Doing REAL History: Citing Your Mother in Your Research Paper


Andrea S. Libresco

This article is for all those secondary teachers who have assigned oral history projects that their students may have enjoyed but somehow did not consider to be “rea#148; history. It describes how a research paper that invited students to incorporate oral history interviews of their own making proved to be an especially meaningful assignment.

Over a decade ago, I initiated a mini-oral history project on immigration in my U.S. History classes by inviting a panel of willing students in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program to tell their stories to my students. Students from Central and South America, Asia, and Europe told of the conditions in their countries that “pushed” them away, the conditions in America that “pulled” them here, the hardships endured on the journey itself, and the receptions they were given upon arrival in America.

My rather sheltered students were shocked to discover that one of their acquaintances, “Jorge” (not his real name), had seen his fourth grade teacher shot in front of him and his classmates in El Salvador, had entered the United States concealed in the trunk of a car, and had been treated with a mixture of wariness and derision by more than a few high school students in his early months in this country.

“Jorge’s” oral history and those of other students on the panel clearly moved my students. In class discussion on the day following the presentation, students who had previously seen the immigration question in black and white began to see shades of gray; they softened and sympathized with the immigrant students’ plights, and indicated that they now felt “Jorge” should be allowed to stay in the country. The students were willing to let “Jorge’s” brother in as well. Interestingly, their empathy did not extend to anyone not directly related to the teller of this compelling immigration tale; my students would not allow “Jorge’s” neighbors to become legal immigrants.

Because the panel of ESL students had made at least some impression on my history classes, I decided to enlarge the oral history project to give each of my students the opportunity to interview an immigrant and to transcribe and analyze the results. This oral history project met with moderate success. The quality of my students’ write-ups improved as their interviewing skills developed; and these skills grew further as I organized the assignment to allow for group development of questions, practice interviews, group editing, and follow-up interview sessions.

Still, even as their final products improved, I felt there was something missing in the assignment. I realized what it was when one of my students, having completed her oral history project, asked when we would get back to doing REAL history. Even when the end product was a booklet of their immigration stories, my students did not see these stories as a part of history. Finally, through the unlikely vehicle of a mandated eleventh grade research paper, I found a way to remedy this situation.

My assignment for the research paper retained the oral history portion of the earlier assignment. However, I added to the project an autobiographical novel, Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, and a series of primary sources, including selections from Maxine Seller’s Immigrant Women, Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money, Thomas Wheeler’s The Immigrant Experience, and Isaac Metzker’s A Bintel Brief. In writing their research papers, students were required to use primary sources, and encouraged to include among these sources their own and other students’ oral history interviews.

Students had a variety of choices to make within the topic of immigration. Possible questions to be answered by their thesis statements included:

> Was the immigrant you interviewed typical of the American (or, a particular ethnic group’s) immigrant experience?

> Was the American (or, a particular ethnic group’s) immigrant experience on balance a more positive or negative one?

> Describe “the anguish of becoming American” for an actual immigrant, a character in Bread Givers, and a particular ethnic group.

> Is the experience depicted in Bread Givers an accurate reflection of the Jewish and/or American immigrant experience?

> Compare and evaluate past and present immigration policy.

> Compare and evaluate past and present treatment of immigrants by Americans.

> Compare and evaluate the immigrant experiences found in several of the oral histories compiled by you and your classmates.

> Use Bread Givers and a few other fictionalized accounts of the immigrant experience in literature and film, and compare them to actual immigrant accounts. Possible sources include the oral history of an immigrant or immigrants; secondary sources; current articles and statistics; other novels, such as Mario Puzo’s The Fortunate Pilgrim, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky; and films, such as The Fortunate Pilgrim, The Joy Luck Club, Hester Street, West of Hester Street, Avalon, Eat a Bowl of Tea, The Wedding Banquet, El Norte, and Mississippi Masala).

