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ASU sociologist studies immigration through kids

A second-generation immigrant studies work she did as a child to understand how American immigration affects children

Emir Estrada's family run street vendor booth, seen in 2009 in Los Angeles.

Emir Estrada's family run street vendor booth, seen in 2009 in Los Angeles.

Born in the U.S. and raised in Mexico, an ASU sociology professor knows what it is like to live as a first-generation immigrant.

When she was growing up, Emir Estrada worked with her parents in a family-owned grocery store. These experiences led her to research the role Latino children play in family work relationships.

“I worked in a little grocery store where my entire family helped,” Estrada said. “My mother was a teacher as well, and when she would go teach, I would stay and work until she came back, and we closed the store together.”

When she was 17, Estrada and her family moved back to the U.S. There, she worked a few more jobs with her mom, like cleaning houses and working in kitchens, before enrolling in her local community college.

“One of my sociology classes gave me the freedom of writing about whatever I wanted,” she said. “I researched Latino children and work and found that there wasn’t much written about them.”

Estrada said it wasn’t until she enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Southern California that she was able to work with her professors to narrow down her topic of study and get involved in her research.

What really got her into the field, however, was selling her car.

“In order to afford grad school, I had to sell my car and start taking public transportation everywhere,” Estrada said. “The bus took me on routes I wouldn’t have normally taken if I were driving, and I ran into a lot of street vendors in Los Angeles.”

She said she started buying food from the vendors pretty often and began to notice that there were more children there in the afternoons. Thus, her idea was born.

“Living so close to the area gave me the opportunity to look at family work relations in the public sphere,” she said. “I conducted an ethnography, interviewing 66 child vendors. We talked about their immigration and what it’s like working with parents, their school and aspirations, what it’s like to street vend, things like that.”

But interviewing the kids was only the first step. From there, she identified 15 families to interview. Of those 15, she chose five to shadow.

The shadowing process consisted of Estrada doing everything with a family for two months.

“I spent time with them in the field, went street vending with them, went to their homes, went to the hospital when they got sick, went to church with them, went dancing, went to Halloween parties; any time I had the opportunity to join them, I was there,” she said.

Estrada cleared her calendar for these few months and adopted the families as her own. She said that one of the main things she noticed while observing these vendor families was that the boys are less involved with the family business because they are given more freedom to make decisions.

Now, Estrada is a professor at ASU but continues her research as well.

“I continue my research in L.A. and I’ve started two more based in L.A. and Mexico,” she said. “I’ve only been in Arizona for a year, so I’m still trying to transition and get to know the area before I think about starting research here.”

As a professor, Estrada uses her research to help teach her sociology students.

“I’m teaching an immigration and ethnic studies class at ASU and one of the assignments I’m having my students do involves learning outside the classroom, which they’re very reluctant to do,” she said. “I’m having them interview an immigrant. I use my research to show how those interviews can be done and what you can learn from them.”

Estrada said she could sense some hesitance from her students when they first got the assignment, as interviewing people they didn't know was an intimidating task. But she said she believes it is important to learn outside of the classroom and see how what you’re studying affects real people.

Alma Varon, an English literature sophomore in Estrada's Immigration and Ethnic Relations class, said that she took the class because of her family's immigrant history.

"I chose to take this class because my family has an immigration background and I thought this class would help me understand more of what my family went through," Varon said. "My grandparents were Mexican farm workers that came to the U.S., and my grandfather was actually part of the Bracero program."

Varon says the class is one of her favorites not only because of the subject, but also because she can discuss it with her family, who has experienced it firsthand.

"Due to family, I see the immigrant perspective specifically through the lens of a farm worker, and it was really eye-opening to look at a different perspective," she said. "I was very impressed by how the children of these vendors contributed so much to the earnings of the family. They are real entrepreneurs."

Mechanical engineering freshman Alve Diaz is also enrolled in Estrada's Immigration and Ethnic Relations class. She said the class leaves her considering a major change to a field within social sciences.

"I chose to take this class because the idea of relocation and cultural assimilation captured my interest, and I wished to learn more about the topic," Diaz said. "I believe that Dr. Estrada's research on family street vendors in L.A. put things into perspective for me, as it depicts the way children are putting their studies aside in order to help their family gain income."

Diaz said she thinks the assignment to interview an immigrant will be a valuable experience that she most likely would not have encountered had it not been for Estrada's class.

"A lot of times, we sit in class and understand the lectures, but we don't always have personal experiences to apply these to," she said. "Interviewing someone who has been directly affected by the political and social measures that have been taken to alter the way immigration works, gives us a better understanding of how individuals are responding to these changes and how it is they have been received in the United States."

Diaz said Estrada's class and research changed her view of immigration and further helped her appreciate cultural assimilation.

"Although I am a second-generation immigrant, meaning I am the daughter of immigrants, I assumed that everyone in my position had the same experiences I had," Diaz said. "I have learned more about different immigrant experiences and political actions on the topic and am thankful for the opportunities this class has provided."

Estrada also partners with ABC Services, a foster care organization in Tempe, and she gives students extra credit points if they volunteer there or at other such organizations.

“I think it is important for students to give back to students who are less privileged than they are,” she said. “In the University setting, we should provide opportunities for students to be a part of change, and I don’t think it’s too hard for me to offer them some extra points to encourage them to go for that.”

Varon volunteers at the Asher House, tutoring in reading, writing and music.

"Although I have not volunteered yet, I will be doing so this week," Varon said. "I am so excited to help. I feel that if we as people encourage each other and help each other, we can help see the potential that people did not realize they had."

Reach the reporter at or follow @alexisegeland on Twitter.

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