Carla Cruz Medina was a star student growing up in Guarapo, Mexico. A picture of her hung inside the front doors of her elementary school building, celebrating her top-of-the-class status.
But when her family immigrated to Sacramento, her third-grade classmates didn’t consider her bright. They laughed at her accent whenever she raised her hand in class to ask permission to get up and drink water. She listened to them speaking around her, but she understood nothing.
“You feel like you’re a little deaf and a little mute at the same time,” Cruz Medina said.
She aced her exams in Guarapo, but in Sacramento, she failed every spelling test. She received English tutoring every day from her assigned English as a second language teacher, Ms. Carmen, who she remembers as a kind Mexican woman with light skin and curly hair. However, those lessons came at a price.
As her peers filed into the classroom at the start of each day, Cruz Medina followed Ms. Carmen to a separate room near the front office. She only reunited with her classmates for math, which was considered a universal language. While she appreciated the one-on-one help, she couldn’t help but feel even more ostracized.
Cruz Medina is now a third-year Spanish and biology student at UCLA. She volunteers as a tutor and serves as secretary for Students for Progress in Employee Language Learning, or Project SPELL, a community service organization that pairs UCLA student tutors with UCLA employees who want to learn English as a second language.
For both the tutors and the learners, the program provides an opportunity to break down the language barrier, which can make transitioning into the American workforce and education system terrifying for non-native English speakers.
Project SPELL Program Director Stephanie Youngblood decided to become an ESL teacher after she witnessed children and adults bullying young non-native English speakers. While working in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Youngblood tried to keep her students from feeling excluded.
Other children would use her students’ lack of confidence as an excuse to be cruel. Bullies often pulled at one of her pupils’ school uniform skirt. The 9-year-old girl cried every day.
“When someone doesn’t understand the language, I think people think that they can take advantage of them,” Youngblood said. “They don’t realize the impact they’re having.”
Youngblood said she believes some of her students dropped out because the system was stacked against them. Not completing their education left them financially unstable, and a few asked her for money because they couldn’t afford clothing for their children.
“They don’t always go down the path you want them to,” Youngblood said. “You have them for a year, and then they’re not yours anymore.”
Seeing students surmount many obstacles, like Cruz Medina has, makes teaching ESL rewarding for Youngblood.
Though she speaks English fluently and has lived in the U.S. for 12 years, Cruz Medina said she thinks some people still don’t consider her American. Chatting with Cruz Medina at UCLA’s Volunteer Day in 2016, a first-year student interrupted their small talk to ask her where she was from. She couldn’t place Cruz Medina’s accent.
“All of my life, I’ve worked really hard to get rid of it, and I thought I didn’t have one anymore, so it really hit me,” Cruz Medina said. “I may try as hard as I can, but there’s just some things you can’t control.”
Through her work at Project SPELL, Cruz Medina hopes she can help others who continue to feel they don’t belong because of the language barrier.
“I just want to pass it on, because it’s so important for people like me, that come from another country, to see that you can make it,” Cruz Medina said. “It is hard, but it’s not impossible.”
Santos Argueta’s paperwork to join Project SPELL looked like it had been completed during an earthquake, Youngblood said.
English is not his first language, and his shaky penmanship reflected the anxiety that struck him whenever he had to write or speak English.
Argueta works as a custodian at the UCLA Center for Health Sciences and is now enrolled in Project SPELL. He meets with Cruz Medina twice a week to develop his conversational English skills so he can understand and communicate with his co-workers.
Argueta moved to the U.S. permanently from El Salvador in 2004 in search of work, but he struggled with job applications that included unfamiliar words with dual meanings. When an employer asked for his previous job “title,” did they mean the title of a book? A movie? The ambiguities built into the English language frustrated him.
“I decided, ‘I need to learn English if I want to get a better job,’” Argueta said.
Youngblood said her conversations with Argueta have become more relaxed since he started working with his tutor, Cruz Medina. When Youngblood first met Argueta in September 2014, he shook with anxiety while speaking with her.
Now, Argueta takes pride in his ability to converse with his co-workers and offer lost students directions to different locations on campus. He fondly remembers his first successful conversation with his boss at the health center.
“It was nice because I knew she was understanding me,” he said. “You know when someone is not understanding you. You can (see) it in their face.”
Argueta joins Cruz Medina every Tuesday and Wednesday for a lesson either before work or during his lunch break.
