To find out, the students went together in groups to the places where you can find primary documents: city offices to look at death certificates and title deed offices to find out who owned the land under the Chinese gravestones and how much was paid for it. They went to the library to go through every issue of the newspapers from the 1870s to the 1920s, looking for any reference to the Chinese and copying out every story. The students further consulted period documents to find out what kind of work was done by the Chinese in the area.
Gradually the fifth-graders developed an emotional attachment to these Chinese men of a century ago, and an interest in finding out what made them tick. They would discover that a worker died at age 42 of what should have been a curable infection. They would see the gap between these workers' fates in life and what they had contributed to Madera.
Yet there were no Asians among these kids. They were mainly the children of immigrant farm workers, who grew up speaking Spanish in the home. So when they read the old newspapers and saw the Chinese workers written about in a demeaning, ridiculing way, they had a basis in their personal experience for understanding it.
Needless to say, all this poking around by a group of 90 schoolchildren did not go unnoticed in this small town, and drew attention to the parcel of land where the roadside graves were located. Soon the local water district discovered there were accumulated taxes owing on this land, and wanted to auction it off to pay the taxes.
The students were horrified. One of them said, "I can just see what will happen: itll become a 7/11 store." Their research showed the land was last sold as a burial site to a Chinese family association in San Francisco's Chinatown (for three or four times what the land was worth). So the students resolved to have bake sales, and big glass jars for saving all their pennies, and raise the few hundred dollars to pay off the back taxes. They had the check all ready to go, and were ready to present it at a special ceremony on Ching Ming, the day in the springtime when relatives traditionally visit gravesites, cleaning them and bringing offerings to pay respect to the dead. At the last minute the water district decided to waive the taxes, but everyone understood it was the children's action that had tugged at the conscience of their elders.
But the story doesn't end there. Eventually the students wrote up their findings and published it in a book, FORGOTTEN FIELDS. CNN covered it, drawing still more attention. And an advisor to the ANCESTORS project, Albert Cheng, hearing of the students efforts visited Madera and took some pictures of the six Chinese gravestones. The pictures were on his desk when his housekeeper of 18 years came by and saw them. She thought one of names looked familiar, wrote it down, and consulting her husband discovered that one of the six graves was her husband's great-uncle. Her husband also told her that the dead man had an elderly son still living in China, and gave her the address to pass onto Albert Cheng.