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The power of language

Aspen Times writer
Carmen De Tata, Susana Vasqueq and Michelle Weelfle, left to right, share stories - in English and Spanish - during a Colorado Mountain College language class in Basalt. Aspen Times photo/Devon Meyers.
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of five stories looking at different aspects of Latino life in the valley.By Eben HarrellAspen Times Staff Writer

Lynne, a prim, elderly lady, is trying to understand Adan, a powerful young Latino, his muscular arms on display through a cut-off shirt.Next to them a Mexican maintenance worker from El Jebel teaches a yuppie executive from Aspen. And a cook from Basalt, his hands spotted with calloused burns, struggles through a lesson with a white-haired librarian. Once a week, in a small classroom in Basalt, ethnicity, class and fear are put aside in pursuit of the most universal human need – to communicate. Students of all backgrounds come together for an “intercambio” – or exchange – language class run by Colorado Mountain College, where native Spanish speakers and native English speakers trade tongues for an evening.The two and half hour class begins with English speakers and Spanish speakers in separate groups. After lessons have been taught and nerves have been readied, the students join one another for drills and conversation. It is a safe environment in which to take the terrifying leap into a foreign language.It is a daunting prospect – attempting to speak a foreign language to a native speaker – but the shared vulnerability in the classroom makes trying not so terrifying.

What is learned in this language class, however, is how important nonlinguistic communication can be – a smile, a wink, a disarming laugh. It’s not hard to express support.The students meet at night in a middle school classroom in Basalt, their language skills weaker even than the 10- and 11-year-olds they’ve replaced. They help one another with exercises, taking turns playing student and teacher. They laugh at the idiosyncrasies of their language, at how confusing their native tongues are in the mouth of a foreign speaker – “cheep and sheep,” “pero and perro.”Ask the Latinos, many of whom work long shifts or two jobs, why they summon the energy to come to evening language classes, and the answer is standard: the want of a better job, the need for belonging, a feeling of being noticed and understood. Lilian, a mother of two, says she’s learning English because at present she cannot help her English-speaking 8-year-old son with his homework. The first, hesitant steps out of the shadows are never easy, however. Before class, word had spread that a reporter would be attending, and many of the Latino students didn’t show up, evidently wary of the exposure. The CMC instructors had written on the blackboard “no names or interviews without your permission.” A letter from the Mexican Consulate in Denver was distributed before the class, explaining and calming a recent immigration scare.But the challenges come also from within the community. Maria, a clerk at a local supermarket, says many in the Latino community disdain English speaking.

“You hear all the time ‘why do you speak to me in English, I speak Spanish,'” Maria recounts of numerous conversations with neighbors and friends.The English speakers offer various reasons for attending the class. Some are economical (“I want to expand my business to the Latino community”), others are whimsical (“I’d like to be able to get a hotel room when I go on vacation”). But most say the desire to be able to acknowledge and communicate with their neighbors is a primary factor. In certain pockets of the valley, Spanish speakers greatly outnumber their English speaking counterparts.”There are a lot of people I don’t understand in the valley,” Lynne says. “And I want to know who they are.”As Lynne speaks, a Latino cook and an Anglo librarian are entrenched in a lesson. The Spanish speaker is trying to complete several phrases in English. One sentence reads “I am happy because …” The cook, Carlos, chews on his lip in concentration. After a pause, he scribbles “because I have a new friend to teach me English.” “Bien,” the librarian replies.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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