At first, students found the paper difficult to organize because it called for a variety of sources. Quite a few students’ early drafts consisted of no more than a standard research paper followed by the oral history write-up. Through individual conferencing and group editing, students came to understand that the fruits of their interviews really were legitimate sources that could be folded into the paper like any other source to help prove their thesis statement. The final results were often compelling.

Christine Winchester, of Irish descent herself, chose Chinese American immigration as her topic. In this excerpt from her paper, she incorporates a piece of an interview with another student into her discussion of how Chinese Americans, because of their physical appearance, are still looked on as “the other.”

In today’s world, the Chinese-Americans are not even looked at as American citizens. As one stated: “A third generation American, why must I always be asked how I like living in this country? As if this country never could be my country.” (anon. 3) Chinese-Americans, American-born, are asked by strangers if they can speak English. They are even asked when they are returning to their “own” country.” (Winchester 9)

Interestingly, the student Christine quoted did not want her comments attributed to her because she feared her classmates would judge her harshly.

Lori Filocamo interviewed her mother and folded her experience into her research on Italian American immigration. As the excerpts below indicate, Lori did not just use one quote in one spot in the paper; rather, she cited her mother throughout, using her as a specific example to support her points about Italian immigration in general. The first excerpt examines push and pull factors for immigration.

America offered many Italians what Italy denied them, such as good soil for farming, high pay for their work, low taxes on their earnings, no compulsory military service and greater personal freedom. “We are now able to work and live together as a family, instead of being scattered around the world to make a living. After our first relatives came to America and established themselves here, they saved up enough money to send the rest of the family overseas.” (Filocamo 2)

The second excerpt discusses the difficulty in learning English for Italian immigrants.

The typical immigrant to North America during this period was a young man with little formal education from his homeland and he often spoke broken English. “Things were difficult when we first came here but we seemed to manage. Even though I didn’t know a word of English, through work and my friends from the neighborhood, I began speaking broken English.” (Filocamo 3)

Although Lori needs to make a transition between the typical turn-of-the century immigrant and the experience of her mother in the 1960s, she has clearly used her mother as a “rea#148; source to support her point about learning the language as a recent immigrant.

The final excerpt quoted here from Lori’s paper compares women’s roles in the Old Country to those in America.

Women were also employed in the garment industry. Josephine Costanzo described her mother working in a mill: “My mother was a twister in the Lawrence mills. It was unusual; in Italy there were no jobs for women. In fact, people that heard about it back in the village didn’t like the idea of women working. But my mother felt she was doing no different from all the women, so she decided to work. Make some money.” (Hoobler 55) In Italy, women did not go out for work; they stayed in the house and did house work; nothing else was accepted: “Back in my hometown, the women were always expected to do the house cleaning and the cooking for the family, while the men worked outside on the garden and took care of the animals.” (Filocamo 1)

Although I suspect Lori did not consciously process her paper this way, she seamlessly uses a primary source cited by a “rea#148; historian, and then makes the same point using her mother as primary source and Lori as the historian quoting her.

The final example of student work cited here is by A#146;ai Flores, a very recent immigrant from the Philippines. He arrived in December 1996, about a month before we began working on the oral histories. This excerpt uses his own mother’s experience of lack of job possibilities in the Philippines to show the pull of America as a land of economic opportunity.

Regarding the unemployment in the Philippines, Yale graduate writer Knoff said, “The Manila Times summarizes the appeal of America: ‘The migrating Filipino sees no opportunity for him in the Philippines. Advertise in a Manila paper and offer a job … and you will get a thousand applicants. Make the same offer in any provincial town, and the response will be twice as much.”’(Knoll 90) Clearly, this means that unemployment in the Philippines during that time was very high. No wonder my mother said in an interview, “I couldn’t find a job anywhere. It took me three years to find a nursing job after my graduation and the salary offered was very small. It’s not even 25% of my monthly salary here. While even when I was still in the Philippines, I was already hired by a U.S. hospital here in New York.” (Flores 1) From this, the difference between the salary and demands in employment in the Philippines and here in the United States can be inferred.

