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St. Petersburg Times

Puerto Rican Teaches In Her Language Of Love: Volleyball


20 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved. 

BROOKSVILLE - Alyssa Darmanin can laugh about it now. The confusing pronunciations and oddly translated instructions: "cappy-tan" instead of captain and "go to service" instead of serve.

The Nature Coast Tech sophomore can do a pretty good imitation of volleyball coach Maria Garcia explaining how to spike.

"Up here, good," Darmanin said, flicking her wrist above her head to demonstrate. "Down here," she said as she moved her hand to a different angle, "bad. Here, good. Here, bad. ... "

The extent of Garcia's English doesn't go much beyond that.

Her hiring this past summer took some people aback. Sophomore Danielle Eckert said when she came home from volleyball conditioning camp and told her mother the new coach didn't speak English, the reaction was like most players' parents.

"She didn't think it would work out," Eckert said. "She wondered how much coaching would be going on."

Nature Coast administrators might have wondered the same when this woman from Puerto Rico asked for a job coaching volleyball and teaching physical education. Garcia spoke virtually no English and required a translator during the interview process.

Garcia's credentials, however, spoke eloquently. She taught phys ed in Puerto Rico for 13 years, still owns a professional women's volleyball team there and knew more about the game than anyone else who applied for the coaching job.

"Our main concern was the volleyball program," athletic director Joy Greene said.

The school also needed someone to supervise and maintain the girls locker room, a $9.30 per hour job Garcia could do without speaking fluent English. (The coaching supplement is $2,500 per season, according to Garcia.)

The Sharks finished 3-21 as a first-year program last year and coach Chris Mock, still a teacher at the school, resigned. Garcia seemed to administrators like the right person to save them from another embarrassing season.

Not everyone was sure at first.

"I was scared when she came in and started speaking Spanish," Eckert said. "I didn't know if it was going to be like this for the whole season or what."

The players warmed up to Garcia when they saw how fiery and passionate she was. They liked how she flung her arms and rolled her eyes when she was frustrated and clapped and beamed when they did something right. They have come to appreciate her energy and quirkiness.

It helps that the Sharks have improved to 15-6 and are the No.2 seed in the Class 3A, District 6 tournament.

* * *

Garcia, a 39-year-old divorced mother of two, moved to Inverness from Puerto Rico in April 2003 and barely left the house for a year. She said, through a translator, she left behind "a very stressful life."

She still cries when she talks about it.

"It's like a competition (in Puerto Rico)," Garcia said. "If you have this, I have to have more and more. There were too many things over me, too many responsibilities."

Since coming to Florida, she has married William Roman, who is bilingual. Her sons, 9-year-old Jovaniel and 12-year-old Geovany, attend public schools in Hernando County and learned English within six months.

Garcia knew coaching would force her to speed up her conversational skills, but she had plenty of help to lean on when she couldn't find the right words.

Four of the 12 girls on the varsity squad speak Spanish and English. Before the season started, Garcia asked Aixa Crespo, an algebra teacher at the school and mother of a player, to be her assistant coach and translator.

With the assistance of Crespo, the Spanish-speaking girls and a little electronic translator Garcia carries around, the rest of the girls have been able to keep up.

"In the beginning, it was hard," said team captain Yarixa Cruz, who is Crespo's daughter and speaks fluent Spanish.

"Now a lot of the girls understand Spanish because it's the same words over and over."

Some girls who don't speak Spanish use a bit on the court, phrases such as "vamos" instead of "let's go" and "dale" instead of "hit it."

"Girls from other teams have come up to us and said, "Oh, you're the all-Spanish team, aren't you?"' Darmanin said.

The girls are quick to correct them.

* * *

Many girls and their parents say they are thrilled with the changes Garcia has brought. Cruz said the team is "like a family" now, and many parents saw a new spirit among the girls.

"I had my reservations at first," said Trisha Barrett, whose daughter, Doreen, starts for the Sharks. "But (Doreen) never did. They managed to get past the language barrier, and it's been a fun season."

It hasn't been without its bumps. Midway through the season, Garcia noticed that during practice, the Spanish-speaking girls tended to hang together on one side of the gym while the others grouped on another.

She called a team meeting.

"After that, we decided that everyone would try to speak English," Darmanin said. "Since then, we've gone back to being a team."

Though Garcia's English has improved, she still relies on translators to get through practices and matches. She often turns to her Spanish-speaking girls when she needs to get a message to the team in a hurry.

At least one parent believes that is a problem.

Cookie Ruiz said her daughter, Christine, speaks Spanish but not as well as some of the other girls. She believes the language barrier is one reason her daughter doesn't get more playing time.

"She has preferences toward the Puerto Rican girls, and that's what makes me upset," Ruiz said. "In her eyes, it's their court, and you can see that.

"The way I feel is Puerto Rico is Puerto Rico. This is the United States, and if you don't speak English, you need to learn it quick."

* * *

In the five months she has been coaching at Nature Coast, Garcia has picked up enough words to piece together sentences, although her strong accent often gets in the way.

She knows some parents are too shy to approach her after matches, and she suspects they don't want to embarrass her by making her speak English.

And Garcia knows there are things some of her players are missing out on. There are some things she can't tell them, even through translators. Some words just don't translate.

"She tells us that there's so many words she wants to tell us but she can't," Darmanin said. "Or if she can, the words don't mean exactly what she's trying to say."

Garcia's relationship with the team has become more natural with every passing week. The players have learned to understand her body language, and their ears have adapted to her part-Spanish, part-English dialect.

Others at the school still have a hard time understanding Garcia, but her players get the message.

"When I watch her deal with the girls, I wouldn't know she was ever speaking Spanish," assistant principal Vince LaBorante said. "And that's a good thing.

"When you have the energy and passion, that's a universal language."

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