By Kaitlin Wheeler
*Note: Certain names changed to provide confidentiality.
She sat in her usual seat, bundled in a comfortable, brightly colored coat, sorting through papers on the table. Betsy Preciado, a long-standing coordinator of a homework program for immigrant children and an English as a Second Language class (ESL) for their parents is now onto her 21st year at this school. Here at the Sacred Heart Nativity School in the Washington Community of San Jose, Preciado works to improve English comprehension among the Latino community. Having to adjust into a new way of life, these immigrants receive Preciado’s welcoming heart and dedication by attending her classes. Preciado shares her experiences and thoughts on working at Sacred Heart:
“I started working with this program in 1997, but I was not the coordinator then, I was only the support for the priest to discuss the goals. He hired someone else as the coordinator because I was not retired. I was an administrator in Berryessa School District.
This is my parish. It’s funded by the church under social justice and we survive on donations. We also have a grant from Catholic Community Foundation for $9,500 and that’s for materials, computer repair, anything related to students.
We have $1,500 for healthy snacks, like apples, yogurt, fruit, juice, salad. So that helps us with our budget. But I spend a lot of time writing letters trying to get donations. We have a fundraiser in the summer, Sacred Heart Festival and we raise about $1,000. It costs us about $800 a month.
There’s not enough money for the ESL, so there’s no charge and I’m not getting paid. What drives me to do it is the experience of feeling that the person learns something, when the person finally understands what we’re working on. Same with the kids. I’ve had kids since first grade and they’re going to college now. We have other students that made it through high school and they’re going to be graduating soon. So it’s a good feeling to see them grow.
We only have space for 35 students. In the ESL, if they learn English and they get a promotion in their job, then it’s really good. That makes us feel really good.
Last year, in the citizenship class I had an 86 year old women who flunked the test three times, so on the fourth time, we worked really hard and she passed it. I asked her why did you want to become a citizen? I thought maybe it was going to be for her social security or her benefits, but she said it’s because I want to vote.
You get a lot of good feelings and we all accomplished something. Not I, but we, we all did it together.
So far my best student in the ESL class is Brenda. Monday, Wednesday class, they’re all great. They couldn’t read when they came. Now they can read and write. Brenda was the best student I’ve ever taught. She’s just absorbing. Sometimes I have to slow her down haha.
Now Rosa is afraid to talk in English because at home sometimes among hispanic spouses, they don’t want their wives to improve. It’s a negative form of machismo. For some it changes to positive machismo, but the negative still exists.
I have two families who come to this school, one family has 7 boys and 1 girl. Their father has a lot of negative machismo, but the boys are nothing like their dad. They are very positive and believe in equality and how women should be treated. It doesn’t rub off usually because we live in an environment where we teach equality and fairness.
Now the political climate in regard to immigration makes the women very anxious that the husbands can be deported and then they themselves. The woman appears to be more of a survivor because she right away before anything happens, she asks where do I go get help? Who do I talk to?
I have had workshops to teach this. We’ve had speakers come with information and counselors to tell the kids what to do also. So we try to establish a foundation for them, but also the church announces where to go for help because we are a sanctuary, despite the fact Trump says we’re not.
We in fact are a sanctuary. They’re trying to take it away. If they take it away, you have a lot of people who have been in the system and they’re not going to fight it, but younger people will fight it. People should be aware of different nationalities and what is their survival.
In my second year of teaching kindergarten, a little boy said he wasn’t going to be here in December because he was going to see his parents. His father was legal, but his mother was not.
The father went to Derango to pick up the family when they were illegally crossing, but the border police would not let the two kids and the mother cross. So the mother called the husband on the phone and he said that he would pick them up in a specific place in the Arizona desert.
They used to walk at night in the desert and slept during the day. The boy said that ‘we used to eat lizards and cactus.’ The dad picked them up in Arizona and brought them back. The boy then told this story in class and said at the end, ‘we walked under the stars and the moon was our sun.’ He was five years old.
In another instance, I had a family last Christmas and I called the mom to tell her that I have school supplies for the kids. I went to deliver them and the kids were in a truck. They said ‘we’re in the truck because the truck is warm. We wait until my mom and dad come and then my mom lights the stove. The neighbor lady checks on us.’
There was another little girl and I got her homework and went to her address because she was sick. I went into the ranch and knocked on their door. The owner opened it and said, ‘well they live on the side of the house.’
There was a little girl’s playhouse. I went up to the parents who were in the garage and said I brought your little girl’s homework. Well that playhouse was her room. Every time I see a wooden playhouse, I think of that girl.”
With so many people living in a bubble, a comfortable, structured, and safe life, tending to their own needs, it is easy to pass by a stranger, never digging past the surface. But sometimes these strangers are the ones who need the most help. In the case of the Washington Community, many of these families have left Mexico to chase the American Dream, but end up with many struggles along the way. Without familiarity in the language or customs, these people fall behind into the insecurities of poverty. But these are no strangers to Preciado.