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Speaking Spanish for Life

Fall 2013 | By Nick Rogers. Photos by Mark Simons..

There is no larger or faster-growing minority in the United States than the Hispanic population. One out of every six Americans self-identifies as Hispanic—a U.S. Census Bureau statistic projected to more than double by 2060.

These 53.3 million people—most of whom speak Spanish at home—are an integral, influential part of U.S. society, but scholarly interaction with that population requires specific effort.

Alejandro Cuza, assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics, acknowledges that reaching north central Indiana’s more than 25,000 Hispanics requires breaking barriers.

“But the moment we, as researchers in the College of Liberal Arts, lock ourselves in our offices and forget about what is outside Purdue, we’re pretty much done,” Cuza says. “This community is vulnerable in many aspects. We just have to be patient, go step by step, and find the means to convince them that what we can offer is important.”

“Purdue has helped to put a man on the moon, so we should be able to look at our own backyard and engage our community as much as possible. We’ve gotten a lot of great support from the University in our efforts so far.”

Cuza refers to his fruitful endeavors—and those of many others from the College of Liberal Arts—to engage and empower the area’s Spanish-speaking community through Purdue-sponsored research and community service programs.

Photo of Madeline Henry

Focused on Engagement

Madeleine Henry, professor of classics and newly appointed head of the School of Languages and Cultures, knows firsthand the value that language skills have in community engagement.

In addition to being a classicist, she has enjoyed a second career as a dental hygienist. As a clinician at the University-Community Health Care Center in Minneapolis, she worked with underserved patients from several immigrant communities. Language skills benefited both health care professionals and patients, she says. Several U.S. medical schools are now offering programs focused on medical Spanish, and for immigrant children, strong maintenance of their first language is essential, since many of them translate for their parents in medical emergencies.

Henry applied this experience during her previous work at Iowa State, helping to establish the Latino Cultural Communication program, which provided basic Spanish instruction to health care professionals, clergy, and others involved in the Spanish-speaking community.

Her research in classics includes women’s history in ancient Greece and the reception of classical texts as they have been transmitted and adapted—including how Afro-centric writers use classical works in conjunction with African and indigenous literary and other cultural motifs.

Part of what drew her to Purdue, she notes, is that the School of Languages and Cultures has strengths in fostering languages important to our cultural and intellectual heritage as well as developing and maintaining the study of languages critical for the coming century.

Purdue students and their communities are the beneficiaries of these strengths. “Students who graduate from our programs will go elsewhere and take that facility for, experience with, and commitment to engagement wherever they go, and it will blossom elsewhere,” she says.

Photo by Steven Yang.

These programs actively address language development, community health, and civic engagement within the Spanish-speaking community. But they also create hands-on outlets for Purdue students to apply and advance real-world skills, gain invaluable volunteer experience, and acquire cultural empathy—intangibles as important as any credit hour.

“I obviously knew Spanish-speaking people lived in our community, but this helped me to really see them,” says Brandon Neibert, a junior majoring in Spanish and linguistics who tutored in Cuza’s Aprendiendo a Leer (Learning to Read) program. “Even if it’s a tiny bit different because they’re speaking another language, they are right there with us, living the same lives.”

A way to keep our culture alive 

Aurelio Lopez has taken no English classes since coming to America from Mexico 20 years ago. While he occasionally pauses to find the right word, this self-taught Frankfort resident explains why he found learning English essential.

“Learning English is the base to building a better life here,” he says. But neither Aurelio nor his wife, Jocebet, wants their three young sons to lose their grip on Spanish. “It’s our first language, you know? And we want them to learn it right,” he says. 

Their sons were among 55 elementary school students in Aprendiendo a Leer—a blend of research and engagement examining the extent to which strengthened Spanish literacy improves the acquisition of English as a new language and the overall educational growth of children.

Studies suggest that early bilingual development is beneficial in the development of higher cognitive ability, particularly problem-solving skills, Cuza says. He oversaw the local 18-week afterschool program, together with Ph.D. student Lauren Miller and colleagues from the University of Toronto. The project was partially funded by Purdue’s Kinley Trust and engagement grants from the Office of Engagement and CLA.

