My Community, All Grown Up

I had a most heartening experience yesterday. But before I tell what it was, let me tell you why I was so moved.

In 1976, I was part of a group called Southern Oregon Liaison (SOL) -- an unfortunate acronym. One of our goals was to bring Migrant Education and Indian Education programs to our local schools. Not everyone agreed it was a good idea, but we had the support of at least two committed local educators: Harlan Mayfield and Ralph Humphries.

In the 1970s, our migrant population (mostly undocumented from Mexico) were invisible. They didn't frequent places where other residents were but did their work and kept to themselves. What was happening in Delano and the fields in California had not begun to reach further north. Our farmworkers picked pears, onions and other crops and were paid piece rates, money they wired to families in Mexico. Sometimes they didn't see paychecks at all as La Migra (immigration authorities) raided fields and sent them packing before payday.

Part of SOL's task was to identify eligible students for the grants. Some orchardists wouldn't let us talk to their workers; insisting they didn't have any families. We interviewed workers wherever we could though, initially just to count their school-aged children, but soon realized that many of our local farmworkers were teens themselves, some with families.  We met 14-year old mothers with no education, no English skills and no resources. The male workers picked up some English through their work; the women rarely did.

I submitted my first draft of the Migrant Ed grant application to the school administrators in charge. It included funding for a mobile classroom to reach young workers where they lived and worked. Using Bookmobiles as the model, I implored our ESD (Education Service District) -- then called the IED -- to bring secondary education where the students were. I lost that battle and rewrote the grant, but we did secure our first Migrant Ed program, which has blossomed since then.

Aware of the glaring needs of our migrant teen breadwinners, I began teaching at Del Rio Orchards (now Del Rio Vineyards) in Gold Hill every Sunday as a volunteer. My own children were pre-schoolers and came along. The ESL classes were quite ad hoc, with no official curriculum but a passion to succeed. The twenty-five or so Del Rio workers shared two small houses next to the orchard. Each Sunday, the men would gather for my lesson. There was a good deal of laughter and camaraderie and sometimes they roped me into a poker game. Sometimes I refused and held onto my nickels.

The women served tamales and kept the children out of our hair. I encouraged them to join us but they would politely refuse. The few times they did sit in, they were mute. After a few months, I began coming twice a week, the second time for a women-only lesson. Then the women would open up and repeat words and phrases, often followed by good-natured laughter.

But little English was learned in those first few women's lessons. I wanted to teach action verbs but they wanted to discuss birth control. How come you only have these two children? What do you do? Now I do speak Spanish but am not fluent enough. I certainly didn't have the terminology to explain birth control methods. But I did my best, mostly with gestures and the verb cortar (to cut) to explain vasectomies. You can imagine the hysterical laughter as I tried to explain this one. But no, that wouldn't work. They needed a birth control method that could be hidden from their husbands. So we finagled a field trip to a clinic in Medford, ostensibly for well-baby checkups.

The lessons continued for several years until being hired by Harlan Mayfield, superintendent of Phoenix-Talent school district, to be the county's first (paid) ESL teacher. My students were in four schools and from kindergarten to the occasional high schooler.  My second year, I advocated for the chance to teach bilingual reading to my primary students and was permitted. I was shocked at the success -- my non-reading Spanish speaking students were reading at a second grade level within six months! The students were then integrated back into their English reading classes and picked up the English reading very quickly. This was in 1980, just as the backlash against bilingual education was gaining steam.

Fast forward to 2013 and the LISTO program. LISTO is a twice-weekly evening program for Spanish-
speaking families in Medford and White City. As part of a foundation that supports it, I was able to visit it last night. There were over fifty adults and about a hundred kids of all ages -- babies to pre-adolescents. The adults are learning to read in Spanish or studying English.  The children get homework help and are encouraged to use their native Spanish and enjoy various activities. All of these parents work -- from providing elderly care to handicrafts to agriculture -- yet they come here after long days to study. Thirty years ago, the idea of educating parents would have been considered pie in the sky. Here, the families are beautiful, the children well-behaved and the adults so appreciative. But best of all from my perspective? So many bright young wives studying alongside their husbands in ELL classes, unafraid and actively participating.

In the 1970s, our migrant families were here just long enough for the harvest, then moved on to other harvests. Today, we have a community of Spanish-speakers who are here year round and contribute in many vital ways to the life of our region. I am inspired by these families, the LISTO program and all of the volunteers who make it work.

SOL didn't last long and dissolved soon after securing the Migrant and Indian Education Programs. But the work we did -- Felix de la Cruz, Manuela Marney, Art Kraiman, Barbara Blanchard and I -- as well as the commitment to migrant ed from Superintendent Mayfield and Ralph Humphries from the ESD mattered.  I saw that yesterday in the faces of those children, those men, those women.