Review 2007: Home

Annette Arrigucci on El Paso

All of us live in bubbles. No matter how worldly we are or think we are, most of us don’t know how “the other half” lives, even in our own communities. Even if we know, even if we see, we don’t really know. But at least recognizing the fact that we do live sheltered lives is the first step in understanding.

My bubble is a very comfortable one, fortunately for me. I grew up on the Westside of El Paso, Texas, USA, a world of nice, quiet neighborhoods, with clean streets and a beautiful view of the Franklin Mountains in the background. My lovely red brick home had a pool in the backyard. I went to good schools, the best in the city, actually, where I learned perfect English and not a lick of Spanish. My parents had three cars in the driveway. We had two TVs and I grew up watching plenty of standard American cable programming (in English, of course)--Nickelodeon, MTV, HBO, etc.

In this world, things that make the news are medical schools and outlet malls being opened. A TV newscaster, who went to good American schools similar to the ones I went to, who speaks perfect American English, tells us all about what happens in this El Paso every night of the week. The latest car accident, perhaps, or possibly a parade. The all-American sportscaster relates UTEP, the local university’s, latest string of wins or losses. When I first thought about what to write this essay about, those things came to mind.

But there comes a point where you realize that yours is not the only bubble there is. Your bubble bursts, momentarily, and you realize that there are other people out there, people who didn’t grow up in a nice neighborhood, who don’t speak the way you do, who don’t have the options you do.

El Paso’s a border city, first and foremost. There’s no forgetting that as you drive along I-10 and see Mexico on one side and the United States on the other, or drive along the border highway and see barbed wire fence and bright lights designed to keep illegal border-crossers out. There’s another El Paso out there, and my first realization of that came when I was about four years old. I remember the maid my mother hired to help her take care of me and my sisters. Her name was Maria, and she was a Hispanic woman with very short black hair who came from Mexico. I always thought she looked a little bit like a mouse. She spoke broken English with a thick Mexican accent. As my sisters and I would wake up in the morning, she would sing to us in Spanish. After I got dressed, she would hand me my Velcro shoes. “Ah-net, put on your choos,” she would say. She was a wonderfully nice and positive person, and she treated us like we were her children. I was too young to know it at the time, but she had come to this country illegally.

One day my dad drove her home with the rest of the family in the car. Unlike most of the other adults I knew, Maria didn’t have her own car. We stopped at a dingy apartment building far away from our neighborhood. I asked, “Daddy, why does Maria live in a motel?” The “motel” was actually a government housing project. When Maria had gotten out of the car, my dad explained to me that Maria was poor.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 26 percent of the people in El Paso live in poverty, and they estimate that 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, though it’s really anybody’s guess how many people work and/or live here illegally. I’m reminded of their presence just about every single day, in some way or another. I’ll drive to work behind a beat-up pickup truck with a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower in the back, three guys in baseball caps riding in the cab. I know which side of the border they’re from and what they’re here for. During the afternoon, I’ll see a middle-aged, brown-skinned woman with an umbrella walking down the street to the bus stop. I know she probably spent her morning dusting and scrubbing. These are the people who exist in the shadows of this city, those here from Mexico who cross the border trying to make better lives for themselves and their children. Some go back to Mexico daily. Others are here to stay, in various states of legality.

So, yes, I do know that these people exist. It would be hard not to. But I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know the first thing about them, in my world of graduate degrees and English-language TV and Starbucks. The news, TV or print, certainly doesn’t tell us much about these people, and I think these people would probably prefer it that way. Stories about immigration appear, but the people in them never seem to have names or faces. Somehow it isn’t right not to know, though, to continue on in blissful ignorance….

Which is why this year, as part of a service learning course, I signed up to observe an English as a Second Language (ESL) class made up mostly of new immigrants. Partly out of curiosity, partly out of guilt, I guess. I still think about Maria, a woman my parents kept in touch with, a person who I know has struggled all her life in the depths of poverty, whose experience I’ve never really understood, even now that I’m older and know she doesn’t live in a motel.

I have observed the class since September, and it has gone a long way in making me think about this city in a different way.

