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The Mexican Connection


Edgar Zamudio spoke no English in 1988 when he arrived in the United States at age 12. Like many Mexican immigrants, he worked on farms throughout Florida with his mother and brothers picking seasonal crops.

Last spring, Zamudio, now a UNF graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, returned to the fields during harvest season. As one of five students in Dr. Jorge Febles’ Internship for Service in Spanish program, Zamudio drove 55 miles south to Hastings, Fla., each Sunday to teach practical English to migrant farm workers.

“It was an incredible experience to connect with others who have traveled the same paths through life,” he said. “I was able to help others just like me a few decades ago. It gave me a sense of serving those who are in need.”

For UNF students, the internship provided an opportunity to improve their Spanish communication skills while helping Mexican farm workers gain some basic English language skills necessary to work and live in this country. It’s the type of win-win experience at the core of UNF’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) and is what’s commonly referred to as a community-based Transformational Learning Opportunity.

Febles said the program puts UNF students in contact with an invisible culture - migrant laborers - a group university students rarely would encounter even if studying abroad.

“The contact with my [migrant] students has humanized an easily ignored portion of our population for me, and their warm and friendly attitudes have challenged me to be a more social person,” said Spanish major Thomas McCaffrey. “I have taken notice of how global pressures affect ordinary people. Many of my students must live apart from their families and work long hours to pursue the opportunities that I am able to take for granted.”

As for the migrants who attend the two-hour Sunday afternoon classes in drab dining halls, many still speak little English, but they attend class regularly and are clear on their motives for trying to learn English.

“Para trabajar, para viajar,” (for work, for travel) said Miguel Gopar, who travels from California to Florida and back again working the fields to earn money to send to his wife and family in Buena Vista, Mexico.

Enriqueta Cruz spends four months in Hastings, three months in Seattle and four months in Maine every year cooking for the migrant crews. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, she has worked in the United States for six years, but only started trying to learn English two years ago when the classes started in Hastings. She said the class is “muy buena” and added that she needs the language for shopping. Like many of her migrant colleagues, she would like to stay in the United States.

The World Languages Department created the internship after Spanish major Johnny Rolfes approached Febles in 2007 with a request to earn independent study credit for the volunteer work he had been doing for Learn to Read of St. Augustine and Migrant Education of Gainesville. Rolfes had been teaching English to farm workers at the Smith and Yu An farms in Hastings and suggested the experience would be valuable to other Spanish majors.

Febles liked the idea and thought it fit nicely into the University’s QEP. He sought permission to create a new Spanish course similar to one offered at the University of Michigan. Two days after the course won approval, seven advanced Spanish students enrolled for spring 2008. UNF offers the course only during spring semester each year because the migrants are in Hastings to pick crops from December to April.

Febles met regularly with the UNF students, speaking only Spanish, and required them to write journals in Spanish detailing their activities and impressions of their interactions with the migrants. Each entry had to include specifics about incidents that enhanced the students’ cultural awareness. In addition, Febles’ required students to write a final paper in Spanish about the pros and cons of their experiences.

“When the students go into this place and all of a sudden start using their language skills to communicate with these people it is really an eye-opening experience for them,” he said. “I had a lot of students who wrote things like ‘I never knew that this reality existed.’”

The course continued in spring 2009 when five students enrolled. The program expanded to include a third farm, Barnes Farm, also in Hastings. The teaching materials included a whiteboard and lots and lots of handouts with cartoons illustrating such phrases as “to sleep,” “to get dressed,” and even “to see people playing basketball.” Some handouts offered multiple-choice options such as “My (feet, eyes, fingers, shoulders) are on my face.” All could have come directly out of an elementary school teacher’s lesson plans.

Many of the migrants have had little formal education and some are functionally illiterate. They receive about 95 cents a box for picking broccoli, one of the premier crops on the farms in Hastings. They can earn as much as $100 to $120 a day for the work.

“I think that the most important thing that the students and I gained from teaching the migrant farmers is how hard-working and friendly our students are,” said Rolfes, who traveled to South America after graduating in May. “While many vocal adversaries try and criminalize the Mexican work force in the U.S., it is important to remember that these folks are not criminals. First of all, our migrant students are working here legally. They work hard and have difficult lives. They do it to support their families and make a meager living for themselves.”

Febles’ initial contact with the laborers in 2009 was not positive. He encountered an inebriated migrant at the makeshift classroom during an orientation visit with the UNF students and, with the help of his wife, ran interference to control the situation. Febles said he thought that incident would cause the UNF students to give up on the program immediately, but they talked about what had happened and committed to the program.

Febles told the UNF interns they most likely would fail to teach much English to the migrants in the 14 weeks they would meet with them. Despite the warning, Febles said the UNF students demonstrated “a sense of almost urgency to teach something” to the migrants.

“This is not like teaching a college class,” Febles said. “You’re going to go out there and chances are that you’re going to fail 70, 80 percent of the time, and then you’ve got to focus on the two or three cases where you’re going to feel like you really made a difference, but it’s not going to be like your average teaching experience.”

Febles said the UNF students have been very receptive to the situation, which “is truly transformational.”

All of the UNF students said their experiences with the farm workers helped them improved their Spanish listening and speaking skills. They learned about Mexican culture and they learned about themselves.

Sarah Thiele, a Spanish major who hopes to teach Spanish in Texas after she graduates, said she gained experience teaching English as a second language, which she had previously done in Peru, and learned more about her strengths and weaknesses as a teacher.

As for Zamudio, the UNF student who worked in the fields when his family immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1990s, the experience in Hastings was a powerful reminder.

“It did not change the way I view the world but it reminded me where I started and how far I had gone,” Zamudio said. “The world is full of experiences, and it is up to us to determine which ones are good and which ones are bad. Not all the students wanted to learn English to better themselves, but they did want to learn to better their opportunities.”

Zamudio, part owner of a Tropical Smoothie franchise in Jacksonville, said he uses his Spanish a little bit with customers. Friends and family members have told him he would make a great teacher, and the program in Hastings gave him a taste of what that would be like.

“At the end of the day I do feel better knowing that I contributed to my community,” he said.