‘My early years, I was in a setting that is sometimes referred to as the “sink or swim.” You have to figure it out yourself, how to pick up the language.’
“My dad was a teacher in El Salvador. It was during the civil war in the 1980s, when teachers were often a target for their ideas, that he emigrated to the U.S., and my mother joined him.
“My siblings and I stayed with my grandmother. In order to go to school, my older brother and I would have had to leave our town to go to the capitol.
“My parents decided my mother would come back for us, and we’d move here instead. It was a tough journey. We did it by land with a coyote, a guide, and we crossed the border. I was 12.
“When we were close to Rio Grande, the coyote abandoned us. We were a big group, including my four siblings, my mom and my aunt. Eventually, my brave aunt found help, and we crossed the river.
“We made it here. I started fifth grade in Westbury. I didn’t speak English, and they didn’t have English as a New Language — ENL. I had to take a bus from my school to another school once or twice a week for one or two periods for ENL class.
“During the rest of the day, I was basically just sitting, not understanding anything that was going on in the classroom. I remember that my teacher would always smile, and she even gave me bags of clothes to take home.
“I still have two turtlenecks she gave me. I remember her changing my grade on a test so I would feel better. I would just copy without knowing what I was copying.
“Nevertheless, I developed a love for books. In El Salvador, we learned to read with one book, ‘El Silabario.’ So, when I saw all these books, I collected them, but I wasn’t able to read them. I was in darkness. I kept one book to this day, ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ which I haven’t read, as a memory of the books that I used to collect and was not be able to read.
“My early years, I was in a setting that is sometimes referred to as the ‘sink or swim.’ You have to figure it out yourself, how to pick up the language. Middle school got a little better. I had a great ENL teacher, but when I got to high school, I had a teacher who saw a lot of the gaps in my education.
“She spent a lot of time with me one-on-one. She really helped me see where I needed to improve. I also took Spanish classes for native speakers. It was a great feeling of success learning in a language I was fluent in.
My journey has certainly helped me to better help others.
“When I entered college, I had to work on my own. I spent hours in the library learning what I could’ve learned while my time was just wasted because I couldn’t understand the language it was being taught in. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.
“I taught Sunday school at my church, Iglesia Evangélica Apóstoles y Profetas, in Westbury from the age of 14. When I got to college, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to go into teaching because I felt I wasn’t strong enough in English.
“I met with a professor at SUNY Old Westbury who told me about bilingual education. I couldn’t believe there was such a thing. I started investigating what it meant, how it helps students who come from other countries who don’t speak English, how bilingual programs give them the opportunity to use their home language to learn in different subjects while they’re acquiring English. Bilingual education presented a different way of doing things than my experience.
“When I did my student teaching, I came back to my old district, which now had bilingual education at the elementary level. I did my observations here and volunteered in the after-school program. When I graduated, I applied to my hometown. I was really happy to be back. I started as a bilingual teacher in 1998 in a transitional bilingual program. I taught the dual language program while doing my masters in reading at Queens College.
“Eventually, I got my doctorate. I’m a bilingual reading teacher working with first- to fifth-graders, mainly in their home language. I love it! One of my passions is to help children learn to read, but what I love most is helping them develop a passion for learning.
“I see myself in these students. I often let them know, ‘You can make it. You just need to really put in an effort.’ I was blessed that I had an education back home and that my parents were on top of us going to school. That was one of their major reasons for coming here, for a better education and safety.
“Whenever we get new students, I’m the one to meet with them and the parents. I love being able to start off the conversation with, ‘I’m from Salvador, too.’ My journey has certainly helped me to better help others.”