News: Learning to Live Together

UC program helps Latinos and Anglos communicate

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Immigrants and their supporters rallied and marched downtown April 24.

Like any other ethnicity in Cincinnati, there is no single geographic concentration of Spanish speaking people in the area — no Little Mexico or Guatemalan District.

Although the Latino community is supported by organizations such as the Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Dignity (Coalición por los Derechos y la Didnidad de los Imigrantes or CODEDI) and Catholic Social Action, its people are also represented much more subtly. Many of the same faces of immigrants — whether Guatemalan, Mexican or Peruvian — and friends and supporters show up at San Carlos Borromeo in Hartwell, where Mass is always given in Spanish; El Valle Verde, a Guatemalan market at Vine and 68th streets; and at political events such as the April 24 rally for immigration reform at Sawyer Point.

Siusan Durst, an associate professor of romance languages at the University of Cincinnati, is one such familiar face. Durst arranges for UC students studying Spanish to teach English to groups of Guatemalan immigrants in their homes.

"There's this widespread myth that immigrants don't want to learn English, and in my experience that's simply not true," she says. "They all want to learn."

But there are many obstacles, including lack of transportation and classes that don't conflict with work schedules, Durst says.

The program evolved about five years ago, as she was making a photo documentary about the arrival of Latino immigrants in Cincinnati.

"I was always being asked if I knew about classes or if I could teach one myself," she says.

Although Durst hesitated to volunteer, knowing what an undertaking it would be, one group of Guatemalan immigrants eventually won her over with their enthusiasm and persistence.

Three years later she's still teaching her group, one of whom, 19-year-old David Perez, now attends Withrow University High School. When he came here from San Marcos, Guatemala at 16, he spoke no English. But now he expects to graduate in two years.

Durst's service learning program enables about six UC students per quarter to teach English to groups of Spanish-speaking immigrants. The UC students give up a few hours a week, get to practice their Spanish and earn 1.5 credit hours. Many stay on as volunteers after their quarter is up.

"They can transform people's lives," Durst says.

Because of the classes, many of the immigrants have been able to get promoted at work because they can speak to the boss, according to Durst. Learning English gives them great confidence because they are more independent and less isolated from the larger English-speaking community.

One Guatemalan man, Lázaro, said coming to the United States was necessary to support his family. Although he says the journey was difficult — he walked for two days and two nights — and he doesn't really like his job, he needs it to send money to the wife and four children he left behind.

This is the kind of economic situation Linda Robbins says she sees a great deal of. Robbins is president of La Amistad, a local organization that provides for immigrants' immediate needs of food and shelter until they can begin the process for getting a green card — the authorization for an immigrant to legally work in the United States.

The goal of the U.S. immigration process is to make undocumented immigrants' delays as long and uncomfortable as possible so they'll give up and go home, according to Robbins.

"What (immigration authorities) don't seem to understand is that, no matter how uncomfortable we make it here, it's still better than the place they left," Robbins says. "I'm all for border control; I mean, the United States can't afford to take everyone in the world in. But we have to come up with a better system. We allow people to stay too long before we decide their case. They settle in, raise their families and become part of the culture, before they even know if they get to stay. That's just cruel."

Many such families formed the bulk of the crowd at the Sawyer Point rally. A Guatemalan couple from CODEDI said a few words — the husband in Spanish; the wife in Mam, a Mayan language that predominates in the area of Guatemala where she and most of the local Guatemalan immigrants come from.

Fermin Perez, another participant of Durst's program, was there, too.

"I love it here, and I want to live here for the rest of my life," he said.

He spoke in English, which, although he says is "not very good," needed no translation.

Sister Alice Gerdeman of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center addressed the rally, speaking of her German-born grandmother.

"I'm here because of an immigrant woman," she said. "Because that one woman took a courageous step, a step that she needed to take because her family was under threat and because they were poor. She came and founded a whole clan of people who are good, hardworking citizens of this country. And as I look out over this crowd, I see a lot more people who are taking that first step to bring a whole new generation and many generations of family people here — people who this nation should be proud of." ©

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