Elvis Teaches English

English As A Second Language Classes Help Immigrants Adjust To Living In The United States

Kyra Gurney
5 min read
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Six students sit around a low table, discussing Elvis Presley in halting English. It’s Tuesday evening, and most have come to class after a long day of work. Jose Hernandez is still wearing paint-splattered pants from his construction job. The students lean forward as their instructor, Mark Ortega, holds up a picture of The King and asks slowly, "Who has ever heard his music?"

The students are a part of
Mission: Literacy, a nonprofit organization that provides free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for adult immigrants. Most of the people at tonight’s class are from Mexico, but Mission: Literacy pupils belong to other immigrant communities as well. Though they come from different parts of the world, they share a common goal: learning English.

Ortega’s question about Elvis is greeted with a pensive silence. The students sit with their pens in their hands, poised to take notes, until Director Pam Pitchford walks by and sings, “Ain’t nothing but a hound dog.” Recognition dawns on the students’ faces and Pitchford continues her task of reorganizing the room. The rent for the Mission: Literacy classroom space went up in October. Because of limited funding, Pitchford is moving the post office she started operating last year into the already cramped Mission: Literacy space to save cash. Boxes are strewn everywhere, and desks are piled high with binders and supplies. Pitchford says funding has been a problem for Mission: Literacy since the program’s inception three years ago; donations from businesses and individuals only cover half the program’s operating costs.

Back in the classroom, discussion shifts from ’50s pop stars to American culture. Ortega writes the words “culture shock” on a small whiteboard in green marker and holds it up for the students to see. “Was there a part of American culture that took getting used to?” he asks. Maria de la Cruz says the language barrier was an issue for her when she arrived in the United States.

Before taking classes at Mission: Literacy, she encountered problems at stores and hospitals because of her limited English skills. Sometimes she felt discriminated against by English-speakers. Today she’s able to make herself understood. De la Cruz’ plans don’t end with learning English; with the help of Mission: Literacy, she hopes to become a U.S. citizen.

Tutors like Ortega and Elsie Lujan provide citizenship classes and help immigrants study for the American civics test they will have to take in order to achieve that status. “We’ve had three pass the American citizenship test and be sworn in as citizens,” says Pitchford. Others have gone on to get their GEDs, and many have improved their economic situations as a result of the Mission: Literacy ESL classes. Some, like Jose Luis Valerio, plan on studying at a university or community college when they become proficient in English.

A new student enters the class and introduces himself as Carlos Orellano from Guatemala. He sits further back than the others, and Ortega hands him an English assessment test so he can be placed in a class or scheduled for one-on-one tutoring. While Orellano is taking the quiz, one of the older students shares a joke in Spanish with her neighbor, and the two burst out laughing. Valerio translates the joke for instructor Ortega’s benefit. Ortega, though he grew up with a Spanish-speaking family, understands only a little Spanish.

Mission: Literacy developed out of Pitchford’s masters thesis. After completing her degree in education at UNM, she decided to convert her thesis into an actual program. When she opened Mission: Literacy at the
Westside Community Center in 2004, she had two students. Now she has 200, but the organization struggles to accommodate them all with its resource shortage. The biggest challenge? “We desperately need more tutors,” says Pitchford.

With little money, Pitchford says she is unable to pay the tutors a living wage. Most are volunteers, but Ortega and Lujan are part-time employees. Neither has had to get a second job yet, though Ortega says he might have to in the future. Despite their salaries, Ortega and Lujan agree their work is rewarding. While he acknowledges that it can be a challenge to motivate students, Ortega says the most rewarding part of his job is when students come to class “fired up” and are persistent. "We’ve got all the patience in the world for our students," he says, "but the hardest part for a lot of our students is they’re impatient with themselves."

In spite of problems with funding and a shortage of tutors, Mission: Literacy plans to keep expanding its program. Pitchford is excited about starting family literacy classes where parents can bring their children and learn to read to them in English. She says the language barrier often prevents Spanish-speaking-only parents from taking an active role in their child’s education, and she hopes family literacy classes will help change this. Pitchford also plans to open other Mission: Literacy locations in the Northeast Heights and the southwest part of town to service immigrants all over the city.

Ortega stresses the impact learning English has on immigrants. "I tell [the students] they need to learn English for their future, for education and job opportunities," he says. "If you only speak one language and it’s not English, I believe you’re very limited."
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