The Land of Dreams?

by Lourdes Burrows

When the American Composers Orchestra invited Newcomers High School to become a partner in the Coming to America project, I knew right away this would be a powerful way to help the families in our school cope with serious issues.

Newcomers High School is just what its name says-a school for high-school age children arriving in the borough of Queens from other countries. Queens is a primary entry point for many groups. We have students from all over Latin America, from the Indian subcontinent, from Eastern Europe, from China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. We offer complete bilingual programs in Spanish and Mandarin, and partial programs in Bengali, Korean, Portuguese, and French. Our goal is to move students on to success in mainstream high schools. Students may enroll at any time in the year, as they arrive, and many are with us for just one year.

What are some of the issues immigrants deal with today? I see individuals and families struggling to maintain a sense of identity in a new country, separated from their roots culturally and geographically. They have left behind their whole support system for child care and help in family emergencies, and they have few to whom they can turn who will understand their language. They are often lumped together with other immigrants with whom they share nothing but an inability to speak or understand English. Often one or both parents will come ahead to the United States to establish themselves, and then send for their children five years later. By the time the children arrive here, they have spent most of their conscious life in the care of foster parents, and the whole family has to make an enormous adjustment.

Of course there is the struggle for acceptance in American society, not only for those of color but also for everyone with an accent. But most deflating for many immigrant and refugee families is the unfulfilled promise they imagined in America, the "land of dreams." When those dreams are so long deferred, people begin to second-guess their decision to immigrate. They can become discouraged. For me, this is where public education is critical. The one promise America can make good on to every immigrant family is a quality education for every child, an education that will enable them to succeed in American society, while also fostering pride in their own roots and identity.

Soon we will hear immigrant and refugee composers and their music, right here at Newcomers High School, in special sessions following our PTA meetings. How have these artists dealt with their cultural identity? What special challenges have they faced as newcomers to this country? Has America proved to be everything they dreamed it would be? What will we hear in their music and what might it mean to other immigrants facing similar issues?

One thing I hope our families will learn is that these composers have been not lost their cultural identity. Who you are and where you are from is important. Perhaps the composers too will learn from our community, with new insights about the experience of coming to terms with a new culture.

-Lourdes Burrows is Principal of Newcomers High School in Queens,
one of the partner organizations participating in "Coming to America"