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A new tutoring class in Carbondale helps newcomer immigrants learn English, but some may have to leave the valley

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Volunteer tutor Kathy Yang (left) helps Ricardo learn the English words for municipal landmarks such as “post office” and “grocery store” during English in Action’s open hours session at the Carbondale Library on Monday, March 18, 2024. Ricardo is from Venezuela and started going to the new English tutoring sessions earlier this winter, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to keep living in the valley now that the shelters have closed.

Editor’s Note: Aspen Public Radio is only using first names for new immigrants, in light of their immigration status and personal histories.

There are a lot of challenges immigrants face when they first arrive in the U.S. — from culture shock and being far from home to applying for residency and looking for work and housing.

Navigating the system can be easier when you speak English, and that’s one of the reasons local nonprofit English In Action recently launched a new tutoring program at the Carbondale Library.

Many of the new immigrants staying in town, including Ricardo and several of his friends, were attending the weekly English tutoring before the winter shelters closed on April 1.

At a tutoring session in late March, Ricardo was matched with local resident Kathy Yang and her son.

After introducing themselves, Kathy opened up an English tutoring book and pointed to a picture of a tree and Ricardo practiced pronouncing the word.

“Ese sí era muy importante por que en el trabajo, yo trabajo en el landscaping,” he said.

Ricardo told Kathy trees are an important part of his landscaping job in the valley. Ricardo is from Venezuela and recently got his work permit.

He has also been working as a builder, and Kathy flipped to a page with an illustration of a construction site so he could practice words like “shovel” and “hammer.”

Ricardo is part of the Wayúu Indigenous community in Venezuela and lived in the coastal city of Maracaibo near the border of Colombia.

“La tierra del sol amado,” he said. “De donde vengo, a veces a uno por mi, la cultura nos cuesta también español o inglés, entonces uno tiene que aprender ya le estamos aquí en este país aprende en inglés.”

Ricardo said they call his home “the land of the beloved sun,” and because he speaks an Indigenous language, it’s hard to learn English and even Spanish.

But he said tutoring with English in Action provides a good opportunity to practice.

"Cuando he venido para acá… gracias a dios que prendió mucho porque ningún tipo de ingles, cero, no sabía nada,” he said. “Por lo menos ya sé saludar… no podría decir que pero se comunicado lo entiendo mas o menos, leo algunas palabras en inglés."

Ricardo said he didn’t know any English when he first arrived here, but now he can read and is starting to understand more, especially at work.

“Bueno, gracias a dios, este programa me ha ayudado mucho porque ya que, con el jefe no habla español y tampoco no le gusta usar traductor,” he said. “Entonces él trata como más bien de enseñarme a mí el inglés y yo me esfuerce para aprenderlo y gracias a este programa yo lo estoy logrando día a día para poder cumplir con las labores del trabajo.”

Ricardo said his boss doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t like to use a phone translator, but thanks to the weekly tutoring, he’s able to communicate at work and get the job done.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Hector, who came to the U.S. from Colombia, uses a worksheet to practice saying his name and where he is from during English in Action’s new open hours session at the Carbondale Library on Monday, March 18, 2024. Hector told staff and the volunteer tutors that he loves learning English, so he can communicate with them without needing someone to translate for him.

On the other side of the library, Ricardo’s friend Hector was participating in a group tutoring session led by English in Action board member Rosa Contreras.

After teaching the group to count numbers, Contreras went through the alphabet and asked Hector to try using what he just learned.

“Can you spell your name?,” Contreras asked.

“Mi Nombre? Yes, H-E-C-T-O-R … Hector!,” he said.

Hector was also born in Venezuela, but grew up in Colombia after his family moved there when he was young.

“Mucho, mucho extraño mi mama,” he said. “Pero mi mamá siempre va estar conmigo mi corazón y mi mente siempre presente.”

Hector said he misses his mom, but she will always be in his heart and mind.

It can be lonely being far from home, and Hector said its been nice to learn some English so he can say hello to people in town.

“Me encanta, me fascina aprender inglés porque así puedo comunicarme con ustedes y ya no necesitar que me traduzcan todas las palabras,” he said.

Hector told Contreras and the other tutors he loves learning English so he can communicate with them without needing someone to translate for him.

Contreras has lived in Carbondale for about 16 years and runs a barber shop in town, but she’s originally from Guatemala and can relate to Hector’s experience.

“I was trying to learn English to get my cosmetology license and do everything with the barbershop,” Contreras said. “And that's why I know English in Action; I was a student and now I am teaching.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Hector (left) practices spelling his name with the help of English in Action board member and volunteer tutor Rosa Contreras on Monday, March 25, 2024. Contreras suggested that the nonprofit start offering the new open hours sessions in Carbondale after the town set up two temporary winter shelters for new immigrants.

While the new open hours tutoring in Carbondale is open to anyone who wants to learn English, Contreras is glad they created it with the newcomers in mind.

“When I came here to the United States, I didn't know how to communicate with the people and I felt like they do right now,” Contreras said. “Maybe they feel scared or it's hard to communicate, and that's why I told my friends at English in Action, ‘They need to learn, they need help.’”

Contreras hopes the newcomers will keep coming to open hours so they can continue learning English and building relationships in the community.

But now that the winter shelters have closed, Ricardo and Hector aren’t sure if they’ll be able to stay in the valley and continue with classes.

“Para nadie un secreto hablar con la verdad,” he said, “nosotros no tenemos para donde ir y más de uno de nosotros dormirá en un carro.”

“I have to be honest,” he said, “we have nowhere to go and there will be more than one of us that will sleep in a car.”

In order to stay, Ricardo said they’ll need to work hard and get all their immigration papers approved, and learning English will continue to be a valuable skill.

“Nosotros somo una persona que queremos un ejemplo a seguir,” he said. “Y que lo tome en cuenta en la parte laboral también para salir adelante y aportar una granita de arena en este país.”

Ricardo said he and his friends feel good here, they want to work and contribute their grain of sand to society.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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