April 26, 2015
By Natalie Allison Janicello
In a classroom inside Blessed Sacrament School on Saturday, a handful of middle school students take turns reading a story aloud in Spanish as their teacher, Suyapa Mejía, stops every so often to discuss words that are unfamiliar.
Down the hallway, several elementary-aged children complete a similar activity, and around the corner, their mothers sit in small chairs in a classroom of their own, studying English sentence structure and learning new adjectives.
It was an issue Mejía realized soon after moving to North Carolina from Miami: Latino children were speaking Spanish at home with their families, but lacked reading and writing skills for the language since it wasn’t taught in school.
“They are learning the language of the parents,” Mejía said, “but I see their vocabulary in Spanish is so little.”
When Mejía walks out of the classroom for a moment on Saturday to speak to someone in the hallway, the group of middle-school students begins quietly conversing with one another in English. Though they speak fluent Spanish throughout the class as Mejía asks them questions about the reading, it’s evident that their English-speaking environments outside the home have been influential.
Mejía, president of local organization Latinos Unidos Promoviendo la Esperanza, or “United Latinos promoting hope,” started teaching the hour-long Saturday morning class three years ago as a way to help young Latinos in the community become fully bilingual and show how those skills can open up career opportunities.
“I made this program on Saturdays because it’s my passion,” said Mejía, who works during the week for N.C. State University’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.
Eréndira Vázquez Arriaga teaches the younger children on Saturdays, also talking to them about unfamiliar Spanish words and having them form words from letters written on bright-colored flashcards.
Anna deDufour and Caroline James, Spanish minors at juniors at Elon University who are also in the school’s Periclean Scholars program, tutor some of the mothers in English while they wait on their children each week.
While the Elon volunteers initially started working with LUPE by helping teach the kids, a few of the parents waiting one week began asking questions about English, and the mothers’ class from there formed naturally.
On Saturday, deDufour and James jumped back and forth between languages as they explained to the moms the Spanish equivalent of words like “classy” and “lively” — and how to use them as comparative and superlative adjectives.
The women in attendance laughed as the group discussed a list of words written on the white board and nearly effortlessly changed the words’ verb tenses when prompted.
DeDufour also said the program was an important one for young Latinos who aren’t developing formal Spanish skills in school.
“They’re speaking it at home, but not the type of Spanish that can be useful in a job context,” deDufour said. “You need speaking and writing skills that are more professional and formal.”
Despite spending an hour in a classroom on a weekend, Mejía said her students have stuck with it for three years now and enjoy activities like Spanish BINGO that she sometimes uses as teaching tools.
“They want to be here,” Mejía said.