SPELL-ing Success In Both Languages

It’s 5 am, around the time when most students who have procrastinated head for bed. For Gloria, it’s time to wake up and head to work. She works a full eight-hour shift, cleaning the dorms of Hedrick Hall, but at noon she takes a break to learn English.

Gloria is an employee for UCLA Housing and Hospitality Services. She participates in Project SPELL (Students for Progress in Employee Language Learning), a program on campus that offers English as a Second Language (ESL) tutoring for employees to improve their English skills. A volunteer-based program in its second year, SPELL matches employees with student tutors, each pair meeting twice a week for one-hour lessons. The employees range from those who have basic English skills to those studying for their GED. SPELL is a Volunteer Center Initiative that welcomes any non-native English speaker.

SPELL produces many stories of success like Gloria’s. As her personal tutor, I have seen an immense improvement in her English skills, as well as her confidence with the language. “ Cada oportunidad a aprender es bueno [every opportunity to learn is good],” Gloria explained as the main reason she decided to participate in the program. She answers in the quiet yet serious voice of someone who gives constant advice from experience. Although sometimes serious, Gloria is mainly a cheery woman who enjoys describing her life experiences and family stories in comical ways. Originally from El Salvador, she arrived in the US in the early 1990s and has since made it a top priority, though a slow process, to learn English.

As it is for a majority of immigrants, the fact that LA has a prominent Spanish-speaking community is a major reason why becoming fluent in English has been difficult for her. “At work, I try to speak English, but at home I speak mostly Spanish,” she said. She also mentioned that supervisors speak English to their employees, but many opt to direct their workers in their first language—Spanish. Bilingual managers make employees comfortable in using mostly Spanish.

Outside the work place, Gloria realized that learning English was crucial in order to communicate with UCLA staff and, especially, students. “When I first started out, tenía mucho miedo para hablar en Inglés y contestar sus preguntas que me preguntaban [I was afraid to speak in English and answer their questions they would ask],” she confessed, commenting on the  miscommunication that occurred between herself and students she encountered every day.

During the past four years, Gloria would avoid conversation with students who approached her, always due to a lack of confidence in English. Even the little thank-you notes some left at the end of the year were difficult to understand. “I wanted to know what they said and answer them (the students) when they ask questions. I also need to tell them when I have problems,” Gloria said, “I knew that I had to speak better English.” Gloria’s insistent tone in making this statement, accompanied by a head nod, shows she accepts the situation as more of a challenge rather than a looming obstacle.  She believes that English is important because it is how workers, staff, and students interact with each other.

Gloria also encounters the language problem at home. Her children, first generation Salvadoran-Americans, balance both languages. Yet, with her grandchildren, English is more dominant.  “My youngest nieta [granddaughter] speaks mostly English,” Gloria said, “they learned it first, so they always answer me in English even when I speak Spanish.”

While this occurs, Gloria said that she does not want them to prefer one language, “I want to be able to speak to them in English and Spanish.” She wants her grandchildren to speak both languages fluently, emphasizing that “los dos lenguas son importantes igualmente [both languages are equally important].” This is the philosophy that Gloria carries to our weekly lessons: to learn English and set an example for her grandchildren. At home, she sings the English alphabet with her granddaughters to practice phonetics, and at least once a day she takes time to complete an English crossword puzzle to build up vocabulary.

On our first day together, Gloria was nervous about practicing her speech skills because of  frustrating experiences in the past. These days she happily chats with any student, taking every opportunity to practice her English skills. “The students, the RAs, are always very nice. They say, ‘Hi Gloria, how are you?’ I talk more English with them, and they say, ‘You are doing very good with English!’ ”

Encouragement from students and family is what influences Gloria to continue improving each quarter. Her face grows into a wide smile as she says, “English provides more opportunidades y beneficios. Estoy contenta a aprender mas y mas [English provides more opportunities and benefits. I am happy to learn more and more]!”

