A Surprise Gift Breaks The Language Barrier

May 31, 2012
From the New Haven Independent

“Calabaza” became “zucchini” for Alejandro Algredo thanks to a nighttime class he took on Grand Avenue. As Connecticut cuts back on such classes statewide, other adult immigrants like Algredo will be able to keep learning English on Grand thanks to a timely “Hi-5”.

The “Hi-5” came from the NewAlliance Foundation, which Wednesday presented $25,000 to the Grand Avenue Agency where Algredo takes English as a Second Language classes, Junta For Progressive Action.

Kim Healey, the foundation’s executive director, presented the $25,000 award to students and tutors at the headquarters of the Latino advocacy group. Sandra Treviño, JUNTA’s own executive director, explained the award comes at the right time—as the state government cuts funding for adult education, it threatens JUNTA’s programs and those of similar organizations. 

Healey explained that the Hi-5 Grant does not take applications, but is rather awarded to a not-for-profit organization that has proved it can make a difference.

“It’s like the MacArthur genius award,” she said. “When we became an independent private foundation [after First Niagara bought out NewAlliance Bank], we decided that literacy was going to be one of our areas of focus. JUNTA does amazing work in that field, and so we decided to surprise them with the good news and award them our first-ever Hi-5 grant.”

Healey found JUNTA in a festive mood, as the students in its English language program celebrated the end of the term with a game of bingo designed to help them practice grocery-store vocabulary

“Celery!” shouted one of the tutors. “Cabbage! Zucchini!”

“Bingo!” replied one of the students.

One of the bingo players was 34 year-old Algredo, who hails from the state of Tlaxcala in central Mexico. (Read about New Haven’s relationship with Tlaxcala here and here.) Algredo said the English classes at JUNTA have greatly improved his quality of life.

“When I first arrived,” he said in Spanish, “I spoke zero English. Here, I’ve learnt basic things like how to take the bus or ask for things in the store.”

“Now it’s much easier to talk to Americans,” he said. “They take you seriously when you speak the language.”

Treviño (pictured with Healey) echoed Algredo’s statements, saying that language barriers make it difficult for immigrants to defend themselves against violations of their rights. She added that the success of all of JUNTA’s other programs—from legal services to family management—depend on the literacy and English language skills of its participants.

“Our English as a second language and literacy programs are not jus the cornerstone of what we do here,” she said. “They are the doors, the windows, the walls, and the ceiling. Literacy is one of the most important empowerment tools that we have. Once you have it, nobody can take it away from you.”

She cited JUNTA’s recent report on remittance practices as an example of a situation where the lack of English proficiency opens the door for abuses.

“If it costs $25 to send money to Mexico,” she said,“and you tell me that it costs 50, and I can’t read the brochure where it says that it costs 25, then there’s nothing I can do.”

In that same vein, JUNTA tutor Karla Yañez-Cervantes (at left in photo) said that learning English has implications beyond academic skills.

“For me, the most important part is the human aspect,” the 28 year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico, said in Spanish. “My students become more confident in themselves. They begin to feel like they count.”

$$ Challenges

JUNTA does not charge any fees for its services. So it depends on volunteer work and external sources of money to stay open. For the most part, this money comes from the city and state governments. Recently, however, the state has sharply cut money available for adult education.

“Our partners at New Haven Adult Education had to close their evening classes,” said Treviño. “A lot of our students work during the day, so having classes at night is essential.”

Treviño said the New Alliance award will allow JUNTA to stay open through the summer and keep providing instruction. She also said JUNTA will lobby for bigger adult education budgets.

“We are very grateful for the grant,” she said. “What the state government doesn’t realize is that English skills and literacy are absolutely central to community development.”

Maryann Ott, New Alliance’s Associate Director, agreed.

“JUNTA has program for people who can’t even read and write in their own language,” she said. “They teach them how to read and write in Spanish and then move to English as a second language instruction. I can’t even imagine what it must be like, having to learn to read and write from scratch at age 30.”

“That’s why we gave them the grant,” she continued. “We were moved.”