NC State Community’s Immigration Stories Presented by the Dance Program and Arts NC State

Looking into the mirror, you will see traces of your ancestors. The physical features, the movements, gestures and expressions…your parents, grandparents and back through the generations are right there in your DNA.

Only .09 percent of today’s U.S. population is Indigenous, meaning that the remaining population descended from immigrants, or are immigrants themselves. The promise of a better life in America has been a beacon of light for people for centuries — and still is.

For Tara Zaffuto Mullins, director of the NC State Dance Program, the story of her paternal grandmother’s immigration from Sicily, Italy, to New York in the early 1900s called to her in a very personal way.

“Maddalena Lucchese was the same age my daughter is now — only 16 years old — when she and her aunt left everything they had ever known to find a better life in America,” Mullins said.

“Her story inspires me tremendously because she was so young, and so brave to make that trip and arrive in a new land where everything was unfamiliar, including the language. She settled in New York and worked in a factory sewing buttons onto sweaters. When she died at 94 years of age, you could see the toll this work had on her fingers; they were deformed from the tedious work.”

Immigrant Story Inspired Creation of "Against the Railing"

The story of Maddalena is the original inspiration for Mullins’ choreographed piece, Against the Railing, first created in 2007 to capture the sacrifices her grandmother made in her own life, and for the lives of her children. In the original choreographed piece there are two characters at first: a soloist dancer and a trunk – the kind that people brought with them when immigrating. Later in the performance they are joined by more dancers; collectively they move through the story of courage, loss, opportunity and new beginnings.

“In recent years there has been so much dehumanizing talk about immigrants, about the wall. I not only choreographed some additional sections, but I also rethought the project and wanted it to reflect the stories of the immigrants that are living right here in our NC State community,” Mullins said.

In February 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, Mullins completed the updated version, which was scheduled to be performed in April. “We couldn’t perform this dance with the social distancing restrictions, so the only choice was to re-work it into a pandemic version with social distancing and masks as part of the piece. This was part of our series called "Concert From Your Couch.”

NC State Community’s Immigration Stories

Addressing her wish to reflect the stories of immigration in the NC State community, the Minnesota Immigrant Story Project influenced Mullins and fueled her vision and enthusiasm for recording the following short stories of immigration told by NC State University community members.

Each video can be seen as a microcosm of, or a dancer among dancers within the larger immigration story conveyed through the performance of Against the Railing.

Athena He-Demontaron

My mother is Chinese, my father is French, and I am both Chinese and French… and American. Sometimes multicultural and multi-racial people refer to themselves as half this and half that, but that can create a sense of being less than, because half is less than a whole.

I grew up immersed in Chinese culture: language, dance and customs – as well as in the culture of French cooking. I understand that my experience is very different from most of my college friends’ experiences. I try to uphold what it means to be an American – being genuine in everything I do and valuing all the parts of me.

-- Athena He-Demontaron (animal science ’23, Chinese studies minor)

LilyGrace Wolfe

As an infant in China, a police officer found me in a box in a park. He took me to an orphanage where I lived for almost a year until my American family found me. My mom wrote letters to me throughout my life and kept them in a journal, which she recently gave to me.

On the day of my adoption, my mom wrote, “Finally number nine was called, and we ran in…we have a priceless video of being handed LilyGrace. This is the tiniest little girl we have ever seen. Her eyelashes must be ¾ inch long and her eyes are huge and black as coal. We doubted her age until later when she began to play and crawl.”

My parents were really good at celebrating adoption and teaching me to feel good about it, and that this is part of my story. They helped me celebrate and remember where I came from, so my adoption story is very positive; I’m very blessed to have this be part of my story.

-- LilyGrace Wolfe (communication media ’21, art studies minor)

Jenna Finkelstein

To be a Jewish German citizen in the late 1930s was very dangerous. When my grandmother was five years old, her family narrowly escaped the horrors. The U.S. was no longer accepting Jewish refugees, and my grandfather could only get visas from Uruguay. The family of four took a boat to Uruguay and became farmers, but it was hard being in a different country with a new language and missing a strong Jewish community.

I have such a deep appreciation for the life of security that I live here. As a result, I have an obligation to support immigrants and the rights of people who are escaping violence and discrimination, and to welcome them with open arms.

-- Jenna Finkelstein (biochemistry ’21, dance minor)

Carmen Bollman

When my mom was 20 years old, the same age I am now, she knew her only hope for a future was to flee the Civil War in El Salvador; it broke her heart to leave. I applaud her courage to leave, yet to this day she lives in fear. She was ashamed of her culture and has hidden it, and her language. Yet, with her family, she shares some of the beautiful traditions.

One day we were in the grocery store laughing and speaking Spanish. A little girl looked at us in terror, and her father warned her to get away from people like us. I wanted to react, but mom took the high road. Even though she’s the most scared, she’s also the bravest.

Only when I got to university did I realize that people don’t care if I’m different. Here, we celebrate our differences. Here, I’m conquering my fears and helping mom conquer her own fears.