Blurring the Lines

When an elderly woman walked into Supercuts that day, Raquel Alexander wasn’t expecting to be insulted simply for being herself, especially not at her job.

“What ethnicity are you? Are you Indian?”

“No, actually I am mixed. I am Black and Mexican.”

“Ugh! Those Blacks and Mexicans need to stick to their own race and stop mixing with one another!”

Stunned and grossly offended, Raquel complained to her manager, who ignored the racist comment and sent her to lunch.

This moment has stuck with Raquel for years, and it is only one of the many times she has encountered this type of discrimination as a mixed individual.

According to the US Census Bureau, the amount of people identifying with two races or more increased by 32% from 2000 to 2010. The nation’s mixed population is growing as more people identify with multiple ethnic backgrounds.

Unfortunately, they may also experience the same discrimination that Raquel faced at her job. For some mixed people, it is easier to identify with just one race so as to avoid being judged, insulted, or scrutinized.

Raquel is one of those victims who felt that she had to hide a part of who she is so as to avoid being an outcast.

“I tell people that I am just Black because it is most people’s first impression of me,” she said.

Raquel is an African and Mexican American female with her associate’s degree in social science. She stated that because she does not speak Spanish, she feels that she cannot truly identify with her Mexican roots. She cannot relate to her Mexican-half since she does not feel that she was exposed to this culture, especially the language. “It has limited me from more job opportunities,” she said.

Yet, she believes “being mixed is a good thing because it means more diversity.”
Mackenzie Rossi is a female Mexican and Caucasian, a second-year business economics student. “I tell people that I am ‘White,’ so as not to confuse people, or explain why or how I am mixed,” she said. Unlike Raquel, she was exposed to her Mexican culture, but given a negative view by her grandfather.

“My grandpa (who emigrated to the US from Mexico) felt that I should identify solely with being White, especially when going to school, because he felt that in US society, it was not OK to be Mexican.” The schools she attended while growing up influenced her decision to identify with one race.

“It wasn’t until high school I began to identify with both ethnicities. It’s a struggle to be mixed because other ethnicities don’t accept you; you feel like you don’t have a ‘home.’ ”

Fortunately, Mackenzie also found being mixed to be a positive characteristic, “You are getting the best of both worlds!”

Ivan Pena-Aparicio, a third-year human biology in society student, had a different perspective on being mixed in the US, especially because he was raised in Latin America.

Ivan is Panamanian, Spanish, and Brazilian. Although he identifies with one race to avoid confusion, he appreciates being mixed. “I embrace all of them and don’t necessarily choose one over the other, but I say Latino because it is an ethnicity that most people can recognize.”

Originally from Latin America, Ivan realized that the perception of mixed people in the US differs significantly from the perceptions of those in Latin America. “In Latin America, it is more common to be mixed. It wasn’t until I came to the US that I realized people who were mixed were affected in a negative way because they felt they couldn’t fit in with the majority or the minority that they are mixed with.”

Ivan feels that because he is not from the US, he doesn’t face the same struggle as those who were born mixed in America. “It is not that I’m mixed but that those from the US that are mixed aren’t okay with being that way.”

For this reason, he co-founded the UCLA Mixed Student Union. An organization that focuses on multi-cultural dialogues which encourage people to become more open-minded and learn something new about someone else’s culture.

“Being mixed is talking about mixed experiences, something that many of the students at UCLA share in common – that they may not identify as being mixed, but in many ways are.”

These individuals have different views of what it means to be mixed and the struggles that go along with it. The Census Bureau has proven that there is an increase in the mixed population, which probably continue to grow in the future.

Thus, it appears, as said by Raquel, “I want people to see me as both ethnicities, not just one.”

Illustration by Jonathan Horcasitas.

