The three individuals profiled here offer a glimpse into the community forming around educational support at the Mexington Library, located in the ethnic enclave on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky. I met each of these individuals in the course of my fieldwork at the library’s after-school program. I chose to focus on one adult and two youths, as my experiences at the after-school program thus far placed me in closer contact with youth than adults. As part of my volunteer service to the library, I worked with mostly elementary school-aged children complete their homework from the different local schools they attend in the area. In two of the profiles below, I focus on one male and female youth, each of whom had come to enjoy my company and my assistance with their homework. In addition, I chose to profile one adult, the manager of the library, and her experiences advocating for Latino youth in city and region. All of the voices here come from both extended interviews as well as snippets of dialogue I’ve shared with each party. In sum, the voices speak to the collective voice of the Mexington Library after-school program’s position as cultural and linguistic broker connecting immigrant and language minority families with the educational institutions outside the bounds the schools’ walls.
“I know what they are going through. I lived it”: Clara Ordonez, Branch Manager, Mexington Library
I met with Clara, the branch manager of the Mexington Library, through the intervention of Rachel, the assistant branch manager. Rachel I had met in my initial contacts at the library before I moved to Kentucky. When I proposed conducting research alongside with my wife Sara who would be conducting her own community engagement program at the library, Rachel organized a meeting for us to meet Clara. Before she could give either of us approval to conduct fieldwork or literacy programs with families, she advised that we meet Clara, gain her approval, and also build a working relationship for future collaboration.
When Sara and I arrived to meet Clara I was pleasantly surprised because I had met her previously. Two days before she had observed me tutoring some of the youth at the library, and she pulled me aside before I left to thank me for reading in Spanish and English with the children, as well as the attention to detail I gave to each.
“You must be a teacher,” she said.
“You might say that. But adults, not children,” I said.
“Well you have a way with kids, and we’re glad you’re here.”
I had no idea the woman I was speaking to then was the branch manager. I assumed she was a librarian, but since I didn’t know most of the staff, there was no way for me to know her position. Looking back now, I’m thankful that the manager would take the time out of her schedule to volunteer to tutor. I noticed her that evening we informally met helping several young folks with their homework.
As we walked into her office during the afternoon of our visit, I noticed there were huichol paintings on the back wall, as well as two hanging Colombian country-style house models on the wall. I noted the huichol art, a style localized to the Tarascan indigenous people from the state of Michoacán in Mexico. This seemed significant to me because I knew through interacting with folks around Mexington that Michoacán was one of the primary sending states of immigrants.
Clara welcomed us into her office, shook Sara’s hand and mine and welcomed us in.
“Bienvenidos,” she said.
“Gracias, thank you,” I said.
“Well you’re Steve. I know who you are now,” Clara said.
“Yes, I do too.”
I told her I had heard about her through some of my connections in the community, in particular an immigration lawyer I had lunch with some weeks back and who mentioned that the Mexington Library manager was very involved with local politics and also with finding spaces for local Latinos to located educational support.
Clara was 60. Her short, curly white hair has lessening shades of black. She had a lively voice, and she spoke softly, often averting her eyes, but with quick glances between speakers. She sat straight at the table we meet at, a circular one, with Sara next to me on my left, Rachel on my right, and Clara directly across from me. We exchanged business cards, and I realized that her card had her information in English on one side and Spanish on the other. She smiled at she looked at Sara and I, perhaps because she could sense our enthusiasm for reaching out into the local Mexican community, or perhaps because she understood our potential for role models for the youth the Mexington Library served.
Clara was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in Florida, and has lived in Lexington for over 20 years. Her family left Cuba as refugees when Castro came to power. “I’m an immigrant. Not like these families, but an immigrant. We were refugees, and in that sense, I share the same pattern of moving away and looking for a better life. That’s not a crime—to want a better life.”
I asked her about what it meant for her to be a part of this program, and how it started. She answered:
We receive grant funding largely through a city government initiative aimed at preventing violence in the community. That’s how we started, and the idea was to use education as one means of reaching the community. We expanded over the years as more immigrants found us and discovered us as a safe place. We wouldn’t deny them, and I think they felt that from other organizations. I know what these kids experience. I remember growing up, and how I started school and I didn’t know the language. That’s scary, and that starts one gap that continues to grow.
Clara forcefully acknowledged the disparities in the community and the fundamental inequalities Latino students in Mexington faced as they struggled to remain at the same levels of their peers who grew up with more “advantages” as she termed it. “I want these kids to have advantages, because they don’t have them. I know them, I know their families, I know what they are going through. I lived it.”
