ESL in the Diaspora
by Izabela Głuszak, Global Connect Blogger
Chicago is a new home to many diaspora communities. People from Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa have found places in various neighborhoods of the Windy City to call home.
And then there are immigrants from the south of the border. Nearly two million Hispanics live in metropolitan Chicago, representing in excess of 20 percent of the region’s total population and constituting the third largest Hispanic community in the United States, according to VillageProfile.com.
On the streets of Little Village, the pulse of Mexico is palpable –quinceanera dresses in the windows of local stores, elotes- corn on the cob vendors on every corner, rancheras music in the air and the Spanish language – often Spanglish among the youth – are all around.
Patricia Montalvo, a 45 year old Mexican immigrant who has lived in Chicago for the past 26 years, when asked why she didn’t study English when she first moved here, said that her ex-husband didn’t allow her to attend ESL classes. “My husband was a typical Mexican macho. He didn’t want me to study. I had to work. Later I had my children and I had to take care of them and work. But at the beginning my husband didn’t let me.”
Montalvo says this is a common reason why Mexican women don’t go to ESL classes or GED classes. “Their husbands think a woman’s place is at home, cooking, taking care of kids,” she says. Patricia now attends advanced classes at Universidad Popular, a community based organization providing English language classes in the spirit of popular education. She learned English at her job in a factory where she worked as a quality control person. She had never taken ESL classes until she lost her job in 2009 and in order to obtain her unemployment benefits, she had to join an ESL program. Now she’s even preparing to take her GED, but that’s in Spanish. Her dream is to become a mortician: “Then I won’t have to talk at all” she jokes. To achieve that, she needs to learn English and finish school.
English as a Second Language, ESL, and civic class offerings provide a meaningful avenue for thousands of immigrants who call Chicago home. But, not everyone has the gumption to pursue a difficult path of learning the language.
When Veronica Arroyo first came to the United States from Mexico some 20 years ago she already spoke a little English. She studied it in high school. Her two school-age children did not understand a word and she was able to help them with the transition and the translation.
“My kids are very smart but it was difficult for them at the beginning. They cried before going to school. At first they only had two hours of English but after 6 months they started going to English only classes.”
Very quickly the kids exceeded Veronica’s English skills. Eventually she began learning from them. As an immigrant, and a mother of two who was stuck in an unhappy marriage she says she didn’t have time to attend ESL classes offered either by community organizations or city colleges. Veronica’s English isn’t perfect and she makes some grammatical mistakes, albeit she can easily express her thoughts and communicate. She’s been reading and writing in English for a long time and is one of the most advanced students at Universidad Popular- a not-for-profit organization offering ESL classes in Little Village, also known as La Villita, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Chicago.
While not all immigrants have the time or desire to learn English fluently, many agree that speaking English is essential in finding a better job and ultimately improving their lives.
Montalvo’s classmate, Arturo Gonzalez, speaks English so well, an accent is nearly undetectable. Even though he also struggles with grammar, he sounds like a native speaker. He’s been working on his English for over 30 years, since he came to the United States. He has learned it all by listening and, unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to write or read in it, which, he thinks, is necessary to get a better and easier job.
“I’m old already; I can’t work in the field or in a factory lifting heavy things,” he says. He vividly remembers his first years in California, when he would watch “Wheel of Fortune” on TV and learn numbers and letters from it. “My three first years were pretty chaotic. I moved a lot and therefore didn’t have time to study, besides when people immigrate to this country they always think about making money and going back. I didn’t care about learning the language; I wanted to go back to Mexico”.
Gradually Gonzalez started to understand more and more. Sometimes he would help his Spanish speaking friends and coworkers by interpreting for them. “People asked me for help and so I helped them. I was like an interpreter. In return people helped me; they protected me, brought me things.” He recalls a funny event from his life that made him understand how important it is to speak English in this country. His cousin was about to eat lunch. He prepared avocados and tomatoes but didn’t have any salt. He wanted to ask his English speaking coworker for some salt and didn’t know how to do it. So he sliced his tomatoes and to demonstrate what he wanted he tried them and spat them out as they weren’t tasty without salt. “He wasted several tomatoes and never made the guy comprehend what he was asking for” chuckles Arturo, “so then I knew that knowing how to speak English is pretty important”.
All three adults have children. Some of them were born in Mexico, some are Mexican-Americans. But all of their children are bilingual, fluent in both Spanish and English. Arroyo, Montalvo and Gonzalez admit that listening to their children speak strengthens their English. “One time my kids were using English to hide things from me,” Gonzalez says.
Many first generation Mexican-Americans remember their childhood as a constant transition between two languages. Melissa Marcial and Maribel Fabian are daughters of Mexican immigrants. They both are in their early twenties, college educated and the youngest kids in the family. They both remember that there was no pressure to learn English in their homes. “My father had a mechanic shop and he learned some English there; my mom tried to learn the language to take her citizenship test but she still hasn’t done it” says Melissa, and Maribel adds that “my father also picked up English at work at a factory, and with my mom we spoke Spanish only.” Their parents didn’t focus on their kids learning English since they knew that would happen automatically through school.
Talking to several young adults whose parents didn’t speak English it’s easy to get an impression that they all felt a certain kind of burden growing up, a responsibility that they didn’t fully understand. “I had to help my mom all the time. It was most of the time a very frustrating experience since my Spanish was very poor. I especially hated dealing with all the legal or medical stuff like going to a Secretary of State or to a doctor. I simply didn’t know how to translate certain words and I probably didn’t even know what they were talking about in English, and my mom would get upset” recalls Melissa. She asked her mother to learn English many times, “but then she told me that it’s very difficult and that she doesn’t have time for it, and that I’m supposed to help her.” Maribel remembers similar situations “we were told that since we speak and understand English it is our responsibility to help out.”
Sergio Obregon, a Chicago Public Schools employee, grew up in a bilingual family. His father is a second generation Mexican-American and his mother is a Mexican immigrant who didn’t speak the language when she came to the States. Sergio admits that now he has a lot of respect for him mom, who got her GED and learned English while raising three kids. She eventually became a teacher’s assistant and worked for CPS. “My mother is somebody who made it. It is extremely difficult to learn a language. The whole family needs to be engaged in the process. Family support is the biggest component of a learner’s success. One can’t do without it.”