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Guest Voz: Poor immigrant students offer untapped potential to enrich the nation — on many levels

LatinaLista — A single line in a commentary written by a young woman in Salt Lake City about a speaker she had heard at a teacher’s conference caught my attention: “He came, he spoke, he inspired … and very few people heard him.”

homejimenez.jpgShe was talking about Dr. Francisco Jimenez, a renowned linguistics professor, winner of the 2002 U.S. Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation and currently the Fay Boyle Professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University.

Dr. Francisco Jimenez

The author’s lavish praise for a man, whom I honestly had never heard of, piqued my interest to learn more.

So, I sent Dr. Jimenez an e-mail asking to read the speech he delivered at the Teachers of English as a Second Language Conference at Weber College in Salt Lake City, Utah last month.

Dr. Jimenez generously obliged this stranger’s request and after reading his speech, I realized what impressed the young woman so much. She was impressed that a poor young immigrant could end up giving so much back to his adopted country, tenfold.

In the upcoming days when it is expected that Congress will debate the merits of passing the DREAM Act, Dr. Jimenez’s story serves as an excellent example and reminder to Congress of the potential that each immigrant student possesses to not only make something of themselves, if afforded the opportunity to go to school and/or put their degrees to work, but also to give back to the country they call home.

(Editor’s note: The following presentation was edited from its original.)


“The Challenge and Joy of Learning English”
By Dr. Francisco Jimenez

In my presentation, “The Challenge and Joy of Learning English” I will simply relate two personal experiences I had in school that taught me the value and power of language and literature. These memorable experiences inform my writing and, to some degree, my teaching.

During my discussion, I will read excerpts from my works “The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child” and, the sequel, “Breaking Through.”

I describe these experiences in detail in these autobiographical books. For those of you who are not familiar with my background I would like to describe briefly my childhood. This will serve as a context for understanding the impact these experiences had in my life.

I was born in a small village in Mexico and at the age of four, my family and I entered the United States without documentation, hoping to leave our life of poverty behind. We began our new life as migrant farm workers, moving from place to place, following seasonal crops throughout California’s Central Valley.

We lived in farm labor camps, often in tents or old garages. My older brother and I worked in the fields alongside our parents from the time I was six years old.

I started school not knowing a word of English. In fact, I had to repeat the first grade because of my inability to speak English well enough.

At the age of fourteen, the Border Patrol caught my family and me and we were deported back to Mexico.

We returned months later with proper papers and settled permanently in Santa Maria, California, where my brother and I worked part-time as janitors while attending school to support our family (my father could not continue working in the fields because of severe back problems).

It is against this backdrop that I experienced two memorable moments, which shaped my attitude toward learning English and appreciating literature.

The first experience took place when I was in the sixth grade. I entered the sixth grade in the middle of November, after having missed a couple of months of school because I had to help my family pick grapes and cotton to make ends meet. I was far behind my classmates in my studies.

In the following excerpt from the title story “The Circuit” I describe my first day of school that year. I narrate it from the child’s point of view.

“When the bus stopped in front of the school, I felt very nervous. I looked out the bus window and saw boys and girls carrying books under their arms. I put my hands in my pant pockets and walked to the principal’s office. When I entered, I heard a woman’s voice say: “May I help you?”

I was startled. I had not heard English for months. For a few seconds, I remained speechless. I looked at the lady who waited for an answer. My first instinct was to answer her in Spanish, but I held back. Finally, after struggling for English words, I managed to tell her that I wanted to enroll in the sixth grade. After answering many questions, I was led to the classroom.

Mr. Lema, the sixth grade teacher, greeted me and assigned me a desk. He then introduced me to the class. I was so nervous and scared at that moment when everyone’s eyes were on me that I wished I were with Papa and Roberto picking cotton.

After taking roll, Mr. Lema gave the class the assignment. “The first thing we have to do this morning is finish reading the story we began yesterday,” he said enthusiastically. He walked up to me, handed me an English book, and asked me to read.

“We are on page 125,” he said politely. When I heard this, I felt my blood rush to my head; I felt dizzy. “Would you like to read?” he asked hesitantly. I opened the book to page 125. My mouth was dry. My eyes began to water. I could not begin. “You can read later,” Mr. Lema said understandingly.

During recess I went into the restroom and opened my English book to page 125. I began to read in a low voice, pretending I was in class. There were many words I did not know. I closed the book and headed back to the classroom.

Mr. Lema was sitting at his desk correcting papers. When I entered he looked up at me and smiled. I felt better. I walked up to him and asked if he could help me with the new words. “Gladly,” he said.

The rest of the month I spent my lunch hours working on English with Mr. Lema, my best friend at school.”

Besides helping me with English, Mr. Lema also offered to teach me to play the trumpet, an instrument used in Corridos, Mexican ballads — my favorite type of music.

Again, I quote:

“One Friday during lunch hour Mr. Lema asked me to take a walk with him to the music room. “Do you like music?” he asked me as we entered the building.

“Yes, I like corridos,” I answered. He then picked up a trumpet, blew on it and handed it to me. The sound gave me goose bumps. I knew that sound. I had heard it in many corridos.

