Communicating across cultures
The Times Leader
March 30, 2008



Latinos play bigger role, strive to learn English

By Mark Guydish
Education Reporter

Cock an ear over here and listen to the talk of edible insects.

English as a Second Language students at King’s learn how to give directions in everyday conversation.

“Ants,” Luis Avila says of his native Colombia cuisine. “Cut the heads off and fry them. Not all of Colombia eats them, about three-quarters. In Mexico, they eat little crickets.”

“They’re good,” Gregorio Losada confirms of his nation’s cricket quirk. “Some lemon, a little salt …”

Wry smiles make it unclear how serious these guys are. A third member of their group, Melba Mejia from the Dominican Republic, starts laughing.

And an impartial observer might wonder if the talk of insects on the menu makes Christopher Ring – the only local in this small circle – re-evaluate his dream of joining the Peace Corps.

Ring is a King’s College senior and one of several student mentors helping adult Hispanics in an English as Second Language class taught by George Schmitz, a religious brother in the Congregation of the Holy Cross that founded the school. Schmitz routinely breaks his class into small discussion groups, each composed of a few Hispanics and at least one mentor. These classes, in turn, are one piece of the college’s Hispanic outreach program.

The five-year, grant-funded effort tries to offer a smattering of help to Latinos struggling to integrate into their new home. Since it serves people from Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and other locales, it can, at first glance, look like a global amalgam crammed into a few rooms of the McGowan Business Center several times a week.

Along with the adult ESL classes, the outreach includes assistance to adults hoping to take GED tests, and after-school mentoring for students at Coughlin, Meyers and GAR high schools. The program is expected to add adult computer classes and middle school creative writing classes.

“The goal,” said program director Isabel Balsamo, a transplant from Colombia, “is to build bridges.”

Focusing on details

There’s the rub. To build a bridge, you’ve got to survey the gap, understand what it is you are trying to connect. And since this program deals with people of many different ages, backgrounds and education levels, it can be hard for an outsider to get a solid feel of what’s happening. The easiest way may be to focus on those small group discussions, where details paint the picture.

The insect conversation arose because Schmitz was using Franz Kafka’s short novel, “The Metamorphosis,” to explore weaknesses in each student’s English vocabulary. It’s a surreal story about a man who awakens to find he has turned into a cockroach. Schmitz showed pictures of insects, sought words to describe how cockroaches made students feel, and asked “Have you ever eaten an insect?”

Students also deciphered the meaning of an unfamiliar English word from the context of the sentence. Avila hit a snag on “I saw a spider and fainted and fell to the ground.” He knew what “fainted” meant, but he wasn’t sure what alternative English word to use. “I always get confused with pass out and pass over.”

For Mejia, a different word caused consternation. “I can’t understand the meaning of ‘soothe,’ ” she said.

Losada tried to help, but seemed unsure himself. “Give up? Calm down? Comfort?”

Ring corrected the misplaced syllabic stress: “It’s comfort.”

These are the niggling nuances that trip up even the best efforts to master English. The students struggle with verb tense (hearing “take,” “taken” and “took,” Mejia asked logically, “Is there a tooken?”). For the adults, it doesn’t seem to matter how long they’ve been speaking English, this language is hard. Yet mastering the subtleties is essential.

Avila said he didn’t speak a word of English when he moved to the United States 17 years ago.

“I learned it on the street.” By the time he moved to Wyoming Valley from New Jersey two years ago – because he believed it would be a safer, quieter place for his children – he had become fairly fluent orally, “but my writing is terrible.”

A paramedic in Colombia, Avila landed a job as a certified medical assistant, and quickly found “I have to start writing complaints, and type long names of things and such.”

“This,” he said while gesturing to the classroom “is working.”

Adding to the mix

It needs to work, if Luzerne County natives are to mesh with the surging Latino population.

According to the U.S. Census, those claiming Hispanic origin rose from a scant 0.6 percent of the total population in 1990 to 1.2 percent in 2000, with the number shooting up even faster since – hitting 3.3 percent in 2006. In raw numbers, the Hispanic population rose from 2,023 in 1990 to 10,330 in 2006.

And the influx has occurred during a steady overall population decline: from 328,149 in 1990 to 313,020 in 2006, a 4.8 percent drop.

If the Hispanic population had not increased during that stretch, the county total would have dropped more than twice as fast, by 9.8 percent.

So when Balsamo, Schmitz and others talk passionately of how important they believe this program is to the county’s well-being, the census numbers tend to back them up.

The program dovetails with a separate, older project from King’s Office of Volunteer Services that provides tutors for Hispanic students at the Daniel J. Flood Elementary School, Wilkes-Barre. The ultimate goal, Balsamo and Schmitz said, is not only to extend help across multiple grades, but also across multiple generations. It is common to find people in the adult classes who have children who are being tutored in the grade schools.

The issues for teens in the high school mentoring class are not different from those faced by adults, Schmitz said.

“Most of them were born in the U.S.,” so they grew up hearing and speaking English. “Language is not a big problem for them, literacy is.”

Caught between two worlds, they often lack formal training even in their first tongue, Balsamo said. “They don’t have strong reading and writing skills in Spanish.”

So, King’s senior Katie Alves, who is running one of the mentoring classes, focused on literacy skills, reading comprehension and retention. Like Schmitz, Alves broke her class into groups for discussion, making sure there was at least one King’s student acting as mentor in each group.

The lesson of the day: Culture shock.

In a twist, the shock these high school Latinos talked most about came not from living in America – that’s home – but in visiting their parent’s country.

“I was scared,” Jocelyn Vergara said of her trip to Mexico. “I was very nervous.” Turns out, one of the biggest surprises was “traffic, lots of traffic.”

Carmen Perez said a trip to the Dominican Republic provided two stunners.

“I didn’t expect it to be so hot,” she said of the Caribbean island where the average high is 77 degrees and summer days can routinely swelter into the 90s. Also, Perez said: “They have time to eat. They don’t have fast food places.”

For the record, the book Alves used described culture shock in this way: “People tend to regard their own culture as correct and often use the standards of their own culture to judge people of other cultures.”

This shock can be mean different things depending on when and where you experience it. Two mentors in the group with Perez and Vergara offered their own experiences. Grant Parson said that during a trip to Italy he asked for a bottle of water and the vendor replied “Gas or no gas?”

“I was thinking, what kind of water is he selling?” said Parson, a history education student at King’s. Turned out the vendor was asking if Parson wanted carbonated or non-carbonated water.

Andita Parker Lloyd, another mentor, recounted her early years in Wilkes-Barre after migrating from Philadelphia more than a decade ago.

“I was shocked when I came here, I thought I was the only brown person walking down the streets,” she said. “I was also afraid of the little old ladies cutting flowers in their yards. In Philadelphia, you don’t say hello to someone unless you know them. These ladies were very nice, saying hello to me, a stranger.”

And that seems to be the bottom line for this program: to hurdle linguistic barriers, to make strangers a little less strange, to serve as a culture shock absorber.

It’s a place where Alves, who hopes to teach English in Spain, can connect with Vergara, who believes the mentoring will help her get into college in her Mexican family’s American home.

It lets a guy like Ring, planning to join the Peace Corps and work overseas, help a guy like Avila, who came from overseas and wants to improve work prospects here.

“We’re helping people communicate across cultures,” Alves summed it up.

“Where would these kids otherwise get to meet?”

Mark Guydish, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7161