Working Hard for His Daughter’s Dreams

Just outside where he works in the mid-city area, Gerardo Becerra anxiously waits to buy his coffee at a parked food truck. His work-day begins at 4 a.m. and usually ends twelve to thirteen hours later. Becerra is a family man who enjoys spending time with his four children; however, lately he has spent more time at work than at home. His oldest daughter, 19-year-old Denise, is an AB 540 student who was admitted to California State University, Long Beach last fall, causing a strain on the family’s income. “My co-workers, and my immediate boss know that I need to come up with around $4,000 every semester to put Denise through school, so they help out by trading their days off with me, or letting me work overtime,” said Becerra.

As an AB 540 student, Denise does not receive any financial aid. She is responsible for covering tuition and book costs for her education. Commuting every day and living in the two-bedroom home with her parents helps the family save some money.

Becerra was born and raised in Jalisco, Mexico and migrated to the United States in 1994 with his wife and daughter. He fled poverty with the hopes of finding a better future in el norte [the north]. He was persuaded by a cousin to come and try his luck in the US, only to find “that you do earn more money here, but you also pay more bills.”

Not having finished high school himself, he admits that sometimes it’s hard to help his daughter. How can a parent guide his child through something that is unknown to him? “The best way to help is offering an incredible amount of support and love,” said Becerra.

Upon arriving in the US, Becerra was faced with the reality of living in a capitalist nation. One must work very hard, in the presence of a language barrier no less, in order to survive. Finding a job was difficult.

He and his wife thought about returning home to Mexico to try to make a living there; however, a few months after arriving to the US, his wife Norma became pregnant, and they decided to wait until after the birth of the child. After 17 years, they now formed a life here, a home they can’t simply renounce. “I came here for myself, to find a better life, and I stayed here for my children. I want to see them succeed, to see that they live out this better life,” said Becerra.

As the head of household, he feels obliged to provide for his daughter’s education; however, he admits it is financially overwhelming. “It feels like I am paying two houses. I have to take as much overtime as my boss is willing to offer me to make it through the month. Family and friends have been very supportive.”

His wife Norma does not work. Instead, she takes care of the younger children at home who are all US-born citizens. They host family events to raise money for Denise. “My wife makes tamales. Friends and family help out by selling them. They try to have Tamaleadas [tamale sales] once every month,” said Becerra. At work, he also raffles tequila bottles, perfumes, movies, and anything that will help buy Denise that one very expensive textbook or her bus pass.

Now that his daughter has the opportunity of attending one of the top schools in the state, does he feel like his dream of a better life has been fulfilled? He smiles and responds, “Pues en parte si [well, in part yes].”

“There are things out of my control,” reiterated Becerra, like his daughter’s legal status or his own permanent status here in the US. “Making ends meet has become so difficult and now there is such a strong anti-immigrant sentiment that you just don’t know anymore. It feels like we can get kicked out any day.”

As an AB 540 parent, Becerra faces many challenges. He wishes to give his daughter the necessary tools to succeed in life; however, the unreliability of his legal status prevent him from fully doing so. He wishes he could have a better job, so he can make more money, educate himself, and help his daughter in choosing the right path. “No puedo hacer mas por mi hija, [I can’t do more for my daughter],” he said.

The biggest challenge is knowing that his daughter will have to work twice as much as any student because of a decision he took years ago: migrating to a different country with different customs that was not his home then, but has become his home now.

“There are days,” described Gerardo, “when Denise gets sad because she can’t do things that her friends can do like travel, study abroad, work, drive, or simply volunteer at schools.” For the Becerras, “there is always that fear in the back of our minds about what will happen once she gets through with school. If she will be recognized as a professional, if she will be able to work, to be what she is studying for, a teacher.”

As much as he tries not to let his fears show in front of his daughter, these are things that he worries about. “Seguir Adelante,” said Becerra, a phrase he is known for. He believes in moving forward to work hard for his children’s dreams, which are now his own.

“She is my first daughter; I came to this country for her. I wanted a better life for her and I will give her as much as I can,” affirmed Becerra.

