Yesenia Pedro Vicente

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Yesenia Pedro Vicente shares a second interview with the Nuevas Raíces initiative. Yesenia relates her experiences teaching in Phoenix, Arizona for several years after graduating from UNC in 2013. She draws contrasts between living in North Carolina and the Southwestern U.S., where there are much larger communities with Latin American heritage. She returned to North Carolina in 2018 to be closer to her family in western North Carolina and work in the Graduate School at UNC Chapel Hill. Yesenia discusses the impact of the APPLES Global Course Guanajuato Course that she participated in in 2013 as an undergraduate at UNC. She talks about her hometown, Morganton, NC, and how it has changed in the last few years. She describes with enthusiasm the annual Food Festival of St. Charles Borromeo at her Morganton church, where community members with many different backgrounds that include Hmong, Guatemalan, Polish, Irish, and African come together to celebrate their heritages. Yesenia also describes the importance of her family’s Guatemalan Mayan heritage and her parents’ native language, Q’anjob’al.



Hannah Gill: Okay. Well, let’s get started. I’m here with Yesenia Pedro Vicente. This is Hannah Gill. It is November 2nd, 2018. Thank you so much, Yesi, for being here to do this interview. This is a follow-up interview, in a way, to an interview that you did in 2013 with Joel Hage as part of the APPLES Global Course Guanajuato here at UNC Chapel Hill. And that interview focused a lot on identity, and you talk a lot about different ways that you identify and you’ve done a whole lot since graduating here at UNC so, we’ll explore a little bit of that throughout this interview. So, thank you so much for being here. Yesenia Vicente: Oh, yes. [laughs]. I’m glad to be here.

HG: And you have--. I have your consent to record the interview?

YV: Yes. You do.

HG: Okay. Great. So, I wanted, maybe you can share with us about what have you been doing since you have graduated in what year?

YV: 2013.

HG: 2013.

YV: Yes.

HG: [00:01:12] You’ve been doing a lot so share where you’ve been travelling and working.

YV: Yeah. So right after graduating I moved out to Phoenix, Arizona. I was accepted to Teach for America. So, I was a Phoenix 2013 core member. And so, I moved out to be a high school teacher. I started teaching Spanish. Mainly because I was a native speaker, and so my admin at the time said, okay, you know, how do you feel about teaching Spanish? And I was a little hesitant because I’ve never studied Spanish formally. But, I, you know. You’re fresh out of college and it’s your first job offer and you know, you’re ambitious so you say yes. So, I accepted the offer and I began teaching Spanish. And I had to teach myself along the way but I built a really good relationship with my students and I know that I care about education and helping underrepresented minorities succeed and I was working in south Phoenix with a school that served you kn--. It was Title One. It served low income, about ninety to ninety-five percent Mexican-American student population. It was very small. So, I did that my first two years. I also started teaching AP English my second- or my second year. So, after finishing up my two-year commitment with teach for America, I stayed to teach a third year and taught out in the west valley at another high school this time. My real passion is in English language arts. And so, I taught freshman, sophomore, regular level English. And then, I had postponed a scholarship that I had as an undergrad to the limit that I could. And so, it’s the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. And so, I had postponed that or deferred that scholarship for three years and I ran out of time. So, I needed to basically use it up and so I decided to pursue my Masters in Education. Again, because I know that I want to work in education. Not a hundred percent sure yet where, but I do. So, I started my master’s program. I left teaching because I realized that balancing teaching and a full time Master’s program was a lot. So, I was the manager of a college access program for two years. And this program had amazing, and still has--. It’s a program that I very much believe in. It has great results in terms of working with low-income, first gen college bound high school students. Both in Phoenix and in Tucson. But after a couple of years of--. I mean, it’d been five years where I had been going home once or twice a year. Just making the flight and having the time to make the flight worth it to come back to North Carolina to see my family, made it so I came only once or twice a year. And so, I realized that I wanted to be closer to my family. And so, I decided to start applying for jobs. I do care about college access. I think that wherever my career goes I will be working with young adults. And so, my thought process was, okay, well. I’ve worked now with freshman and sophomore students. Juniors. College bound, so juniors and seniors. Let’s try working with college students. Let’s see how I can support students because the research shows that more and more underrepresented minorities are accessing college. The issue is that retention and graduation. So, I started looking for jobs where I can support in student affairs. Because, I do believe in the whole student development where we can have academic resources and support, but we also need to figure out how we can support students beyond the classroom. And so, I got this position where I’m at now as the coordination for a diversity program in the graduate school. You know, I’m three months in and it's going pretty well so far. [smiles]. I am trying to figure out, you know, how I can better serve students but I’m also just learning the ropes.

