Santa Cruz—When Andrea Martinez arrived in the Salinas Valley from Mexico about three years ago, it was her terrifying first step beyond the only world she had known — the traditional and insulated world of the Zapotec Indian.
Just shy of 15, she spoke no English when her mother brought her north and enrolled her in El Sausal Junior High School in Salinas. With her black hair and copper skin, Andrea looked a lot like the other migrant farm worker children, but as the kids and the teachers soon discovered, she could barely communicate with them in Spanish. Her native tongue was Zapotec, and though Andrea was inquisitive and eager to learn, she had gone to school only through the second grade. At the time many of her future classmates in Monterey County were playing baseball or taking ballet lessons, Andrea was already out earning her keep, tending the family fields of corn and chile on Mexico’s hot Southern coast.
”They made fun of me,” says Andrea, remembering the pain she felt when she first arrived in California.
Now she aspires to be a computer engineer. This summer, Andrea stood boldly before an audience of her peers gathered one evening at the University of California at Santa Cruz, delivering a speech in perfect Spanish.
She had just completed five weeks’ study on the redwood-shrouded campus enrolled in one of the most innovative and successful educational programs in California today, called Yo Puedo — I Can. At a time when bilingual education is under fierce attack, Yo Puedo’s approach to teaching immigrant children is unapologetically bilingual and bicultural.
Thirty years after Edward R. Murrow’s ”Harvest of Shame” broadcast revealed on national television the hardships of migrant family life, opportunities for migrant families have improved. But the children who follow the crops are still some of the most vulnerable in America.
If the children accompany their parents on the road, they miss school. If they are left behind with grandparents or aunts and uncles, they often suffer from a sense of abandonment. And if they are eventually reunited with their families — as Andrea Martinez was — they often arrive as adolescents, at an age when a transition to a new society is painful and frightening.
Research and practical experience show that a migrant child is more likely to succeed academically if educators consciously help him or her develop greater self-esteem and a sense of pride in belonging to a hard-working community, says Raymond Isola, an educator with the Monterey County Migrant Education Program and the Yo Puedo project director.
At Yo Puedo, for example, children are encouraged to explore their home culture and language at the same time as they pursue dreams of college and careers in a multicultural but basically English-speaking society.
The philosophy of bilingual programs such as Yo Puedo holds that migrant children may suffer from disadvantages and low self-esteem, but they possess unique strengths that can help them succeed academically: They have survived grueling lives; they routinely shoulder responsibility for younger siblings; while still children, many help put food on the family table, following their parents into the fields.
These experiences and their ability to speak Spanish are resources in themselves. At the same time, says Isola, ”We know that to succeed in our society they need to learn English. To me that is not even a debate. The issue is how you support the students while they are learning English.” But educating migrant students, Isola adds, is ”far more complicated than just learning English.”
The Yo Puedo program, adopted by the Migrant Education Program of the Monterey County Office of Education in 1984, places the children of Salinas Valley migrant farm workers in guest residences at UCSC for a summer. Similar programs are conducted at Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles.
”We bring them up to UCSC so they imagine what it is like in college — to be a computer engineer, a lawyer, a doctor,” said Isola. The students range in age from 13 to 18 and must write a 300-word essay in Spanish or English as part of their application. Two teachers must submit letters of recommendation. Competition for places in the program is fierce.
At the cost to the federal government of $ 2,000 per child, the 45 or 50 children selected are housed and fed, and Hispanic bilingual staff and college students offer them ungraded courses in math, dramatic arts, drawing, painting and computer science. The students take hikes and exercise. They study pre-Hispanic art and make pottery of their own.
A Chicano actor from the acclaimed Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista coaches them in drama. They practice public speaking, learning skills to melt their fear of speaking with an accent or making a mistake.
They meet with Hispanic professionals to hear first hand about careers. They learn the basics of a computer terminal and they draw up a spreadsheet of college costs to get an idea of how much money it takes to go to a university and where they can obtain financial aid.
If they need it, they receive instruction in English as a second language. They also read bilingual books by Mexican-American authors, write and compile books of their own poetry and keep journals — in Spanish, if they prefer. They also spend many hours talking together and with counselors about their career dreams, family problems and pressures and deeply rooted feelings of inferiority or fears they may harbor.
It is a chance to break through class barriers and taste a world they want but might otherwise shun under peer pressure.
”We had a couple of guys in Yo Puedo this year who were kind of into gangs,” says tutor Ruben Magana, who graduated from the program in 1984 and went on to earn degrees in Spanish Literature from Indiana’s Wabash College. ”At first they had that macho mentality — but now they are really into ceramics.”
After the summer program, the children return to their school districts in the valley — in Salinas, Castroville, Gonzales, Chualar, Soledad and King City, where many are enrolled in year-round bilingual programs.
