I was fortunate to recently sit down with Pedro Garcia, a great member of the Tenement Museum staff who juggles a few different roles here. He discussed his job, his own struggles as a young boy adapting to America, and how the immigration experience is ongoing.
Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I'm Pedro Garcia. I work at the Tenement Museum as education associate for training and outreach.
How long have you been working here?
In total, I've been at the museum for five years.
What does your job entail?
I have two main roles. Training involves teaching all staff of the Tenement, both part-timers and full-timers, to lead public tours of the museum. So that's the bulk of my job. And outreach involves managing our ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) program called Shared Journeys and promoting the education program that we have to offer to the community of the Lower East Side.
What exactly is the mission of the Shared Journeys program?
Well, it's a program that was developed at the museum a few years ago, and the idea is to use history to teach English. Existing ESL classes from around the city can come visit the museum and in a two hour workshop, they will learn about immigration of the past and share their own experiences. Hence the name.
What do you find most gratifying about your job?
It's very rewarding when I teach someone how to do a tour and that person excels. It's also great when Shared Journeys accomplishes its mission, when the students come and they feel that, yes, my immigrant story is very similar to those from a hundred years ago.
Before you worked at the Tenement Museum, what did you do?
I used to work in education. It wasn't really history or museum stuff. I worked teaching for non-profits. Basically, I was an educator in small settings for children who had behavioral problems.
Did that help you prepare for your work here?
Yeah. It helps a little bit because I used to be a trainer there, too. It's very similar and helped me to build some of the skills I use here.
I know you have an immigrant story of your own. Where did you grow up?
Well, I was born in Venezuela. My family came to the United States when I was very young. I was about eight or ten years old. We came straight to New York, and I've been here ever since.
What year was that?
The late eighties, like '88 or '89.
When you got to New York, I assume you weren't an English speaker...
No, no, none of us spoke English.
How did you learn the language?
The great benefit that I always cherish is that I went to school in the Bronx where they have bilingual education. That helped make the transition easier for me... not easy because learning English is never really easy. It's actually one of the hardest languages to learn. But I was able to have a little bit of support and that helped me to transition and grow.
I heard you were recently on a panel where you spoke about being bullied as a kid because of your English skills. Can you tell me about that?
The panel was about professionals in New York City who grew up as immigrant kids, and we spoke to New York City teachers. And the question was, "What is the hardest part about being an immigrant kid newly arriving to school?" I said the hardest part is being bullied because you don't know the language and you don't know where to go. It becomes a very terrifying experience. I went to school in the Bronx and at that time, the neighborhood I lived in was very dangerous. Shootings and violence were all around me. That made it even scarier. I was trying to convey to the teachers one thing that can be done to resolve some of the fear experienced when immigrants arrive - they should have a buddy. There should be another immigrant kid helping them to get adjusted because sometimes, kids can be mean.
Did you have that?
You felt like you were on your own?
I was on my own. My sister went to a different school, and my brother was very young, so he wasn't in my school either. Like I was telling the teachers at the panel, when immigrants come, it's a whole new world. It can be very scary already. It's very daunting to be in a new place. Why make it harder? Why not help them a little bit with a buddy?
Do you feel that your own immigrant experience was similar to the families that we feature here at the museum?
I've always felt that way, yeah. When I tell my own stories about how difficult it is coming to the United States, I think of the Baldizzi family. It was very hard for the parents to come over. It was very hard for the whole family. The Baldizzis had to share a one bedroom apartment with four of them. We had to share a one bedroom apartment with five of us. So I think more and more, our experiences are very similar. My parents wanted us to get the best out of being in the U.S., to learn English, to be Americans. It's the same thing the Baldizzis taught their children. I truly believe there are a lot of similarities.
What do you hope visitors to the museum take away from it? What do you hope they learn about immigration?
Well, I hope that they get to think about the immigration experience and how hard it was while realizing that it hasn't gotten easier. There's a bad misconception that everyone who came to this country in the last twenty or thirty years had it very easy. It's hard, but a different type of difficulty. If visitors pause for a second and just think about what they're seeing around them and what they just heard about the past, they can see a lot of similarities. I hope that by the time they leave a tour that I lead or a tour that is lead by one of my trainees, they at least think about it. I don't want to force anybody to change their minds or their opinions. I just want them to start discussing it. You just have to stop and think.
- Posted by Joe Klarl