Community and Culture
Elena Velasquez arrived to Forks from Juarez, Mexico in 1979. She was nine years old. She grew up in Forks going to school there and is now the Middle and High School Bilingual Teacher. Below are excerpts from an interview in Spring 2005.
I arrived in 1979. I believe it was September or October. They brought us to school. And my older cousin enrolled us in school and one of the first things I remember is the changing of our names. When we were saying our names it was different. They registered us with these very simple names. I went from Francisca Elena to Helen. We all lost one of our first names and one of our last names. I thought that was really sad. It wasn't until my senior year when they checked my name for my diploma and I said no I want my full name. And when I get called up that's what I want you to say, so when I got called up all my peers where like who's that. (laugh)
I was a different person in Mexico I was very shy. I remember doing very well in school and being respectful and when I came here I was still pretty good and I was still shy. I was placed in a classroom where the teacher spoke some Spanish, but she wasn't encouraged to speak Spanish to me.
They put me back in 3rd grade, and I was like why? I finished with pretty good grades, and they put me back in 3rd grade because I didn't speak English. In 7th grade, 5 years later, that's when I was figuring out what the teacher was saying. I was learning English, but I wasn't learning academics until about 7th grade. It takes about 7 to 8 years to learn English.
At the beginning, I would go home and cry. My mom would cry with us. I hated it with a passion. I hated coming to school and not understanding what was going on. At first kids were very receptive, and they would try to learn Spanish from me and teach me English. That was nice. I made a few friends, but I couldn't understand them. Eating in the schools was different, because in Mexico they didn't provide lunch. And getting used to all the different foods was difficult too.
When you were in school did you see your siblings, so you could speak some Spanish?
No, not at all. Because, most 3rd graders where in other buildings. There weren't enough classrooms, so there was only one 3rd grade classroom in this building, so I was totally separated. They had different experiences, because they weren't allowed to speak Spanish to each other, and in fact they where punished for it.
I remember my mom saying, there were some school people who went to her and said don't allow us to speak Spanish at home, and my mother being this woman who has faith in educated people decided that was a good idea, so eventually we didn't speak Spanish at home. We began to speak English at home, and it's been about 5 years since I slowly started speaking Spanish to my mom again, which is something I did deliberately. You lose that bound. You can't talk about some personal manners in a different language, when you don't have the words for it. You lose that bond that you grow up with when you were a baby and your mother would speak to you in Spanish.
Did your mother know English at that point?
No, she was learning with us. She made sure we taught her and she would watch Sesame Street with my younger siblings. Victor, my younger brother was a baby and he didn't speak any Spanish because of that.
One person who still teaches at the school part-time, who is Native American told my mom, "Do not listen to them. They are wrong. Let them speak Spanish at home." She knew that they where trying to take away our culture, and of course we lost a lot of Spanish. I had to relearn Spanish in high school. I could speak it, I could have a regular conversation and I could understand it, but I had to relearn a lot of the grammar, the more complex structures.
I took Spanish at the high school. And I got an A-, I think.
In 1992 I was hired as a part-time teacher's assistant, and then they offered me a job full time at the end of the school year.
For two or three years it was just me, and I was pulling elementary kids out and helping them learn Engllsih. One of my missions was that I didn't want students' names to be changed and I didn't want them to be put back a grade just because they didn't speak English. Even though I didn't make that known when I was hired, it was later when I had more confidence that I said you can't do this. It probably had to do what I went through, so I made sure there names were being pronounced, so I would train teachers to say names correctly.
So, I think it was 94 or 95 when we finally hired Mr. Much. He was here for two years and then we hired Mrs. Ballard. Now, Mr. Much was just bilingual he wasn't a bilingual teacher. He was actually a music teacher that was bilingual. He did a lot of great things for the program. Using his music and his love for the arts he did a lot for the ESL portion.
It was Mrs. Ballard that really took it on, because she had a Masters Degree for bilingual special education, so she came with a lot of experience down in California teaching bilingual programs. She came in the first year and had a vision of where we want to go. I learned so much under her. It was amazing to see the benefits of the bilingual program and the benefits of students keeping their Spanish. Kids are going to learn English anyway because they live in a different country, so we focused on learning Spanish. She brought the academics. Chris made a lot of changes to the program. Someone got their teaching degree through the teachers learning program, so there was a group that was interested so we decided to do this and it was hard! Working hard with family and going back every six months to Boston, which was fun. It took me about 4 years to get my teaching degree.
I've been teaching for about 7 years now, around 98, is when I finished the program. Mrs. Ballard had a plan. She knew there wasn't a need for two teachers at the elementary, but she knew there was a need at the middle school and high school and the population was growing. We knew there was a need for two teachers. Teachers were saying we need help, so using the teachers' complaints and the excuse that I just got a degree, we said, ok, let's hire a teacher. So I got that position right away.
Was going from an assistant to a teacher a big transition?
It was a big transition, especially because I had been teaching at the elementary level, and my children were at the elementary level, so I hadn't had the experience of working with middle and high school students. It was a big shift. The first year I had a lot of students that spoke English, but didn't know the academics, because they hadn't gone through that bilingual program. And so it was a challenge to teach them, because they where Americanized and doing disrespectful things that you just don't do in Mexico. Respect your teacher, and that's what you do. I was dealing with adjusting to that.
Do you want to describe what you do with the bilingual program and your job in the classroom?
I have a student that comes and registers who doesn't speak English, and I do an assessment and if they don't speak English at all they are automatically in my program and I am responsible for teaching them English. I'll teach them history, science, and math in their native language. It's very individualized. What works for one student doesn't work for the next. I have to look at it case by case.
Some of them are like me they missed years of education or they only went to school until the 3rd grade. So we have to close the gaps.
Could you talk about how you see the culture changes with your students?
I became more Americanized, myself. You have your cultural rules about the way things are. You have to respect your parents, you can't talk back to them, there's a way to deal with problems in a quiet manner. But in the United States, it's more speak up, be independent, be yourself and so that's what they do. They see their peers, and they pick up on that. Some see it as disrespectful, so when they go home and act this way there is conflict. So what I see a lot of kids do they either live with the conflict, or they become two different people.
I have seen too many cases because of losing the language you lose that family bound. We've lost a lot of kids to drugs because of that. Because you can't find your place so kids find their own place.
If you're in it you don't realize it. I'm fortunate to have been educated and to be able to look back at myself and say there are the stages I went through to become the person that I am now. People don't realize where they are going, because you can either become isolated in your own culture or you can become Americanized and reject your culture, or you can try to do both. And sometimes it's not even a conscious choice you make, it just happens. A lot of it has to do with how old you where when you got here. The older you are the more you are going to stick to your roots. The younger you are you probably will become more Americanized, but if you are younger, and come from a family that has very strong roots, you will probably end up being more bicultural.
How do you feel the loss of language affects your culture?
I think you lose a lot. If you lose your language, you lose your culture. I think a lot of kids who don't use Spanish as much the newcomers make fun of the kids who have been her longer who have lost their language.
How do you think your experience going to school has affected your experience as a teacher in the schools?
It's given me a lot of experience for the need for a bilingual program. It makes me a stronger believer for the bilingual program and an advocate for it. I understand what the students' fears are and where they are coming from, so I connect with them that way. I trust my judgment a lot, if teachers come to me with a concern, I say, well, this could be a solution.
How do you see the schools have changed to help the latino students?
Well, if you look back in 1979 it has changed a lot. They would encourage students to lose the language to assimilate. Then in 92 when they had more numbers, they where like ok, we need to help them learn English, which has led to the bilingual program.