HG: Yeah. Right. You just got started so--

YV: Yes.

HG: Well, I can say we’re—. I’m so excited that you’re back at UNC and that we are colleagues now.

YV: Yes!

HG: It’s really cool.

YV: Me too. [laughs].

HG: Alright. So, let’s see. So, you talked about what you did in Arizona, but [00:05:48] I wondered if you could reflect upon just the shift from growing up in Morganton, in the foothills of North Carolina and the shift to moving to Arizona where communities with Latin American heritage are so much larger. So, can you reflect upon that? What was that like for you? This change?

YV: Yes. So, that was a great change. I love Phoenix. I will always love Phoenix. So, growing up in Western North Carolina, right in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was lucky to have been raised in a, what feels to me like a significant, in a large-minded community. And, feeling that every weekend you know, I had this community available. My parents had their comadres and compadres. And you know, we’d have these social gatherings. So, coming to UNC, I knew always that I was a minority. And even in my classes in my high school. Just going back to that for a second. I was the only Latina in my honors and gifted classes and AP classes. So, I know that. And I knew that I am a minority but coming to UNC it’s--. It became much more obvious just in terms of walking around, seeing students, and realizing that you know, there isn’t a Mayan community. And also, if I go into the general identity of being Latina, there weren’t that many Latina or Latinx students. The majority was white and then the next minority groups at least from my perspective was African American. And then, Asian, and then it would be Latino students in terms of population size. So, moving to Phoenix where there is such a large Mexican-American predominantly population, but Latino in general, it was really exciting to walk around and seeing billboards that were bilingual and knowing that I could read both of them. And understand both of them. And once I understood my Spanish grammar better, like [laughs] actually correct sometimes where a missing accent mark was. It was just really, how do I describe it? Affirming of who I am and of how many similarities I had with my Mexican students or Mexican-American students where, you know, we did know some common pop culture references or had some similar jokes and I could joke with them and throw out Spanish words and they got it. And they’d be like, Miss! You know about this? And seeing them get excited that their educator had similar background to them. That was very rewarding and I just enjoyed seeing more people who looked like me. And so, moving back to North Carolina, it has suddenly made me realize, oh I’m back into black and white space. And so, what I had to do the last couple of months is basically go church hopping to the different Spanish masses in the triangle area to try to find a--. One, a church that I like with priests that I like that, you know, whose preaching style I prefer with good music, but also, you know, that have a significant Latino community. So, I have found that. You know, I go now to St. Thomas More which is a church near campus actually where I enjoy the music. I enjoy just being surrounded by Latino families. And you know, I don’t know many of them yet, so I don’t know which countries specifically, but that’s kind of my way of touching back with the Latino community because I feel like it’s not as prevalent here and so I see that gap. I feel that gap. Coming back here.

HG: [00:09:46] Did having the experience of going to Mexico as part of the course that you took, APPLES Global Course Guanajuato, did going there and having that experience in Guanajuato, was that something that you thought you could relate more to your students with Mexican-American or Mexican heritage? Did you--. Were you able to--.

YV: I--. It helped me. Yes. It helped me in the sense that, honestly, it helped my better understand Mexican geography because Mexico is such a large country. And so, if I had any students that were from Guanajuato, or surrounding areas, I could be like, oh I know where that is! Sometimes they would ask me and I would have no idea where their town or city is from. But, letting them know that I had been there, they thought was very fascinating. A lot of my students go back pretty regularly to Mexico so it was pretty cool to hear their stories. I think that the trip to Guanajuato was more impactful for me, just in a general level with--. I think that comparing Mexican culture with Guatemalan and Mayan culture, so when I think back about the Guanajuato course or back to it, I love the city of Guanajuato. It felt so, how can I describe it? So rich in culture and architecture and honestly, you know, with the museums and the plazas it felt so wealthy in many ways. And that is something that I remember being impressed by because Guatemala, at least where I have travelled to or where my grandparents are rom is very rural and it’s in the mountains and its, you know, these small concrete houses. They’re still some of the original houses made of adobe and wood. And so, it was interesting for me to see woah, there is a part of Latin American that looks so rich. But then, when we went to El Gusano in the more rural parts, in Guanajuato, I remember feeling much more familiar with that environment and that was very interesting for me to also know and understand that there are rural parts. Mexico is not rich. I know that. I understand that. But, Guanajuato the capital, or the city made me realize that woah, there can be a lot of wealth and then there is also such a huge disparity with the rural areas. A lot of my students came from both. Some of them were from wealthier families in Mexico who had migrated to the U.S. and others were from the rural areas. And now that I think about it, yeah! I mean, we talked about that too. I can relate to some students who were like my family isn’t rich. And I was like, mine isn’t either. And I felt like I could relate to them more to the students that you know, came from a wealthy family in Mexico.

