Caloosa Belle

Inspiring LaBelle – Mercado teaches English her way

From left to right at the Two Peas Cafe: Literacy Council Gulf Coast volunteer Vicky Stem, Guadalupe Jimenez, LCGC volunteer Sally Berg, Eila Lopez, Mayra Sosa, Marcela Vigo, Arelis Friz, and Alba Perez. (Submitted photo/Cristina Mercado)

I recently sat down with Cristina Mercado who is teaching English to Spanish speaking people at the Adult School in LaBelle. Her passion and dedication to what she’s doing was so apparent that our conversation was filled with giggles, tears and loads of inspiring take aways.

“This group is very different and dynamic,” she said to me of her English class comprised of adults of various walks and backgrounds.

“You have some people that have just got here from other countries about a month to four months ago and then you have people who are here for twenty years and they don’t speak English; they understand it, they can read it but they don’t speak it,” Mercado added.

Though the course is designed to teach the students to speak English, Cristina wanted to take an alternate approach to teaching. “I’m trying to do fascinating things that teaches them English instead of teaching them only through the use of grammar and phonetics; I brought in one of the student’s husband, artist Carlos Gonzales (no stranger to Caloosa Belle readers as he was one of the contributing artists of our beautiful mural located on our office exterior) who came in and talked to our students about recycled art. He came in and inspired our students. He himself is an immigrant and he wanted to show that if you take advantage of the opportunities presented to you that anyone can accomplish anything,” she told me.

I was truly inspired as Cristina described, with such care, her students and their own goals and aspirations: “We’ve got one person who wants to open up a restaurant. One person is an artist. One person wants to open a boutique! We have a lady who has a business degree in her country but is picking in the fields here.”

Mercado’s tone became a bit more serious as she told me about the struggles that her immigrant students have faced throughout their journey to her classroom. “Unfortunately what happens is that in some countries, especially in Central America, most students only acquire a level of sixth to eighth grade as their highest level of education because they have to leave school and begin working. These students come in at age sixteen or seventeen and don’t have time to make up all the credits needed, so they are told to go to the adult school to learn English and then get their G.E.D. But they need to make a living and so they start working in the fields. I have one student who came (to the US) at sixteen and is now thirty years old and wants to get out of working in the fields.”
The passion that drives Mercado’s work began to shine through as she told me of the evidence that sparks of confidence are beginning to show in her students faces and behavior. She said, “You get this sense or feeling of being oppressed, but this is just giving them a confidence of saying ‘you know what? I probably can do this.’ You can see the glimpse of hope and so I realized that I have to make them speak English!”

Aiming to keep her lessons exciting, Mercado planned an outing to Two Peas Cafe in LaBelle. “For two or three weeks we were going over what it means to ‘please be seated’, or to read the menu, or ‘what is an appetizer?’ ” Cristina explained. “It was not only a lesson in speaking English but also a lesson in culture! “What is a fried green tomato?” “Why is the tea so sweet?” she added. “Miss Vicki and Miss Debbie were so nice and they donated the fried green tomatoes and it was just an amazing experience! Some of them have lived here for fifteen or twenty years and have never gone to that restaurant because they feel intimidated by going places where people may not speak Spanish.”

Cristina Mercado is joined by volunteers from the Literacy Council Gulf Coast , Sally Berg and Vicky Stem , who come in and work on conversational English with the students every week. “Our goal is to get them acclimated to anything dealing with careers and to help them become self sufficient,” Cristina told me.

Carlos Gonzales speaking to the adult students about re-purposing garbage as art. (Submitted photo/Cristina Mercado)

As my talk with Cristina ended I walked into the portable to meet with these inspiring adult students and it was evident why Cristina is so passionate about serving them. The faces of each student brimmed with anticipation at the possibilities that await them on the other side of their goal of conquering this new language. Their dedication was inspiring and humbling to me, someone who can sometimes take for granted opportunities or become jaded by societal woes and thus become inactive. This was not the case with the energy of this room full of learners whose lust for knowledge was only matched by a willingness to give in their teacher.

If you are interested in learning more about the offerings of the Adult School in Hendry County or if you’d like to volunteer your time or resources to furthering their very worthwhile endeavors please call 863-983-1511.

If you or someone you know is interested in taking a class through the Adult School you will need to fill out an application and show proof of Florida residency.

The courses offered through the adult school are GED, ESOL, Industrial Machinery Mechanics, Welding, Computer Applications (Word/excel) Computer Repair, Security Guard, CNA, and Forklift certification. The cost for classes offered by the adult school varies by course and content. If you’re interested in taking a course, you can inquire to the same number listed above. The next semester starts in January and runs congruent to the public school schedule.