Offering More than Support

Writing a story about a housekeeper, I believed that I was writing about an invisible person who is normally ignored. For Bennie Herrera, her life was intertwined with her employers, “La manera como soy, posiblemente me tienen confianza, mas que cualquier housekeeper.”

Bennie came because of her employer Amelia. Bennie worked for Amelia, in Peru, by taking care of her three children, and then sold clothes at Amelia’s boutique. One day Amelia asked Bennie to come to the US with her and she accepted. She came to the United States from Lima, Peru when she was 20 years old.

When Bennie got to the US with Amelia and her family, the pleasant working environment changed. Amelia’s friends saw how well she treated Bennie and soon people started advising her to change. Amelia began to say that she would steal and she would not let Bennie leave the house.

Photo by Maria Revalcaba. Bennie Herrera at her El Monte home.

With the help of her neighbors, Bennie was able to leave Amelia’s employment to begin her path toward working in convalescent homes and cleaning homes. At one of the convalescent homes, she was introduced to Barney Industrial Company.

Barney Industrial Company gave her two houses to clean. She was 25 years old when she began to train to clean houses. John, one of the managers, taught her how to run her own business of cleaning houses. She then put an ad in a Pasadena newspaper to find homes.

People started to call Bennie, and she was now self-employed, setting her own prices, making more money, and having a flexible schedule. “Me relajo. Puedo cantar, puedo hablar con Dios, puedo pensar,” she said. It is more than a job; it allows time for herself.

From 1996 to 2001, Bennie went through a divorce, which took up a lot of her time and money. Her ex-husband tried to provoke her employers to fire her and even told the judge that she worked too much and did not have time for their kids. The judge made her choose between her business and her kids. She chose her kids.

Despite her ex-husband’s efforts, there were three households who remained by Bennie and these are the three that have meant the most to Bennie; that of Mrs. Rives, Judi, and Dr. Lavine. “Estas tres no creyeron en el,” says Bennie.

They all called her on the first day that her ad ran in the newspaper and they are the ones who have continued to be by Bennie’s side. “Con el cariño de ellos, no me he sentido sola,” said Bennie.

For the past five years, she has been Mrs. Rives’ personal caregiver. She is the one person Bennie works with everyday, while Bennie balances cleaning houses four days a week and working at convalescent homes the other three days of the week.

Their close relationship grew when Bennie was there to console Mrs. Rives for the death of her two sons and, later, the death of her husband. She would be the person Mrs. Rives could cry to, while also making sure Mrs. Rives did not forget to eat. Bennie remembers them crying together and holding each other to get through each death. Mrs. Rives’ daughter, Nancy, has even told Bennie that it is because of her that Mrs. Rives is still alive.

Just as Bennie was there to console Mrs. Rives, Mrs. Rives and her other employers were by Bennie’s side when she broke her wrist last year.

Judi stood by Bennie throughout her whole divorce and would try to take care of Bennie as much as she could. She gave Bennie furniture, plates, clothes, and other necessities. Bennie remembers that Judi called her when she went to the market just to ask if there was anything Bennie needed. “Ella fue una persona especial, se preocupaba de mi ropa, se preocupaba de mis niños, y se preocupaba si tenia comida en la casa,” said Bennie.

At one point Judi moved to Palm Springs. Bennie drove the distance to continue to work for Judi. While Bennie no longer cleans Judi’s home, they still have a very close relationship. In just talking about Judi, Bennie is reminded that she needs to call her to catch up.

In Dr. Lavine’s household, Bennie transitioned from housekeeper to caregiver. Bennie would arrive at the house, and instead of cleaning as soon as she got there, Dr. Lavine invited Bennie to sit down and have breakfast with the family.

Dr. Lavine would even make Bennie lunch by buying Bennie’s favorite things like turkey, tuna, muffins, Diet Seven-Up, and bananas. Bennie remembers Dr. Lavine, “¿Que patrona da eso? Ella se preocupaba que yo desayunara y que yo lonchara. Y cuando no me hizía comida, me daba diez dolares y me decia, ‘you promise honey that you’ll stop and get lunch.’” Bennie took care of Dr. Lavine until the day she passed away.

