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Speak Spanish Habla Inglés / Hispanic Immigrants, Professionals Converge At Center To Seek Past, Future Language Skills

By John Moreno Gonzales. STAFF WRITER

June 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday. All rights reserved. 

An article Sunday on a language center in Westbury misidentified an instructor teaching English classes who said her pupils are mostly working in service industries, within walking distance of the center and that many are college-educated in their home countries. The instructor is Karina Gimenez. A02 NS 6/11/03

Inside a Westbury storefront bought on a teacher's gamble, children are learning the language of their past and adults the language of their future.

The privately run school on Post Avenue, noticeable for the yellow block letters advertising "Spanish as a second language" and "clases de Inglés," has attracted about 140 students in a year and a half of existence. Its founder, former Bay Shore school district teacher María Isabel Martinez, sold her home and depleted her retirement savings to establish her vision of a private, for-profit business that would do a public good. [CORRECTION: An article Sunday on a language center in Westbury misidentified an instructor teaching English classes who said her pupils are mostly working in service industries, within walking distance of the center and that many are college-educated in their home countries. The instructor is Karina Gimenez. A02 NS 6/11/03]

And in the process, she has tapped two segments of the Hispanic community on Long Island: adult immigrants eager to learn the English of their adopted land, and professionals who want their children to retain the Spanish of their forefathers.

"We transform ourselves," Martinez, who was born in Colombia, said of students on both sides of the language and economic spectrum. "You're not what your parents or your grandparents were. You become part of what America is all about."

Martinez said she came to Westbury at the age of 19 as an undocumented immigrant who spoke no English. She took a job as a caretaker for an ill woman who sponsored her for the legal residency she now holds.

Between her work hours she kept "going to another one, and another one," of the free English-language programs offered at local churches and schools on Long Island.

Classes at BOCES followed until she ultimately earned degrees in bilingual special education and Spanish literature at Queens College and SUNY Old Westbury.

"I know what it's like," she said of the struggles to learn a new tongue. "You drop from a plane in a place that is not yours. You don't speak the language and you don't know the culture. You're a fish outta the water."

About 40 percent of the students are adults learning English in classes like the one taught by Rebecca Lugo, one of the center's seven state-certified teachers. The rest of the pupils are pre-kindergarten and school-age children taking their first steps toward Spanish that might otherwise be worn away by generational assimilation.

During a recent English class, a small group of adult students from El Salvador and Mexico sat at a rectangular table with their workbooks before them.

Edmundo Cruz, 31, explained the limitations of busing tables for a nearby Mexican restaurant.

"It's steady money, but not enough to live on," he said.

A bookkeeper in his hometown of Chilpancingo, Mexico, he has been attending English classes on and off at the center for seven months. As deft as he says he is with the universal language of numbers, he has not been able to use his skills in the United States because his English is limited and accented.

"You have to learn. The key to everything is English," he said.

Another pupil, Giovanni Carrillo, 20, who comes from El Salvador, took a younger man's view when he considered the power of the language he has been studying at the center for four months.

"You can speak on the street. You can find any job. You can talk to any girl," he said, cracking a smile with the last sentence.

Lugo says the other 50 English-language pupils are mostly working in service industries and other lower-paying jobs. Most are within walking distance of the center and many are college-educated people in their home countries who must start anew when they cross the border.

At $80 for 16 hours of instruction a month, the classes are relatively cheap and most students continue visiting the center for months on end, she said. But sometimes, the rigors of surviving as an immigrant in one of the most expensive places to live in the country cause them to miss classes, or quit altogether.

In addition, language experts have long said that the adult mind has more trouble soaking up new means of communication than the fertile mind of a child.

Indeed, the children who come to the center to learn Spanish do so quickly, embracing words that are new to them but familiar to their parents and grandparents.

Nelson Alcaraz and wife Susana Castro Alcaraz were both born in the United States but learned Spanish from their parents, his from Argentina and Paraguay and hers from Spain.

She is a neonatologist, a medical discipline that focuses on the care of newborn infants and he is an ear, nose and throat surgeon. They are both so busy, they need help to pass their second language on to a 4-year-old son, Lucas.

"I work in Jackson Heights where I utilize Spanish a large percentage of the time," said Nelson Alcaraz. "I think it's the most amazing gift they gave me," he said of his parents' tutelage.

Lucas and about 10 other children sat recently on a weekend day, cross-legged on the carpet of another classroom.

Martinez tossed the children tangible representations of the words they were learning: fabric balls that the boys and girls tossed back while naming the item's color in Spanish. They sang nursery rhymes designed to teach them other basic words and how to use them in a sentence.

"It's easier for me to speak English, but my nanny speaks Spanish to him all the time," parent Maria Cid Mollica said, as the lesson wound down for her 4-year-old boy, Joseph.

The bank manager whose family is from Spain said Joseph used to resist Spanish for some reason, but he now seems to embrace it.

"He refused to speak it at home," she said. But he speaks Spanish "ever since he attended the classes."

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