Hispanic Hertiage Month spans from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. In Sussex County, the month gives residents with a Hispanic background an opportunity to take pride in their heritage, while also recognize the unique challenges they face, particularly the language barrier.
This time of year is known for falling temperatures and pumpkin-flavored indulgences. But for many in the Hispanic community, it also marks a time of celebration.
From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the United States celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month to honor the history, cultures and contributions of Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.
“Hispanic Heritage Month is a good way to acknowledge the contributions of Hispanics to the United States of America,” said José Somalo, the publisher and founder of the Georgetown-based Hispanic newspaper HOY en Delaware. “Let’s not forget, that we have been contributing to this nation from the beginning.”
The celebration was originally only a week long, initiated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan extended it to a month-long celebration.
In Sussex County, the month gives residents with a Hispanic background an opportunity to take pride in their heritage, while also recognizing the unique challenges they face, particularly the language barrier.
The kids, Los niños
Maria Joseph empathizes with the frustration that comes with an inability to communicate.
When she was 6-months old, her mother was deported back to Mexico and she was left in the care of her Spanish-speaking godparents. Joseph entered school not knowing English and, as a result, was held back in the second grade.
Now, Joseph serves as the director of Primeros Pasos, a bilingual early learning center in Georgetown that serves children between the ages of 2 and 5. About half the children at Primeros Pasos, which translates to “First Steps,” are Hispanic and entered the program knowing little to no English.
“I relate to them,” Joseph said. “And it really touches my heart that I can help. I understand what they go through.”
Children fail to perform well on the kindergarten screening test because of a language barrier, she said, adding that she is disheartened knowing many have nowhere to go for help.
“I’ve had parents that have two children and the second one came [to Primeros Pasos], and they said they wish their first child could have had a program like this because they struggled [in school],” she said.
Joseph, along with the center’s board of directors and several bilingual teachers, hopes to ease the transition into grade-school. They cover basic concepts, such as shapes, colors and letters. A social component is also involved, in which teachers encourage manners and norms expected in a traditional school setting.
“It’s a stepping stone for them,” Joseph said.
Primeros Pasos isn’t the only early-education center of its kind. Indian River School District (IRSD) has a similar program at Project Village in Selbyille that focuses on verbal literacy and language activities.
“By the time these children finish Project Village and start kindergarten, they are very capable, in English,” IRSD superintendent Susan Bunting said.
The students, Los estudiantes
As kids move up through school, the language barrier does not disappear.
Not every Hispanic student is classified as an English Language Learner. But students who do not have the opportunity to attend programs like Primeros Pasos or Project Village, enter kindergarten knowing little to no English.
Within the Indian River School District, schools such as Georgetown Elementary, North Georgetown Elementary and the Georgetown Kindergarten Center have a particularly high percentage of Hispanic students.
“They are able to really concentrate and focus on the language-building skills,” Bunting said. “That’s true for every school, but it’s particularly important for this population.”
Elementary school students are quick to adapt, Bunting said,
“If kids come to us in elementary school, we seem to be able to get them to acquire English much faster than if they came to us as older students,” she said. “The older we get them, the harder it gets to learn a new language it seems.”
One of the more noted IRSD programs, launched just this year, is the newcomer English immersion program for high school students at the George Washington Carver Education Center in Frankford.
There are about 46 students in the program, mostly from Guatemala, who range in age from 14 to 17.
“Not only do they have to adapt to the English language, they are not good with literacy skills in their native language,” said LouAnn Hudson, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. “So the newcomer program is very rich in literacy. They spend nearly half a day just building vocabulary.”
The G.W. Carver program is just one example of a language-intensive initiative. Almost every school in the districts addresses language barriers to come capacity.
However, both Bunting and Hudson strive for more.
“Many teachers have expressed interest in learning another language, so I’d love to get Rosetta Stone licenses for them,” Hudson said. “We have them now for students, but I want to look into that for teachers as well.”
Bunting said educating so many non-English speakers can be challenging for the district.
“Although these kids are not special-needs as the state would define them, these students do have special needs,” she said.
Bunting said she is pushing to legislatively reform the definition of a special-needs student to include a child who may need intensive English assistance in order receive an adequate education.
As a Hispanic student moves up in the school, college becomes another weighted life-decision in ways that may be different from other high school students.
“A lot of [Hispanic] students are first generation college students, so the process is even more difficult because the parents don’t know the process,” said Cindy Mitchell, the language department chair for Delaware Technical Community College’s Owens Campus. “So what we try to do is go around to the high schools and specifically go to the ELL classes and we recruit and talk to them about it.”
The parents, Los padres
With roots in Spain, Somalo, the publisher of HOY en Delaware, is no stranger to the pressure of needing to create a stable, sustainable life for his family in a new country.
“What is happening to the first generation of Hispanics is not new,” he said. “Every first generation of immigrants — whether they came from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Sweden or Poland — works hard to improve the economic situation of their families, thus making the learning of the new language a little harder, not because we don’t want to learn the language, but because we devote our time to work and our families.”
That, in turn, can make tasks native-language speakers take for granted — such as filling out a job application, finding a family doctor, or speaking with a teacher during a parent conference —more difficult. Many local organizations focus on bridging the gap between the English- and Spanish-speaking communities, to make daily, necessary tasks accessible.
La Esperanza in Georgetown, for example, serves about 10,000 people per year by providing the necessary resources to empower the immigrant community in Sussex County. Their programs cover a vast spectrum, but include translation, interpretation, transportation, financial management and accompaniment to other social services agencies.
Georgetown’s La Red Health Center is another key local organization. Forty-eight percent of its patient base is Hispanic, so they work to ensure that language does not affect the accessibility of suitable health care.
“Most of our staff is bilingual and we have outreach workers going to health fairs and churches where people reside, spreading the word about our program,” said Kevin Loftus, La Red’s director of development, marketing and communications. He said that partnerships with organizations such as La Esperanza are vital in that effort.
When it comes to employment, Delaware Tech's Owens Campus offers an English as a Second Language (ESL) certificate program.
According to Mitchell, many, if not all, of the Hispanic students that have grown up in the local school system don’t need the ESL program.
“One thing the schools around here do really well is acquisition,” she said. “The students that come from local high schools are extremely fluent. They may not know specific grammar concepts, but they are extremely fluent.”
It is the beginner students, she said, that exhibit the greatest need.
“We actually have many students that come from their countries with degrees, medical degrees and law degrees,” Mitchell said. “So their main priority is to learn English to get a better job.
Although it may be difficult to acclimate and learn a new language, knowing both English and Spanish is an invaluable asset, Mitchell said.
“Being bilingual helps them and gives them an edge in any capacity or field that they want to work in,” she said.
Somalo agreed, adding that there is a beauty in bilingualism.
“More than talking of a language barrier, the fact that we can speak another language is enriching,” he said. “I come from Europe and the norm is becoming to know at least two languages. I speak two and my wife speaks three. More than focusing on what makes us apart, we should focus on those attributes that make us stronger. Each one contributing to the general well-being.”