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Letters to immigrant students tell a teacher's story of sacrifice

Before Emily Francis became a teacher in North Carolina, she made a long and dangerous journey across Guatemala and Mexico.
Rodrigo Gaudenzi
La Noticia
Before Emily Francis became a teacher in North Carolina, she made a long and dangerous journey across Guatemala and Mexico.

This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE and La Noticia. You can read it in Spanish at La Noticia. Puedes leer la nota en español en La Noticia.

At 13, Emily Francis was living in a hand-built shelter and raising her younger siblings on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

Thirty years later, her life is very different. After a long and at times dangerous journey, Francis now teaches English as a second language at Concord High School.

In her new book, “If You Only Knew: Letters from an Immigrant Teacher,” she tells her story and speaks directly to immigrant students living similar experiences.

“I do feel like these letters are some sort of navigation system,” Francis said. “Each letter has a different theme and a way that I connect with students, and I'm hoping that as they go through these letters, they'll find one and say, ‘Oh, that's me!’”

The letters are something Francis says she wishes she had received when she arrived in the United States as a lost teenager.

“Students need to know that I struggled through it, that I dropped out of high school, that I didn't make it until I pushed myself through it. Once students know that, they know they can come to you to say, ‘How can I do this?’” she said. “I do share my story with them because I don't want them to think that this route to become a teacher was a piece of cake.”

Francis took on a lot of responsibility from a young age. She was barely a teenager when her mother left Guatemala for the United States to work and earn money for the family. At that time, the concept of parenting her younger sibling wasn’t new to Francis.

Emily Francis, right, hugs her mother, Leslie Bonilla, who brought her family from Guatemala to the United States 30 years ago.
Emily Francis
Emily Francis, right, hugs her mother, Leslie Bonilla, who brought her family from Guatemala to the United States nearly 30 years ago.

“She worked countless hours, and I was used to taking care of the kids,” Francis said. “I was excited because I knew she was going to a country where she would have the opportunity to work and send us money... but sad at the same time. We didn't have that role model to tell us what to do, to guide us.”

For two years, Francis and her siblings lived in a structure they built in a neighbor’s yard. The money their mother sent home was their lifeline, to buy essential items like food and shoes. That period was when Francis started writing letters.

“From day one, my mother was in New York City writing letters, telling us what she was doing, and we did the same thing. We would write letters, expressing how sad we were, happy we were, and anything we wanted to tell her,” Francis said.

Her letters were among the essential items Francis saved in a backpack at age 15, during a two-month journey, led by a smuggler, from Guatemala to New York.

"Internally, I was fighting the fear because I had two little girls who were depending on me. We spent a lot of time in different hotels and motels. I would wait for them to fall asleep before I fell asleep, and before I fell asleep, here I am thinking, ‘Am I going to wake up tomorrow?’” Francis said.

Emily Francis, right, wants her immigrants students to know that their stories matter.
Emily Francis
Emily Francis, right, chose to work with high school English-language students because she relates to their stories.

As a teacher, she wants immigrant students to understand that they aren’t alone in their experiences. Each letter of her book is dedicated to a different student, with their names changed, like this excerpt for Jaime:

When you told me this morning that you were going to miss class tomorrow because you were going to go get your picture taken for your United States passport, I don't know which one of us was more excited. Well, you, of course. But I was a close second. We celebrated and cheered in my classroom. And now, hours later, I'm still celebrating for you. I know how scared you've been over the last few months, wondering if you would get sent back to Guatemala. But now you know you're safe. And I couldn't be happier and more proud of you.

Over the years, Francis has learned to cherish the value of the immigrant journey, her cultural roots and the sacrifices made for family.

Her letters, new and old, have become a symbol of Francis’ gratitude for her mother. She still holds onto those letters that accompanied her all those years ago as a teenager in Guatemala.

“I have this beautiful binder where we all get together and we read them. We cry, we laugh, we say, ‘What!? You told that to Mom?’ It was just amazing to go back and look at the things that we went through for those two years while she wasn't with us,” Francis said.

When Francis gave her mother a copy of the book, she included a personal dedication.

“In my note to her was, ‘There would be no story if it wasn't because of [you].’ This book would not exist if it wasn't for her, because of her strength, because of her ideas, because of everything she did. There would be no story,” Francis said. “So, I thank her because of everything she has done, for me to be able to now say, ‘Your daughter is an author.’”

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.