By LAURIE LOISEL
Springfield resident Angelina Pascual hunches over a computer, concentrating intently. One by one, pictures pop up on the screen: a flower, shirt, trophy, house, bed.
She zeros in on the scramble of letters underneath and then clicks on them one by one or in pairs to form words -- in Spanish: amapola, camisa, copa, casa, cama.
There are 11 other students at computer stations around the room, each working at her own pace. They range in age from 19 to 50, all women -- and mothers -- from Latin American countries. For most, Spanish is their native language, but they are only now learning to read and write.
The instructor, Raúl Gutiérrez, makes his way around the room, checking in occasionally with Pascual and her classmates.
"Que pasa?" he says -- What's happening?
He leans in, points at the screen.
"Muy bien," he says -- Very good -- and moves on.
Though Gutiérrez is assistant professor of Spanish and foreign language coordinator at Holyoke Community College, and his assistants are HCC students and alumni fluent in Spanish, this is not an HCC class. It is a pilot program called Planting Literacy, a collaboration between HCC and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start Inc., funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.
The students here in a third-floor classroom of the Head Start headquarters in the Six Corners neighborhood in Springfield are farmworkers from Guatemala and Mexico whose children are in Head Start or attend local public schools. Some speak indigenous languages. Because they cannot read and write, understanding notes that come home with their children, whether in English or Spanish, is difficult if not impossible.
Planting Literacy aims to teach them to read and write in Spanish so they are better equipped to communicate with their children's teachers and, down the road, help their children with their schoolwork.
Planting Literacy also aims to help these women integrate more fully into their communities. Because learning to read and write in English is a much easier task if people can read and write in their native language first, Planting Literacy starts at that basic level, says Gutiérrez.
The program has already drawn attention, receiving an innovation award in January at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Head Start Association. In February, Gutiérrez and regional Head Start personnel gave a presentation about the program in Washington, D.C., at a conference of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.
Classes meet each Tuesday evening and start with students and teachers sitting down together for a meal. Many of these women have been working, so making sure they are nourished before diving into the lesson makes sense. It also provides a casual, family-style opportunity to chat about their lives.
Gutiérrez says helping the students feel comfortable took effort. When the program began last fall, he said, many of them were shy and reluctant to speak up. But now, they are more at ease, cracking jokes, laughing with each other and joining in the conversations about what they did on the weekends or how difficult it is to pick asparagus.
Pascual, 28, works at a local potato farm, getting rides with other migrant workers who head to Valley farms north of Springfield. With Gloria Penagos, migrant coordinator for Head Start's migrant program, translating, Pascual explained that she signed up for the Planting Literacy for the simple reason that she wanted to help her children Julian, 10, and Damaris, 5, with their schoolwork. She said the language lessons were very difficult in the beginning, but, six months later, she finds she is able to put the letters together to spell words.
While the impetus to join the class was to help her children, she said she feels what she is learning here will help her elsewhere as well.
"When she has a form, she wants to be able to read it," said Penagos, translating for Pascual. "It is important. It is helping her a lot -- with everything."
Sometimes there can be up to 20 students each Tuesday night, but Gutiérrez has help. His volunteer tutors are HCC students and alumni, all fluent in Spanish, that he recruited from the HCC Latino International Students Association, known on campus as the LISA Club, which he serves as adviser.
One of those tutors is Angelica Merino Monge, 21, who lives in Northampton and is president of the LISA Club. She met Gutiérrez last year in a Learning Community course he co-taught called "Give me Your Tired and Your Poor," about U.S. immigration history, policy and law.
Monge says she volunteered for Planting Literacy because she knows how the women feel. She is from El Salvador and came to the United States when she was 10. In her first U.S. school, in Maryland, there were no ESL classes, and she spoke no English.
"I didn't understand anything at all," says Monge.
She recalls many nights crying and wishing she would not have to go to school. After she graduates from HCC next winter, Monge wants to attend a private college, possibly Mount Holyoke or Amherst, and eventually go to law school to become an immigration lawyer.
Also helping out are HCC students Gabriel Nieves Ramos, of Holyoke, and Dorothy Altwarg, of South Hadley, a retired ESL teacher; alumni Jazzynett Rosario, '15, of Springfield, now at UMass, and Chesley Mattis, '16, of Springfield, now at Hampshire College; and Esmeralda Mérida, a Head Start volunteer.
Gutiérrez looks younger than his 39 years. He has spiked-up hair, black, blocky glasses, and is dressed in khaki pants, a shirt and tie and black down vest he keeps on, even inside.
He teaches on Tuesday nights following a full day at HCC, and after zipping home to Northampton to have dinner with his wife, Idoia Martinez, and children, Adrian, 7, and Zoe, 2, before driving back to Springfield for the two-hour class.
"I'm not going to lie to you. I'm exhausted physically," he said. "When I get there somehow, I'm energized. It is actually a worthwhile project in my view, and it enriches my life."
The class holds a similar appeal to Monge, who has what is known as DACA status. DACA, which means Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a U.S. immigration policy started by President Barack Obama that allows young people who came into the country before they were 16, and before 2007, to obtain two-year work permits and be exempt from deportation.
It is not, however, a path to citizenship, leaving people like Monge in a kind of legal limbo. This precarious situation makes her deeply empathic to the women she tutors.
She concedes that she is indeed busy with two jobs and full-time course load, but says she volunteers mainly because she wants to spend time with other Latin American immigrants.
"I know what they are going through," she said. "I just like helping them. A lot of their stories are similar to mine. I can relate to them so I can help them with trusting me."
Originally from Mexico, Gutiérrez, too, has great sympathy for the struggles his students face. He sees education as their pathway to a better life in this country.
"Once you start educating people, which I think is a human right, you open up their understanding of the world beyond their daily needs," he says.
Planting Literacy will be offered next year too, at a more advanced level, with the hope that the women in this year's class will return. Their challenges are great, he acknowledges, but he believes the right education can open doors for them.
As class draws to a close, Penagos calls the students to attention one last time.
"Muchachas," she says cheerfully before asking who might be interested in a math class next semester. Most hands go up.
There is a lot to learn.
PHOTOS by DON TREEGER: (Left) HCC student Angelica Merino Monge works with a woman in the Planting Literacy program. (Right) Raúl Gutiérrez, HCC assistant professor of Spanish, instructs migrant workers in the Planting Literacy program in Springfield. (Thumbnail) HCC alum Jazzynett Rosario, '15, now a UMass student, volunteers as a tutor in the Planting Literacy program, a collaboration between HCC and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start.