HG: Thanks. That’s interesting. So, maybe we can talk a little bit about the place where you’re from, Morganton. And you’ve lived, well, you’ve lived there for most of your first part of your life.

YV: [laughs] Right.

HG: And of course, you’ve been off doing really exciting things in different parts of the country and the world since then, but it’s now been what? Thirty or forty years that Morganton is having [sudden thump]. Communities of folks from all over Latin America particularly from Guatemala and it’s not necessarily a community of new immigrants anymore. Your family was among the first that moved there. [00:13:24] And I’m just wondering if you could reflect upon what Morgan--. How Morganton has changed over the years?

YV: Yes. So, Morganton it has grown. And that is something that I, while I was in college and even gone to Phoenix, didn’t really see because I was always traveling or you know, at school, or out of state. But every time I came home I kept--. When we could drive around, I kept catching myself asking, wait what is that? What’s new? So, over the last, I would say over the last ten years, I would say Morganton has developed a lot more. There is a new shopping center with a super Walmart and Applebee’s and frozen yogurt and I think a Lowes or Home Depot that has grown. And, downtown there are a couple of breweries that weren’t there before until you’re seeing this city actually--I’d always thought of it as a town, right? It didn’t seem like a city to me but it is becoming more developed. And I would be interested to, you know, find out what’s driving that economic growth. I think that growing up I heard a lot that it was a retiree community but I would be interested to see how these generations of immigrants have also contributed to that economic growth. I think that when I think about my classmates, a lot of people from my high school and the other high school in the county stay. I mean, some of us left, and now still live in North Carolina or Virginia. You know, neighboring states. But a good number of students have stayed there and especially when I look back and think about you know, my childhood friends, the people that I went to church with, you know, members of the Mayan communities. Most of the young adults who are either you know, still in high school or have graduated and are now attending community college, most have stayed and they’re starting to establish their own families. And some of my good friends from high school have multiple children now and they’re still there. So, Morganton itself as a city has grown a lot and I do think that some of the growth is due to, you know, that this increasingly young population in a town that historically was a retirement community, and was a lot of older white people.

HG: Yeah. Sure. [00:16:00] Are your friends or your neighbors or folks that you know, young folks, are they finding employment opportunities in Morganton that would enable them to stay there?

YV: So, that is a great question. They are from what I can tell. A lot of this has had to be through Facebook because I haven’t really been around to catch up but I’m seeing that my friends or my peers work in, they’re either working in fast food or retail or in the pharmacies. So, I have a friend who’s a pharmacy tech. Another, it’s her sister is in the nursing program at the community college and is working as a CNA in the hospital. So, they’re either finding work in the hospital or in medicine it seems. Pharmacies or it’s in the retail sector.

HG: So, I know that you’re super excited about going home tomorrow?

YV: Mhm. Yes. I leave tonight, actually.

HG: I know you’re really excited about going home. You haven’t been… When’s the last time you were in Morganton? You’ve probably been home more recently, but you haven’t been to this particular celebration?

YV: Festival.

HG: Festival that you’re excited about going to at your church.

YV: Yes!

HG: For a long time.

YV: Fall 2012.

HG: Okay. So, [00:17:18] what is this festival called?

