From Bolivia to Virginia

Culture & Identity  •  Global Virginia

Bolivian dancers, Columbia Pike Festival,
Arlington, Virginia.
Bolivian dancers, Columbia Pike Festival, Arlington, Virginia. PHOTO BY LLOYD WOLF.

David Bearinger interviews Emma Violand-Sanchez

1-Dr Emma Violand-Sanchez
Emma Violand-Sanchez

Emma Violand-Sanchez joined the VFH Board in September, 2010. Since then, she has been a strong and persistent advocate for our engagement with the “new Virginia.” Emma was born in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia, and she first came to Virginia as a high school student in 1961. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Radford College (now Radford University) and holds a Doctorate in Education from the George Washington University. She has been a pioneer in the field of bilingual education and has worked passionately on behalf of educational opportunity for all Virginia students. She was the first Latina elected to the Arlington County School Board in 2009, and she is currently the first Latina to serve as Arlington School Board Chair. I spoke with Emma recently about her experience, both as a young immigrant and as a community leader and role model; and about her views on a wide range of topics ranging from the immigrant experience to the humanities and why they matter.

DB: Why did you leave Bolivia? What brought you to the United States initially?

EVS: My father had been exiled for organizing against the government. I was one of six daughters, and my mother couldn’t support all of us in Bolivia. I had an aunt who was living in the United States at the time, and so it was decided that the three oldest girls—I was the second—would come here. I was to live with an American family and attend school. The quota for visas for immigrants from Latin America had just been raised, and sponsor – ships were available. My parents made the decision, and that was that.

DB: What was your experience, being a new immigrant to Virginia?

EVS: I came to live with a Quaker family in Lorton. I was a senior in high school. One of my sisters was living in the same neighbor – hood, but mostly I was living here without a support system. I had very limited English. Back home, I had excelled academically. Also, I had been socially very active in Bolivia… folkloric dancing was an important part of life in our community. Those cultural ties did not exist here. And I missed my family.

DB: So how did you manage, with limited English and without a community or family to support you?

EVS: What I did have was a strong back – ground in my native language, Spanish. This is one of the things that helped me to succeed academically. Strength in native language is crucial to success as a bilingual person, and maybe this is why I became interested in bilingual education later on. My host family was kind, and they gave me the support I needed. They wanted their children to learn Spanish. So I taught them Spanish and the family tutored me in English. They encouraged me to go to college. I wanted to be a teacher. In the end, I was awarded a four-year scholarship to Radford. I had a work-study grant that paid for my housing. But the kind of help that allowed me to get an education in the 1960s would not be available to me now.

DB: Why not?

EVS: I had no “permanent resident” status. I came at a time when that was not required. Today, a young person from Bolivia might be admitted to a state-supported school in Virginia. But he or she would not be eligible to receive state or federal financial aid and they would have to pay out-of-state tuition. For most of them, it’s almost impossible.

DB: How did you become a citizen?

EVS: It’s a complicated story. My first husband was killed in Vietnam, in 1968, and I went back to Bolivia after he died. I couldn’t imagine how I could survive in the U.S. with – out him, and without my family, and so I left for eight years.

DB: What did you do there, when you went home?

EVS: Back in Bolivia, I was able to use my education to establish a nonprofit organization to provide teachers for rural schools. I had come to see that education opens doors to opportunities. I began to develop myself professionally. But as a young Bolivian woman, I faced the glass ceiling and there were very few opportunities for professional growth. In fact, there was resistance.

DB: But you didn’t accept it….

EVS: I helped to create a movement of women. We would hold conferences, use the media to try to raise awareness about the need for women to be educated. But there was very little I could do to change the situation. And that’s how I made the decision to come back to the United States, in 1976, to get my doctorate in education.

DB: And to become a U.S. citizen….

EVS: I had taken that step earlier. You see, in those days, to keep my visa active, I had to come back to the U.S. at least once a year. On one of these visits, someone from Immigration Services told me that, as the widow of a veteran, I was entitled to educational benefits if I became a citizen. The process was easy and quick. And so, when I returned to the U.S. permanently in 1976, I was already a U.S. citizen, although I really didn’t yet consider myself to be.

Bolivian dancers, Columbia Pike Festival, Arlington, Virginia. PHOTO BY LLOYD WOLF.
Bolivian dancers, Columbia Pike Festival, Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Lloyd Wolf

DB: Why not?

EVS: I still didn’t feel that I really belonged here.

DB: But you didn’t feel like you belonged in Bolivia either.

EVS: The thing about the U.S. that attracted me here, and that kept me here in the end, was the promise of an education. When I came back in ’76, I settled first in Alexandria, but I soon got a job with the Arlington Public Schools. When I moved to Arlington, I slowly began to feel more at home: I could go out and have a Saltena (a traditional Bolivian pastry filled with meat and vegetables). I could be with other immigrants.

DB: What was your job with the public schools?

