Mixing a continent of cultures
The Boston Globe
June 20, 2004

Mixing a continent of cultures

A Mexican family begins to find comfort in US

Last in a series of articles chronicling one family's experience with English immersion.

This was the last place Carmen Martinez had expected to encounter echoes of her tiny Mexican village. Yet here she was, on an end-of-the-year field trip to Plimoth Plantation, crying out in excitement and glee every time she stumbled upon some new trinket or tool that set off memories of life in El Refugio.

''La cazuela!" Martinez exclaimed, pointing to a heavy iron pot hanging over an indoor hearth. ''Es como Mexico, en la casa de mi abuelos." It was, she said with a touch of wonder, just like the one in her grandparents' home in Mexico.

In that moment, the space between cultures and countries melted away as Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in East Boston, found familiarity on the grounds of a meticulous re-creation of a Colonial-era Pilgrim settlement.

It was, in many ways, a metaphor for the journey her family has taken during the school year, now winding to an end. In September, the Martinez family, with thousands of other immigrants, headed into unknown territory as the state public school system ushered in the first year of English immersion.

The shift to English in the classroom sparked trepidation in the Martinez home, where, at the start of the school year, Alonso was about to enter first grade, Yovanny was starting third grade in a new school, and Carmen braced herself for the worst.

The collision between languages and cultures never materialized. Instead, much like the trip to Plimoth Plantation, the family discovered familiarity within the foreign. Even as they grappled with the shifting school environment, and the changes it triggered in their lives, the members of the Martinez family learned to save what they did not want to lose.

''Todo cambia en un ao. Si uno se pone a recordar, todo cambia . . . y no cambia nada," said Carmen Martinez, as she sat in her living room and reflected on the evolution of the school year.

In English, her words mean: Everything changes in one year. If you think about it, everything changes and nothing changes.

Carmen Martinez spent the first day of school wandering through the hallways of Samuel Adams Elementary School, where her son Yovanny would attend third grade. Unable to locate anyone who spoke Spanish, and unsure of her own nascent English, she felt lost and frustrated and confused.

Nine months later, on an early June day that unfolded as languidly as that September day had been rushed, a different Carmen Martinez had emerged.

Parents learning a lessonMartinez had thrown herself into an after-school English class for parents at Otis Elementary School, where Alonso is in first grade. Although she had immigrated from Mexico 12 years earlier, and had attended the class sporadically for years, this was the first year Martinez had felt her English skills leap ahead.

''Now is the time for me to keep going. I can't stop," said Martinez, 40, speaking in Spanish. ''When someone asks me a question, I can answer. This year, I have felt more confident."

Martinez's desire to learn English was heightened by the state's switch to English immersion.

Until this year, Martinez's two youngest sons had been in bilingual education programs, where they received classes in their native Spanish. Martinez and her husband, Genaro, both of whom speak little English, had been able to help with homework, to talk with teachers at school conferences and to easily monitor their children's academic progress.

An older son, Edgar, has just finished his sophomore year at East Boston High School. Ariana, the baby of the family, has just turned 2.

Martinez quickly realized that her children's success in school could hinge on her ability to help them with assignments and communicate with school officials. Genaro, a construction worker, often works double shifts to support the family, leaving his wife to shoulder those tasks.

She also worried that as her children became more at ease with English, they might forget Spanish and drift away from parents who spoke only that language.

As the year spun on, from fall to winter to spring, some of Martinez's fears proved unfounded; a few others sprung to life.

Alonso's first grade homework, which included a daily reading assignment and a volley of word problems in math, were challenging for both the 6-year-old and his mother. A few years ago, she could not count to 10 in English, much less master English vocabulary.

However, with her English classes, run by Boston Excels for the Home for Little Wanderers, Martinez wrote in an essay for class: ''I can help my children with the homework. They are happy when we read books together."

At Otis Elementary, which had been a bilingual school last year, officials still translated school notices, letters, and report cards into Spanish or Portuguese, helping parents ease into the transition to English only. At Adams, where Martinez had spent that first day, flustered, a Spanish interpreter has since been available to help her communicate with Yovanny's teacher.

And her children seem to be thriving. Yovanny, who has serious learning disabilities, came home with two school awards, including a certificate for achievement in math. Alonso brought home a yellow ''School Spirit" ribbon for ''excellence in conduct, effort, citizenship traits, and work habits." Edgar won his ''Razzle-Dazzle" award for excellence in reading.

Was she proud? ''Ay, si," Martinez said, sighing and beaming brightly as she showed off the awards. ''I feel so happy. This year has not been as difficult as I thought."

Still, there are some signs that progress in school could come at a cost. Alonso, who knew only rudimentary English and spoke mostly in Spanish at the beginning of the school year, now shies away from using his native language. 

Indeed, the three older Martinez children, like many of their Spanish-speaking classmates, use English with each other and with their friends. They flip back to Spanish only at home, or around Spanish-speaking adults.

Ariana, who just entered the talking stage, and seems to amass a new crop of words every day, still speaks entirely in Spanish. But her favorite cartoon is ''Dora, the Explorer," which features a Latina main character who speaks mostly in English, with sprinklings of Spanish.

''Where two cultures met"''Welcome to Plimoth Plantation . . . This shore is where two cultures met . . .Between the two cultures, there was curiosity and suspicion . . . You are about to travel to another world."

The words, spoken by the narrator of an orientation film referred to the history of the English colony. But they seemed especially appropriate for this audience, made up of the parents enrolled in the after-school English class at Otis Family School, and their children. The families are immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, and Colombia.

In this school year, as the parents struggled to grasp the intricacies of English grammar, their children raced ahead. On this trip, an end of the year treat for the group, it was the same story.

The children darted in and out of the Colonial-era structures, scrambling up the steps of a church to play on the cannons on the top floor, and squealing with delight and disgust at the clucking chickens and the bleating goats. Their parents, meanwhile, trekked steadily behind, carefully exploring each house and garden with widening enthusiasm.

''Mira, que bonito," (Look, how pretty), said Carmen Martinez, surveying the sloping fields and the open sky. ''I think they lived happily here. I wish I could just stay here."

As she pushed Ariana in a stroller, Carmen Martinez watched a ''Colonist" in period costume swinging a hoe into freshly turned dirt. ''That's how they do it in my country," she said.

Martinez and the other parents drifted into nostalgia and yearning for the tranquil pace of villages back home. But their children yanked them back to the present, and the increasing tug of English and American culture.

They pleaded with their parents in a mixture of English and Spanish to hurry to the Wampanoag Indian camp, eschewed the homemade tacos and jalapeos their mothers had packed for lunch in favor of pizza and nachos from the snack bar, played games of ''Mother, may I?" while their parents reminisced in Spanish about life back home.

The first year of English Immersion may be ending, but for the Martinez family, and the thousands of other immigrant parents and their children, the balancing act of culture and language has just begun.