The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) and the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies (CMENAS) at the University of Michigan (U-M)—both Title VI  National Resource Centers—partnered with U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) on April 17th, 2019, to host a four-hour teacher workshop entitled, “Global Intersections: Middle Eastern Diaspora and Religion in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The workshop was the creation of Alana Rodriguez (LACS Academic Programs Manager), Jessica Hill Riggs (CMENAS Academic Programs Specialist), and Rima Hassouneh (CMENAS Outreach Coordinator), who wanted to organize a training experience that highlighted the historic and cultural linkages between the two geographic regions. Bridging the two regions in this teacher workshop was particularly innovative, as they typically receive separate attention in Michigan’s curricula. The workshop was funded in large part by two Title VI grants awarded to CMENAS and LACS by the U.S. Department of Education. Thirty educators attended the workshop, receiving three State Continuing Education Clock Hours from Michigan’s Department of Education.

After an afternoon meal from a local favorite, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Bryon Maxey, who acquired an M.A. from CMENAS and previously taught social studies in Chicago and Detroit, gave an overview of migration patterns and of push and pull factors in the past four centuries. Teachers learned that, in the 1500s, the Iberian Peninsula’s edicts of expulsion, forced conversion, and conquests and settlements pushed “Moriscos, conversos, and conquistadors” into the Americas. In the 19th and 20th centuries, economic opportunity and industrialization pulled Arab communities into the Americas; they contributed robustly to local economies, civic life, and even to politics. Several presidents, in fact, were or are of Arab origin, including Carlos Menem, prime minister of Argentina 1989-1999, and Nayib Armando Bukele Ortiz, the 46th and current president of El Salvador.

Against the backdrop of the collective migration of Jews from Europe, the Balkans, and Anatolia into Cuba between 1906 and 1961, and using a remarkable array of material and nostalgic objects that included photos, posters, newspaper clippings, and even her first-grade school uniform, Dr. Ruth Behar evoked a multi-sensory and intimate account of her family’s life on the “beloved island.” The Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at U-M, Dr. Behar spoke of childhood memories and Cuban-Jewish inheritances, like the flan, blintzes, and borekas of her Ashkenazi and Sephardic grandmothers. 

Professor Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at U-M and a “big believer in outreach.” “So many teachers,” he later remarked, “are interested in our academic research findings, and it is important to communicate them in a form that can be used in high school classrooms.” His lecture explained why 1.2 million Ottoman citizens—mainly Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians—migrated to the Americas and the Caribbean between 1860 and 1914. These immigrants significantly influenced local culture and religion. To illustrate this, Dr. Cole spoke of Shakira, singer and daughter of a Lebanese immigrant in Colombia; she popularized Arab dance and music in Latin America and beyond. And, in twentieth-century Guyana, the Shi’ite Ashura processions were appropriated and localized into Carnival as Hosay. Dr. Cole also shared a saying that epitomized the phenomenon of migration and settlement: “In every village in Chile there’s a Palestinian, a priest, and a policeman.”

In the fourth session of the workshop, “Reimagining the Migrant Experience,” Dr. Pamela Reister and Grace VanderVliet of UMMA Education used a visual archive of photos and prints to challenge portrayals of suffering and anonymous migrants and to instead appreciate them as multi-dimensional agents. Besides skills in visual literacy, the training stressed culturally responsive teaching, which recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.

To align the teaching of the new content with Michigan’s academic standards, CMENAS and LACS contracted the expertise of the Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research (CEDER) at U-M’s School of Education. In the final session, its design coordinator, Dr. Darin Stockdill, explored pedagogical strategies for integrating the content into multiple-grade curricula. CEDER also produced for each teacher a 42-page packet of resources and “ready-to-go” middle- and high-school lessons based on historical case studies. Lastly, the teachers each received Lucky Broken Girl, by Professor Behar and a companion educator guide; Arabs in the Americas, edited by Darcy A. Zabel; and So Far From Allah, So Close to Mexico, by Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp. Afterwards, five teachers received grants from LACS to develop curricular units exploring the intersections between the Middle East and Latin America and the Caribbean.

The workshop ended on high notes of enthusiasm and confidence. “This was one of the best examples of professional development I’ve had in my career,” wrote Barbara Gazda of Hartland High School the next morning. “[We] were given great content and then some ideas about how to teach it.” Referring to how the pieces of information fit together, another teacher remarked, “I loved learning how the different religions traveled, and what the push and pull factors were. Now I understand why my first ESL student was a Palestinian from Venezuela!!”