I mentioned to Clara that I was surprised to see so much institutional support for Latino families in Mexington. I explained my research project in New York City, and how the families at the Mexican American Network of Students (MANOS) had no such institutional support and had to quite literally go “underground” in the basement of a church to find the space they needed to organize their after-school program.
She nodded as I said all this, and answered:
We would have too, if we didn’t have a former branch manager who took a chance. I’m not going to lie, though. It wasn’t easy. There was some backlash from the community. Not the entire community, but there were those . . . well parties who had a problem. But the overwhelming majority of the community supports what we do. We have a lot of support, through grants, but also politically, and as you see from the community.
After meeting with us for forty minutes, Clara agreed to Sara’s literacy project, as well as organizing some meetings with me and families to speak about schools and language issues. Clara was excited to hear about my research with language brokers, as she had that experience growing up:
Yes, I used to translate, and it was hard. Hard because some of the words were difficult, I didn’t know what I was saying. Like with taxes! How is a kid supposed to translate that? And my parents would be so upset with me, and I would be upset with them. Yes, I think what you’ll find are some similar stories, and I hope you can help us to figure out how to take away some of that stress for these families, because they have so much already.
“I’m mucho bilingual”: Luis Robles, Fourth Grader, Mexington Library Tutee
Ten-year-old Luis Robles attended a local bilingual elementary school located across town from the Mexington Library. He lived in the barrio close to the library, however, and for this reason he came to the open hours for tutoring homework four nights a week, especially with his homework in Spanish. This had sometimes proven slightly difficult for him because many of the volunteer tutors at the library didn’t speak Spanish—a good portion are university students looking to learn Spanish, but with little experience using the language outside the classroom.
Elizabeth, the volunteer coordinator, requested that I work with Luis since she overhead me speaking Spanish to some of the youth at the program on previous nights.
“He has homework in Spanish. Do you think you could handle it?”
“Como no?” I answered.
As I sat with Luis, I asked him some questions to learn more about him, his school, and his thoughts about the Mexington Library and about his identity in general.
Luis had dark eyes, and short-cropped hair. He spoke with a slight southern English accent, but his accent in Spanish was “puro Mexicano.” He had a small bald spot on his left temple. I had noticed this before when I saw him receiving homework help, but I never thought much of it.
As I worked with Luis, I learned more about his school and his opinions about it.
“It’s bilingual, and it’s okay. I already know Spanish though.”
Luis attended a bilingual school. This particular evening, his homework included math word problems in Spanish. These problems were somewhat of a challenge for my emerging Spanish fluency, so I relied on him to take the lead and walk me through, as well as translate the problems into English for me to understand.
Luis helped me with my Spanish. We had a conversation as I asked him questions and leveraged whatever Spanish, or Spanglish, I could, but reaffirmed in English. We used two languages through the homework, as he did math word problems. The math of course could be conducted in two languages. We rounded numbers and added/subtracted. The same skills of looking for key words to interpret how to do the problem remained consistent.
“I’m good at Spanish,” he said.
I agreed. “You’re bilingual, that’s why.”
“I’m mucho bilingual,” he said. “I can read and write and speak Spanish. A lot of kids can only speak it.”
We worked in Spanish and English. I read everything in English, pronounced names of letters in English, and then selectively use Spanish words while clarifying. I also pointed cognates to him with certain verbs, such as sentir/to sit.
Luis asked me if I was Mexican. “Mexican American,” I told him and I explained that I was born in Arizona, though my parents grew up on the border, and that my mother was born in Mexico.
“Me too,” he said. “But my mom and dad were both born there. But I just say I’m Mexican, because I am.”
I asked him if his parents spoke English.
“No, not really, not that much. My dad [does] a little bit, but my mom not that much.”
“Who do you speak English with at home?”
“Like, my friends, and sometimes my brothers. But my little brother is a baby and he only knows Spanish. But he will learn English when he goes to school.”
“You have hermanos?”
“Yes, two brothers, and one little brother.”
“They speak English?”
“Yeah, but my little brother is just three. But he knows some words. He’s learning. That’s why I said he will speak it when he goes to school. Then I can talk to him in English.”
“Well, which one do you like better, English or Spanish?”
“English,” he answered quickly.
“I don’t know.”
