What language do you think in? What language do you dream in?
Those were the most common questions Maria Valenzuela, Esperança’s Domestic Program Director, was asked growing up as a monolingual Spanish speaking kid in the 1980’s.
“To my surprise I still get asked those questions,” Maria laughs.
Even more surprising to some, the US is home to 41 million native Spanish speakers, according to census data - that's 13% of the population.
That being said, until the beginning of the 20th century, there were not many helpful programs offered to monolingual students. With a rising immigrant population and the passing of The Naturalization Act in 1906, requiring that all immigrants must be able to speak English in order to become naturalized citizens of the United States, ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching became increasingly mandated in the school system.
Unfortunately, even into the late 90s, these programs were not widespread nor easily available. Maria was one such victim of this broken system. “I didn’t get to learn things in my native language. It was sink or swim situation.”
Her classmates were learning the instructional materials in their language, yet from third grade on, Maria had to teach herself the translations of words first, before even attempting to understand the concept of what was being taught. Many children like Maria teach themselves to write and read Spanish while relying on the public education system to teach the same skills in English.
It is hard for these students to gain ground in school when oftentimes they are pulled out of class to be an interpreter for their even less affluent parents. Doctor’s appointments. Bank visits. Even parent-teacher conferences.
“By third-grade my education level had already advanced my mothers. I remember a bank teller teaching me to write checks for rent, utilities and any other payments. I knew that on the first of each month, I would write out a check for ‘two-hundred and fifty and no/100’ to Miss Peggy for rent.”
Maria’s story is one that she sees reflected in every participant of Esperança’s classes.
Though the continued interest in teaching ESL in schools has been met with support to fund public schools and adult basic education programs nationwide, the dilemma many of these programs face is that of preserving cultural integrity.
Since 2000, Esperança has been offering not only health education classes, but other resources for those native Spanish speakers to better acclimate to life in a majorly monolingual-run country. These classes become a safe space where they can feel less alone in their journey.
With your support, Esperança will remain a beacon of hope to those struggling to maintain a balance between adaptation and staying true to culture.