Immigrant’s experiences make her better teacher |

Immigrant’s experiences make her better teacher

Bella Fabela remembers the frustration and sense of hopelessness she felt after moving to Carbondale from the Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1988.

She couldn’t help her son, Alex, with his studies. The kindergartner was learning in English, a language she didn’t understand. It was all the more frustrating because of her high level of education and professional background.

“I couldn’t help him and I was a teacher in Mexico,” she exclaimed.

Luckily her situation motivated rather than alienated her. Fourteen years later, Fabela is drawing on those experiences as a stranger in a strange land as an effective teacher at Basalt Elementary School.

She teaches kindergarten in the bilingual program. She works with Latino and Anglo students, sharpening their skills in both English and Spanish.

“The kids are like a sponge. They learn fast,” Fabela said. Although she speaks English well, she says she has much more to master. “My kids are still teaching me,” she said of her students.

Fabela credits an Anglo she befriended shortly after moving to the valley for motivating her to study English. Her friend told her about English courses available through Colorado Mountain College.

Fabela said the class was in danger of being canceled because there were so few students. Back then, there weren’t many Latinos in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Fabela’s husband, Guillermo, started coming to the United States as a youngster to work as a migrant worker. He picked potatoes in Idaho, but returned to Chihuahua each year.

After Guillermo and Bella married, they had a son and decided it was important to stick together year-round as a family. He convinced her that they should move to the United States, the land of opportunity.

Guillermo’s brother convinced them that the Roaring Fork Valley was a better place to make a living than the fields of Idaho.

Bella surrendered the relative luxury of the house they owned in Chihuahua for cramped quarters in Basalt shared with members of their extended family. They lived in the Wolf Cabins, where the Riverwalk project is now being developed on Midland Avenue.

But like anyone who sticks around long enough in the Roaring Fork Valley ? Anglo or Latino ? the Fabelas’ living and working situations continued to improve.

They moved from Basalt to a mobile home in Carbondale, then to larger quarters in Silt for five years. They moved back to Carbondale about a year ago to get closer to their jobs.

Guillermo has been a mechanic with the Roaring Fork Transit Agency for 12 years. He works on buses at RFTA’s headquarters at the Aspen Business Center.

Bella is thrilled to once again be the owner of a single-family home. Carbondale, she noted, has changed since she lived there last. People always used to smile and acknowledge her. Now that doesn’t happen.

Why the change? Because, she explains, there used to be so few Latinos in the valley. Now there are many. People aren’t as friendly.

She’s able to shrug off the differences. “For me it’s OK, I know the culture,” she said.

But other Latinos still struggle as strangers in a strange land. And that’s where Fabela has been invaluable at Basalt Elementary School, according to Principal Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo.

Fabela returned to teaching in 1995, working for a year at the Aspen Community School. She switched to Basalt Middle School the following year to teach Spanish. The adjustment was difficult, she acknowledged.

She faced cultural issues. She wasn’t sure about a teacher’s role in disciplining students. She wasn’t confident of her English.

Bella wanted to quit; Guillermo encouraged her to stick with it, she said.

She did, and two years ago she made the switch to the elementary school to help in the bilingual program, and she couldn’t be happier.

“I love to see their faces when they are learning,” she said. “I love this program because they learn the cultures of other people.”

The program is also well-known and sought after in the Latino community. Bilingual education was eliminated in the Carbondale public schools, so many Latinos there take their kids to Basalt.

“They say this is the best school, in Basalt,” Fabela said.

Her youngest son, Miguel, will attend the Basalt school next year.

She believes the program is a great benefit to both Anglos and Latinos. In addition to sharpening their skills in both languages, the kids are integrating well, something that doesn’t happen as much with older kids or adults.

Fabela proudly tells of times when her Anglo students have conversed with Latino parents they encounter in the hall. She tells stories relayed from Anglo parents of how their kids will talk to Latino employees at the supermarket.

She believes the bilingual program will help with the melding of the people from different cultures. That’s important, she said, because she senses that many Latinos intend to make the Roaring Fork Valley their permanent home.

Fabela said she and her husband would someday like to retire, part time, to their native Mexico. She comes from a family of nine. Her mother worked hard to get the children into college, and each kid helped the younger siblings with their educations. Fabela was the youngest in the family. All her siblings remain in Mexico.

But the Roaring Fork Valley is also the place she now considers home. “I love the snow. I love the mountains,” she said.

[Editor’s note: Faces of the Roaring Fork is a feature of The Aspen Times that appears each Thursday. The goal of these stories is to put the spotlight on people in the Roaring Fork Valley who don’t usually make the pages of our daily newspapers.

Stories focus on “regular folks” who have interesting stories to tell. We hope they will run the gamut: people with unique hobbies, people who have overcome some obstacle in life to pursue a dream, people who quietly help others in need, etc.

Though we have plenty of stories in mind, we are sure there are many, many people out there worth writing about who will never cross our radar screen. So we are asking our readers to tell us about folks they know who deserve a little recognition, who have interesting tales to tell.

Anyone with ideas should call Editor Mike Hagan at 925-3414, or send e-mails to Thanks, in advance, for your help.]

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