Español Spoken Here
Leslie McConnell is long past the age when her mind was a blank slate for language learning. She took her last forgettable Spanish class in college and since then had made only minor attempts to keep up with the language.
But on a recent night, she dreamed of conjugating verbs in Spanish. “For once,” she says, “I can honestly say that I’m acquiring a language. Always in the past, I was just learning it by rote.”
McConnell is part of an unlikely group of language learners who congregate each Wednesday in the common room of the Camfield Garden Estates housing development in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Taught by Graduate School of Arts & Sciences student volunteers, many of the class participants are senior citizens, though there are teenagers and working professionals in the group, too. They come from a range of backgrounds: mostly African American, but also Hispanic, Irish, and Lithuanian. And all of them come to class each week not because they have to, but because they want to be able to communicate with Spanish speakers in their lives, or just out of intellectual curiosity.
“I felt I needed to take the class because we live in a bilingual society, and I want to be able to communicate with more people,” says McConnell, a social worker at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury. “I work with Spanish-speaking people every day, and now I try out my Spanish with them.”
The course, which began in March of 2008, is the brainchild of BU alumna Jewelle Anderson (CFA’84). A retired Boston Public Schools teacher, Anderson has been a community volunteer for years. She decided to launch the class after senior citizens at the Women’s Service Club of Boston, where she then served as vice president and remains a member, told her they wanted an opportunity to learn Spanish. The club is a community service organization founded for black women.
With only a tiny budget for the class, Anderson decided she needed volunteer teachers. So she approached BU Romance Studies Professor James Iffland, then head of the Spanish section and now department chair, to see if he could recommend any graduate students who would volunteer their time. “I knew that BU would have great teachers,” she explains. Iffland promised her he would send along some of his best.
He saw an opportunity not just to help senior citizens and other local residents, but also to enrich the graduate student experience in the Romance Studies Department. “It seemed to be a perfect project for our students to provide a service to the community,” says Iffland. “It also gives graduate students a chance to teach in an environment that is very different from the environment they’ve been teaching in at BU. I think that universities should be doing more of this type of activity.”
The class took off from the start. Twenty students showed up the first day, drawn by flyers and newspaper advertisements Anderson posted, and, over the next few months, all but three attended regularly. As the students and teachers got to know one another, they developed a strong camaraderie. Last December, the students organized a party to celebrate the end of their first year together, and to thank instructors Megan Gibbons, Maria Luisa Martinez, and Peter Mahoney.
The three instructors, all 2011 classmates who plan to become Spanish professors, say the experience has broadened their perspective on what learning can be. “I have gained a continuing appreciation that learning is, or can be, a lifelong process,” says Gibbons. “I had an 80-year-old in my class who came in with a cane. She had a great sense of humor about learning a new language at her age. I was humbled.”
The close-knit nature of the class was a revelation to Martinez. “As a foreigner in this country, I gained a new perspective,” she says. “They showed me an American culture that I have never experienced before—more supportive, warm, and complex. That’s one of the things that I will keep the rest of my life.”
Sisters Lashema Rivera, 15, and Tatyanna McGuire, 21, faithfully attend every meeting of the GRS student-taught Spanish class. They say they are taking the class so that they can converse more easily with their Spanish-speaking relatives.
“When I was little, I knew how to speak Spanish fluently,” explains Rivera, whose father is Puerto Rican. “But I got out of touch with it, so I want to be able to be closer to my other relatives. Also, in today’s society being bilingual really helps. All of my friends speak Creole or Japanese or Spanish.” The sisters’ grandmother, Betty Lou McGuire, is also in the class, and the three practice their Spanish together on a regular basis.
They exemplify the cultural fusion occurring in Roxbury. In recent decades, the predominantly African American neighborhood has seen an influx of immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. A walk through Dudley Square, a busy retail district and public transportation hub, is a study in diversity. A group of teenagers converse in Spanish, sprinkled with English phrases, as they wait for a bus. A local merchant from Jamaica greets customers at his fruit stand as reggae from his stereo pulses out into the square. In front of One United Bank, a branch of the largest African American-owned and-managed bank in the country, a group of elderly men catch up on the day’s gossip.
