At the outset, a course on the politics of memory in Argentinean and Chilean theatre does not seem relatable to community service in any form. Yet one would stand corrected—as I was and continue to be—upon witnessing the scene that is Columbia Heights. Connected largely by the theme of identity, the academic experience of Memory, Performance, and Activism in the Southern Cone and the service-learning experience of working with the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) have both continued to surprise me as well as awaken within me a consciousness of something much larger than myself.
Now, Columbia Heights is not only more than a neighborhood; it is also more than a community. To borrow from an English translator of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Columbia Heights is a pueblo. The translator chose to leave the word in its original Spanish, saying the idea of a pueblo—a small, tightly-knit community whose very existence is contingent upon the well-being and endurance of the entire group—does not exist in the same manner within the Anglophone. Nowhere is this notion of Columbia Heights as a pueblo truer than at the CARECEN. Here, civic coordinators and legal professionals provide accessible information, education, and services for people of all backgrounds who are in the process of seeking U.S. citizenship. These dedicated leaders and their clients alike often socialize both in and outside of the office setting, forming bonds of trust as they work toward getting as many people as possible who want to and can become U.S. citizens to realize that goal.
And what exactly does it mean to become a U.S. citizen? I can now see clearly that before volunteering with CARECEN, I took my U.S. citizenship for granted. Most people who are born in this country are seldom asked to think long—let alone hard—about the importance of civic life. Yet as a volunteer English and civics tutor, I have had to quiz people studying for their citizenship exams—over and over—on “what is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens” and “what is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen.” Now surely, these abstract questions are difficult enough for the many people who also have to overcome a language barrier. But, quite honestly, these questions have not been intuitive for gringo volunteers like me, either. I have found this profoundly unsettling. Still, the clients at CARECEN with whom I have worked have always come through—studying with vigor and answering me with confidence that as U.S. citizens we are responsible for serving on juries and voting in federal elections. They tell me that when they become a U.S. citizen, they promise to defend the Constitution, obey this country’s laws, and do important work for the nation if it is ever needed. The clients know their civic rights and duties, admittedly often better than many of us know them, and it is because they want to be here. In this I have found profound hope.
Memory, Performance, and Activism in the Southern Cone is as much about identity as it is about witnessing: witnessing your own experiences, witnessing the experiences of others, and witnessing new things together. It has been an honor and a privilege to volunteer as a tutor with CARECEN. And it will be an even greater honor and privilege to serve as an interpreter for many of our clients during their actual citizenship exams at the end of November—seeing the sown seeds of hard work finally come into fruition. Yet most importantly, it has been crucial to my education to witness strong bonds grow stronger between community leaders, the local immigrant community, and volunteers like me. In closing, I must say that I have learned far more from CARECEN’s clients than they have learned from me—and that is a pattern I hope to see emerging not only in our community but in communities across the nation that seek to share a new kind of “American Dream” with those seeking U.S. citizenship.