To the untrained eye, a coconut broom is nothing more than a pile of leaf stems lashed together with strands of string; an object whose shelf life is inherently short.
To Melissa Aziz, a junior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, it’s a potent symbol of her family’s 2,500-mile journey from Guyana to New York City.
Aziz’ grandfather brought it with him when he moved to South Ozone Park, Queens in the 1980s. When she was asked to share the story of one object related to her family’s immigration for the class Race and Ethnic Politics, she decided to learn more about it.
“I didn’t realize the significance of the coconut palm tree before this assignment,” said Aziz, a political science major. “My dad went into how the entire tree is used not just for a broom, but also for the oil, and how they never ever threw away any part of the tree.”
Aziz and 33 fellow students each submitted a picture of an object and short write-up to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The museum published the works on its website as part of its “Your Story, Our Stories” archive.
Christina Greer, PhD, associate professor of political science, said the collaborative project allows students to share something about themselves and, in doing so, to challenge their assumptions about one another. The items submitted were varied—a tomato from one student whose grandfather moved from Mexico; a wooden chair that had been carried on a covered wagon from Virginia to Missouri in the 1860s by a student’s great-great-grandfather.
“From this point on, you know a little bit more about your classmates through their great-grandparents, their grandparents, or their parents,” Greer said. “You now know if someone sitting you next to you for the last few weeks in class is actually a first-generation American—and you thought they were just some regular guy from Queens.”
Annie Polland, PhD, vice president of programs and education at the museum, said the website, which currently has about 600 stories, is a way to share the stories of artifacts that are not confined to the physical space of the museum. By opening the site up to anyone, it’s easy to see the common threads that run through the experiences of all immigrants. It’s possible, for instance, to search the archive for all entries about religious objects.
“When you read the stories that people submitted, you see how these religious objects served a similar function in the families, whether it’s comfort because they’ve been separated from their family or a help to get them get beyond the stresses of the day,” she said.
Polland said sewing machines are the most commonly submitted object. She attributes this to the large number of immigrants who worked in the garment industry. Dictionaries are numerous as well.
“These were submitted by students who came over as young children or were born here, but who had young immigrant parents who were trying to learn the language while they were working and raising kids,” Polland said. “They remember [their parents]carrying around dictionaries to go to interviews or interact with the world.”
For Hunter Blas, a junior majoring in political science and English, choosing an item was a more sentimental exercise than a story of immigration. The native of Guam is not an immigrant because the island is a U.S. territory and members of her family still reside there, having moved between the mainland and the island.
She opted to share a photo of the altar her Roman Catholic grandmother used to maintain, paying homage to family members, including her father’s service in the U.S. Navy.
But she said she really enjoyed hearing her classmates’ stories of migration, especially one classmate’s story about a grandfather that emigrated from China to Mexico and whose grandchildren are now Americans.
“It just shows there’s way more under the surface than I ever would have thought about,” said Blas. “It makes Fordham feel a little more diverse than it seems to be at face value.”