YV: So, I’m going home because I want to go to the St. Charles Borromeo Festival. It’s their international food festival, so every year it is, it’s a tradition at this point. I know it’s been going on since at least the mid to early 2000s. So, it’s been quite a few years. In fact, my when I was in high school, my sisters and some of our friends performed dances at this, like traditional Mayan dances, at this event. So, it’s basically this gathering of the different communities in the church to share their culture through food. I mentioned in the interview back in 2013 that my home church, or Morganton actually, has a large Mayan community and a large Hmong community in addition to African American and White. And so, St. Charles Borromeo reflect that diversity and even when you include the diversity within, you know, white people, they do have cultures of their own. So, we have people that identify with their Irish, Polish, German heritage. So, this festival is a great way for these communities to come together and they all in the mass hall that we have, you have just dozens of tables and booths that have the names of the countries that are being represented and the food that’s going to be sold there. And it’s all pretty cheap. So, you can walk around and you’ll have Vietnamese, Hmong, different food from different regions of Guatemala. Polish. German. Spanish. And just, you get to sample all of these different foods. It started out as mainly the church members coming out to it, but as the years have gone by more and more community members are attending this even if they don’t go to St. Charles Borromeo. I love it. I think it’s an organic way of, kind of bringing different people together.

HG: Do you think that other people come just because it’s become famous? Or do you think the church does a lot of outreach to try to get others to come?

YV: I think it’s become famous. I actually don’t know if the church publishes it. I mean, we have a local newspaper. I’m sure maybe there’s a little blurb about it, but it’s not as if you know, we’re using up, as far as I know. Maybe this has changes in six years, but I don’t think that the church purchases air space or puts ads on their radios or anything. It’s really just a sign and so, the mass hall itself has a lot of the food and there are booths set up outside. So, it’s grown. This is the other amazing part. Each year more and more vendors have signed up to sell food. So, there are vendors outside and the cultural performances either from, you know, the Hmong group, the Mayan group, the Mexican, whoever it might be. We had a German choral group I think come in the past. There is an outside space in the parking lot where performances happen so you can see that from the street if you’re driving by that there is something going on there. There’s performances. There’s food. You know. And I think that has attracted passersby.

HG: I mean it sounds like it’s just a celebration of people’s immigrant ancestry.

YV: Yeah.

HG: For some people that was many generations ago, others more recent, but it’s really a space where you know, it’s not--. The focus isn’t all on the newest immigrant communities but it’s all through thinking about how everybody has that connection? Most almost everybody?

YV: Yes. Yes. It’s not just--. Yes. You’re right. It’s not just the new immigrants. You will have members of the church, you know, that have gone to St. Charles their whole lives and they’re there with their booths. I love it because it’s one of the earliest examples of a celebration of multiculturalism and, you know, it being celebrated. I remember people after my sisters and I would perform, they’d be like, oh my god that was so great! And it wasn’t just Guatemalan people saying it, you know. You have members from the community saying. well I love your traje. Well they didn’t know it was a traje, but I love your outfit [laughing]. That was so great! And it’s just very affirming.

HG: When did it start? Do you know what year it started?

YV: I don’t know the year it started.

HG: When were you first involved with it?

YV: I want to say it was 2005.

HG: Oh, wow. So that’s like a long time. That’s almost [inaudible].

YV: And that’s, right. I don’t know if that was when it began. I just know that was probably the year that my family started going.

HG: Okay. [00:21:49] What are your favorite dishes?

YV: Oh, my goodness. [laughs].

HG: [laughs].

YV: So, I like the pupusas and my--. Oh, I have to say that my favorite is probably the Hmong egg rolls. I don’t know how the women in the community make them but they’re just so crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside and they come with a nice little dipping sauce. So, the Hmong egg rolls are my favorite. And then beyond that I like the pupusas and then the tamales.

HG: Who makes the pupusas?

YV: It depends. So, there is a--. Oh, again this is six years ago, but there is a lady who is Salvadorian and she made them. I don’t remember her name. But she would, she actually used to sell them out of the trunk of her car after mass on Sundays and so she would have a booth. So, I remember that I liked her pupusas. And then the tamales it depends. Different women will sign up or different church ministries will also sponsor booths. I remember that my mom was, or she is still a Eucharistic Minister at church, and so her ministry, like the women would split up. Who’s going to make the pupusas, or who’s going to make the tamales and the rice and the beans? So, sometimes I don’t know who made it. I just know that it was someone in that ministry.

HG: Wow. Oh, you’re making me hungry. [laughs].

YV: I am very excited. [laughs].

HG: Awesome. Alright, well that sounds like an amazing event and I know you’re going to have a great time and get to catch up with everybody tomorrow. Maybe we can wind up a little bit with talking about, you know, whether there are still--. Are there still--. [00:23:32] Are there folks from Guatemala still moving to Morganton? Is it still a draw for people for new migrants or is it mostly people who have settled and lived there for more than ten years? Twenty years? What’s your sense of that?

