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When families scatter

• A class explores the lasting effects of leaving roots behind

Reed College graduate and world policy wonk Mira Kamdar is speaking to a tough audience Ñ a classroom of Roosevelt High School students, some of them just putting in their time a few months from graduation.

Her topic is a hard sell: family history, beginning with her grandmother's arranged marriage in India 80 years ago and half a world away from this class.

She wows 'em.

These kids, it turns out, are interested in family history. Many of them have stories of their own, including one about a grandmother who lost her home in the 1948 Vanport flood, and another about a 17-year-old, alone in Portland, with a family back in Mexico.

The common theme of these stories is diaspora Ñ the scattering of people who once shared common backgrounds or beliefs.

Catherine Theriault, who co-teaches this new, yearlong Environmental Community class with Seth Niederberger, says the students are collecting family stories about diaspora and other themes as one way of learning about the social and environmental forces that shaped their North Portland neighborhood.

Before Kamdar's visit, Theriault says, the ethnically diverse class had already studied the African-American diaspora as it relates to Vanport, a mixed-race community that once existed at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. When it was destroyed by flood in 1948, many of its residents Ñ already uprooted from their mainly Southern cultural communities Ñ had to move again.

One of those residents was Willie May Call, who came to Vanport from South Carolina to be closer to her husband, then stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Call's grandson, John Davis, 18, is in the Environmental Community class. Davis says he talked to Call about family history 'all the time' before her death last July, at age 80. One of her stories was about the Vanport flood.

'It was a very hot day,' Davis says, recalling the story told by Call and by his uncle, who was just Davis' age when the flood occurred.

'People thought it was heat waves coming up the street, but it was water. Grandpa grabbed four tailor-made suits; he was just out of the service and didn't have many clothes. Grandma was baking a chicken and making banana pudding. The food got washed away; their unit was swept away.'

Many of Vanport's former residents, like Call, chose to move to North Portland, Theriault says. The area continues to attract immigrants from many places.

'The Hmong (Laotian tribe) community first settled here in the 1970s, one of the first settlements in the United States,' she says. 'And today, the fastest growing community in North Portland is Hispanic.

'This is a richly diverse environment made up of many who have been uprooted from their first culture. Kamdar's father's journey mirrors that of many of our students' families.'

An arranged marriage

The story of Kamdar's family, which she wrote about in her well-received book 'Motiba's Tattoos: A Granddaughter's Journey Into Her Indian Family's Past,' was familiar to the Roosevelt students before she spoke at the school last month.

Copies of her book had been provided to them by Literary Arts Inc., a Portland-based, statewide nonprofit organization whose programs include Writers in the Schools. Literary Arts also provided the class with a writer-in-residence for an intensive three-week writing workshop last fall, sponsored Kamdar's visit, and will have another writer help the students publish a literary magazine this spring.

For the benefit of any students who hadn't quite finished her book, Kamdar briefly explained that her grandmother was 15 years old when her family arranged for her to be married to a 19-year-old stranger.

Not only was her bridegroom much poorer than she, but he was a celibate follower of Mohandas 'Mahatma' Gandhi with no desire for a wife.

'After the ceremony, he leads my grandmother over to his mother and says, 'You wanted a daughter-in-law; here she is,' ' Kamdar told the rapt class. 'Then he's gone Ñ for six years. He turned her into a widow, and a widow is the worst thing you can be in India.'

Although Gandhi eventually released Kamdar's grandfather from his vow of celibacy and the couple had children, Kamdar said his failure to achieve his ambition of remaining with Gandhi haunted him for the rest of his life.

In 1941, Kamdar said, her grandparents were living in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), when the Japanese bombed it, forcing them to flee.

Later they returned to Burma but were stripped of their riches and then expelled by the Burmese government. This, Kamdar said, was one aspect of her family's diaspora.

'The story of my grandmother's life and the lives of her descendants is the story of leaving home, of losing one's tribe,' Kamdar wrote in 'Motiba's Tattoos.' 'It is the story É of the transition from rootedness to rootlessness, of moving until you no longer know who you are and have forgotten who you once were.'

Roosevelt class member Marisa Aguilar could relate to that.

'I took a dance class in Mexico,' she told Kamdar wistfully, 'and I liked it a lot.' She no longer has time for such things, she said, because she works as a waitress.

A family's travels

In a post-class interview, Aguilar, 18, was more expansive and upbeat about the transitions in her life.

Yes, she has to work two jobs to help support her extended family. And yes, the 43 to 51 hours she spends on those jobs each week, not counting transportation time, caused her to have problems completing another, required course Ñ which is how she ended up belatedly joining Theriault and Niederberger's class in January.

But to Aguilar, these are just the downsides of her own choices.

Born in Mexico, she lived in the United States between the ages of 3 and 12. Then, she and her mother returned to the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City.

'I didn't like it,' she says of life in Mexico. So she took her mother up on her agreement to let her return to the United States when she could support herself, dropped out of school at 16, and worked until she could pay for her own airplane ticket.

In Portland, Aguilar initially lived with an aunt. When she discovered that her plan to finish high school at a community college would result in a high school equivalency diploma, she decided to enroll at Roosevelt so she could get a regular diploma.

In the vernacular of this class, Aguilar's family has undergone its own, Mexican-American diaspora. It no longer has a set of shared beliefs: Aguilar's mother, who now lives with her in Portland, wants to go back to Mexico, and her aunt tells Aguilar that 'you guys just go to school to slack off; you're lazy.'

But, unlike Kamdar's relatives, Aguilar has not lost her sense of who she is as she's moved between two cultures.

On the contrary, she says, she sees the difference between herself and her relatives in a positive light.

'We've always been put down because we don't have education,' she says. 'That's my challenge. I'm trying to be an example for the rest of them.'

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..