Berkshire Immigrant Stories Exhibit: 'It's so important that we tell these stories'

PITTSFIELD — An intricately engraved silver bracelet. A Peruvian paratrooper pin. Family recipes and photographs of loved ones left behind but not forgotten. These are among the things people living in the Berkshires have carried with them through their journeys to the United States from homes abroad.

This month, photos of these objects and the narratives behind them are on display in the "Berkshire Immigrant Stories Exhibit" at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts.

Collected over the past year and a half, they can also be seen and read in an online archive, "Your Story, Our Story," developed by the Tenement Museum of New York, under the category of Berkshire Immigrant Stories. The local entries were gathered through a grant-funded initiative based at Berkshire Community College.

"The stories here on the walls are very personal and also energizing," said Antonia "Toni" Buckley, Berkshire Immigrant Stories project coordinator.

To keep that energy alive, she has also curated a series of public interactive events during the duration of the exhibit. Three events remain, including "Finding Home," a free Sunday, June 17, memory sharing and movement workshop with Drew Herzing in collaboration with Jacob's Pillow Dance; a June 24 salsa dancing benefit for ongoing Puerto Rico disaster relief in collaboration with Manos Unidas Multicultural Educational Cooperative; and a free June 28 closing film screening and presentation, "The Rada Feast: 160 Years of Cultural Heritage in Trinidad," with ethnomusicologist Ryan Bazinet and Henry Antoine. All events will be held at the Lichtenstein Center.

During the June 2 opening event for the Berkshire Immigrant Stories Exhibit, which included a spoken word performance by Grace Rossman and Syrian food from local caterer The Pita Bite, Buckley watched people from all walks of life filter through the gallery. She said she heard lively conversations between people and observed other visceral reactions as some listened to recorded interviews of immigrant stories. "I would see one person after another listening and crying," she said.

In the exhibit, Buckley shares her own story of a Syrian silver bracelet, her German upbringing, and Berkshires marriage.

The paratrooper pin belongs to Rosa Velasquez, one of the first women allowed to enter the Armed Forces of Peru. "It was not easy, but neither was it impossible," Velasquez writes.

Ghazi Kazmi, whose Pakistani family earned Green Card visas in 1987, when he was 15, shared a family reunion photo taken in 2015. He writes, "... when I look at this picture, I am left with nothing but amazement on how we have grown together, grown apart, bring others into our family and how others have included us in their families. Thanks to the magic of immigration and open mindedness! Welcome to America!"

In times where immigrant populations are often looked at as numbers, or people are referred to, in a derogatory sense, as "the migrants," or pawns in immigration policy debates, Buckley said she hopes the exhibit can help humanize and show the nuances of each immigrant's individual story.

"It's so important, so important, that we tell these stories and have people hear these stories," she said. "Not all immigrants are recent. The stories here come from third-generation and fourth-generation residents. If you're not 100 percent Native American then someone in your family's past decided to come here or were forced to come here."

Through the exhibit and events, which coincide with June being Immigrant Heritage Month, Buckley said she hopes people can celebrate each others' differences rather than discriminate against them.

On June 5, Pittsfield High School's Olivia Nda and Kamea Quetti, both just-graduated seniors, co-presented an evening workshop called "One City, One County, One World," to open up a deeper discussion about perspectives of different social groups, beyond the immigrant experience. Twenty community members participated.

At the start of the program, they asked everyone to take a sticky note and write down a "label," either a way they describe themselves or a way they have been described by others. The group's answers ranged from "short" and "tall" to "old white man" and "earthling."

Nda's parents come from Ghana and the Ivory Coast in Africa, and while she's a first-generation American, she said she more so identifies as being African. "We know people are much more than their labels," she said.

Quetti's mother is Italian and her father is Jamaican but, she said, "I'm also a student and an athlete and a bunch of other things."

Nda and Quetti said it's important that whatever a person's background, people have safe spaces in the community to openly talk with others about perceptions, biases and the emotions that these raise among different social and cultural groups. That's why they've been working with underclassmen at PHS to start a cultural competency group, based on a pilot initiative that took place this year.

"We have a passion for this because it's something that affects us and we don't want [discrimination] to keep recurring," said Quetti.

After this month, Buckley said the grant funding from the Mass Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supported the collection and exhibition of the local immigrant stories, will not be renewed. But, she said, she is hopeful that the efforts to at least grow the online gallery of Berkshire Immigrant Stories will continue, and continue to be shared.

"In terms of what's happening now, we have to do anything possible to raise compassion," she said.


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