YV: So, I don’t have a great sense of that because I have been gone. But, I do hear new people at church that I didn’t know when I was there. And so, they must be coming. That’s my logical conclusion. As for why they’re coming, the biggest reason that I’ve heard so far is that they’re someone’s comadre, compadre, or cousin or you know, relative. So, I think the family ties is still a draw. Historically it was the furniture industry and the availability of jobs. But, I--. That is no longer a big draw anymore. So, I’m curious to see what kind of employment. I know that Case Farms is still operating there. And, it’s still not doing the best job in terms of workers’ rights. So, I will be curious to see if that is still causing some employment pull. But, I don’t know. That’s actually something I hope to kind of ask around and find out. You know, where are you working?

HG: Yeah. Do many of your friends and families and neighbors, growing up who originally moved from Guatemala or other parts of the United States originally from Guatemala, have many folks returned? Or returned to Guatemala or are they pretty much permanently settled in Morganton?

YV: They’re pretty much permanently settled especially because my parents’ generation was the first generation to move into Morganton. There are a couple of elders who are, who could be technically my parents’ parents and there’s just a handful of them and they’re here. Most of that initial generation, the immigrant group, that generation of immigrants has stayed and it’s because they have children and family and grandkids here. So, I don’t, yeah. I don’t see them leaving. I only know one man that moved back to Guatemala to be with his family because he had left them to come work here and he decided he wanted to return to be back with them. But most others, especially that get married here and have kids here, they stay.

HG: [00:26:03] Are the younger generations still speaking Mayan?

YV: Yeah. So, it’s hit or miss. And I think that this is a trend that you see with a lot of immigrant groups. So, my generation is hit or miss. So, all of my parents’ generations does still speak a Mayan language. I, myself, do not. I can understand some of the words in Q’anjob’al that my parents speak. But, not all of them. And then I look at you know, some of the kids I grew up playing and they do still speak Q’anjob’al with their parents so it’s really contextual. I think it depends on the family and how much the parents continue to speak in Q’anjob’al with their children. I know with my family, I mean, we didn’t grow up in Morganton. We moved around from California then Tennessee and my parents had a lot of Mexican friends and so I was exposed to Spanish a lot more. So, I adapted Spanish and adopted it very quickly and I think I lost Q’anjob’al along the way. I don’t even know if I understood it. I don’t remember being able to fluently speak it and I found Spanish so much more practical in everyday life, that I haven’t had to learn Q’anjob’al because my parents speak Q’anjob’al as their second language. But, then I look at you know, my friend who speaks it fluently to her mom and I’m like what! I’m envious that you know, she still has that ability. But, interestingly enough, her Spanish is not as good as mine so it’s, you know. I think it just depends on the family and then I have some friends that can speak all three just fine. So, I don’t know what makes the difference there.

HG: That’s really interesting that I guess, so part of your theory is that maybe you weren’t exposed, you moved around a lot, and so you didn’t have the exposure of a community with a lot of people, a lot of parents, neighbors’ parents, friends’ parents that were speaking Q’anjob’al.

YV: Right.

HG: And so maybe that, it helped to have a community of speakers that reinforce the language.

YV: Right.

HG: And if you were moving more that may not have happened.

YV: Right. Because I think, now that I’m thinking about it, so it’s a family of--. The two older ones speak Q’anjob’al better than the younger ones and I think about it and its--. Their whole family is here. They have some aunts and uncles in the area. They’ve got cousins. They’ve got their parents obviously, and even their grandparents and they grew up here in North Carolina and so, yes. Q’anjob’al was all around. They heard it much more than Spanish. And I did not get that because my parents were the only ones, at least initially, were the only ones in the U.S. I have two of my uncles here in the U.S. But you know, they’re not nearby. They’re in Indiana. We did not have Q’anjob’al all around us. It was just from my parents.

HG: Well, thank you so much Yesi, for following up. This is actually a really important thing to be able to follow up with interviews several years later and to hear, you know, you’ve done so much and you’ve accomplished so much. And you just have a whole career ahead of you at UNC.

YV: [laughs]. I hope so.

HG: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for the interview.

YV: Oh! Thanks for having me. I’m excited and who knows, maybe years down the road I’ll have much more to tell you about how Morganton has developed, where I am in education. We’ll see.

HG: Sounds good. Alright, I’ll see you in five years. [laughs].

YV: [laughs]. Thank you. [END OF INTERVIEW]