I heard similar responses at MANOS, but I couldn’t help but feel to pressure to learn English in Kentucky was much greater than in NYC, because of the amount of Spanish speakers in NYC compared to this location. This was not to say Spanish was not a valued language in this particular Southern region, rather, in Mexington Spanish carried considerable value. I assumed, however, that the value of Spanish had increased locally by virtue of the wave of immigrants from Latin America who arrived over the last 25 years.
Luis and I continued to work on his homework. We read a graphic novel together. When I finished with him, he thanked me.
“Are you going to be back tomorrow?” he asked.
“No, but I will be back next week, and we’ll do some homework again, and you can teach me more Spanish.”
He gathered up his things and left the tutoring area. After he was gone, another tutor approached me. I had never met her before, and it turned out I would come to know her shortly as the branch manager, Clara.
She said she enjoyed watching me read with Luis. She said she was very sad for him, that “he breaks my heart.”
“He has a tumor in his head.”
“Yes, he’s such a smart boy, but it’s very sad.”
“Is he having surgery soon, or getting treatment?”
“Well his mom’s still trying to figure that one out. It’s a very sad situation,” she said.
“Because lots of people get killed there. That’s why we moved”: Fatima Garcia, Sixth Grader, Mexington Library Tutee
Eleven-year-old Fatima had shiny black eyes and straight, black hair. Whenever I arrived at the library she was one of the first youth to greet me, always with a smile and wave. She enjoyed showing me the good grades she received on her homework, sometimes beaming with pride.
Fatima lived right around the corner from the library, and she attended the after-school program each evening. The staff at the library enjoyed her energy as well, as she was often willing to help out with the younger tutees when she finished her homework. She attended a middle school a short distance away from the barrio, but most of her friends at school lived in Mexington.
The first time I helped Fatima it was with her vocabulary words. We looked words up together in a dictionary and she wrote sentences with them. I noticed Fatima had difficulty sounding out vowels, or relying on English phonics for making guesses when composing the corresponding vowel symbols. For “beat” she used “bit”; she confused the Spanish phonic “i” with that of the English phonic combination of long “e”.
I made this note to her, about the two systems. She said, “I know how to write in Spanish. I sent to second grade in Mexico.”
“En que parte?”
“Michoacán. Conoces Michoacán?”
“Yo, no, no mucho. Pero yo se donde esta. Hay un gran lago, verdad?”
“I’ve never been there though.”
“It’s very bad there.”
“Because lots of people get killed there. That’s why we moved. My brother lives there now. He got deported. He has a son and a wife.”
Fatima without doubt was older than her years. She had witnessed many difficult things in her home, as well as in her community. She mentioned that she heard gunshots on more than one occasion in Mexington, and that the police regularly patrolled her neighborhood. Without discretion, she told me about one of her cousins in Michoacán who had emigrated to Lexington “because her boyfriend was sleeping with somebody else, and he had a baby with the other woman, so she left.”
On one Tuesday, I helped Fatima as completed a project on Native Americans and the language of a tribe from Virginia. I asked her about Native Americans in Mexico.
She laughed. “There are none.”
I quickly gathered she wasn’t aware of the glorious ancient history of Mexico. I asked her if she had heard of the Aztecs. She hadn’t
In New York City, the students at MANOS had units dedicated to the Maya and Aztecs. I noticed something with pride happening in these students as they learned about ancient Mexican history in their classes.
I gave her a quick rundown about Columbus and the great civilizations of Mexico.
“So there were Indians in Mexico?” she asked.
“Still are, in fact, there are many in Michoacán.”
“I didn’t know that.”
When we continued to read a short passage about the Native Americans in Virginia, she asked me if I was Mexican.
“I’m Latino,” I answered.
“That’s like Mexican, but different,” she said.
“It’s like not as brownish white, it’s like different.”
“What color are you?”
“Brownish white, like brown and white.”
“And what color am I?”
“Well you’re brown too. Kinda whiter though, but brown.”
“We’re both Latinos, but it doesn’t matter what color we are because Latinos come in all colors.”
I turned the discussion back to Fatima’s Native American project. This turned into the history of the Mexican “mestizo” culture, and the variances of colors from güeros to darker Mexicans, the mixture of European and indigenous blood.
“I never knew that,” she said. “That’s brown people, where we come from. We mixed between whites and Indians. I’m going to tell my friends at school.”
Garcia, Fatima. Personal interview. 2 Oct. 2012.
Ordonez, Clara. Personal interview. 11 Oct. 2012.
Robles, Luis. Personal interview. 24 Sept. 2012.