Cruz Medina structures each lesson according to Argueta’s evolving learning needs and progress. Together, they pull books from Project SPELL’s library and read them aloud. Argueta reads from a history book on Martin Luther King Jr., and the pair pauses each time he stumbles on a particular word or phrase, and they repeat the section back to each other.
“I know how difficult it is for people, especially (the) working class, to be successful in this country without knowing English,” Cruz Medina said. “Someone helped me learn English, and I have to help someone, too.”
Mirna Velasco remembers falling asleep in her third-grade class while her teacher was reading a book. The book was in English, and the hum of foreign sounds lulled her to sleep. She woke up to her classmates’ laughter. They were laughing at her.
Velasco, now a third-year psychology student and materials manager at Project SPELL, said her mind often wandered during her early elementary school lessons in Gilroy, California. She had just emigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico, and found it difficult to stay focused on a curriculum taught in a language she didn’t know.
“Even though you are physically in the room, you’re not there,” Velasco said. “What was the whole point of listening when you can’t understand anything?”
Eventually, her teacher decided to allow Velasco to learn English through programs on the classroom computer while the other students participated in daily lessons. By fifth grade, Velasco was bilingual.
During her freshman year of high school, Velasco used her mastery of both English and Spanish while volunteering for a nonprofit that helps non-native English speakers and writers prepare for their U.S. citizenship tests. She continues to aid those learning English as a second language through her work at Project SPELL.
Velasco has tutored four UCLA employees who work in facilities management and food services on campus and the Hill. She tailors her lessons to each of her learners’ specific goals, such as building the English vocabulary necessary to comfortably navigate an airport or converse fluently with other English speakers.
“I resonated with them because when I first came here, I didn’t know the language,” Velasco said. “I know how much you struggle to learn a language, how much it is to understand something that you don’t know.”
As a third-grader, Velasco had trouble connecting with her classmates. Aside from laughing and staring when she dozed off in class, the other students never acknowledged her. A shy, self-conscious girl, she wondered if it was because she looked different or couldn’t speak English. Everyone had already solidified their groups of friends and no one was willing to welcome a new member, regardless of their language abilities.
“One of the hardest things was even though there were kids there who knew how to speak Spanish, they wouldn’t approach me,” Velasco said. “They would just ignore me.”
While the other kids ran to the playground for recess, Velasco stayed behind after every lunch period, helping the janitors pick up milk cartons. Unlike many of her classmates, the janitors spoke Spanish.
“(The janitor) would ask me, ‘Why aren’t you playing? It’s time for you to go play,’” Velasco said. But each day, she skipped playtime in favor of their company, explaining she had no one else to talk to. During her first month at her new school, she only conversed with the janitors and her teacher, until one of her classmates approached her in the lunchroom and asked her to play.
At the janitors’ insistence, Velasco accepted the offer and joined the girl and her friends on the playground. Instead of using Spanish, the native English speaker communicated with Velasco through the universal language of candy, coloring books and Barbie stickers.
“It made me realize that someone does actually care about what I’m feeling, or that someone just wants to be my friend,” Velasco said.
Velasco no longer relies on stickers and coloring books to make friends – but she hasn’t forgotten the girl’s kindness.
“I couldn’t understand her, and she couldn’t understand me, but she was the first person who approached me – who actually played with me – after three weeks of being alone,” Velasco said.
Though she now speaks English fluently, Velasco said she still feels self-conscious in social situations. She sometimes worries she won’t be understood because she feels like she still has an accent, and occasionally struggles to understand certain words her professors say in lecture.
“That kind of pushes me back, not to be sociable,” she said. “Even in classes or discussions, yes, I’m physically there and listening, but it’s hard for me to give my opinion.”
Looking back on growing up with a language barrier still pains Velasco, but if she could, she would tell her third-grade self that she would be capable of overcoming that obstacle when nobody else could – not even her parents, who did not have the English language skills to help her with her schoolwork.
“If you want to do something ... let no one stop you,” Velasco said. “If you don’t fight for yourself, no one will. … Just go for it, because fear is going to keep you stuck where you are, and it’s not going to let you move on.”
In 1991, Evicente Santillan received a letter signed by Bill Gates. He took one look at the words on the page before throwing it in the trash.
Having spent much of his life in the Philippines, Santillan, a UCLA food service worker, was unfamiliar with Gates’ name and accomplishments. But after he made Los Angeles Trade Technical College’s dean’s list three consecutive times, Gates took notice of him, inviting him to take a computer networking class in Glendale, California.