While interactions among the groups are usually peaceful, misperceptions and distrust can strain neighborly relations. “One of the reasons the class interested me was that it is a small opportunity to begin to improve the relationship between African Americans and Latinos,” says Iffland. “I just think that if more African Americans begin to learn Spanish and learn about Latino culture, and if Latinos learn more about African American culture, some of the friction that has marked the relationship may begin to disappear.”
“I just think that if more African Americans begin to learn Spanish and learn about Latino culture, and if Latinos learn more about African American culture, some of the friction that has marked the relationship may begin to disappear.”
The class is a prototype of how positive intercultural learning can work. The teachers are patient. The students are motivated and ask a lot of questions, particularly about the Spanish-speaking countries their teachers have visited. They want to know how life is lived in those countries, and not just through secondhand instruction. Earlier this year, Anderson suggested they go on a trip together to Madrid, Spain, to experience the culture and language firsthand.
The students took up the challenge with gusto. Since May, they have held potluck fundraisers, offering fried fish, barbecued ribs, peach cobbler, candied yams, and a whole array of other dishes to local residents in return for contributions for their trip. Betty Lou McGuire single-handedly provided sweet potatoes, candied yams, and peach cobbler. “They were from heaven,” remembers Anderson.
The planned trip will add a new dimension to the continuing classes. “The value of going to a foreign country is meeting other people—not just speaking a foreign language but getting to know about other people,” says Anderson.
To learn about Hispanic culture closer to home, the class takes field trips, such as a recent visit to Casa Romero restaurant in the Back Bay for a private lecture by chef-owner Leo Romero and one of the most basic and pleasant forms of cultural exchange—sampling food. Romero lectured the class about authentic Mexican cuisine as they munched on mole pablano, chiles, and skirt steak.
“There is a real misconception in this country by people who talk about Tex-Mex food; they think everything is all meat and cheese and spices,” he said. “But the food is not as spicy in Mexico. They put chile and other condiments on the table, but chefs don’t put it in the food much.”
Romero’s lesson was simple—cultural misunderstanding comes in many forms, including culinary ones. The implication was that the best way to correct these stereotypes is for people to learn about other cultures beyond the surface.
A Good Life
A commitment to education runs in Jewelle Anderson’s veins. The daughter of a doctor and a schoolteacher, she was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1932, a time when black children rarely received an equal education.
“My grandmother was one of the first blacks to teach in New Orleans public schools,” she recalls. “It was embedded in my family that the women were schoolteachers. My poor brother was a doctor. He didn’t want to be, but men in my family were doctors, or were on the police force. That’s the way it was.”
“I wanted this to be a joyful class,” she says. “I want to see growth, to have them learn about Spanish food and go to a foreign country—see the social life of a foreign country.”
Public service was also a family tradition. Anderson recalls Sunday afternoons spent walking through the countryside with her siblings, trailing their father as he made the rounds from one home to the next. “Every Sunday after church, he’d take his bag and we’d go out with him to the country to treat people without much money,” she says. “He would knock on doors, and ask ‘Is anybody ill?’”
As a student at BU, Anderson met other African American classmates, including a young man named Martin Luther King Jr. (GRS’55), who was pursuing his doctorate in systematic theology. “I got to know Martin well,” says Anderson. “We had a circle of friends who would get together regularly. It was a tight-knit black community at the time.”
Anderson was drawn ultimately towards working with children, as had her mother, grandmother, and aunts before her. She worked for a time with preschoolers at the YWCA on Clarendon Street, and taught history, social studies, art, and music to Boston Public Schools elementary and middle school students for 22 years, retiring in 2003.
Her interest in education led her back to the classroom early last year, this time organizing the Spanish class through the Women’s Service Club. “I wanted this to be a joyful class,” she says. “I want to see growth, to have them learn about Spanish food and go to a foreign country—and see the social life of a foreign country.”
Now Anderson’s vision has become a reality, creating a fruitful partnership between BU and the Women’s Service Club that nurtures both students and teachers. Romance Studies Chair James Iffland is committed to deepening that collaboration. “I would like to really strengthen this relationship, and recruit more students willing to take the extra time to teach in Roxbury,” he says. “I want to make sure this program continues and expands. It seems to be a perfect fit between the needs of the Boston community and the capacity of BU to help.”