Music in the air: immigrants learn English in a post office
THE back road to Salinas from the Monterey Peninsula provides a change from the buffeting sea breezes, taking you away from the dunes and cresting just above the Salinas River. After the bridge the road narrows, carries you swiftly down toward the inviting scene below, past newly plowed fields, their rows even and steady as a drumbeat, past the lettuce: row upon row of green leaf, interspersed with rows and rows of purple leaf, then on past blue-green leaves wrapped around white cauliflower. Fields stretch as far as the eye can see in the morning light across the Salinas Valley.Skip to next paragraph
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Salinas town is there, ringed by hills and protected by fields, fields tended by hatted workers in colorful clothes, their neckerchiefs pulled up over their noses. Most are Mexicans.
They come to work in the fields. They have names like Eudoxio and F'eliz and Guadalupe, Eriberto and Socorro and Mariceli, Altagracia and Heraclio. Many have family already in the area. Spanish is the language and music in the air, lending a definite other-world feeling to Salinas, a town with an estimated Mexican population of more than 40,000 out of 100,000.
Some of the issues facing the Mexican population include housing, wages, and field conditions, but the major issue is language. For while the Spanish-speaking community is large, English is still the majority language and many ordinary transactions must be done in English. Fortunately, Salinas has a well-established adult education system, involving 20,000 students. About 4,000 are taking English as a second language (ESL), with Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, as the majority. About 2,000 study English in classrooms off the main lobby in the local post office.
Like the post office in any self-respecting town, the Old Post Office in downtown Salinas is a hub of activity. The morning sun, shining in through the long paned windows, its light filtering through perennially dusty venetian blinds, warms the lobby and highlights the tiny brass and glass mail compartments numbered in red and gold. As people briskly arrive for the day's mail, the air is filled with the sound of footsteps across the old brick floor, the snaps and clicks of many mail compartments being opened and hurriedly shut, and snatches of conversations.
A line forms within the maroon plastic ropes, people waiting for Vern or Vivian or Lenny at their counter sections. Overheard pieces of conversation might be in Spanish, in Vietnamese, English, black English, or post office English:
``Book 'a 25's.''
Around the edges of the lobby are the students dressed in their best, expectant, ready. Before class and at break they lounge against the windowsills or at the extra counters, off to one side, but visible, speaking to each other, watching the activity.
From down the hall come sounds of the pronunciation class: ``seat-sit; beat-bit.'' A teacher passes through, pausing to talk with students in Spanish. Doors in the lobby are constantly opening and closing; there is movement, there is a sense of aliveness.
Many of the people attracted to this area are rural folk and have had little formal schooling in Mexico. Many begin their formal education in an adult school, bringing with them pockets of fluency or knowledge of English from their various and broad experiences.
But before they can acquire literacy in their second language, it would be helpful, even necessary, for them to work toward literacy in their first language. The task is neither small nor insignificant, but they are used to working; many have worked at manual labor since an early age.
Maricela has worked in the fields since the second grade, and still does, while raising three children and attending English class. F'eliz was a corn and beans farmer in Mexico; here he goes to school in the morning and works as a field hand in the afternoon. Because there's a waiting list for classes in his town, Heraclio drives 50 miles to the night class after a day of working.
``Hello, Manuel! How are you?''
The morning begins in a bustle of greetings. Rumaldo arranges the desks in a semicircle and Eulalia and the others help. Mar'ia gives the flowers fresh water, Ernesto cleans the blackboard, and I unload the day's books and papers, amid a lot of conversation, touching base from the day before.
WHILE English is the language of the classroom, the goal is communication, so pieces of Spanish and sometimes Chinese float on the air as we get settled.
``Maybe I working manana.''
``Cho-san,'' I greet Pai in his language.
``Good morning,'' he answers in English.
Today Ernesto is in charge of the attendance sheet and he fills it out, writing in the date, the hours, my name. It is passed around for each student to sign.
``You're too late,'' he tells Benjamin, who is just coming in. Benjamin sits down in a flood of greetings. Ernesto gives him the sheet to sign.
``It's never too late,'' I reply.