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Planting the seeds for growth: Initiative teaches ESL to migrant farmworkers

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East Carolina University student and ESL class volunteer Asha Allamby, right, hands out an english bingo worksheet to Alfonso Hernández, left, during class. Bingo is a fast paced exercise for learning english and students enjoyed it Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017.


By Sharieka Botex
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, August 12, 2017

TARBORO  —  Six and sometimes seven days a week, 25-year-old Andres Paredes and other migrant farmers work on land where tobacco and sweet potatoes grow. 

Paredes is one of about 30 migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, who spend an hour and a half on their day off to learn English through the Double Bridge Language Program, an initiative that offers ESL classes to farmworkers through Pitt County-based AMEXCAN, the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina. 

The five mobile homes where Paredes and other farmers live in Tarboro become classrooms each Sunday for the lessons. At other times throughout the week, the workers practice with one another what they’ve learned.

About five years ago, AMEXCAN officials discovered that many area migrant workers were without access to programs and services essential to their livelihood, according to Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, the organization’s executive director.

“The workers reached out to us,” Rocha-Peralta said of those who live at the Tarboro site. “We found that a lot of these guys were telling us, ‘We lack access to education, lack access to health (care). We are not functioning like everybody else in the community because we are just in one location. We don’t have transportation.’”

So, Rocha-Peralta reached out to the farm owner.

“I said, ‘We are going to be working with the population,’” Rocha-Peralta said. “He said, ‘That’s fine. If it’s something good for them and it’s going to elevate the quality of life, go for it.”

The migrant workers are among more than 20,000 in North Carolina who are here through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, Rocha-Peralta said. In Pitt County alone, there are about six or seven migrant farm camps, he said. The North Carolina Growers Association recruits the farmers, ages 18 to 35, from Mexico to work from March to November.

The workers already face several barriers, he said, so AMEXCAN created the ESL initiative to help them integrate into the communities in which they live.

Relying on interns and volunteers, AMEXCAN took the classes to the workers, providing lessons at the Tarboro location and another site in Lenoir County. The organization also offers health fairs, with medical experts visiting the camps to provide important health information, including tips for healthy eating and physical exercise, as well as details on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Rocha-Peralta and Emily Hurdle, education coordinator for the Double Bridge program, conducted an initial needs assessment, then began the program in May. It will continue through October.

“Most of the students, the farmworkers, had very little knowledge of the English language,” Hurdle said. “They had very little exposure. Most were not able to speak. Some were able to read a little; some were at the level of not reading or speaking.” 

About 16 volunteers participate in the program each week, with two or three in each mobile home unit to lead the lessons, and Hurdle and Rocha-Peralta said there is always a need for more volunteers.

Last Sunday, Hurdle taught five men, including Francisco Javier Morales Plaza,  Alejandro Aguilar Victoria, Jose Saul Morales Sarinana, Fernando Arroyo Villanueva and Jose Donato Chavez.

The farmers sat in their home in a room with two bunkbeds, clothes and personal belongings. Air conditioning kept the space cool, as the 87-degree heat beat down on fields behind the mobile homes.

Hurdle set up a white-erase board on chairs, then, with black marker in hand, wrote phrases like “I need a day off,” “I am sick,” “I need water,” “This is dangerous,” “I need a bucket,” “Can I help move the tractor?” and “When are we finished?”

The men read what they could. They jotted down the phrases in their notebooks.

Hurdle also walked around the room, pointed to images on a sheet of paper and asked what the items were. Bread. Milk. Gloves. Shirt.

Sometimes the men responded in Spanish. Others attempted to answer in English and, if any doubt clouded their response, Hurdle provided encouragement and pronunciation help. 

“We want them to learn basic skills that deal with everyday life like how to shop in the grocery store, how to use American money, how to communicate with a doctor or hospital and, since they spend a lot of time working, how they can communicate with their boss,” Hurdle said. 

The skills that Paredes and the other workers learn not only help in everyday life during their six- to eight-month span on the farm but also provide a boost of confidence for them to continue the quest for knowledge even after they return home to Mexico, Hurdle said.

“We are hoping to plant a seed to encourage further education,” she said.

Some people, especially those who begin laborous and long agricultural work at 6 a.m. six or seven days a week, might not want to spend their time off in a classroom. But for Paredes, it’s been time well spent.

“I feel like sometimes it feels bad when you go out and purchase things and want to do some things and you don’t speak the language,” he said through a translator. “This is the way I can grow language skills that can help. A lot of times, I feel discriminated against because I don’t speak the language. That’s one of the reasons that made me use the day off to take the ESL classes.”

Hurdle said feeling isolated is a big problem for migrant workers.

“They don’t have the means to actually connect to the community,” she said. “That's why it’s important for (people) to know they are here and want and need the same social services as the broader community.”

Contact Sharieka Botex at 252-329-9567 and sbotex@reflector.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShariekaB.