Speaking My Language

May. 2, 2016

Gloria Zavala, who is attending Centro Hispano to learn English, stands and smiles in front of a map of the United States

Knoxville nonprofit helps Latino community improve their lives, starting with education

Gloria Zavala wants to speak English.

It’s a simple dream, but one that has thus far remained just out of reach.

At 37, Zavala is not yet fluent.

She spends her days cleaning houses, which she has done for 13 years since coming to the U.S. from Guanajuato, Mexico.

At night, she attends adult education classes at Centro Hispano, a Knoxville nonprofit that provides the Latino community with resources for everything from immigration to health care to education.

She’s making progress, she says, but most importantly, she’s doing it the right way.

“I went to Centro Hispano to study English, but they recommended that I finish my elementary and middle school courses first in order to learn English more easily,” Zavala says.

“I trusted that and have noticed that it is now easier to understand English. They have motivated and supported me a lot to continue to achieve my goals.

“Most of all, they have helped me with my daughter, Marlene, because I cannot help her with the English language. They can, and so they are helping us both.”

two women talking at Centro Hispano, a Knoxville nonprofit that provides the Latino community with resources for everything from immigration to health care to education.
Gloria Zavala, who is attending Centro Hispano to learn English, smiles.

The ripple effect

For Tennessee’s growing Latino community, education is the first step toward a better career, but it’s also the first step toward a healthier life.

Studies consistently show that people with more education make more money over the course of their lives, and that, in turn, leads to less poverty — but it also leads to better health.

The more comfortable your lifestyle, the more likely you are to seek treatment for a health issue in its early stages because you have the time, money and resources to do so.

That’s not always the case for people who lack a support system, a steady job or the ability to speak the language.

For example, if Zavala gets sick and needs to go to the doctor, she has to ask herself difficult questions:

  • Will she have to miss work? If so, she’ll lose that paycheck, and perhaps that client.
  • How much will she have to pay out-of-pocket since she doesn’t have health insurance?
  • How will she get there?
  • Will the doctor be able to communicate with her effectively?
  • If she’s able to schedule an appointment during non-work hours, who will take care of her daughter?
  • If she has to hire a babysitter, how much will that cost? Can she afford that in addition to the cost of the doctor’s visit and medication?

It’s no wonder someone in this situation might delay asking for help; and that delay can mean an easily treatable health problem worsens until it’s more complicated and costly — or even impossible — to treat.

a woman taking adult education classes at Centro Hispano, a Knoxville nonprofit that provides the Latino community with resources for everything from immigration to health care to education.

Getting to a better place

Centro Hispano works to eliminate those obstacles.

They often draw people in by addressing health needs, both physical and emotional, and then they teach people how to help themselves going forward.

“When people come to us, they come in crisis mode,” says Centro Hispano Chairman of the Board Carlos Pinilla.

“They’re trying to find a doctor because a family member is having some kind of health problem. So we refer them to providers, but we also assess their knowledge: Can they find those resources by themselves? If not, we show them how. Do they need to learn English? If they do, we sign them up for a class.”

a teacher leading a class at Centro Hispano

The difficult part, however, is handling the secondary obstacles that pop up: someone signs up for English as a second language (ESL) but can’t attend without childcare; or — in a case like Zavala’s — teachers find the educational foundation to learn ESL isn’t strong enough, so they have to take a step back.

At Centro Hispano, the focus is on helping people find the right resources at the right time, even when that means creating that resource from scratch.

“We saw early on that a big impediment to education was a lack of childcare, so we created that. It started as a daycare first, and now it’s a full children’s program,” Pinilla says.

“When we saw that people who’d completed ESL classes needed additional education in order to find jobs with higher salaries, we created a GED class.

“When we saw that the people we referred to healthcare providers were getting healthier but still lacked knowledge about nutrition, we brought in people from the University of Tennessee to talk about healthy foods.”

One of the instructors also created a women’s support group because she saw so many women needed help tackling issues that were affecting their mental and emotional health, but that they couldn’t speak about elsewhere: cultural isolation, self-esteem, trauma and difficult relationships.

women walking outside laughing and talking at Centro Hispano

“One of the women who participated said to me, ‘One of the reasons I take basic literacy classes is because I want to become independent because I’m in an abusive relationship,’” says Pinilla, “so you can see how much these services mean to someone’s life.

“What Centro is doing is not tackling one issue at a time; we’re kind of like a big umbrella for all these issues and problems the Hispanic community has.”

Centro can offer this 360-degree support in large part because of their robust volunteer network, which includes Spanish majors from several colleges in surrounding areas.

Students who have proficiency in the language volunteer their time to serve the community and, while doing so, gain experience with conversational Spanish and learn more about the culture.

young woman teaching a Latino man lessons on a computer
a woman teaches a latino man lessons on a computer

In the past five years, the program has grown from two to 120 students, exponentially expanding Knoxville’s culture of learning and understanding.

“When you don’t know where to go to for education or to improve yourself, you stay in the same place,” says Zavala.

“If I had not come to Centro Hispano, I would not have attempted to study, and now studying is something I do with much love and effort.

“I am very happy and grateful to be here, where so many people are willing to share their knowledge with love.”

Gloria Zavala, an attendee who is taking classes at Centro Hispano to learn English

To learn more about Latino health in Tennessee, click here.


 Photos by Tyler Oxendine