Juan Castillo teaches immigrants who speak obscure languages how to make it in New York.
Some immigrants from Mexico don't speak Spanish or English but native languages. Juan Castillo helps them learn.
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Castillo launched his first basic skills class in Harlem in 1995, when he noticed that some Mixtecos he knew were being exploited in their construction jobs. Their lack of immigration documents places them in precarious positions on the job, Castillo says. They are often frightened to confront their bosses about a problem such as unpaid wages.Skip to next paragraph
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Castillo recalls a woman from Colombia who recently quit her job at a laundromat after her boss physically abused her. She was unwilling to report him to the police. But with Castillo's encouragement, she filed a report with the New York Department of Labor. She later received two weeks of pay she had been shorted when she had to abruptly leave her position.
"I saw many violations for my people. Sometimes they don't get paid, or they get paid less than they should," explains Castillo, who is not from an indigenous community. "When they come to school, they get the skills they need to stand up for themselves and advance."
He operates with no budget, relying on borrowed classroom space, the help of 26 volunteers, and donations.
His classes offer one of the few venues in New York where Latin American immigrants can prep for their high school equivalency General Educational Development (GED) test free of charge.
"Many people like me didn't study in school in the past and didn't have the opportunity to," says Rufino Pavia, a landscaper of Mixteco descent. "Now we are being given that chance."
On a recent Sunday morning, Mr. Pavia sat around a table with nine other students in a windowless room of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Staten Island. Four of them said they considered Spanish to be their second language.
As their volunteer teacher, a domestic worker from Mexico, called on students to come up to the chalkboard and write a sentence, Castillo paced the room.
"Go quickly, write something!" he told the students, who smiled shyly from their seats. "It doesn't matter what it is."
It can take students two years to master basic literacy, math, social studies, and science. From there, they typically require 72 hours of classwork for pre-GED study and 144 hours to prepare for the GED exam.
Some students think shorter term.
"I want to learn Spanish because I need to know it," says Librado Reyes, who is of Mixteco descent. "It is everything."
Castillo has had students who go on to earn college degrees in engineering and social work. But others grow impatient.
"They say, 'I've studied with you for six months, and I have nothing,' " Castillo says. "But the things I am teaching, you can't see. They are given skills, but they have to use the skills to gain success."
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