“How would you like to learn how to play it?” he asked. He must have read my face because before I could answer, he added: “I’ll teach you how to play it during our lunch hours.”

That day I could hardly wait to tell Papa and Mama the great news…When I got home and opened the door to our shack, I saw that everything we owned was neatly packed in cardboard boxes.”

Although I did not speak English well and Mr. Lema did not speak Spanish, we managed to communicate with each other. He valued my Mexican cultural background and my native language while he taught me English.

At times it was frustrating for both of us, but he never lost his patience with me. He never made me feel inadequate or inferior because of my poor English-language skills. (Mr. Lema was so helpful to me that he inspired me to become a teacher.)

For example, he created a unit on California geography and asked me to read the place names on the map because, as he said, “I know you’ll pronounce them correctly. I cannot.” This made me feel proud and a valued member of the class.

The second memorable experience occurred during my sophomore English class in high school, at a time when I was still struggling with the English language. I describe this significant experience in the chapter titled “Making Connections.” It is from my book Breaking Through.

Two brief notes before the reading: As I mentioned earlier, after my family and I were deported to Mexico we returned legally to California and settled in Bonetti Ranch, a migrant labor camp.

My father could not continue working in the fields because of severe back problems so Roberto, my older brother, and I managed to get jobs working as janitors. While attending high school, I worked 35 hours a week, before and after school and weekends, in order to help support my family.

The second point is that all during high school, I was concerned about getting good grades. I worried about grades because my counselor told me that if I got good grades I would receive scholarships to attend college and become a teacher.

Now the reading: “Making Connections.”
It is narrated from the point of view of the teenager I was then.

What did I learn from reading the Grapes of Wrath?

In the story of the Joad family, I felt the power of literature to confirm identity and to express common themes of human experiences that transcend language. For the first time, I realized that my own story, as well as the story of other Mexican migrant workers, was part of the American story. I understood the power of words to move hearts and minds, the power of literature to change lives.

Besides teaching me the value of literature and motivating me to become a teacher and writer, the two memorable experiences — learning English from Mr. Lema and reading the Grapes of Wrath — also taught me that the school curriculum, especially literature, must reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of our students if we are to engage them more fully in school.

Students will become more interested in learning if they see a connection between what they are studying and their own lives.

When students see themselves reflected in the curriculum they feel valued in school and, consequently, gain more interest in their studies and develop greater self-esteem. After all, it is through the curriculum that students learn about themselves: who they are, what their place is in society, and what they wish to do with their lives.

I would like to read a few excerpts of letters I have received from teachers and students from various levels–junior high, high school, and college–to illustrate the point I have been making.

This letter is from a high school student:

“My name is Sandra and I am seventeen years old. I read your book The Circuit in my ESL4 class and I really liked it. It meant so much to me because I am an immigrant too and my situation since I came to this country has been the same as you described in your book.

“Panchito,” as you call yourself in your book, is my best friend. Him and I have so much in common, and since I don’t have as many friends as I’d like, “Panchito” is like my secret friend….”

Another high school student responded to The Circuit and Breaking Through:
“It made me feel really good when I read your story because I no longer felt alone, I felt like I had someone to share my experiences with…”

A teacher from West Hartford, Connecticut, shared a similar experience. She wrote:
“Something even more amazing to me was how your story empowered some of the students of color in the classes. Many were able to help me with the Spanish, either the pronunciation or the translation. Here their language skills helped everyone, rather than make it difficult for him or her.

Some of the students could remember coming to school with little English vocabulary and were willing to share that. I think the “then” and “now” of their stories caused native English speakers to see them in a different light.

[Your work] helped us see others who might at first seem unfortunate, but who, in retrospect, have much to offer.”

Referring to The Circuit, a college student wrote in an essay for her English class:
“Never before had I read a piece of academic literature so profoundly related to both my family’s history…. Not until I read this personal testimony did I begin to place a human face–the face of Panchito, the young narrator, the face of my [Portuguese] immigrant grandparents–to the abstract notions of poverty and justice.”

Another school teacher wrote:

“My class enjoyed Breaking Through even more once they realized that you were a real person. They were excited to have the opportunity to write to you. I felt you should know what a powerful impact your book has made on them. The following are some quotes from their board work:

This book made me see…
People can help other people
There are Mexican people that can also write books
That we can be smart even if we are poor
This is an unfair world for some people because they’re different.
We can go to college
That Mexicans count too.”

The experiences I had learning from Mr. Lema and Miss Bell illustrate the challenges and joys I encountered in my efforts to learn English and the strong and positive influence they had on me.

Now, just as Mr. Lema and Miss Bell made a difference in my life, all of you are making a difference in the lives of many students. By teaching them to learn English and engaging them in reading, you are helping them to “break through” like the butterfly breaking through its cocoon, if you will.

Thanks to your hard work, love, and compassion, you are preparing them to become educated for a more informed, compassionate and productive involvement in our increasingly diverse and global society.

For this I am most grateful and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to make this presentation to you this morning.

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