Just as many people might believe there is disconnect between the employer and the employee, Bennie realizes that her relationships have been special. “No las veo como extrañas personas.” Her relationships tell a different story than just the one of an employee working for a paycheck.

“Mas que todo me miran como familia y no me tratan como housekeeper o como una empleada.”

Not Just a Man’s Job

Every day Maria Elena Garcia enters the Community Job Center in downtown Los Angeles which is filled with male day laborers. She waits for a job as she watches another man get picked. The sign outside the center that reads “Hire Day Laborers and Household Workers” makes Garcia reflect on the journey that brought her here four years ago from Jalisco, Mexico.

Seeing no opportunity for work and desiring to provide her son with a thriving future, Garcia parted from her old life and set out on a solitary trip to the North.

Upon her arrival, she found assimilation into the host society extremely difficult. Missing her son and unable to find a stable job, she quickly slipped into a debilitating state of depression, which was also triggered by a stagnant cycle of searching but not finding. “I hadn’t been here even one month when I grew tired of this country’s persistent rejection. I couldn’t stand the loneliness, so I decided to bring my son over here.”

With her son in the states, Garcia had a even greater need to find stable employment. Although she had a steady job for some time and was providing for her son and her family, she unexpectedly got laid off. As a result, she was forced to move out of the room she was renting and into the living room of an apartment.

When asked to describe a regular day in her life she begins, “I wake up, thank God for another day, I feed my son, send him to school, and walk to the center. I spend most of my day there.” At the downtown center she spends hours waiting for a job. If she is offered one, she accepts it. If she does not, she begins making and distributing business cards with the domestic services she offers.

As one of the few women who attend this center, Garcia seems almost desensitized to being the only female presence there. Upon being asked if she feels out of place, Garcia responds, “No, the moment I step here, I forget that I am a woman.” More than just putting aside her identity as a woman and assuming the identity of a day laborer, Garcia also becomes male day laborers’ competition for work. When asked if she would perform a man’s job, without hesitating she responds, “Yes.”

As for the differences between jornalero men and women, Garcia is very clear in emphasizing her belief that women have an overall advantage over men. “We are charismatic; we can adapt better to situations, and can perform a greater array of domestic jobs,” she says.

Despite her certainty in the female advantage, she also expresses reservations about potential disadvantages. The greatest of these is the position of subordination in which women are often put. Because this is a male-dominated environment, women mostly interact with men. Often, a woman is offered a job by a male, meets him at their agreed location, and quickly discovers that what she is being offered is in fact a different and morally degrading domestic job.

Another common situation is when housekeepers become victims of abuse by the male of the household. Their fear of deportation combined with their need for money forces many of these women to allow this abuse to continue for long periods of time. Whether it is verbal or physical abuse, it ultimately transcends into psychological abuse, driving them into a state of constant fear, anxiety, and disgust.

It is experiences like these that shake the resolute faith of jornalero women like Maria Elena. “Things are really dangerous here now. Almost like Mexico, but without your family to support and look out for you,” she says.

In regards to where she sees herself in five years she says, “In Mexico, in my home. I’m tired of being alone here. I want to be with my family.”

If given the opportunity to do this again, she “would think twice now that (she) has seen the discrimination, abuse, and impossibility of assimilation.”

Despite her desire to return to Mexico, Maria Elena embraces life every day. She realizes that she has a responsibility here: “These things scare me, but they do not stop me from taking any jobs. I have a responsibility to my son.” Indeed, it is God, her son, her family, and her own positivity which keeps her motivated. “The dissolution I feel after getting a door slammed in my face is hard. But, the dissolution I feel after realizing that I am an invisible burden to this society is unbearable.”

