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Emerson Immigrant Workers Hitting Road to Tell Their Stories

Bright and early Saturday morning, Mario Ernesto Osorio and Maria Portillo, custodians at Emerson College, will set off on a road trip from Boston to San Diego to share their stories as immigrant workers.

The stories will be hard for people to miss—they’re wrapped around the minivan that Osorio and Portillo will be driving, along with Writing, Literature and Publishing senior lecturer Tamera Marko and Ryan Catalani ’15, co-founders of the nonprofit Mobility Movilidad that organized the project.

What they’re hoping is that the stories will also be heard.

“They have a voice,” Catalani said of the workers, “but they don’t really have a platform.”

Proyecto Carrito arose from a weekly class that Marko and Catalani lead on the tenth floor of the Walker Building called Students for Rhetorical Mobility. What began six years ago as a lunch-hour English class swiftly transitioned to a bilingual writing class when everyone realized that one hour per week is not enough time to teach a new language.

The class—which includes both workers and students, Spanish-speakers, English-speakers, and those fluent in both—is modeled somewhat after Marko’s first-year bilingual writing class. Workers and students write and speak in whatever language they’re best able to get their ideas across, Catalani said.

Their first assignment was to answer the question, “If you could change anything to make your experience at Emerson better, what would it be?” The custodians wrote about how they wanted to teach people about why they immigrated to the United States; how they wish there was more of a community between themselves and students, faculty, and other staff; and how invisible they felt when they put on their custodian uniforms.

The class worked together to write a column about their ideas and submitted it to a few places. No one would publish it.

“This really disappointed the class, because it sort of further cemented the feeling of invisibility,” Catalani said.

The idea of plastering their stories onto a moving vehicle is meant to reflect their physical movement from one country to another.

The first Proyecto Carrito happened two years ago, when Marko and Mobility Movilidad were invited to present the Students for Rhetorical Mobility class at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, held that year in Indianapolis. They gave their presentation in the parking lot of the Marriott Hotel.

They’ve also presented the project at the Watson Conference, a rhetoric and composition held at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and at conferences in Colombia and Paris.

This time around, the caravan will stop at a number of universities where friends and faculty have expressed excitement about the project, Catalani said. They’ll stop to talk to people at universities in New York, Colorado, and California. After the road trip, the group will fly to Louisville to present at the Watson Conference again.

At a meeting of the class on October 5, four students, five workers, the organizers, and three visiting art curators from Colombia went around the table and explained, in whatever language they chose, why they came to the class.

Portillo, a custodian who emigrated from El Salvador and will be driving to San Diego this weekend, said that to her, the class is a “second family.”

“Here, there are so many cultures and people from different nationalities and places, and we come together. In this project, we try to show a little piece of reality—not something you see in a movie, not something you read in a book, but a little reality,” Portillo said in Spanish, which Marko translated.

Marko reflected on the journey of the group.

“It was supposed to be three months, and six years later, we have a van in the driveway and we have parties, and it’s a family to me, too,” she said. “As a teacher, it’s a dream. It’s not a class, it’s an embodiment of values; it’s how I want to live.”

Osorio has been working at Emerson for 15 years and has taken part in the class for all six of its years.

He said that he hopes that people who hear the immigrants’ stories will come away with a better idea of who they are as people and why they come to the United States.

Writing, Literature and Publishing graduate student Noe Alvarez translated what Osorio said.

“Oftentimes, people like [me], immigrant workers, [we]’re like ghosts. A lot of times…[others] often assume [we]’re ignorant or that [we] have no class, and that’s totally false. Oftentimes people like us are professionals in our countries, but due to conditions of economics or politics, [we]’re forced to immigrate and logically, we have to work at what we can,” said Osorio, who was a tailor and a university student in his native El Salvador.

The group will be crashing at friends’ houses along the route and will try to eat cheaply, but they’re still raising money for the trip to cover gas, food, plane tickets to Kentucky and Boston, and the van’s new timing belt, which Marko just recently discovered needed to be replaced. The mechanic, a Cape Verdean, was so moved by the stories and the project that he donated some of his labor, Marko said.

Catalani said he wants to have conversations with a wide range of people they meet along the way, something he said is all the more important in the current political climate.

“We want people from diverse backgrounds to recognize how much they have in common and give a platform to people who, because they’re immigrants and janitors, often feel invisible in their workplaces and their communities,” he said.

To learn more about Proyecto Carrito, or to support the project, visit

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