The act of citing their own interviews and those of their classmates had produced what my previous oral history assignments had failed to do: it showed students that their stories were part of the sweep of “rea#148; history. Doing the research paper gave them the skills of a historian; using their own primary sources made them and their families actors on the historical stage.

This project addressed NCSS standards 1 Culture and 4 Individual Development and Identity. It also met the national history standards in its encouragement of chronological thinking, or the need to distinguish between past, present, and future time. Historical comprehension was fostered by the need to read narratives imaginatively. Most significantly, by formulating historical questions and heeding perspectives of time and place, students began to develop historical research capabilities. Cultivating skills at identifying issues and problems in the past enabled students to engage in historical issues analysis and decision making.

Historians have an interest in examining the progression of immigrants from ethnicity to acculturation to assimilation, and in understanding how this process occurs over generations. Teachers and students can extend an oral history process such as this one to make it even more ambitious—encouraging research and analysis that even more closely approximates the work of historians.

One way of extending this assignment would be to give it more of a generational focus. Going beyond “citing your mother,” students could extend oral history to include grandparents and even great-grandparents (through the verbal recollections of succeeding generations). The purpose of such generational inquiries would be to assess change over time—to examine how things were, how they ceased to be what they had been, how they became something different, and with what consequences.

Students who investigate generational developments could make a cost/benefit assessment using a number of variables to determine changes that people consider beneficial to their lives and those of their families, and changes that entail some sense of loss. One could examine how the immigrant generation evaluates its experience in the United States (several of the student essays referred to in this article began to approach this). Establishing a set of relevant variables that can be examined over generations can help show how events in the past affected individuals, how particular individuals interpreted the significance of those events to their lives, and how perspectives on events change over time.

Students’ interviews could seek to determine how job patterns in a family changed or remained the same over time; to what extent the level of education increased; how the quality of life changed as gauged by income, home ownership (a key component of the American Dream), and residential patterns (ability to move out of “ghetto” type areas into places of more diversity); and to what extent immigrants and their descendants retained or lost their original language, culture, and religious practices. Students could also inquire about the extent to which the immigrants and their children experienced prejudice and discrimination or themselves held negative views of other groups.

If a student finds it more comfortable to conduct an inquiry of neighbors or other community members rather than of family, that would be entirely appropriate and can provide the same kind of generational analysis. Finally, students can seek to take stock of how they see themselves as the present generation in the context of the unfolding events, choices, and consequences that have affected those who preceded them.

Immigration historian Michael D’Innocenzo points out that American society has been the most change-oriented society in the history of the world. He adds that we often confuse change with progress, noting that while there can be no progress without change, not all change results in progress. I like to think that if my students take away from this assignment the realization that what their families did mattered in history, then they may come to realize that what they do with their lives will matter as well.


Teaching Resources

The following sources are used in the classroom or appear in the excerpts from student papers.


Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky. New York: Harper & Row, 1960.

D’Innocenzo, Michael, and Josef P. Sirefman, eds. Immigration and Ethnicity: American Society —“Melting Pot” or “Salad Bow#148;? Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Filocamo, Lori. Interview with Maria Filocamo. (April 1, 1997)

Flores, A#146;ai. Interview with Celina Lee. (April 27, 1997)

Gold, Michael. Jews Without Money. New York: H. Liverright, 1930.

Hoobler, Dorothy. The Italian American Family Album. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Knoll, Tricia. Becoming Americans. Portland, OR: Coast to Coast Books, 1982.

Metzker, Isaac, ed. A Bintel Brief. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.

Puzo, Mario. The Fortunate Pilgrim. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Books, 1964.

Seller, Maxine Schwartz, ed. Immigrant Women. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1994.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Ivy Books, 1989.

Wheeler, Thomas. The Immigrant Experience. New York: Penguin Books, 1971.

Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1975.


Andrea S. Libresco teaches American and Global History at Oceanside High School, and is Lead Teacher for elementary social studies in the Oceanside, New York, school district. She also teaches Social Studies Methods at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She was named Long Island Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year in May 1997.