Immigrants establish U.S. roots

Nov. 16, 2001, midnight | By Neela Pal | 19 years, 2 months ago

"The trip here was long and dangerous," she says calmly. "We walked across the Arizona desert to get to Texas."

Speaking softly and a little hesitantly in her newly acquired English, Salvadoran freshman Jacqueline Fuentes describes her harrowing month-long trip to the United States that occurred a mere year and a half ago.

Accompanied by only her aunt and two hired guides, Fuentes braved sleep in cold mountains and the sounds of howling coyotes roaming all too close-by as she journeyed towards her destination—the U.S. She imitates the wolves now with a short mournful howl. On those desolate nights, Fuentes says she hugged her aunt, wondering when and if she would ever reunite with her parents.

But reunite she did. Fuentes reached Texas and from there boarded her first plane to eventually meet her family in Takoma Park.

Fuentes represents a growing part of the Blair student population—newly immigrated Hispanic students struggling to establish roots on foreign soil. Blair currently houses 334 Hispanic students, over ten percent of its population. Of those, 120 are currently enrolled in ESOL, and 136 took ESOL classes at some time in the past.

Ray Moreno, director of the Quebec Terrace and Carroll Avenue Community Center, regularly witnesses the adjustments recently arrived Hispanic immigrants make, as his center serves a predominantly Hispanic community. "All these families are very resilient. What they've gone through to get here is amazing," he says. "They come to a brand new country where there is a change in language, customs, laws—everything." For senior Jorge Encinas, life began to change the day his father left Bolivia for the U.S. With Encinas' nine uncles, his father, formerly a teacher, opened a Bolivian restaurant here. Three years later, Encinas, his mother and his younger brother, junior Cristian Encinas, arrived in the U.S.

Since then Encinas says he has struggled daily with homesickness for Bolivia as he searches for his niche in this new country. "When I came, I felt so different. I didn't have friends, didn't know how life was [here]," he says. "I felt scared. I wanted to go back to my country—I have everything there."

Less than two years ago, Encinas was in Bolivia, where his only concern after coming home from school was hanging out with his friends. Nowadays, he spends his time at a part-time job where he works every day after school from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. to help support his father. "It is so boring," he says of his routine. "But I have to help my father because he works a lot and he works hard."

Despite his homesickness, Encinas says he is unable to turn his back to the endless opportunities he sees existing for him here in the U.S. He dreams of becoming a doctor and has faith that studying hard will allow him to pursue this goal.

This dream of American opportunity, he says, was powerful enough to drag him and his family away from the familiar surroundings of Bolivia, and it is what keeps Encinas focused today.

From dreams to nightmares

For some Hispanic immigrants, though, there is scarcely time to dream. New surroundings dictate a chaotic lifestyle, one which, according to Moreno, forces many to rework their goals. "They come looking for the American dream, but there's much more to it," he says. "School [can] become secondary when parents are trying to provide basic needs. The kids are in roles not typical of American kids—they are thrown into adult roles, and there is a lot of pressure."

For Dominican freshman Anthony Hernandez, what he once took for granted seemed to have disappeared overnight. In the Dominican Republic, Hernandez lived five blocks from a beach and spent most of his time there or in the neighborhood with his friends, carefree and comfortable, while his mother stayed at home to care for his younger siblings.

In his eight short months in the U.S. Hernandez says he has lost contact with not just the beach and the warm Dominican climate but also with familiarity and freedom. These days, he is cooped up in his house taking care of his siblings while his mother works in Bethesda cleaning buildings.

Everyday happenings, like riding the bus home, have become challenges for Hernandez, for without linguistic skills, the world around him can be a senseless blur. On one occasion Hernandez was aware that a man sitting next to him on the bus had insulted him, but he did not know enough English to understand the man's offensive words. Hernandez says the frustration and helplessness he feels daily at not being able to understand the words spoken around him made him want to strike out at this particular aggressor; fortunately, he says, he was able to restrain himself.

Hope for the future

Through their struggles, many Hispanic immigrants, like junior Boris Ovando, persevere. Ovando arrived from Bolivia six years ago unable to speak any English. Today, he speaks fluently with no accent, using a language he says he acquired over a single summer by reading lots and lots of books.

Brought to the U.S. by a single mother who he says "saw better opportunity for us and her here," Ovando was educated about American culture by his grandmother, who had been in the U.S. for seventeen years. His uncle also played a role in teaching him about the American way. "It wasn't that hard for me. My family's very supportive; my uncle, mom and grandma took me out, showed me places," he explains.

For Ovando, his time of transition seems to be long over. These days, thoughts about his academic future are more prevalent in his mind. Ovando dreams about going to college and becoming a civil engineer. Although he now lives permanently and happily in the U.S., Ovando still has close ties with his country. He visits his father there every summer. "It feels like I've lived here a long time," he says of the U.S. "But I still remember all the years I lived in my country."

Omar Guerrero and Tatyana Delgado assisted in translations for this story.

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Neela Pal. Neela Pal spent a year in journalism her sophomore year, under the assumption that she would be saying goodbye to her dream of being on the newspaper at Blair. Despite these worries, she was pleasantly surprised at being accepted as a page editor. An avid … More »

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