East Boston

5 students step to the head of the class
By Marcela Flores Iga

Most of McCarthy’s students are Colombians, many of whom fled to this country to escape a civil war in which thousands of civilians have died at the hands of paramilitaries, guerillas and the Colombian army. Their legal status in this country, however, has prolonged their sense of uncertainty. Many refuse to disclose detailed personal information their reasons for being here.

Expedito Moya

Expedito Moya reviews his assignment before going to the front to read it out loud.

Everyone calls him the “presidente” of the class. “Yes, I had to be under anesthesia when my parents gave me that name,” he joked. He jokes all the time.

Moya, 51, came from Colombia with four daughters and his wife three years ago. Two days after his arrival, he already had a job, he proudly recalled.

He has been painting houses ever since.

All of his co-workers are Americans and that’s how he has learned some phrases in English. But he still can’t speak it fluently, though that hasn’t stopped him. He has managed to communicate using single words or even signs.

He knows he had to learn English in order to compete for a better position and a better pay. Nonetheless he is satisfied with what he accomplished. “I have done well…at least I don’t have a minimum-wage job,” he said.

For today’s assignment he was the first to go to the front. He talked about his dream of visiting Paris, where he would go watch the Grand Prix. “It is the most visited city in the world,” he says. Every word comes out of his mouth with effort and very carefully.

Gloria Escudero Montoya

Gloria Escudero Montoya (right), an architect from Colombia, talks about her dream trip to Venice, where she hopes to see the architecture and the art one day.

Then it’s Gloria’s turn. She said she would like to go to Venice. She spoke to the class about how she longs to see its architecture, its art and its culture.

Montoya was an architect in Colombia. Like everyone else, she had to start from scratch when she first got here. She hasn’t had much luck.

Her immigration status and her lack of English proficiency left her with no choice but to settle for a clerk job at CVS. She is not happy there but she has two children to take care of.

Montoya didn’t want to comment on her situation. But she said she hopes the lessons help her score a better job.

“She’s been getting really good,” McCarthy said.

Martha E. Martinez

Martha is a new student today. She heard about the classes through her good friend and coworker Adriana Jaramillo.

“I been living here for four years,” Martinez said. “This is the first time I’m taking an English class…I had to do something, I have seen many job opportunities pass me by.”

She also came from Colombia to try, she says, to open a door for her daughters, 15 and 25, whom Martinez had to leave behind.

During these years she has been working as a tailor in a small factory. “I have learned to get through, learning short phrases, using signs,” she said. “But I have had to settle down with this job and I now want something else.”

Along the way, she married a Colombian man, also an immigrant to this country. She still wants to fulfill her dream of working in a nice office. “I told my daughters I was going to learn English…they want me to get a job as a secretary or in a hospital …they say I deserve better.”

Marta E. Martinez (right) sits behind her friend Adriana Jaramillo (middle)

Even with these great expectations, it is clear in this first class that she is shy. That’s why she prefers to sit in the back corner.

4. Adriana Jaramillo

Adriana, 33, followed her husband here from Colombia.

After two years of living in East Boston, her two daughters have already learned perfect English. She is struggling.

Although she considers herself to be tireless, her days aren’t easy; she has to divide her time between her family and three jobs. During the day, she works with Martha as a tailor. During the nights she is a waitress in a small Colombian restaurant nearby. On weekends she works independently at her house also as a tailor. Still, she finds time to be at class every week.

“I had to run from the factory to get to class,” she said, “And after class I will have to run to the restaurant … I am so tired … but I don’t have time to rest. I have a lot of work this weekend.”

Because of her hectic schedule, Jaramillo finds it hard to concentrate and remember what she learned in class. “I know that by the next week I won’t remember anything…Every week is like the first class,” she said.

That why she asked Sgt. McCarthy to change the program, and have class twice a week instead of once. “I think that way we can make more progress,” she said. “And we can finish the program in half the time.”

Everyone agreed.

5. Maria Isabel Palacios and Maritza

Maria Isabel Palacios comes to the
class because she wants to be independent. “I have a great time in here,” she said. “I just want to be able to fully enjoy it.”

Maria and her 12-year-old daughter Maritza also came from Colombia three years ago. Their experience learning English has been totally different.

“I came to the class with my mom,” Maritza said, “I already know English.”

She sits close by Maria, correcting her mother every time she doesn’t pronounce a word correctly. When necessary, she translates everything the teacher is saying.

This scene is common among immigrant families. The children of immigrants, once they are removed from their country and brought to a new country, get involved in more adult roles because their parents don’t speak English and they do. They become the family translators.

“Depending on each child’s character and personal experience, either they feel very proud of their roots, are aware of the sacrifice their parents did and try to excel, or on the other hand they become vulnerable and feel intimidated or resentful…so relationships inside the family are sometimes strained,” said Xanty Necoechea, director of an after-school teen program at the East Boston Social Centers.

McCarthy agrees. In many cases, the roles are inverted – the child becomes the parent. “The kids end up making decision and almost running the family,” he said, which relegates the immigrant adult from fully adapting and participating into the community.

Twelve-year-old Maritza (middle) participates in the class. Her mother Maria Isabel Palacios, also a student, gives her positive reinforcement.

Maritza says she is proud of her mom and she is happy Maria is learning English. “I know it’s difficult…I was lucky because I was in a bilingual school back in Colombia, so when we moved here and I started school I could learn fast,” Maritza said.

She likes to participate in the class to make her mom feel more confident.

“You talk like an American teenager,” Sgt. McCarthy told her, “Too fast.

Other Stories:

East Boston Home
Breaking down the language barrier
Unifying by demystifying: McCarthy's story

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