Almost every guest greets each other with “hola” at Taquería Mercado. Warm-eyed and tanned-skin servers deliver the restaurant’s spicy dishes with a smile and a Spanish accent.
But don’t be deceived. This isn’t Latin America. It’s Fairfield, Ohio, and one glance out the window at the weather proves it.
In the middle of this Midwestern town, an influx of Latino immigrants has taken up residence.
And while the issue of illegal immigration currently has the nation up in arms, no arms-angry or embracing-have been extended to this local community. It exists in isolation; lost in translation.
Yet every Wednesday evening, a small contingent of Miami University students squash into a university van and travel an hour to Taquería in search of these Spanish souls.
Starting the fire
For junior Becca Lang, weekly visits to Taqueria are about lending a hand.
“They don’t have a lot of support,” Lang said.
Lang and the other volunteers, members of Student Activists for Language and Cultural Exchange (SALCE), are on a mission to help these non-native speakers learn English.
SALCE began as an outgrowth of a student project for the Wilks Leadership Institute and is in its first year as official student organization.
Arriving at their destination, they snag a few tables and set up school.
An 8-by-11 inch sheet of paper, colored with markers, is taped to the table advertising SALCE’s services. Another is pasted on the window. And with that, they’re ready.
Their marketing is no more sophisticated than that of a child’s lemonade stand.
But once built, publicized or not, they will come.
Luis is there right at 6 p.m. as always. Others trickle in throughout the hour. Even with the few regulars’ punctuality, the tutoring is slow to start.
Before beginning, SALCE members try to asses the English proficiency of each individual. Sometimes the process is straightforward like when junior Carrie Gomez, who despite the implications of her name is not herself Latina, simply asked, “How is your English?”
“He responded with every English word he knew: one, two, three, four, twenty-minute break, come here baby, and my name is,” Gomez said.
But other times modesty complicates honesty.
Once one of the immigrants told Lang that he knew “nada,” only to answer her next question in English.
“You just said you didn’t know any English!” Lang said.
With SALCE’s ad-hoc approach to education, a sense of humor is a necessity.
Members are not ESL (English as a Second Language)-certified teachers, so they don’t have any formal training.
“We try to teach them English the way we learned Spanish,” Gomez said.
What the lessons lack in structure is made up for in personalization.
“When they come in, we ask what they want to learn,” Gomez said. “They usually say ‘anything,’ or ‘everything.’ But sometimes they come in with a list of words or a specific goal like wanting to read better.”
If they don’t come in with their own lesson plan in mind, SALCE provides it.
“It’s really hard picking out what to teach them,” Lang said.
But with the goal of building vocabulary, they start with numbers, colors, even the alphabet if necessary. To spice up these bland basics, the club uses things like side-by-side English-Spanish picture books.
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Gomez said.
One of the books was about a child who outgrew “cat-stroking.” Rather than serve as a source of clarity, the story was a source of confusion. The tutors were just as puzzled as the immigrants about this supposedly American practice of cat-stroking.
“Raul hated that book,” Gomez said.
Members also try other creative methods that they have more control over such as role-playing. Because lessons are only once a week, the volunteers make study sheets for their students to take home.
“And we quiz them,” junior Rachel Carr said. “We hope that by taking the papers home they will practice throughout the week. A lot of times they don’t, sometimes they do.”
Stoking the flame
Consistency in both practice and attendance has been a persistent problem. SALCE’s greatest difficulty is recruiting people who want to learn English and have the time to do so.
“We don’t have a really big budget, so we can only go once a week,” Carr said.
“There are a lot of people who are interested, but can’t come at that time of the week.”
Lourdes Leon, part-owner of Taquería Mercado, sees that eagerness among her customers who attend the study seesions.
“Many people ask for more time and more days with the students,” she said.
The club doesn’t suffer from a lack of volunteers though, a result of its openness to anyone interested in helping.
“Absolutely anyone can volunteer,” Gomez said. “We don’t have any single requirement.”
While she admits that having some knowledge of Spanish is helpful, it is not necessary. In fact, not knowing can actually be used to the advantage of the immigrants’ education.
“It’s really great for the lessons if the tutor doesn’t speak any Spanish,’ she explained. “It forces the person to speak English.”
While volunteers are consistent, the weekly turnover in those coming to learn complicates the club’s ability to track progress.
“I definitely saw an improvement with people who came back a lot,” Carr said.
“Some people don’t come often enough to improve that much, but even with them I have seen some improvement, especially in understanding English.”
Among the many random, student-for-a-day types, there are a few stalwarts. Like Luis.
“We have some regulars, (but) nothing like him, he’s the most consistent by far,” Gomez said.
“He told us last week that he wishes we could come every day,” Lang added.
And his commitment has translated into tangible results.
“His speaking ability is light years from where it was,” Lang said. “And he is so much more comfortable with it. He’s doing a lot better at work and at home, just being able to answer the phone. He’s also more confident and it’s really encouraging.”
Lighting the future, warming hearts and souls
Indeed, these lessons in language are part of a greater curriculum of life skills in America. To SALCE success means something much more than vocabulary retention.
“The purpose of SALCE is to teach English and make new friends,” Gomez said. “Part of the one-on-one structure is so that we can build relationships.”
The volunteers hope their goodwill acts as a bulwark against loneliness and softens the blow of others’ discrimination. But these adversaries, though intangible, are no less imposing.
Once, Luis’s roommate wrote bad words in English on his hand. He had no idea what they meant and asked SALCE members, who didn’t know how to explain it to him.
“Luis feels somewhat ostracized by white America,” Gomez said. “Part of that is because of the language barrier.”
While the club is working to improve immigrants’ circumstances by directly impacting the immigrants themselves, it also hopes to affect change indirectly.
One of the first things people observe is the Hispanic community in the area is larger than expected. But SALCE members want to deconstruct this view of immigrants as one entity.
“I don’t see them clumped together as ‘immigrants’ anymore,” Lang said. “I see them as individuals, the way everyone should see them. When we lump them together we dehumanize them.”
Because SALCE members see Latinos as individuals, not just as part of a larger community, they have been embraced by those working at the restaurant. Leon has seen the positive impact the group has had.
“It’s always nice to have a groups of young people who don’t care about color,” she said. “We need to educate others more, so that they have more respect for different communities. If we get more youth t
o care, then it would be better world to live in.”
Their humanistic approach shapes SALCE members’ perspectives on the issue of immigration.
“I think we forget talking on a national level that it comes down to people trying to live,” Gomez explained. “Immigration status means noting to us if they want to learn English. It helps them to do better in their job, to communicate, and to become ingrained in society. Those are all positives for everybody.”
Grateful to these students serving the oft-ignored Hispanic community, the workers at Taquería insist on serving dinner to them.
“Yeah, they won’t let us pay,” Gomez said, shaking her head.
While the number of SALCE members can be counted on your hands, their impact on individual lives can’t be quantified by any measure. It’s worth at least a dinner anyway.