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"Making the Caribbean Connection" engages underserved Latino youth in Salem

Posted by Ryan Mooney  July 19, 2012 01:22 PM

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A group of local middle school students learn some of the finer points of shipbuilding.

Photo by Deb Payson of the Essex National Heritage Commission

After a slight delay, a new program at the House of Seven Gables in Salem - aimed at engaging local Latino middle schoolers, and made possible by a grant from the National Park Foundation - is underway and off to a successful start.

The goal of the program, titled "Making the Caribbean Connection," is to engage underserved Latino youths in discovering the untold stories of Salem and the Caribbean. Through hands-on projects, lectures and visits to Salem's many maritime historic sites, children explore the interactions - both past and present - between their current home and the islands of the Caribbean, where many of their families emigrated from.

"The intention is to work with Latino youth work on the history of their region and Salem, the connections, and see what they can uncover, discover and see what interests them," said Annie Harris, executive director of the Essex National Heritage Commission.

On Thursday, about a dozen students were at the former Polish Club at St. Joseph's, across the street from Derby Wharf, learning some of the finer points of shipbuilding and having a "roundtable" discussion - in Spanish - with Michael Quijano-West, the bilingual superintendent of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

"The kids seem to be really responding to [learning in Spanish]," Harris said. "Our goal is to uncover the stories and information and then also to understand what resonates with them."

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Michael Quijano-West, superintendent of Salem Maritime National Historic Site, leads students in discussion. From left to right: Jean Carlos Nuñez Roman, 11, and Jonathan Nuñez Roman, 13, brothers who attend the Nathaniel Bowditch School; Quijano-West; and Ana Nuncio, program director with the House of Seven Gables.

Photo by Ryan Mooney

A major theme of the program is the triangular trade of the American colonial era. After much discussion, the students decided to put a more current human face to the movement between the Caribbean and New England.

For a final project, the students will take portrait photos of each other, which will be hung at the Salem Maritime National Historic Visitor's Center with biographical accounts of how they came to be in Salem and what they learned about the interactions between the city and their native homes.

"The kid's decided that products could come and go, as happens in history, but what remains is the people," said Ana Nuncio, the program director with the House of Seven Gables. "And that came from them. And so we're going to show the human face. All of them are descendants of that contact between people...and so they embody that merging of cultures that happened during the triangular trade."

Nuncio's plan is to put together a similar, after-school program to take place at Collins Middle School three days per week starting in the fall.

"One of our outcomes, obviously we want it to be good for the kids, but we also want to get the data, the information about what works for [the students], what engages them, so that we can use this in other educational programs," Harris explained.

The program - which was slated to begin at the end of June, but began this month - will run until mid-August and is funded by a $15,000 grant that the Essex National Heritage Area, in partnership with the House of Seven Gables, received from the National Park Foundation - a non-profit that raises funds to support the National Park Service - as part of the America's Best Idea grant program.

The grant, inspired by the Ken Burns film "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," which originally premiered on PBS in September 2009, was awarded last month to 48 national parks.

The Essex National Heritage area became the first non-park to receive the grant.

Ryan Mooney can be reached at globe.mooney@yahoo.com.

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