All about language
Ricardo Hernandez is intimidating. A retired semi-pro football player, he couldn’t look more the part if he tried. He has a barrel chest and paws as big as country hams. He is nearly as wide as he is tall and fits perfectly in the bottom three-quarters of a door frame. He wears heavy boots and a black uniform as a deputy in the Garfield County Jail. Even with his size, Hernandez probably didn’t scare off too many people 16 years ago when he moved to the United States. True, he played football, but he spent much of the time sweeping floors, ironing clothes, and washing dishes for $4.50 an hour as a non-English-speaking immigrant from Mexico City. Now he is a well-spoken man who has worked in software, banking, education and law enforcement. “What really opened my doors was English,” he says.Hernandez speaks as he stands in the corner of Intercambio, a class at Colorado Mountain College where Anglo and Latino students gather once a week to learn each others’ language. In the class, a dozen new immigrants from Latin America are in the same spot now as Hernandez was 16 years ago. They work as hotel housekeepers or construction workers, and in snow removal. They are all learning English. Why learn English?The importance of learning English cannot be overstated for immigrants. It means a better job and more money. It means access to community programs and education. It means understanding an apartment lease, car agreement or court documents. It means kids get proper medical care. Vicki Jones knows this fact. Jones is a victim’s advocate for the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department with 24 previous years experience as a teacher, interpreter and advocate throughout Colorado. Jones gets called to assist if deputies need her to talk to a victim of a crime, often domestic violence cases. She’s also worked with victims of assaults, sex assaults and the July 2001 shootings at a Rifle mobile home park that targeted Latinos. Without speaking the language, “even simple things become very scary,” for Latinos, she said. More than fear, though, not having someone who can translate or advocate for victims can be dangerous. Police sometimes lack an official interpreter as they talk with Latinos, and friends, neighbors and kids fill in, said Jones. “And a lot of times that’s not a correct interpretation of what’s going on.”
That scenario opens the door to incorrect interpretations, but it also puts kids in a terrible position. Jones has seen and heard of cases where a child has to translate what police are telling the child’s mother, the victim of domestic violence. Better English, better moneyOf all the reasons Latinos give to learn English, one comes up more often than the others. “If I speak English real well I can earn more money,” said Nancy Aguilar, originally from Veracruz, Mexico, who now lives in Glenwood Springs. Aguilar is a housekeeper at Maroon Creek Golf Club in Aspen. Oftentimes – whether on golf courses, construction sites or in hotels – a bilingual person will earn more money because they can take directions from foremen and supervisors, then tell other immigrant workers what to do. The ultimate goals of many Spanish-speakers studying English go beyond just a supervisory position at their current employer, however. Aguilar was a university student in Veracruz, Mexico, before she moved to the United States. She eventually wants to move back to Mexico and thinks English will help her find a tourism job when she does. Rolman Giron, a Guatemalan living in Glenwood Springs, works at a snow-removal company, Snow King of Aspen. He has aspirations of starting his own snow-removal company. “A little company,” he said, smiling. At the St. Regis Aspen, where roughly 50 percent of employees speak Spanish, new employees are required to speak basic English, said Lisa Flynn, a human resources manager.The idea behind that requirement is that 90 percent of hotel employees have guest interaction, she said. Of course, the motivation for learning English isn’t all monetary.”I feel silly when somebody talks to me and I can’t say anything,” said Aguilar. Plus, “I am here, and I like to make a lot of friends.” Barriers to learningAguilar and Girón illustrate what is often rumored to be the biggest barrier to learning. After two-and-a-half years in the United States, Aguilar, the university student, is nearly fluent in English. Girón, who had no English in his Guatemalan school, is less advanced after two-and-a-half years in the United States.
Clearly, previous education, even literacy, is a big advantage for English-learners, but a lack of education can be troublesome. More likely barriers are work, kids, time and transportation, say educators who teach English as a second language.”You’re an adult, you’re working, you’ve got a family, you’re not in school mode,” said Ted Kaufman, an English teacher at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. When Tere Tellez moved to the Roaring Fork Valley 14 years ago with young kids she fell right into that trap. She needed to work in the morning, and in the afternoon she took care of her kids, she said. Five years ago, after her kids were grown, she started taking classes and now helps teach the Intercambio class at Colorado Mountain College, a community college. The advantages English holds are obvious, but it is far from essential for survival in Colorado’s mountain valleys. English opens the door to some jobs, and means more money in others, but strong Latino communities and businesses that cater to Spanish-speakers mean plenty of non-English-speakers work and live here for years without learning the language. “You could live your whole life in this valley and never speak English,” Kaufman said.’Learn some damn English’The language barrier between Latinos and Anglos can clearly create friction, and not just in Colorado mountain towns. One common attitude is that if Latinos move to the United States, they should speak English. “You’re in the United States of America,” goes one popular comedian’s joke. “Learn a little bit of English. … There ain’t nothing wrong with saying that, you live in the United States, that’s the language you speak.”He goes on to sing, to the tune of “Oh Come all ye Faithful,” the lines: “Oh Come all ye illegal immigrants, come and get them green cards, and learn some damn English and then how to drive.” The friction and frustration also comes from Latinos. Before he knew English Hernandez sometimes thought, “What the hell? Are they talking about me?” when Anglos spoke around him. A solution to the language barrier may not exist, as new immigrants will always be in the process of learning English. There may be ways to mitigate problems that stem from the language barrier. The most obvious is education. Colleges and community programs are one source. Another is employers. The St. Regis provides education for its employees. One reason is that it improves the experience for guests who talk to Latinos. Another is employee satisfaction, said Flynn.
“We have so many bright individuals here who want to move up, and if they had that skill it might give them a chance,” she said. Hernandez certainly knows progress and promotion. Even now, 16 years after immigrating to the United States, and moving up the social and economic ladder, Hernandez still isn’t finished learning. For his next promotion Hernandez has to take an English test, required by the state for jail employees. He seems to have figured out the secret to success. “Every day you learn something new,” he said. “I have a lot of fun.”==========================================Bilingual and biculturalThough language is a key component of Latino assimilation and success in the United States, another skill might be just as important – understanding American culture. Some refer to the different skills as bilingualism and biculturalism. Biculturalism is important in everything from negotiating for apartments to knowing when to stand to salute the flag or sing the national anthem. A cultural misstep in those situations leads to an embarrassing moment or sneers from onlookers. Sometimes biculturalism is much more important, as in court cases. The American court system is much different than many Latin systems. Not only that, “where (Latinos) come from they mistrust the legal system and the law,” said Vicki Jones, a victim’s advocate in Garfield County. Jones does have a suggestion on how to solve the problem, however. She wants to start once-a-month Latino nights with lawyers, social workers and other professionals to help them understand the intricacies of American life. – Ryan Graff==========================================Vail, Colorado