For an hour each week from October 2012 to March 2013, 15 Purdue undergraduates (most of whom are Spanish majors or minors) tutored Spanish-speaking kindergarten through fourth grade students in Frankfort and Lafayette. The program, which is scheduled to continue this year, focuses on Spanish phonological skills, vocabulary, and reading ability. Many tutors, like Neibert, were working with children for the first time.

“Being in charge of these kids definitely helped me manage my time better, work better in a group setting, and be more confident in coming out of my shell,” he says.

Tutors introduced children to meaningful Spanish words that could be reinforced at home—such as sofá (sofa), dormitorio (bedroom), and lámpara (lamp).

“Five-year-olds may not know the word ‘radiator,’ but if they know ‘radiador,’ they can use native-language context to process English meaning, which gives them an edge in lexical development,” Cuza says. “We’re not just teaching new vocabulary but the ability to trigger acquisition in other languages.”

Cuza spent the summer analyzing the data with an eye toward publication and how it could support recommendations to improve bilingual literacy instruction. Preliminary quantitative results show a significant improvement for students in both English and Spanish.

Lopez appreciates how Aprendiendo a Leer empowered his family, too. “One amazing thing is that we’ve learned together as a family,” he says. “There are too many words I’ve forgotten from Spanish, and (my boys) have reminded me. It’s a way to keep our culture alive.”

Another aim was positioning tutors, many of whom are Hispanic and heritage speakers themselves, as role models for the college experience—an urgent message for this community.

Although America’s dropout rate for Hispanics aged 16 to 24 has fallen 50 percent since 1990, it remains the highest among all minorities. Cuza says one oft-cited reason is a loss of native language and resultant communication breakdowns between kids who are fluent in English and parents who are not.

Gustavo Lopez is a senior majoring in political science and economics with a Spanish minor who, in a way, mirrors the children he tutored. He came to the United States from Mexico at age 10, and hopes his participation will someday inspire a greater number of Hispanics to attend Purdue. Currently, they represent just three percent of the undergraduate population.

“It’s great for these students to see people like them who come from similar backgrounds and see they can do this,” Lopez says. “The program shows Purdue as an expert authority that says speaking Spanish is a good thing, as a University where positive things are happening, and as a place where somebody cares.”

Sommer Scarpino, a junior majoring in Spanish and communication, discusses the results of a  blood sugar test with a guest at the Ayuda y Aprende health fair.
Sommer Scarpino, a junior majoring in Spanish and communication, discusses the results of a blood sugar test with a guest at the Ayuda y Aprende health fair.
Photo by Mark Simons.

An entire program here just for them

Another CLA initiative focuses on pressing healthcare issues within the Hispanic community. Among American adult minorities, the lack of health insurance is highest for Hispanics. One in three lacks a regular source of healthcare, and nearly 25 percent report no medical care in a given year.

“What we often hear is, ‘We don’t know where to go. We don’t know how to speak English. We can’t get any help,’ ” says Julie Harrell, a continuing lecturer who is the director of the Spanish service-learning Ayuda y Aprende (Help and Learn) program. “For them, English is a huge barrier, as is a feeling of trust and knowing who they can turn to.”

With support and partial funding from CLA associate dean for interdisciplinary programs and engagement JoAnn Miller, Ayuda y Aprende is a service-learning outlet for students in advanced Spanish. They sharpen their skills by conversing with native speakers and tutoring them in English at Klondike Middle School, McCutcheon High School, and Lafayette Adult Resource Academy (LARA).

But when a former student in Harrell’s independent study course suggested hosting a health fair, Harrell helped her incorporate it into Ayuda y Aprende.

There, Purdue pre-med and nursing students—including representatives from the nonprofit Nursing Students Without Borders—offer free health advice and screenings. Community health organizations, such as the United Way, Riggs Community Health Center, and the YWCA, promote their programs. Then, the Spanish students translate the information’s finer points for those in attendance.

In just its second year, the health fair tripled the number of LARA students served, to 150. There’s now talk of expanding to a 13-county region, and, at a local level, adding other resources suggested by Purdue students, such as financial services, the public library, and bilingual resources.