With saddened eyes that reveal her sorrow that illuminate her face, Maria continues, “But even if I have to do it with tears in my eyes, I force myself to stay positive and be thankful for the things I have and the things I don’t.”

Letter from Grupo Folklórico de UCLA

 In an effort for all to be aware that there was a successful Chicano/Latino population on university campuses in the 1960s, Folklórico groups began to form. It was also a way for them to have a part of home, culture and traditions, away from home. The first of these groups started here at UCLA.

Professor Emilio Pulido-Huizar, the founder of the great Jaliscience folklorico group at Universidad de Guadalajara, established Grupo Folklórico de UCLA in 1966. Since then, the group has grown and flourished to consist of UCLA students, alumni, grad students, and community members beyond just Chicano/Latino students. The purpose of this group is primarily one of promoting and educating the UCLA community and the greater Los Angeles area about Mexican traditions and culture.
This is done through music and dance. Each individual dance represents a region of Mexico and tells a story of its people, animals, daily life, and rituals as it is accompanied by the regional music. The members of the group don’t dance just for the sake of dancing; it is for the sake of cultural art.

Today, Grupo Folklórico extends out to the Los Angeles youth in order to promote higher education among minorities and show them that our raza is still present even at the most prestigious universities, encouraging them to strive to better themselves as well. Starting this academic school year, the group has a membership of over 50 students, community members, and graduate students. The largest membership it has ever had since its inception. Our motto is: “No experience necessary.”

Our biggest struggle as a group, however, has been finding a space to dance. Every Tuesday and Thursday, folklórico members, without fail, dance to the beat of different regional songs at the McClure stage. The stage has served as a practice space for many years, but even this open space does not meet the need of such a large membership. The concrete does not allow for members to truly reach their full potential due to the risk of knee injuries. Using special dance shoes, similar to tap shoes, these zapatillas and botines have metal nails at the toe and heel of the bottom of the shoe. Concrete does not absorb the shock of a foot stomp as a wooden floor would. Aside from that, the lack of mirrors, which allow for one to witness his or her progress, are unavailable to us.  The exception is the occasional Saturday practices when we book a room in the John Wooden Center, but even there we may not use our shoes because they may scratch the floors. Yet, once every other week does not suffice, even for the best dancers. We are currently hoping that the university provides us with a space to practice with mirrors, seeing that the majority of members are UCLA students, whose needs should be met in order to achieve their greatest potential.

Even with these constraints, the love for dance and show must go on. Grupo Folklórico de UCLA’s primary goal is to perform at our annual Royce Hall performance, which takes place the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend (this year, landing on May 27th at 7pm). Keeping true to our mission, we provide this educational and cultural show to UCLA and the greater Los Angeles community at a world-renowned theater free of charge.

Yet ironically, this becomes harder with budget cuts as things begin to cost more. Although we are a student group, the cost to put on the show this year has come to be about $18,000, which the student-run group simply does not have at hand.  Some funding is provided from the school, but not enough. As a non-profit organization, we fundraise and reach out to the community in hope of being sponsored in order to continue these wonderful traditions. We make as much an effort as possible, through performing on campus, by outreaching to youth and by being a home away from home for many members. Despite the obstacles we must overcome, we strive to keep this 45-year-old tradition and organization alive.

Like their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter!

Look at previous La Gente coverage of Grupo Folklórico de UCLA:

Watch the video as Grupo Folklórico de UCLA prepares for its Dia de los Muertos show!

Here’s a photo essay from the Dia de los Muertos performance!

Here’s an article about the organization’s growth as a student group!



SnapFotos: Gustavo Arellano talks about “Taco USA”


Gustavo Arellano's book "Taco USA."

Gustavo Arellano talks with one of his readers.

The audience listens to an excerpt from "Taco USA."

Arellano talks about the history and culture of Mexican food in the US.

An audience member listens to Arellano introduce his new book.

People gather at the CSRC to hear Gustavo Arellano speak about his new book.

You can visit this website for Gustavo Arellano‘s book tour dates.