EVS: I was building programs to help Arlington’s immigrant communities. I used my bilingual skills. I became the first bilingual Spanish teacher in Arlington, and I started the county’s first bilingual education program. I became the supervisor of all programs for what we now call “English language learners.” I also became a community activist.

DB: An activist in what sense?

EVS: I wanted to open up opportunities for immigrants, so I started the first bilingual GED Program in Virginia. I also felt very strongly that what had happened—and was still happening to African Americans in the U.S. was unjust. When I was at Radford, I was welcomed there as a foreign student; but in those days, African Americans couldn’t attend. I thought that if I had had these opportunities, African Americans and new immigrants—all people—should have them too.

DB: You said earlier that education opens doors to opportunities. Do you mean specifically job opportunities?

EVS: Yes, but not exclusively. The United States gave me, as an immigrant, the opportunity to be where I am now; but in the process, it’s also given me the opportunity to help others, to make sure that they have similar opportunities.

DB: What about responsibilities? You’ve become a leader, a role model. What does that mean to you?

EVS: In this, the opportunities and the responsibilities are the same: to serve others; and to be a voice for people who may be—or feel themselves to be—without a voice.

DB: Identity is often complex, especially for immigrants. How do you see yourself?

EVS: I think that identity is formed through a process of development. We have to integrate multiple identities. I’m a Latina. I’m a Bolivian American. An Arlingtonian. And also an elected official, someone who is responsible to serve the entire community.

DB: And also a Virginian?

EVS: Yes, of course. Virginia gave me the educational opportunity that shaped who I became. The education I received here also gave me the tools to make a difference in my home country. The nonprofit I helped to establish all these years ago is still there. Virginia was a place where people welcomed me. At Radford, I was a foreign student, but not a “foreigner.” In Arlington, I’ve been able to be the person I really am.

DB: As a member of the VFH Board of Directors, you’ve urged us to find ways to improve the understanding of Virginia history among all Virginia students. Why does this matter?

EVS: It’s important for everyone who lives here to understand what Virginia is—and how it became what it is. How can you become rooted in a place if you don’t understand your context, the place where you are living? But it’s complicated. Today, in Arlington, 70 per – cent of the elementary school children who are learning English as a second language were born in this country, not somewhere else; and many of them were born in Virginia. Pride in being a Virginian means pride in being accepted as a Virginian, of not being looked at as a foreigner here. But for many immigrants, even for people who have been here for a long time, being a Virginian is not always the first thing that comes to mind.

DB: Why do you think that is?

EVS: In Spanish, we have the word— arraigada—which means rootedness. It’s where you sprouted, where you came up, so to speak. Once you have that, once you have a strong sense of who you are and where you come from, you can go out and discover other places. The world is open to you. But you really need to develop that sense as a child. It’s much harder to develop as you grow older. Look at it from the child’s perspective. How can you understand who you are if you can’t locate yourself in the story? You need to know where you are, the story of where you are, and also the stories of where you came from. This is something that the children of the “New Virginia” have to negotiate. And it’s very difficult.

DB: What helps to preserve, or create that sense of “rootedness” in a new place?

EVS: Your language, first of all. Knowing that you can continue to speak your language. Bilingual education is vitally important. Also, your faith and community connections. Celebrations, the cultural traditions that are native to your native land. The food, the music.

DB: What about the humanities? Why do the humanities matter?

EVS: Whenever we talk about the humanities, we’re talking about what makes a human being. What enriches you? What makes you unique? What connects you to other people? What makes a community? What brings cultures together? I think the answer to all these questions is what we call the humanities.

DB: As opposed to the so-called STEM disciplines?

EVS: I wouldn’t say “opposed.” Science, technology, engineering, math, these are important. But the humanities bring life. They bring respect and understanding. They open up the doors of history and culture.

DB: Some parts of history are extremely painful.

EVS: It’s true. History is full of wounds. But if you don’t understand and acknowledge the wounds, you can’t heal. We are all human beings. We have similar needs. At the roots, our experience is the same. Understanding is possible.

DB: What matters most to you now?

EVS: Well, my family. My family is here in Arlington, so there’s a sense of completion. Separation is a common part of the immigrant experience. Both of my children are educators. Both are now teaching the children of immigrants. I’m very proud of that. My daughter told me not long ago that in our home she learned the importance of education and also about the importance of community.

DB: Ok, so what makes a strong community? What is the “glue,” so to speak?

EVS: I’m a great believer in the power of what we call folklife, of cultural traditions like the dances in Cochabamba when I was young. Whatever builds and strengthens community, it’s important to hold onto that.

DB: Is this part of your work now, building community?

EVS: I want the schools to be a center of community; a place for welcoming immigrants, involving the families, developing the students as leaders, to help them to be contributing members of society. That’s what we were trying to do in creating the first bilingual education programs many years ago. That’s what I’m trying to do now—to raise the achievement of all students, to prepare them to be global citizens. That’s my passion.

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