“The idea for the health fair came from a student, and students will be the entire reason it keeps going,” Harrell says. “They don’t want applause or credit, and to not be from Lafayette and give so much to those living here really impresses me.”

Sommer Scarpino, a junior majoring in Spanish and communication, helped translate results of blood sugar and glucose tests.“We would encourage some to try to eat a little healthier, explain that one number was good but another could be a little better,” Scarpino says. “It was extremely beneficial for me to interact with native speakers, and it was great to introduce them to resources they didn’t know were available.”

Harrell says each health fair takes four months to coordinate, but far-reaching rewards justify the long work.

“If you’re new to this country, maybe you don’t feel cared for or important. This helps people see someone does want to help them, that there’s an entire program here just for them,” Harrell says. “In turn, they help the college kids by showing they have a voice, a story, a culture. And Purdue’s not just a bubble. These kids are going to take back what they learn here to their own communities.”

Two steps away from the campus

Purdue students also visited everyday environs of an often-underrepresented niche in this community—that of undocumented Mexican immigrants. More than half of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. hail from Mexico. Statewide, this population jumped more than 1,000 percent from 1990 to 2010. In north central Indiana, about half report a lack of working papers.

“The story of immigration over the last 20 years is really the story of towns like Frankfort, Indiana,” says James McCann, a professor of political science at Purdue. McCann has conducted extensive research on Mexican politics. His latest project started in August 2012 and ran through the November elections, during which illegal immigration was a hot-button issue.

He sent students from his applied-research political science course—many who had studied abroad in Spanish-speaking nations—to Mexican groceries, soccer fields, and consulate offices in and near Frankfort, Logansport, Lafayette, and Indianapolis. Initiating interviews in Spanish, students gauged this population’s participation in American civic engagement despite their lack of legal voting rights.

“It felt a little uncomfortable at first, like I was profiling everyone,” says Connor Shearer, a senior majoring in political science who studied abroad in Spain and gave a presentation based on his experiences in McCann’s course at an honors colloquium.

“But I broke the ice by speaking Spanish and I think it was therapeutic for them. Sometimes, we’d end up talking for 90 minutes, and I felt we both walked away more knowledgeable. It’s a wholly different culture you wouldn’t think would be two steps away from the campus where I go to school every day.”

Because much is made in political discourse of who has papers and who doesn’t, McCann sought to give three dimensions to an often “stick-figured” population.

“Far from being a shadowy force trying to undermine our civil and political life, on average, their response to U.S. government and citizens is more positive than ‘typical’ Americans,” he says. “And our findings showed a possibility that if policy reform gave papers to individuals who previously lacked them, it might create more civic opportunities for them.”

McCann hopes his findings can help counter the immigration issue’s often-negative overtones. He cites a story of how some of his students were repeatedly waved off by security at the Mexican consulate in Indianapolis. This reaction was the result of an earlier incident during which white supremacists posed as researchers and harassed consulate visitors.

“It was definitely a lesson about what the stakes are—that if social science pulls back from engaged discussion, other groups will not, and will fill the void with an agenda of fear,” says McCann, whose students were eventually granted permission to speak with immigrants who were visiting the consulate.

Shearer concedes that the undocumented Mexican immigrants with whom he spoke will face difficulty shaking social stigmas. But like many Purdue students participating in the College’s ongoing outreach to the Spanish-speaking community, he appreciates the indelible impression these interactions made on him.“Everyone should take the opportunity to meet someone foreign-born,” he says.

“We might make a connection with a possible friend or someone to network with down the line. But we always grow and learn more about ourselves through other people and other cultures.”

About 20 percent participated in social movements over the last year to promote a policy-driven path to citizentship- a solution the Pew Hispanic Center says is supported by 65 percent of all registered U.S. voters.
This community's activism in, and knowledge of, American politics increased from the same time period in 2008
Many subjects recommended a candiate or party to registered Hispanic voters they knew, as a sort of proxy vote.
It was the first time most subjects had spoken to anyone representing Purdue.
Subjects overwhelmingly believed that English should be America's common language.
Asked what being an american means, subjects often mentioned self-reliance and community volunteering.
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