Friday, January 25, 2008

An Immigrant Story.

I started browsing the Nieman nonfiction archive for stories about immigrants and found my old hometown paper had run a series. Here's the link to one of those stories.

Here's part of the lead, plus a methods box.

Leonardo’s dressed neatly in black jean shorts and a tucked-in white T-shirt. He’s boxy and built like a linebacker. His hair is thick like a dried paintbrush.


He works in construction. Most of his T-shirts are marked with white paint.

But not this one. This one is clean. He wants to look good.

Leonardo is at the DMV to see if he can get license plates for his car, even though he doesn’t have a driver’s license, and even though he is not in the country legally.

Other Hispanics in the Roanoke Valley pay strangers hundreds of dollars to help them get fake Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses. Leonardo has seen others get license plates some way, somehow. Usually through someone in Rocky Mount, he’s been told.


But he has already spent almost $600 on license plates that didn’t arrive.

Leonardo’s at the DMV in Crossroads Mall because he wants to do it right, or as right as he can under the circumstances.

Leonardo paces near the entrance, looking at the vanity plates on the wall. Man, he thinks, do those vanity plates look good. How about one of those?

Nah, he decides, just something simple. He just needs the plates. Until Christmastime 2008.

By then, he’ll be done working in the United States. By then, he’ll be home. With his wife and daughter in Mexico. With a new truck and a new home.

About this story (The Methods Box)

This is the last installment in The Roanoke Times' "Land of Opportunity" series. In this story, and in some previous installments, we have chosen to not fully identify subjects because such details could increase the risk of their deportation.

In this story, the subject is identified only by his first name, Leonardo. The reporter, Evelio Contreras, spent more than five months following the lives of Leonardo and his roommates in Roanoke. All of the subjects in the story spoke only Spanish, with the exception of government officials. Contreras translated the quotes into English at the time of reporting.

Contreras accompanied Leonardo to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Crossroads Mall to observe if he could obtain license plates. Contreras translated the conversation at the DMV, as well as the described documents, because Leonardo does not speak English or read in any language.

"I did not provide any answers Leonardo didn't have," Contreras said. "When we arrived at the DMV, I didn't see any translators — I didn't ask, either — so I decided to translate for him."

Contreras, 24 and a community sports reporter, brings a relevant background to this story.

"He [Leonardo] reminds me of my father, Evelio Sr., a 63-year-old semiretired construction worker living on the border of Texas and Mexico. He's not a U.S. citizen but a [legal] resident alien. He's from a different generation of Mexican construction workers.

"My father wasn't big on words but work. Leonardo approaches life similarly."

9 comments:

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Sample comment

Lauren said...

The writer of this story definitely wants to make Leonardo look good, which can be a bit biased, but it worked. I'd have to say that after reading the story I really wanted Leonardo to get those license plates. I'm just not sure if I would have wrote this story the same way. Apparently it wasn't balanced because I read it from the original link and other people had posted comments that were not so much in Leo's favor.

Audrey Sherman said...

Finding an immigrant for this assignment wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I ended up using one of the guys that I used to work with which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. We are pretty good friends and as I learned the hard way it is really difficult to ask friends tough questions. The result was that I didn't really get as much information out of the interview as I would have with another person. But I guess it is better to learn this now rather than later!

Lester Jeff said...

I wish I was able to find more people who could've given an overview of the immigration process or Filipino immigrants in general.

Still, I was able to use some of my own knowledge as well as my immigrant's experiences as a brief look at how immigration to the United States isn't such an easy trip across an ocean (or border in other cases).

Maria Dinzeo said...

My one regret about the immigrant story was that although I thought the person I chose to interview had an interesting story, I couldn't help but feel as though I were capitalizing on the fact that we were friends and that he liked me. When I first asked to speak with him, he was really excited because we hadn't seen each other in almost a year and he thought that I just wanted to get together with him. When I explained that I wanted to interview him for a class assignment, I felt like such an ass. The entire process was pretty awkward. I much prefer to interview strangers.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Lauren: The Roanoke immigrant story is probably an example of a story in which the writer knows his readers will probably not be as sympathetic to his subject as he is. That makes the writing particularly tough. How do you present information in such a way that your readers do not think you are imposing your view on the material rather than being led to it by the material.

Audrey and Maria: Interviewing friends is difficult if you are asking anything personal, really trying to get deep. For trend stories or general news surveys friends are fine: one quick question and you're done. But otherwise unless it's a complete puff piece, they feel somehow misused and misrepresented.

Lester: Your own experiences should always be trusted, particularly when they lead you to ask questions that your subject says are illegitimate. You know they are not.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Maria: Yes. Friends are sometimes useful sources for a roundup story of a light nature -- a trend story, for instance! -- but for a serious story in which you are delving into their lives, values, etc., you start off knowing too much about them, too much for their comfort and for yours. And what if you ask a pointed question that you not ask as a friend and they become indignant or spill their guts and then regret it?

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Audrey: ditto. For some stories -- brief comments; innocuous topic -- friends are fine. But otherwise...

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Lauren: But it was a fair story because the background and the inclinations of the writer were made clear in the methods materials. About some issues reporters are truly neutral -- or at least as neutral as you can be as a product of your culture and your personal experience. About others, the reporters knows that she/he has strong feelings. I think reporters in both camps can do good stories, fair and balanced stories. You just have to work at acknowledging how you feel deep down.