Bilingual Emporians devote skills to empowering others | Gaz

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at bilingualism in Emporia. Please see Saturday’s print edition for the second part.

Patricia Saenz-Reyes believes that she and other bilingual Emporians such as Sally Sanchez are like superheroes.

As the USD 253 Migrant Education coordinator, Saenz-Reyes spends her days switching back and forth between English and Spanish based upon what role she’s fulfilling at the time.

“I feel like Wonder Woman when it comes to knowing two languages… because it does give me the opportunity to communicate with families and students,” she said.

Sanchez, who is an integral part of Hispanics of Today and Tomorrow, feels similarly.

“It’s been a godsend because I’m able to help people that don’t speak the English language,” she said. “To me, it’s been a great blessing being able to speak both languages.”

Saenz-Reyes and Sanchez are just two of the many bilingual people in Emporia who use their abilities to be of service to those in town who don’t have that skill.

It’s something they find to be fulfilling but also incredibly necessary.

According to US census data, 27.2% of Emporia’s population identifies as Hispanic. While not all Hispanic individuals speak Spanish, census data suggests that many in Emporia do, as 31% of children aged 5-17 speak Spanish at home while 17% of individuals 18 and older speak Spanish at home.

Some of those people have no knowledge of the English language or a very basic grasp of it. That’s where bilingual individuals like Sanchez and Saenz-Reyes – as well as many others – step in.

They’re particularly qualified to do so because they’ve been in that situation themselves.

Sanchez grew up in southern Texas in a home where her parents primarily spoke Spanish. When she was about preschool-aged, she began spending time with a neighbor woman whose family spoke English and through that experience she began to pick up the language.

“I grew up speaking both languages ​​from a very young age,” she said.

It was different for Saenz-Reyes. She was born in El Paso, Texas, but spent much of her childhood di lei living in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on the other side of the Rio Grande River. Both of her parents di lei predominantly spoke Spanish and between the ages of 3-7, her family di lei spent part of each year in Mexico and the other part in the US

“I struggled with language like so many of our ELL (English language learner) students that I see here in our district because I was back and forth,” Saenz-Reyes said. “I would learn Spanish and then they would bring me here and then I started school and everything was in English and I had to learn that second language. Then a few months later, guess what? I was going back. Talk about struggle. “

From the age of 7 up through middle school, Saenz-Reyez went to school in Spanish in El Paso. But then in high school, her family di lei moved again and her new school di lei was in English.

“I became an ELL student again, having to learn English pretty much from the beginning because even though I learned so early on, a lot of it is lost,” she said.

Sanchez moved to Emporia in 1974 and said that at that time, the Hispanic community wasn’t as large as it is today. And although she spoke English, that didn’t mean she had to give up Spanish. However, there would be times where she’d be speaking to someone in Spanish in public and someone else – who clearly did not speak Spanish – would give Sanchez what she called “The Look.”

“That didn’t stop me,” she said. “I’m not going to stop speaking my language just because you don’t like it or you don’t understand it or whatever.”

During the 1980s, Sanchez worked at USD 253 as a secretary, and as the Hispanic community began to grow, her bilingual ability became highly valued. Parents who did not speak English started coming into her office di lei to have her explain what various mailings from the district said.

Soon, the word got out about the bilingual secretary and people would even come by with their personal mail, asking Sanchez to translate for them.

“People started coming in more and more, and that’s what brought it to my attention that, ‘I think all the mailings need to go out in Spanish,’” she said. “I told my principal that I would be more than glad to translate all that.”

Saenz-Reyes has continued that work at the district, serving as a liaison between USD 253 and Spanish-speaking families.

“If they have a language barrier, having the ability to speak both languages ​​is very beneficial because you can really communicate and understand their needs, and then for us, based on those needs, to remove any barriers or just make it easier for them to feel a part of the district, ”she said.

Now in her work with HOTT, Sanchez does her best to disseminate information to the community in Spanish via the organization’s Facebook page. This has been particularly important during the pandemic, when getting correct public health information to people has been crucial.

But for Sanchez and Saenz-Reyes, the work didn’t stop with simply providing resources in Spanish. They’ve both devoted time to help empower other people to become bilingual as well.

The Flint Hills Learning Center – which is part of USD 253 – provides opportunities for native Spanish speakers to learn English. It even goes a step further, offering classes at the Tyson and Hopkins Manufacturing plant sites to facilitate participation.

“Talk about removing barriers,” Saenz-Reyes said. “You’re talking about adults. We have a very large number of adults that do come to our center. It’s great. But we have that group who, for whatever reason, as adults, life takes us to different directions and sometimes other things are a priority. … Having the opportunity to have those classes there is removing a barrier. “

Sanchez has taught some of those classes before, although she prefers to call it tutoring. When she first got involved, there were a lot of worksheets as well as group activities, although now things have shifted more online.

For her, having the opportunity to use her language skills to lift up others has been incredibly satisfying.

“It’s very rewarding knowing that you’re helping them out,” Sanchez said. “It’s good.”

Saenz-Reyes said that students in the programs at Tyson and Hopkins have the opportunity not only to learn English but to learn it in applied ways because they can also complete their high school diplomas using their new English skills.

Since the program started six years ago, 33 people have graduated at Tyson alone.

“All those 33 adults have said, ‘If it wasn’t for the opportunity of you bringing this to us, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “When you hear those stories, it’s amazing.”

However, Saenz-Reyes and Sanchez agreed that it shouldn’t just be people who only speak Spanish who should work toward becoming bilingual.

According to a 2020 report by the Instituto Cervantes, with more than 56 million total Spanish speakers, the US is the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking country behind only Mexico.

That number is expected to increase more and more as the years go along, and soon – if not already – those who only speak English will be at a disadvantage when it comes to things such as competing for jobs.

But is it even possible for a busy adult to learn a new language? Is it really necessary? How can it be done? What resources are there online and in the community to help with that?

These questions and more will be discussed in Part 2 of this series on Saturday.


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