-- Carmen Bollman (biochemistry major ’21)

Madison Johnson

A lot of conditions had to go right for me to be here. My ancestor immigrated from Ireland in 1770 as a stowaway on a boat where he met the woman who would be his wife. They found their way to West Virginia and started their life together. One of their sons was attacked by a bear and nearly died. If he hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be here!

My great great grandmother, Alice, was a teen mother – pretty scandalous at the time. She had my great grandmother, and to this day we don’t know who the father is. This is what distinguishes my family line…the unknown man. I have Alice’s hairbrush; it’s beautiful.

I’m reminded that we are divided by the lines that someone drew on the land. So much depends on which side of the line you were born on. My eyes are open as I listen to other people’s stories and discover my own. I feel less entitled to the land, and also very lucky, because I could have just as easily been born anywhere.

-- Madison Johnson ’20

Aubrey Dixson

My family is deeply rooted in North Carolina – I see it as more than a home; my whole family has been here for so long. I feel proud to be who I am and where I come from.

My mom’s side came from Poland and Canada and made their way to North Carolina. Dad’s side are Cherokee Indians, the original inhabitants of Iredell County. We can trace the line back to 1810. We don’t have many stories, but we do have pictures.

My grandpa was Henry Troutman – of the Troutman line. The town of Troutman is named for my ancestors. We have these wonderful family reunions there with huge catch-all buffets filled with traditional foods like fried chicken, deviled eggs. We have family reunions in Troutman, about 25 miles north of Charlotte.

Henry Troutman was the Sheriff for Iredell County and now my brother is a detective for the same county. It’s come full circle. I appreciate where I come from.

-- Aubrey Dixson ’20

Breielle Sheller

My mom, Mary, came from Jalisco, Mexico to California carried in my grandmother’s womb. My grandmother and great grandmother wanted to escape for many reasons, including domestic violence. They wanted a better life for my mom. They crossed the border on what was a sheltered wagon. It’s so bizarre to think about these hardships, the courage they had. I’ve never had to do any of this.

They arrived in California and were alone, the three of them, living as migrant fruit pickers; they were technically homeless at first. They found their way, and when my mom started school, she didn’t speak any English. Today, schools have resources for kids who don’t speak English, but back then there were no options.

It’s important to listen to stories about legal and illegal immigration. Don’t be so judgmental; often the conversation stops at this issue, but there’s a whole field of ethics that should be considered. I think more about how people feel and why. Maybe they are going through something way bigger than I can understand.

-- Breielle Sheller (technology, design and engineering education ’21)

Terryn Queen

We’re Spanish, Portuguese, French, Irish, Scottish, British, Brazilian, Mexican, Swedish, Native American, and African.

There’s been a lot of immigrating in my family at different points of time. I was adopted as a child and didn’t grow up knowing about my biological family’s traditions. But in 2018, I met my biological family. I learned that we’re big in theater and education – that we value getting a college degree and continue to educate ourselves. We’re big on being multilingual. I carry this ability and speak Japanese, Chinese and other languages.

I’m told I look just like my paternal grandmother who, as legend has it, wrestled a tiger while on her farm in Texas. My other grandmothers were very feisty and sassy – my aunts are the same way, and I’m like this too.

When you know who you are, it adds to your growth. You can advance in life, so you know your place, what your family has been through, where they came from, this is my heritage and culture – and how it runs through me so I can make it better.

-- Terryn Queen ’20

Hannah Wubbenhorst

My maternal great grandfather came to New York in the 1930s-40s from Martinique, in the French Caribbean Islands, and found work in the restaurant world. My grandfather and siblings stayed back in Martinique and couldn’t leave until the German blockade ended – they were starving. When my grandfather was 14 years old, they finally could travel. They took the ferry and trains; they received help from the Negro porters because they didn’t speak English.

My grandfather spoke only French and was working in his father’s restaurant when he declared he wanted to pursue higher education. This created a family tizzy because he was breaking the tradition of following the father’s path.

As someone who comes from a multi-race heritage I now have a bigger perspective; I see that I don’t have to have one foot in only one tradition. My grandfather kept the rich French and West Indian traditions alive, and I appreciate this. Even now at college, I remember that it’s a privilege, that I have a legacy to continue. When I look at the aspirations of my ancestors, I realize they sacrificed a lot for me.

-- Hannah Wubbenhorst (animal science ’21, dance minor)

Stories Educate and Heal

Mullins hopes to continue the filmed immigration story project on a greater scale with more faculty and staff.

“I believe that sharing stories like these could both educate and heal.”

If you are interested in sharing your family’s immigration story, contact Mullins, at tzmullin@ncsu.edu.

This project is just one example of the work of the Dance Program and Arts NC State.

Arts NC State advocates on behalf of an exciting and diverse collective of visual and performing arts programs. By fostering collaboration, coordination, shared resources, cross-promotion, and mutual support among these programs, Arts NC State enriches the lives of students while serving the community, region and state. As a part of Arts NC State, the Dance Program takes a content driven, research based approach to creating meaningful art. We believe in the importance of the creative process. We value projects like this one, that combine artistic mediums as a way to give voice to our stories. We believe that art is essential to the human experience.


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