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Broward Language Barrier Rising

Immigrants face English Catch-22: too busy working to improve skills


January 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Zully Polo worked as a journalist in Colombia after graduating at the top of her college class. Then, two years ago, she and her family fled to South Florida to escape the country's growing violence.

Today, the 37-year-old Weston mother spends her days removing calluses from clients' feet at a beauty salon in a Pembroke Pines strip mall.

For Polo and other immigrants who don't speak English, options are limited. And it's not just the financial hit that hurts.

''I feel like my tongue was cut off,'' Polo said in Spanish. ``Now, it's like I'm a young girl. I can't give my opinion or talk about important issues.''

Adults lacking proficiency in English are becoming an increasing problem in Broward County. The county's immigrant population doubled between 1990 and 2000, to make up 26 percent of the county's 1.6 million people. Roughly two-thirds of Broward's immigrants are Hispanic.

For those who don't speak English, the struggle to adjust is extremely difficult.

''We don't want to repeat the Miami story where there are people who have been there 20 years and don't speak the language,'' said Isilio Arriaga, president of Hispanic Unity, the county's largest social service agency for Hispanics. ``This is the U.S., not an appendix of Latin America.''

In light of the changing demographics, Hispanic Unity and the Broward Workforce Development Board hosted a community meeting last week to discuss the issue.

''What we are doing now is projecting for the future,'' said Mary Woods, assistant executive director of WorkForce One, Broward County's unemployment agency.

Community leaders want to close the language gap that keeps both highly skilled and low-skilled workers from improving their lot in life.

The drive to learn is strong. Last year, 31,500 adults in Broward enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Language courses, Woods said. But finding time to learn English is often the hardest part.

''If we put them in an ESOL course, when will they earn money to feed their family?'' Arriaga said.

No one knows the quandary better than Polo, who found that working in the salon and taking care of her family left her no time for formal classes.

Tougher, she said, was her husband Rafael Charris' adjustment. He was a civil engineer in Colombia who spent a year here cleaning pools. ''He was very anguished,'' she said. ``As a man, it especially hurt him.''

His language skills have improved, she said. He is now working as an assistant in an engineering firm, preparing to pass his equivalency exams.

''What they need is English,'' said Christine Wolf, chairwoman of the ESOL program at the McFatter Technical Center in Davie. ``That isn't instantaneous.''

Margarita Crespo left Puerto Rico four months ago. The 37-year-old teacher said she left to escape domestic violence. She arrived at her sister's Pompano Beach home with two kids and no job prospects. Here, she said she felt lost and useless, almost paralyzed by not being able to communicate in English.

Crespo now takes three hours of language instruction each day, focusing on words she needs for job interviews.

''I want to be a teacher again,'' she said.

For information, call Hispanic Unity of Florida at 954-964-8884 or write to 5840 Johnson St., Hollywood, FL 33021.

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