Mixing a continent of cultures
A Mexican family begins to find comfort
Last in a series of articles chronicling one family's
experience with English immersion.
This was the last place Carmen Martinez had expected to
encounter echoes of her tiny Mexican village. Yet here she
was, on an end-of-the-year field trip to Plimoth Plantation,
crying out in excitement and glee every time she stumbled
upon some new trinket or tool that set off memories of life
in El Refugio.
''La cazuela!" Martinez exclaimed, pointing to a
heavy iron pot hanging over an indoor hearth. ''Es como
Mexico, en la casa de mi abuelos." It was, she said
with a touch of wonder, just like the one in her
grandparents' home in Mexico.
In that moment, the space between cultures and countries
melted away as Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in
East Boston, found familiarity on the grounds of a
meticulous re-creation of a Colonial-era Pilgrim settlement.
It was, in many ways, a metaphor for the journey her
family has taken during the school year, now winding to an
end. In September, the Martinez family, with thousands of
other immigrants, headed into unknown territory as the state
public school system ushered in the first year of English
The shift to English in the classroom sparked trepidation
in the Martinez home, where, at the start of the school
year, Alonso was about to enter first grade, Yovanny was
starting third grade in a new school, and Carmen braced
herself for the worst.
The collision between languages and cultures never
materialized. Instead, much like the trip to Plimoth
Plantation, the family discovered familiarity within the
foreign. Even as they grappled with the shifting school
environment, and the changes it triggered in their lives,
the members of the Martinez family learned to save what they
did not want to lose.
''Todo cambia en un ao. Si uno se pone a recordar, todo
cambia . . . y no cambia nada," said Carmen Martinez, as she
sat in her living room and reflected on the evolution of the
In English, her words mean: Everything changes in one
year. If you think about it, everything changes and nothing
Carmen Martinez spent the first day of school wandering
through the hallways of Samuel Adams Elementary School,
where her son Yovanny would attend third grade. Unable to
locate anyone who spoke Spanish, and unsure of her own
nascent English, she felt lost and frustrated and confused.
Nine months later, on an early June day that unfolded as
languidly as that September day had been rushed, a different
Carmen Martinez had emerged.
Parents learning a lessonMartinez
had thrown herself into an after-school English class for
parents at Otis Elementary School, where Alonso is in first
grade. Although she had immigrated from Mexico 12 years
earlier, and had attended the class sporadically for years,
this was the first year Martinez had felt her English skills
|''Now is the time for
me to keep going. I can't stop," said
Martinez, 40, speaking in Spanish.
''When someone asks me a question, I can
answer. This year, I have felt more
Martinez's desire to learn
English was heightened by the state's
switch to English immersion.
Until this year, Martinez's two
youngest sons had been in bilingual
education programs, where they received
classes in their native Spanish.
Martinez and her husband, Genaro, both
of whom speak little English, had been
able to help with homework, to talk with
teachers at school conferences and to
easily monitor their children's academic
An older son, Edgar, has just
finished his sophomore year at East
Boston High School. Ariana, the baby of
the family, has just turned 2.
Martinez quickly realized that her
children's success in school could hinge
on her ability to help them with
assignments and communicate with school
officials. Genaro, a construction
worker, often works double shifts to
support the family, leaving his wife to
shoulder those tasks.
She also worried that as her children
became more at ease with English, they
might forget Spanish and drift away from
parents who spoke only that language.
As the year spun on, from fall to
winter to spring, some of Martinez's
fears proved unfounded; a few others
sprung to life.
Alonso's first grade homework, which
included a daily reading assignment and
a volley of word problems in math, were
challenging for both the 6-year-old and
his mother. A few years ago, she could
not count to 10 in English, much less
master English vocabulary.
However, with her English classes,
run by Boston Excels for the Home for
Little Wanderers, Martinez wrote in an
essay for class: ''I can help my
children with the homework. They are
happy when we read books together."
At Otis Elementary, which had been a
bilingual school last year, officials
still translated school notices,
letters, and report cards into Spanish
or Portuguese, helping parents ease into
the transition to English only. At
Adams, where Martinez had spent that
first day, flustered, a Spanish
interpreter has since been available to
help her communicate with Yovanny's
And her children seem to be thriving.
Yovanny, who has serious learning
disabilities, came home with two school
awards, including a certificate for
achievement in math. Alonso brought home
a yellow ''School Spirit" ribbon for
''excellence in conduct, effort,
citizenship traits, and work habits."
Edgar won his ''Razzle-Dazzle" award for
excellence in reading.
Was she proud? ''Ay, si,"
Martinez said, sighing and beaming
brightly as she showed off the awards.
''I feel so happy. This year has not
been as difficult as I thought."
Still, there are some signs that
progress in school could come at a cost.
Alonso, who knew only rudimentary
English and spoke mostly in Spanish at
the beginning of the school year, now
shies away from using his native
Indeed, the three
children, like many
English with each
other and with their
friends. They flip
back to Spanish only
at home, or around
who just entered the
talking stage, and
seems to amass a new
crop of words every
day, still speaks
entirely in Spanish.
But her favorite
cartoon is ''Dora,
the Explorer," which
features a Latina
main character who
speaks mostly in
''Where two cultures
Plantation . . .
This shore is where
two cultures met . .
.Between the two
cultures, there was
suspicion . . . You
are about to travel
to another world."
The words, spoken
by the narrator of
an orientation film
referred to the
history of the
English colony. But
appropriate for this
audience, made up of
the parents enrolled
in the after-school
English class at
Otis Family School,
and their children.
The families are
Mexico, El Salvador,
In this school
year, as the parents
struggled to grasp
the intricacies of
their children raced
ahead. On this trip,
an end of the year
treat for the group,
it was the same
darted in and out of
scrambling up the
steps of a church to
play on the cannons
on the top floor,
and squealing with
delight and disgust
at the clucking
chickens and the
each house and
garden with widening
how pretty), said
sloping fields and
the open sky. ''I
think they lived
happily here. I wish
I could just stay
As she pushed
Ariana in a
Martinez watched a
swinging a hoe into
freshly turned dirt.
''That's how they do
it in my country,"
Martinez and the
yearning for the
tranquil pace of
villages back home.
But their children
yanked them back to
the present, and the
increasing tug of
English and American
They pleaded with
their parents in a
mixture of English
and Spanish to hurry
to the Wampanoag
homemade tacos and
mothers had packed
for lunch in favor
of pizza and nachos
from the snack bar,
played games of
''Mother, may I?"
while their parents
Spanish about life
The first year of
may be ending, but
for the Martinez
family, and the
thousands of other
and their children,
the balancing act of
culture and language
has just begun.
© Copyright 2004