Harvest of Empire

Middle School and High School

Introduction to Unit of Study by Director, Eduardo Lopez


“We are all Americans of the New World, and our most dangerous enemies are not each other, but the great wall of ignorance between us.”

Juan González, Harvest of Empire


The rapid growth of the nation's Latino community has sparked heated national debate over immigration, yet the reality is that many of us know little about the true roots of migration or the powerful forces that brought so many immigrants from Latin America to the United States. Based on the landmark book by journalist Juan González, the award-winning documentary Harvest of Empire explores the hidden history of our nation's Latino community, and takes an unflinching look at the role that U.S. military actions and economic interests played in triggering unprecedented waves of migration from the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico.

From the wars for territorial expansion that gave the U.S. control of Puerto Rico, Cuba and half of Mexico, to the covert operations that imposed oppressive military regimes in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Harvest of Empire unveils a moving human story that is largely unknown to the great majority of citizens in the U.S.

Today, Latino children represent the largest and fastest growing minority population in the nation's public schools. Some 25 percent of all the children in the U.S. are Latino, and Census figures estimate that more than 500,000 young Latinos will turn 18 every year -- for the next 20 years. As one of the country’s largest immigrant gateways, the Washington metropolitan area experienced similar growth. In fact, the number of Latinos in the region increased a startling 98 percent since 2000, and nearly 200,000 Latino children are currently attending public schools throughout the region.

Learning how the living history portrayed in Harvest of Empire impacts Central American students in the classroom today is of vital importance for any teacher, counselor or school-based administrator working in Virginia. By using selected segments from the film, educators and students can better understand the migration story of their community, and open an enlightening window into the unique Central American family dynamic that affects Latino academic achievement, graduation rates and parental involvement.

Harvest of Empire is a moving, inspiring and often heartbreaking film that must be experienced by any educator working with Latino students and their parents. The documentary offers a multitude of opportunities for lesson plans and classroom discussions designed to:

  • Challenge negative stereotypes of Latino immigrants.
  • Raise awareness about the true origins of the Latino presence in the U.S.
  • Focus attention on the contributions of Latino immigrants to our society.
  • Expose the harsh language being used to describe Latinos in the media.
  • Develop a deeper understanding for the real life impact of U.S. foreign policy.

Lesson Summaries

Lesson 1:

Finding Commonalties across Time & Place: Themes of Immigration across History

Is there a common “immigration experience” shared by all or is each experience unique? What commonalities can we find between why people immigrate, what issues they face upon arrival, and what contributions they add to the United States?

In this lesson, students will contextualize the immigration experience from a historical perspective that cuts across time and place. Students will first experience being in a new place where another language is spoken to build empathy of the initial immigration experience. Then students will then use the case study of Mexican Immigration from Harvest of Empire to understand the reasons for immigration, role of government policy (such as the Bracero Program and NAFTA), and difficulties faced in the United States. Next, students then research in partners the immigration experiences of groups from different waves of immigration (1840s to 1920) to compare and contrast historic experiences with modern day Mexican immigrant experience. Students will present their findings in a Knowledge Circle to find shared commonalities across immigrant experiences.


Lesson 2:

The Changing Face of America – Digging into Data

 The United States is experiencing a historic “second wave” of immigrants, not from Europe, but from Latin America. Is the face of America changing? If so, how? Where are Latinos moving and why? How is your county or state affected?

In this lesson, students participate in a scenario where they have to select a place to live based on their education, family needs, and work experience. They then watch clips of Harvest of Empire and discuss how America’s population is changing due to immigration from Latin America and what difficulties a new immigrant can face.

Afterwards, students take part in a short focused research of multiple sources to see the shifts of demography, possible economic and cultural impacts, and answer the question, “What is the changing face of America?”


Lesson 3:

Refugee or Immigrant? The Case Study of El Salvador

What are the unintended consequences of US political and military actions in El Salvador? What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant? In this lesson, students will use El Salvador as a case study to understand how U.S. intervention led to mass immigration of Salvadorians to the United States. Students will first take part in a simulation where they take on a persona of a Salvadoran survivor of the civil war. They then watch clips of Harvest of Empire and discuss how U.S. policies contributed to a civil war in El Salvador. Lastly, they will create an artistic representation of the experiences of a child from war and what their hopes and dreams are in coming to the United States.


Lesson 4:

Fact Checking the Immigration Policy Debate

What are the costs and benefits of immigration?  What data is out there and which can I rely on? How can I see

through the “wall of ignorance” when it comes to immigration policy and debate? Increasingly, with immigration reform as a keystone issue of this decade, many news outlets and organizations use data and numbers to convince the American public that immigration is a net benefit or net cost to jobs, wages, and government services.

In this lesson, students will see how statistics can be manipulated to fit the message. They will first engage in a four corners debate to share out their opinions on immigration impact on the U.S. economy. Then students become fact checkers by researching three sources from different perspectives to come up with their own list of facts about the impacts immigrants make on our economy. Armed with this information, students then write an editorial using evidence to back up their opinion to break what Juan González refers to as the “the wall of ignorance.”


Lesson 5:  

Government Reaction to Immigration- No Laughing Matter

How has the government responded to increased immigration? What are the economic and cultural arguments to increase or decrease immigration? What connections can we find across history?  In this lesson, students conduct a gallery walk of primary sources (political cartoons, writing) of anti-Irish and anti-Chinese sentiment from the 19th century to make sense of current anti-immigration sentiment in the United States, such as the increase of unaccompanied minors. Then, using Arizona’s Senate Bill (SB) 1070 and Maricopa County as a modern example, students analyze a state government response to immigration. Students then select an issue to create a political cartoon to demonstrate their opinion on a current immigration issue.