HOLYOKE — Though a quarter of its student body identifies as Latino, Holyoke Community College lacks a Latino studies program.
But professor Raúl Gutiérrez, an immigrant from Mexico, is working with others to change that.
Gutiérrez, 39, now serves full-time as assistant professor of Spanish at Holyoke Community College.
When he applied for the job in 2013, he had concerns about diversity in the region. But, Puerto Rican flags around Holyoke gave a different impression when he visited the school for his interview. That was the first thing he noticed.
Gutiérrez was also surprised to learn that 37 percent of HCC students belong to minority groups.
“I worried I was going to be teaching Spanish 101 to a largely white student body, for the rest of my life,” he said.
“Once I got there, I saw there was a good mix of different people from different backgrounds — young and old students, non-traditional students,” he continued.
He grew up in an ethnic neighborhood of Chicago, rich in Mexican food and culture.
“I basically didn’t have to speak English there,” he said.
In classes Gutiérrez has taught, he has worked with new immigrants and two students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That provides a legal status for some undocumented immigrants who arrive in the U.S. as children, allowing them some security by way of deferred deportation and work authorization.
“There is a wealth of knowledge in my classroom,” he said. The students bring with them life experiences that are enriching to all.”
That type of world information would not come from a class of all 18-to-22-year-olds, Gutiérrez continued. He considers himself lucky to know his students, and teaching them is what he calls “an extra bonus.”
But the learning goes both ways, Gutiérrez said. His own immigration journey was much less traumatic than many he’s heard about from students.
“Their bravery basically boggles my mind and shows me there is a need to empower students like that,” he said.Federal grant
Gutiérrez and his colleague Mónica Torregrosa wrote a successful $120,000 Bridging Cultures grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2015. The money is being used to train faculty to infuse their courses with Latino studies content.
Their long-term goal is to eventually establish an official Latino studies program at HCC.
It takes money to build a brand new program from the ground up, but after receiving the grant, Gutiérrez said, “the actual pipe dream basically became possible.”
That dream has not slowed down for the summer, as he has kept busy working on a new “Introduction to Latino Studies” class set to launch next spring. The foreign languages department has also ramped up course offerings.
With a mind that is always racing, Gutiérrez devotes efforts to teaching Spanish literacy courses to community members. He serves as an adviser to the Latino International Students Association club, with whom he teaches those classes to migrant farm workers. They do this through Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, a federal nonprofit organization offering day care, preschool and pre-kindergarten classes for children of low-income families. The literacy classes Gutiérrez teaches there aim to better prepare parents of those children to be a resource for them.
That pilot program, known as “Planting Literacy,” won an innovation award in 2015 from the Massachusetts Head Start Association.
“The language has made it possible for me to create connections,” he said of his new community.
And since he’s here, Gutiérrez has decided to do as Pioneer Valley folk do and learn to garden — something he had never planned to do as a city resident in Chicago.
He and his wife, Idoia Martinez, grow vegetables in a community garden plot at Grow Food Northampton in Florence.
The Mexican salsa he makes from his own jalapeño and habanero peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos provides a taste of home.
“The children don’t like spicy,” he said with a laugh. His children are Adrian, 7, and Zoe, 2.
After a recent trip back to Chicago, Gutiérrez and his wife agreed that Northampton now feels the most like home.
“We’re creating roots and connecting more to how people live here,” he said.
Sarah Crosby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.