For many children of Mexican immigrants living in Napa, accounts of their family’s often harrowing first border crossings into the U.S. have remained unspoken.

A group of Napa High students is taking the first step in capturing these stories of sacrifice and perseverance through their “Las Voces de los Mexicanos: Napa Valley Oral History Project.”

“Our understanding of this project did not kick in until Melissa (Bravo) and I conducted the first interview,” said student Jesus Sanchez. “During that interview, the woman broke down in tears while sharing how she was forced to leave her parents behind in Mexico.

“At that moment, I realized we were not just asking questions to random people; we were capturing life stories and preserving them for the Historical Society forever.”

Bravo said interviewing a man who made multiple attempts to enter the country before finally succeeding was an eye-opening experience. It made her realize how much her own mother had risked to provide her children with opportunities that she often took for granted.

“Most importantly, this project made me realize that I have been very ungrateful,” said Bravo. “My mother fought for what she wanted; she sacrificed her youth for herself and her family — not like me. I have been handed everything.”

Yesenia Gonzalez said she was moved when she read the transcript of an interview with Angel Tovar who said he left Mexico not in search of economic prosperity, but rather to avoid being another victim in the ongoing drug wars.

“I’ve seen the news stories about the violence, so his was a story that stayed with me,” she said.

Rich Hernandez, a coach with Leadership Academy Youth Leaders in Action (LAYLA), enlisted four junior-year students to work on the oral history project.

The preliminary results were presented earlier this month at the Goodman Library. Although the issue of legal status was not specifically discussed during the presentation, many of the stories shared by the students dealt with circumstances frequently experienced by those arriving in the U.S. illegally.

The 10 interviewees were mostly parents of students attending McPherson Elementary School. The LAYLA students got advice on interviewing techniques from the staff of the Napa County Historical Society.

“Working on this project has helped me develop a better understanding of what people have to go through to obtain a brighter future for themselves and their families,” said Nancy Gonzalez, a student interviewer.

“I am now encouraged even more to take advantage of all of the opportunities I am given, because many parents risked their lives to come to this country so that their children can have the opportunities that I have.”

This oral history project will open a dialogue about the importance of Napa’s immigrant population, said Mari Martinez, a local Spanish media personality and St. Helena Public Library Spanish and Bilingual Service associate.

“I’m very grateful because there has been a lot talk from different people about doing this kind of project for a long time, but it just seemed like so much work. But now seeing that students like you are doing it, it’s like ‘Si se puede’ (‘Yes, we can’),” said Martinez.

The students are still working to translate and transcribe the interviews. They expect that their oral histories will be ready for the Historical Society archives by the end of the school year.

These tales of border crossings, separated families, self-sacrifice and the search for the American Dream will take their rightful place alongside the histories of other immigrant groups, which have all played an important role in the growth and development of the Napa Valley.

“It’s a great demographic for us: research on an underserved population, performed by an underrepresented demographic in our membership and in our programs,” said Historical Society Director Nancy Levenberg

“It’s a group that really has a lot history, but nothing had been written or preserved,” she said. “This is what we call a win-win-win-win.”