Five middle-schoolers from rural Tulare County had perfect sources for their History Day immigration project -- their parents, immigrants from Mexico and Portugal.
Research became a living, breathing exploration as the young teens from Kings River Elementary School in Kingsburg interviewed their loved ones over the past few months, hearing family stories for the first time: Kidnappings during a harrowing border crossing; poverty their parents sought to escape in their native countries; and struggles they faced in their adopted home, trying to carve out a piece of the "American Dream."
"I think they felt really touched that our project revolves around our families and their stories," said Julissa Lopez, 13.
Their project is just one of many from the central San Joaquin Valley bound for the state History Day competition, Friday through Sunday in Riverside.
There are almost 1,000 students from 20 California counties participating in this years state competition, said Craig Petinak with the Riverside County Office of Education, which is hosting the event. Of those, 169 students are from the central San Joaquin Valley: 84 from Fresno County, 48 from Kern County, and 37 from Tulare County, Petinak said.
Kings River, a K-8 just east of Kingsburg in Tulare County, is sending 17 students advancing after placing first or second at the county level for a project in one of five categories: Exhibit, performance, documentary, paper or website.
Their performances spotlight present-day issues like immigration, water and the environment, and struggles women face in the work force by connecting the subjects to history -- such as California's Gold Rush and "Rosie the Riveter," a character widely used to encourage women to join industry jobs during World War II to help with the war effort.
Other Kings River projects include a documentary on child labor injustices and an exhibit featuring interviews with American soldiers taken prisoner in WWII and the Vietnam War.
"We are a very small school," said Patrick Delgado, a sixth-grade teacher and History Day coach at Kings River. "We're a K-8 school, 450 kids, and our population is very low-income, and they'll be competing against the big guys in L.A., San Diego, Sacramento -- and we're always very competitive. It's like the little mouse that roars, you know?"
While most contestants still ask, "Where is Tulare County?" Delgado said, Kings River is carving out a name for the place -- having sent students to the state competition for the past 13 years.
It's a tradition that began with a woman dubbed "Mrs. History Day" -- recently retired Kings River teacher Janet Kelly.
Studying history is important for this reason, Kelly says: Students can either learn to emulate actions taken in the past, or they can work to avoid making the same mistakes.
So that is the value "you get from being able to be an observer," she said, "and then internalize things and evaluate them and then to grow a heart for people -- because history is simply the story of human beings -- those kinds of intrinsic values are the things I hope most for them."
Dressed in suspenders and wide-brimmed hats, Alfredo Antonio, 13, and Victor Perez, 14, played the characters of California gold miners from the mid-1800s while rehearsing their presentation Wednesday at Kings River.
The educational skit, titled "Hydraulic mining: The right to get out the gold vs. the responsibility to protect the environment," plays off this year's national History Day theme: "Rights and Responsibilities."
The pair described hydraulic mining -- high-pressure water jets used to dislodge rock in the mountains in search of gold -- along with its devastating effects, including hazardous mercury used in gold mining that washed into rivers.
"Nature washed all the gravel, sand, mud and mercury into the Valley, burying farmlands under tons of mining debris and polluting the rivers," Alfredo said.
The health of the land is personal for Victor and Alfredo, whose parents make a living picking and packing fruit.
The duo asked the audience: Who has the right to the land, and who should be held responsible for its contamination?
"A new kind of hydraulic mining has been used -- fracking," Alfredo said toward the end of the presentation. "Just like the Gold Rush, fracking uses waters and chemicals to get out the new gold -- oil and natural gas."
Another project, an exhibit, displayed interviews with American prisoners of war, along with U.S. groups that help support them.
Destiny Meza, 12, was shocked by stories she heard. One that stuck in her mind: A soldier temporarily paralyzed after being hung from his hands and feet while captive in Vietnam.
To honor the five girls who worked on the project, the motorcycle group Rolling Thunder -- who advocate for POWs and soldiers missing in action -- served as a motorcade for the Kings River students as they departed for Riverside on Thursday.
Before the bus departed, the school gathered outside to wish them well and wave goodbye to chants of "USA, USA" led by students, accompanied by the roar of a cluster of motorcycle engines.
Morgan Waldner, 13, dressed up as the iconic "Rosie the Riveter" for her presentation that highlighted American women's evolving role in the work force since WWII. To inform her act, she interviewed several women in their 90s who worked as riveters and welders during the war.
Bright and cheery with bouncy blonde hair, Morgan ended her performance with bicep flexed and a patriotic salute.
"I myself plan to be a Rosie of the future and further their work in industry," Morgan said after her performance. Morgan, whose mother Louann Waldner is the dean overseeing career technical and engineering programs at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, thinks she might like to be a civil engineer when she grows up, or maybe even a welder.
"I definitely want to make sure most women or young ladies who see this performance take away that women can do it. Don't let anyone underestimate you because you can do it."
The five students who worked on the immigration presentation interviewed immigrants from Yemen, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and the Azores -- islands off Portugal. They also interviewed Dolores Huerta, 84, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union. They learned of protests she was involved in, including one where she was severely beaten, to advocate for the civil rights of labor workers.
The students' presentation explored differing ideas of the American Dream, starting with America's first immigrants and ending with their own parents' stories.
Julissa learned her dad was kidnapped at age 12 while crossing the border from Mexico, and was held captive at ransom for four months.
"He said it was really scary for him," Julissa said. "Not so much for himself, but because his sister was with him and he thought they would do something to her."
Did their families like the presentation?
"My mom started crying," said Jairo Aguilar, 13.
"I think everybody's mom started crying when they saw this," added Isabel Magana, 13.
The presentation began with a familiar American poem engraved on a bronze plaque hung in the Statue of Liberty museum: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..."
"To me what stuck out is immigration isn't something recent, it's been going on for a very long time," Julissa said of what she learned. "I didn't think it went that far back."
The presentation ended with the five young people standing tall and saying their names, one by one, proudly holding large photographs of their parents.
In unison they declared, loud and strong, "And we are not afraid to say our names because we are the American Dream!"
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, email@example.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.