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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Marle Duarte talks with her classmates during a Spanish language class for Spanish speaking students Thursday, November 4, 2010, at Nashua High School South.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    A group of students pose for a photograph following their Spanish language class for Spanish speaking students Thursday, November 4, 2010, at Nashua High School South.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Students in an advanced Spanish language class for Spanish speaking students talk about their different cultures Thursday, November 4, 2010, at Nashua High School South.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Yiraima Castillo, left, and classmate Marle Duarte talk about their culture during a Spanish language class for Spanish speaking students Thursday, November 4, 2010, at Nashua High School South. Castillo is the president of the Latino Club at the school.


  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    With a Dominican flag behind them on a wall, Jahaili Medina and Miguel Ortiz talk about culture during a Spanish language class for Spanish speaking students Thursday, November 4, 2010, at Nashua High School South.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Spanish for Spanish Speakers meets at South

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is the first installment in a three-part series on Spanish speakers in the Nashua area. Reporter Danielle Curtis is fluent in Spanish.

Walking into Juan Bujosa’s literature class at Nashua High School South is like walking into a foreign country.

While the laughing, chattering students appear like those in any other classroom, there is one key difference: They are all speaking Spanish.

The class – Spanish for Spanish Speakers – was created about two years ago by Bujosa and other members of South’s World Languages Department to give native Spanish-speaking students an opportunity to improve their language skills.

For Bujosa, who is Puerto Rican, and his students, the class has become much more. It is an opportunity to discuss the challenges they often face while trying to find their place in an English-speaking world. The students shared their stories and their struggles with The Telegraph during a recent class.

The students in Bujosa’s class are only a small portion of the Spanish-speaking students at the high school or the city.

In Nashua, about 6.2 percent of Nashua’s 86,605 residents are of Hispanic origin, according to U.S. census data from 2000. In 2008, about 2,100 Latino students were enrolled in city schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The NCES also reported that in the 2008-09 school year, nearly 16 percent of the students at Nashua South were Hispanic.

But while diversity may be growing in Nashua and within its schools, many of the students in Bujosa’s class said they and their families still struggle to get past both cultural and language barriers in their daily lives.

A struggle to belong

Yiraima Castillo is one of Bujosa’s students and the president of the Latino Club, a group that aims to bring together Spanish-speaking students from a variety of countries to celebrate their cultures and volunteer in the community.

Castillo moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic with her father when she was 10 years old. Although she learned English quickly, she still struggles with acclimating to the American culture while still trying to honor her heritage.

Castillo and her classmates agreed that honoring their cultures is particularly difficult at school, where everything from dances to school lunches are different than in their birth countries. Due to these cultural differences, the students often feel their Latino heritage is underrepresented at school, they said.

“A lot of (Latino) students don’t have any motivation to come to school because every day is the same,” Castillo said. “We don’t have anything different to do like a school dance. There are a lot of dances, but there’s only one the whole year that’s geared towards Spanish students.”

The school has held several multicultural events this year, including a celebration of Latino Heritage Week that was organized by the Latino Club, said South Principal Jennifer Seusing.

“Is there room for improvement?” Seusing said. “Yes, but that is true with anything.”

Part of the responsibility for creating such cultural events, Seusing said, lies with the students.

“I would encourage any group that feels (underrepresented) to suggest things that could be done about it,” Seusing said. “Tell us what you would like to be able to do.”

One activity Bujosa’s students said they want to bring to the school is a Flag Day celebration, during which students could bring the flag of their birth country into school.

Although Flag Day was organized by the Latino Club a few years ago, Seusing said it caused unrest between students who did not understand each other’s cultures and was not celebrated again.

This unrest was caused when Hispanic students wore their flags draped around their shoulders – something that is commonplace for Latinos – that was misunderstood by many of the other students. Seusing added that if Flag Day were to be celebrated in the future, education for non-Latino would need to be part of it.

Bujosa said he believes the school does a good job of recognizing the various cultures of South’s students, but said he thinks the school could benefit from having more minority teachers and school administrators.

“I think that Latino students need more role models (in school),” said Bujosa, who started teaching at South with hopes of being such a role model for the school’s many Spanish-speaking students.

Combating stereotypes

One of the biggest struggles the Latino students said they face both in and out of school is overcoming stereotypes, such as the common belief that they are one homogenous group.

Bujosa said this couldn’t be further from reality: with South’s Latino students coming from many different countries, such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico, the cultural differences among South’s Latino students themselves are often as vast as those between Latino students and American students.

Bujosa’s students added that while they often hear negative comments about immigrants in the media and among local residents, the majority of Spanish-speaking residents are hard-workers in search of a better life.

“(People) don’t understand the situations that would make people want to leave their countries and come here,” Castillo said. “They assume that we want to come here to take other people’s jobs, but it’s not like that.”

Castillo’s classmate, Lesli Jimenez, agreed.

“When Spanish people come to this country they are thinking about bettering themselves,” Jimenez said. “They don’t come here to do the same things they did in their country – they come here to better their lives.”

Jimenez’s family did just that many years ago in hopes of giving her and her older sister better educational opportunities. Now, her parents, who speak limited English, work for a local cleaning company to pay for Jimenez’s sister’s college education. On weekends, Jimenez works for the company, sometimes taking an overnight shift to help earn money for her family.

Language as a barrier

Many immigrants living in Nashua, where bilingual resources are limited compared to those in states closer to the U.S. border with Mexico, find that achieving their goal of a better life is harder than they imagined.

While all of the students in Bujosa’s class now speak English, many of their parents do not. The language barriers that their parents face affect their lives both in and out of school, the students said.

Many of their parents are not involved in their education simply because they do not have the language skills to communicate with their teachers and other school officials.

South does try to reach out to these Spanish-speaking parents, Seusing said. The school hired a Spanish-speaking ELL coordinator to help communicate with Spanish-speaking parents, and district announcements sent home to parents are available in Spanish and Portuguese.

Seusing added that the school recently held a meeting about applying for financial aid for college in Spanish to assist those parents that do not speak English.

Still, Seusing admitted that with limited bilingual staff, it is hard to reach all of South’s Spanish-speaking parents.

According to Castillo, many Latino students’ parents still miss open houses and other meetings, even those given in Spanish, due to long work hours.

“It’s not because they don’t want to (be involved),” Castillo said. “They want to see us do well, but they’re always working. It’s not like they can leave their job to come to school. ... What’s more important? For you to go to work to feed your family or for you to go to school for (an open house)?”

Finding a solution

In an effort to reach out to more Spanish-speaking parents, South is working with community leaders to organize school meetings that will be held in Spanish at locations within Nashua’s Latino community, Seusing said.

While the project is still being planned, Seusing said she and other school officials are in the process of determining which locations would attract the most parents and how often such meetings should be held.

For Castillo and other members of the Latino Club, uniting Latino students is the first step to overcoming the cultural and language barriers they face both in and out of school.

“We are trying to represent ourselves and do more things to stand out,” Castillo said. “We just want to make a difference and come together and be a happy family.”

To achieve this end, the Latino Club organizes community service projects in addition to Latino Heritage Week and other cultural events.

The work done by the Latino Club to raise awareness about Latino culture, Seusing said, is an important part of having an inclusive school community.

“There’s always going to be someone who feels they are not being heard,” Seusing said. “We have tried to create a culture where if that happens, (students) do something proactive about it. ... We have a lot to celebrate with all the culture in the building, and it’s important for them to feel that they as much a viable part of the community as anyone else.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at dcurtis1225@gmail.com.