the class. After our Spring Break trip to Puerto Rico, however, I finally became reunited with a part of my identity that had been dormant for most of my life.
I was raised in the Bronx as a Honduran-American. Although my father is from Guayama, Puerto Rico, and lived there for 20 years, he left his past behind him when he came to the States—and as a result, I felt disingenuous calling myself a Puerto Rican.
The natives of la isla del encanto had other plans. They welcomed me—quite literally—into their homes, and after hearing my story, they made it their mission to have me join them in chanting, “Yo soy Boricua, pa que to lo sepas.” I had never seen people overflow with such warmth and charisma, I felt like I was meeting extended family for the first time, and it was an experience that finally resolved a part of me that I had felt was lacking for all my life.
Needless to say, this film is not only a projection of the resilience and beauty these people show in their language, way of life and culture; it’s also a reminder that it’s never too late to return home.
Linda Solval ’18
The class was a rewarding experience and also a great privilege. I was able to experience the love and vibrancy of the Puerto Ricans we interviewed. The times we went to Holyoke were always refreshing, because, after every interview, I learned more about the community that Puerto Ricans had built in the city, and how, despite being in a new place, they’ve managed to maintain their traditions and pride. It’s difficult to have to leave your home country, especially when the main reason is for survival, but they find the strength within themselves and in their community, which is truly admirable.
Silvia Mavares ’18
The interviewing process has been very rewarding. I was able to work with a group that mainly interviewed members of one family, so it was great to build a relationship with each person and hear the different perspectives that they each had on the family’s shared experiences. The most challenging part so far has been choosing which parts of each interview to include, since it is difficult to accurately portray such dense and meaningful stories in a short documentary. Overall, I really enjoyed the interviewing process and feel that I was able to connect with and learn from the people I interviewed.
Hannah Firestone ’19
This course has been one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had at Amherst. Although we were the “guinea pigs” and had to make up some things as we went along, nothing can compare to interacting with and learning from people who have had different experiences from you. The Puerto Rican diaspora is unique, varied and beautiful. It was an honor to be invited into people’s homes, and the documentaries we created are just one tiny glimpse of the stories we heard, which affected each of us differently.