Santillan saw the $6,000 tuition listed in the letter and assumed someone was trying to scam him for money. Almost 30 years later, he still wonders how his life might have played out if he had responded to the letter.
“There’s a saying that when opportunity comes, it’s only once,” Santillan said. “If you don’t grab it, you lose it. It will not come back.”
While his prior knowledge of American public figures may have been limited, Santillan was relatively comfortable with English when he came to the U.S. in 1989. English lessons are built into the education system in the Philippines, and much of the native population is fluent in both English and Tagalog. Even presidential addresses are given in English. Despite his fluency, Santillan saw Project SPELL as an opportunity to improve his pronunciation of certain words, which caused obstacles for him transitioning into the American workforce.
“Everyone should have a general knowledge of English if they go to school, but no one really tells you how to pronounce words,” Santillan said.
When he first started working at Bruin Café, Santillan said he could tell students laughed at him for mispronouncing order numbers. He often replaced “f” sounds with “p” sounds, saying “pour” instead of “four.”
After work, Santillan went home and practiced saying numbers over and over, mimicking how they were pronounced in TV programs or YouTube videos.
“When they laugh at me, I try to improve my pronunciation,” Santillan said. “Maybe in three years nobody will laugh anymore.”
Santillan is no stranger to studying toward a goal. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering while living in the Philippines and took classes at LA Trade Tech with the intention of becoming a computer technician.
Since then, he has been presented with opportunities to enter the engineering field, such as an offer from a federal administration to work in the airline business. But obtaining such a job requires U.S. citizenship, and the process of becoming a citizen can be daunting for a non-native English speaker.
“Aside from the education not being equal, it’s also the language that makes it harder for them to come here and get a job that they studied for,” said Marinell Pancho, Santillan’s Project SPELL tutor. “They could have another profession, but since the language barrier exists, they don’t really grab the best opportunity. They grab what’s the most accessible.”
Pancho, a fourth-year political science student, became an ESL tutor in part because her mother has faced similar obstacles searching for jobs in America. Her mother studied for her degree in accounting in the Philippines, but instead of becoming a bookkeeper, she now works as a housekeeper because of her discomfort with English.
Like Santillan, Pancho’s mother primarily struggles with pronunciation. Pancho and her sibling used to mock their mother for her accent, but now she helps her mother overcome it by gently correcting her mispronunciations. At school, she does the same for Santillan.
“(Santillan) made me realize that maybe my mom is, deep inside, really embarrassed that she’s pronouncing words different from her children,” Pancho said.
Santillan said he rarely draws laughs from students anymore, but he still wants to become more effective at communicating to help other food service workers perform more efficiently.
Santillan often notices his co-workers at Bruin Plate fixating on a particularly difficult task, like scrubbing a food-caked dish, which prevents them from advancing to the next task. He wanted to advise them to approach the work like a seasoned exam-taker: Save the harder problems for the end.
Santillan hopes to eventually make his expertise accessible to others by writing and lecturing about both engineering and food service work in English and Tagalog.
“I want to improve my pronunciation, and maybe someday I can write something interesting and somebody will read it,” Santillan said. “I notice that when you want to relay something, you need to make your own books, so somebody can look over it – so you can contribute.”
Although Cruz Medina and Pancho received ESL lessons as part of their education in America, both said they wished schools and workplaces would make more of an effort to support non-native English speakers.
Cruz Medina considers herself lucky because her elementary school offered ESL lessons not only for immigrant students, but for their parents as well. Conversely, Velasco’s elementary school had no formal ESL programs or staff, leaving her to learn the language through computer games while her classmates studied the core curriculum.
In addition to incorporating ESL programs in more schools, Pancho wishes more workplaces offered opportunities like Project SPELL for their employees. However, she does believe the stigma surrounding non-native English speakers’ intellectual capabilities is slowly eroding, leading to a more effective, community-based approach to breaking the language barrier. Those who have experienced the pressures of the language barrier firsthand can now offer insightful help to others in similar situations. Immigrant tutors like Pancho, Cruz Medina and Velasco are part of that change.
“Before, a lot of people thought that you can’t teach English if you’re not born here or if you’re not a native English speaker,” Pancho said. “Now, I think we’re realizing that even ESL students can be ESL teachers.”