Eliminating illiteracy in migrant workers: it’s complicated

2016-04-06T17:32:01+00:00 December 7th, 2014|Education, Politics|

Isabel Ishkol’s daughter spots her mom outside her classroom at Le Jardin Community Center in Homestead and quickly tumbles over. It’s close to pick up time for the 3-year-old, but not quite.

In what sounds like a whisper, motioning with her hands, Ishkol tells her daughter to join her teacher, now busy wrangling other toddlers.

Vanessa lingers, beaming.

More than just excited to see her mom, Ishkol explains that as her daughter grows older, communication becomes increasingly difficult.

“She talks and talks, and we just don’t understand,” Ishkol says of her husband and herself as her youngest skips back to class, chattering with classmates.

By Melhor Marie Leonor
South Florida News Service
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The mother of four speaks a Guatemalan dialect called K’iche, one of a few dozen dialects spoken by migrant workers who have settled around the nurseries and farms in South Dade.

Ishkol’s Spanish is scant. Her hands are agile at agricultural work, but with a pencil, her fingers struggle. Ishkol cannot read or write English or Spanish.

More than half of adults in Miami-Dade are illiterate, according to a 2003 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics that measured adult literacy in the county. Among Hispanic migrant workers, numbers soar, making adapting and thriving in the United States a nearly-impossible challenge.

Sprinkled throughout agricultural South Dade are signs that read, “hay trabajo.” For Hispanic agricultural workers in the area, it’s a welcomed staple that means, “there is work.” But within this population, there are many who can’t read much more than that.

Some speak Spanish colloquially, never having attended school. Others, like Ishkol, are confined to dialects and a level of Spanish that barely gets her by.

In a world covered with letters and numbers, it’s a hard road to travel by.

Ishkol grew up in a remote village in Guatemala, two and a half hours from the nearest school — one she didn’t attend.

“In the village, it was Kiche and Kiche, and no Spanish,” Ishkol recalls in a high-pitched whisper, a voice she only adopts when speaking her newly-learned Spanish.

English? Her son is helping her learn basics like, “sorry.”

After she married her husband, who also lived in the same village, the prospects of raising children there looked grim.

“I thought, ‘what are we going to do here?’,” Ishkol recalls, a familiar dilemma for those living in poverty in Latin America.

“So we said, ‘let’s fight’. We came here to fight for our children.”

Guatemala is on the other side of the continent, but Ishkol has never been on a plane or a ship. She says her husband, herself and their young son, 4 at the time, joined a group of migrants on a trek on foot that took them across the border with Mexico. Eventually, they followed agricultural work to South Dade, where they’ve lived for about a decade, she says, mostly isolated.

Ishkol and her husband will do “whatever job” they can find, which for the most part consists of picking and packaging crop yields — season after season.

Right now, it’s mostly beans.

“I-S-A-B-E  I-X-C-O-X,” she writes on a notepad.

Smiling, she says she practices writing her name at home. It is the only thing she can write. Her daughter’s name, she says, will be next. But they are small steps compared to the pace at which her daughter is learning.

“I would like to, but it would be really difficult,” Ishkol says.

For now, that means that any paperwork her children bring home from school is brought back to Le Jardin so that receptionists or a social worker can translate and help fill them out.

Her son helps with reading medicine labels.

When she gave birth to a premature baby girl at Homestead Hospital, it was chaos and confusion.

For immigrants with limited literacy like Ishkol, succeeding in the workplace also demands basic understanding of language and math.

Yolanda Hernandez came into the United States in 2005, also through the dessert that separates the United States and Mexico.

Since making her way to South Dade looking for work, she has been tending to small pines at one of the largest nurseries in Homestead.

“I’ve always worked with the pines. From when they start out, really little,” Hernandez says.

In her native Guatemala, she attended school for less than six months. When the opportunity to cross the border came at 16, she took it.

She was funneled immediately into agricultural work. Her limits are any job that requires reading or writing.

But even at the nursery, she felt hindered. She can’t read written instructions and can’t write down spoken directions.

“When they ask me to count, it’s difficult,” Hernandez said.

The nursery where she works is Costa Farms, one of the largest employers of agricultural labor in South Dade, and one of the biggest farming operations in the state.

Inside the company’s crisp new headquarters in Homestead, its president says that many of his workers at the processing plant a block away struggle to count and communicate.

“We spent a lot of time working with our mid-level management, implementing programs,” said Jose Alvarez, the chief financial officer at Costa Farms. “But we saw a big opportunity with our agricultural workers.”

Looking for a program that would inculcate basic literacy skills into the company’s workers, Alvarez found Alfalit International, a registered public charity based in Doral that provides basic literacy education for adults around the world.

Alfalit’s efforts include countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where illiteracy is endemic. When they were approached by Costa Farms, they found a local teacher to lead the classes, which are held four times a week.

“Many of them were intimidated, and sometimes even skeptical of the classes at first,” Alvarez said.

In a bright-lit room surrounded by packaging facilities and fields, filled with folding chairs and a white board, Dolores Leon has set up her classroom.

Leon, 54, has been teaching young children to read and write for more than 30 years in her native Venezuela. Now her students are adult-size.

She became involved with Alfalit by searching online for ways to teach adults how to understand letters and numbers. Leon, who preaches from the pulpit of Ministerio Torre Fuerte in Little Havana, noticed that when she asked listeners to join her in reading a passage from the Bible, many eyes looked on, puzzled.

“We saw people with open Bibles,” she said, “but we realized they couldn’t read.”

After a few hours of training with Alfalit, Leon became certified to carry adult students to third-grade level literal competency.

Leon lives in Homestead, so when a local food grower contacted Alfalit for help teaching migrant workers how to read and count, the non-profit gave her a call.

The program has graduated 96 students since it began operating.

Hernandez came into the class nervous, but things are changing slowly.

“I don’t know how to write properly, and sometimes, I write words and letters that don’t belong. I’m learning how to write, and even speak,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes, I get letters from my daughter’s school or the landlord, and I don’t understand them. But coming here is helping.”

Students participating in the program are paid during the three hours a week that they attend classes. Costa Farms spends roughly $1,000 per student that completes the course.

But literacy classes are not a common worker’s benefit in the farming industry.

Connecting migrant workers to public programs is difficult, and classes that fit the need are few.

One of the largest adult literacy programs in the county is LEAD, or Literacy for Every Adult in Dade. It is funded and operated through the county’s library system.

The program requires that students speak English, a tall order for people like Estella Mateo.

Mateo sat in on an English class five years ago but never came back.

“I didn’t attend school, and since I can’t read Spanish, it was really difficult,” said Mateo, who gets by speaking a little Spanish and her native Guatemalan dialect.

Studies show that being proficient in the native language is crucial to attaining a second language.

“It’s important to learn Spanish first because the adult isn’t like a child,” Leon said. “The child is learning for the first time, the adult learns by translating. If the adult doesn’t know how to write a sentence in Spanish, they can’t do it in English. If they don’t understand verb tense in Spanish, they won’t understand the concept in English.”

Ishkol says that if time allows, she’ll learn. Her employers, unlike Hernandez’s, don’t provide literacy training. At home, her son is helping.

In the meantime, her hopes are placed solely on her children’s ability to adapt to a culture much different than the one she grew up in.

“I told my son earlier, ‘you should be doctor or a lawyer,’ and he says, ‘yes mom, I’ll do it,’” Ishkol recalls.

For her daughter, “a social worker,” she says, glancing at Le Jardin’s family counselor, “or a lawyer, too.”

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