The class I observe is made up of about 40 women and a couple of men who crowd into a classroom four days a week to learn English. My first day of class I participated with the class in a round robin game. In the game, each student would hold up an object (a book, a notebook, a pen) and shyly explain to me in thickly-accented English similar to Maria’s, “Dees eez my pen. De pen belong to me. Eet eez my pen.” There was Maribel, a very pretty woman with her long beautiful (dyed) blond hair. After that was Ana, a short, plump, dark-skinned woman who, I would soon see, is never shy about sharing her opinion. Then came Martha, a tall, broad-shouldered, woman with light brown hair, and Isabel, a very kind, tired-looking woman with short brown hair. A lady named Aurelia reminded me of my mom.

Some of the women in the class are about my age. Others are into their 30s and 40s. All of these women originally come from Mexico, and very few speak more than a few sentences of English fluently. None of them have their General Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs), required to get most jobs in the U.S., and few or none have U.S. citizenship. As their class is part of a parent education program, all have at least one child. I don’t see these women outside of class, but I imagine that their lives are difficult. Much more difficult than mine, at least. I imagine Isabel at the checkout line of a store, a clerk in a smock throwing up her hands saying, “I don’t speak Spanish.” I imagine what a nightmare it must be for them to fill out paperwork in English. I expect that most of them don’t have much money. Surely not three cars and a backyard pool.

I’m sure these women are tired and have plenty of responsibilities. But the thing I’ve noticed after observing this class for about eight weeks is how different the attitude of this class is from just about any class I’ve ever been in. The students eagerly participate in all activities, from reading out loud to writing to answering citizenship test questions. During class breaks, the women chat in loud and lively Spanish over coffee and sweets. There’s a great sense of community. The teacher is a very patient man with the enthusiasm and mannerisms of a children’s show host, and he keeps the class flowing as he teaches these women basic conversational skills and names for things like days of the week and months of the year, which they repeat in their thick accents.

It seems like if anyone had a right to be cynical in El Paso, these women do. Lacking skills in English and the rock-bottom minimum of education to get a job here, they are at an abysmal disadvantage in our society. We in the U.S. don’t exactly welcome them with open arms. Grudging acceptance is what we offer, at best.

But still these women are determined to be here and eager to acquire what is being offered, however meager it is. I offer to help the women with their writing and I’m deluged with raised hands. “Eez these right?” they ask me, or “Es correcto?” As I go around and correct prepositions and misspellings, I think about how maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how hungry they are for this knowledge. After all, hunger is what brought them come to this country. They so badly wanted what this country has to offer them and their children that they left behind their lives elsewhere. I’ve never known what that’s like and probably never will.

And I wonder if immigrants are the only truly hungry people in America these days, and if they’re the only ones who take education seriously anymore, bombarded as we are with abundant food and information. I watch my own students in my English composition class as I lecture, where much of the class is half-asleep or staring at me with bored looks, chins in their hands. A couple of kids are text-messaging when they think I’m not looking. (I am.) In contrast, in the ten times I’ve observed the ESL class, I’ve rarely seen anything less than complete attention from the students as the teacher is talking. I have never seen a single pouty look, I have yet to see someone close to falling asleep, and I couldn’t even imagine a person text-messaging while the teacher was talking.

As part of my class project, I interviewed, Mayra, a bright student who looks about my age. I asked her what her goal was after she finished the class. “I want to be a nurse,” she answered, not a half-second after I asked the question. I think of the mountain she has in front of her—learn English, get a GED, go to college, all the while having a husband and son to care for. But from the look I saw on her face, I have no doubt she’ll be able to do it.

If middle-class Americans had anywhere near the determination of the women in this class, we could accomplish great things. Cancer might be cured. Wars would end. Global warming and world hunger? Not a problem. I’m serious.

My experience observing this class is nearing its end and I will be sad to leave it. But it has been an unforgettable experience. I’m troubled because I know I haven’t made even a tiny dent in the problems of poverty in this town. I wonder how many thousands of others there are in El Paso who come here knowing only Spanish and having no education, stuck at the bottom of society, at least for awhile. But I am glad I live in a city where immigrants are at least given a chance to live the American dream. This is the real “news” in El Paso; here are the stories that don’t make the news but should. After class, I often see the women eating lunch with their pre-school age children. I imagine how many more opportunities those children will have than their parents and I feel a little more hopeful. The stories of immigrants like these are the most significant in El Paso in this and every other year. I’m glad I was able to break out of the bubble and realize it this year.

Annette's Notebook can be read here.

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