Using Yo Puedo as a springboard, the children have the confidence to jump more deeply into academic life for the remainder of their high school years. Yo Puedo educators continue to work with the children during the regular school year, paying the students $ 4.25 an hour to work in a work-study program tutoring younger migrant children on the weekends.
Steering them into that sort of work helps prevent them from drifting into menial jobs that distract them from school, Isola says.
The migrant educators also conduct a special program to help the children hone their English and prepare for the tests they must take in English to graduate from high school and get into college.
”Ninety-five percent of these students who go through Yo Puedo and then participate in the follow-up programs are graduating from high school and going on to college,” says Isola. ”That’s an awfully high number.”
So far, about 350 students have passed through Yo Puedo and its subsequent programs. Within three years after graduation from Yo Puedo, Isola says, the students show definite advances in high school, becoming school leaders, improving their grade-point averages and enrolling in more challenging courses designed to prepare them for college.
Isola believes it is healthier for the students if they can preserve and enhance their ability to speak their native tongue. Keeping up their Spanish promotes a good relationship with their parents, whose support and approval they naturally seek.
After the children are selected each May, Yo Puedo holds orientation meetings for parents. Each weekend on the UCSC campus, teachers and parents meet for potluck meals under the redwoods. The parents, many still dressed in work clothes, visit the dormitories and observe the program activities.
For some it is a two-hour drive. But they take it, even after working a Sunday morning shift in the fields during peak harvest season.
The teachers, most of whom come from immigrant families too, are careful not to pit the children against their families but to recognize the family as a source of strength for the child.
”A real driving force for a lot of these kids is wanting to help their parents,” Isola explains, ”so that their parents will not have to do this back-breaking work forever.”
But for many of the kids, one of the liberating opportunities offered by Yo Puedo is to unleash their reactions to family turmoil, insecurity and contradictions they may experience between two languages and two cultures.
The teachers speak freely with them, sharing their own histories. ”We have to get the students to know that we have been through this, too,” Isola says — ”that they are not the only ones who have had an alcoholic father, or a disabled father, or had to work 20 hours a week of work-study while in school.”
Regular sessions in writing and journal-keeping help the children sort through their lives. ”They might really love their rancho (village),” Isola says, ”but they were driven north by poverty, and they feel conflicts over assimilating.”
In 1987, a young girl wrote:
Scars that will never heal.
Pain that will never leave.
Work that slowly will vanish.
Money that will never be there.
This is what happens,
In the daily lives
Of us chile pickers . . .
Another girl wrote about her estranged father:
I try to imagine you in my mind,
A knot in my throat,
No thoughts were shared.
I want to hide my pain,
This pain destroying me little by
little . . .
The dropout rate for Hispanics in general — English- and Spanish-speakers — has inched up from 34.3 percent in 1972 to 35.7 percent in 1989. The nationwide high school dropout rate among migrant children was about 89 percent in 1975; now the figure has improved noticeably, but about 45 percent of children from migrant families still abandon high school.
”All people in California have a common interest in educating these language-minority children,” says Isola. These children will become taxpayers, and they will become better participants in the workplace and in democratic society if they are well educated.
Isola knows that some teachers and parents are skeptical that bilingualism can achieve that. ”I’m the first one to say there are poor bilingual programs,” he says. ”But there is a whole range of bilingual programs, from poor to excellent.”
Successful programs, says Isola, employ bilingual staff who can serve as role models, enjoy a strong commitment by administrators and provide follow-up assistance and counseling. They must begin with the premise that bilingualism is a strength and not a deficiency. And teachers must expect excellence from students, whether they are writing an essay in Spanish or in English. Instructors must cultivate parents’ involvement, recognizing that though parents want desperately for their children to succeed, to them the words college and university may be only abstractions.
Cecilia Zendejas, 18, credits Yo Puedo with helping her overcome a fear of public speaking and for encouraging her to develop her love of singing. Her mother and father had thought it best to leave her in Mexico with a grandmother rather than take her along as they roamed between Salinas, Oxnard, Texas and Mexico. They thought she should have stability in her life and not miss her studies. But they missed her, and she them.
So Cecilia rejoined her parents a short time ago, still uneasy in English. Cecilia wants to become either a psychologist or a veterinarian, even though she may require extra years of English first, and courses in junior college, to prepare herself for university-level classes.
Mixing Spanish and English, she says, ”I believe there will always be obstacles. But I believe I can jump over any of them.”
Sitting with her daughter in their small East Salinas apartment, Cecilia’s mother, Maria Teresa Zendejas, explains how she feels about programs like Yo Puedo.
”I’d like to help her with her homework, but I can’t. I only went through the third grade. My husband only went through the sixth. He had to go to work, since he was the oldest.
”But when my daughter was picked for Yo Puedo, I told her, ‘You have to go, now that you’ve been picked. If you want to go to the university, you have to see what it is like.’ And it really changed her. It’s given me so much pleasure, to see her do what I never was able to.” sT’c q2Cx; L SFRAN6