When 35-year-old Marcos Santacruz moved to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, he arrived with no knowledge of the English language. He could not speak to cashiers at the grocery store, nor could he talk to a doctor about health concerns without a translator present.
“I knew nothing. I started here from zero. … It was very hard for us,” Santacruz said.
Santacruz was not alone in his struggle. Of the estimated 12 million Mexican-born immigrants in the country, 72 percent say they do not speak English well, according to a 2012 Pew Hispanic Center survey.
But Santacruz, a La Honda resident of four years who tends to the fields at Rhys Vineyards, would not count himself among that population anymore. He is one of the dozens of Hispanic adults who recently concluded a year in Puente de la Costa Sur’s adult English as a Second Language program. It was his third year taking such classes through the nonprofit resource center.
Between the semester ESL classes offered at Puente and at Cunha Intermediate School through the Cañada College English for the Workforce Award Program, hundreds of Coastsiders have learned English or are in the process of improving their ability to speak, write and read in English.
Demand for these classes may very well increase if immigration reform passes before the end of the federal government’s fiscal year on Sept. 30. A version of the proposed bill mandates that registered immigrants 16 or older demonstrate English proficiency or be enrolled in an ESL class to apply for a green card.
“If there is a pathway to citizenship and English is one of the requirements, I definitely feel there would be a lot more interest (in ESL classes) anywhere in the Bay Area,” said Kassi Talbot, Puente’s Learning Center associate in charge of the ESL program.
But even without this initiative, these classes are being filled with people eager to learn English in order to better their lives for themselves and their families.
At Puente, it used to be that perhaps 20 adults showed up for the first day of an ESL class, with a handful finishing the entire term. But a shift from a grammar-based to comprehension-based curriculum last August has led to “the biggest maintenance of our attendance than ever before,” Talbot says.
“We give instructions in English and Spanish so everyone feels included,” Talbot said. “They are able to participate every day without being embarrassed.”
Still, this feeling of embarrassment or shame over not knowing the language is often present when students first enroll in ESL classes.
“The first time I went to Puente I was a little bit surprised to see a lot of people there trying to speak English,” Santacruz said. “I was a little bit scared because it’s not very easy.”
ESL instructor Shari Sollars has taught introductory levels of ESL at Puente for four years and has a split Level 2 and 3 class with a few students who have the most advanced English skills in the program. There isn’t currently a formal Level 3 class, but Talbot says one may be established in the near future. Level 1 covers how to produce personal information at public locations like a store or hospital, while Level 2 incorporates a little more reading and writing, such as drafting a letter to your child’s teacher.
“They’re shy at first, and I think there’s a little bit of shame involved in being their age and living in the community for years (when you) can’t speak English,” Sollars said. “I tell them, ‘No hay verguenza,’ there is no shame.”
Sollars says that once they get settled, the students warm up quickly, motivated by the desire to communicate with those that may not be fluent in Spanish.
“A big reason is they want to be able to talk to their kids’ teachers and also go shopping,” she said. “They’d like to be able to go outside of the just Spanish-speaking world and not be limited by their language abilities.”
Students like Santacruz often take ESL classes for years, moving up from Level 1 to Level 2 or repeating levels if they still feel the need for improvement before progressing. After that, they will sometimes enroll in more advanced community college classes over the hill or begin working toward achieving their high school equivalency that was not completed in Mexico.
Sollars says she notices a big difference in students as the weeks go on.
“I just see a lightness in them. I see their confidence, especially as they come back to begin a second semester and they know what they know,” she said.
Santacruz feels that added confidence when he goes out in the community and helps those who can’t speak English well. He hopes to build on his English-speaking abilities to pave the way for a successful future for his 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.
“I want to grow as a person. I am trying to learn something new every day to help me for the future. If I can learn more, I can build a better life for my family and a good future for them.”