×

Award-winning English learner sought language skills to support family

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, center left, participates in an English vocabulary exercise with Jennifer Rivera of Sunderland during a free English class for area immigrants and refugees at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton. Both women are originally from El Salvador.

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, left, participates in an English vocabulary exercise May 23 with Jennifer Rivera of Sunderland during a free English class for area immigrants and refugees at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton. Both women are originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, center, participates in an English vocabulary exercise May 23 with teacher Michelle Walch and classmates during a free English class for area immigrants and refugees at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton. Cruz is originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, front, participates in an English vocabulary exercise May 23 during a free English class for area immigrants and refugees at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton. Behind her is José Cruz of Northampton. Both students are originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Teacher Michelle Walch, left, looks on as students José Cruz of Northampton and María Teresa Cruz of Amherst participate in an English vocabulary exercise May 23 during a free English class for area immigrants and refugees at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton. Both students are originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, left, participates in an English vocabulary exercise May 23 with Jennifer Rivera of Sunderland during a free English class for area immigrants and refugees at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts in Northampton. Both women are originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, center, works at Bueno Y Sano restaurant June 9 in Northampton. Cruz is originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst works at Bueno Y Sano restaurant June 9 in Northampton. Cruz is originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst works at Bueno Y Sano restaurant June 9 in Northampton. Cruz is originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz of Amherst, left, works at Bueno Y Sano restaurant June 9 in Northampton. Cruz is originally from El Salvador. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • At right Cruz is shown at Bueno Y Sano restaurant in Northampton where she works.

  • María Teresa Cruz, left, and her son Miguel Cruz, 14, share breakfast June 11 at their Amherst home. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz, right, shares breakfast with her sons Miguel Cruz, 14, left, Andrew Cruz, 11, Francisco Cruz, 19, and her daughter Jocelyne Cruz, 19, at their Amherst home on June 11. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Jocelyne Cruz, left, and her mother María Teresa Cruz look over the younger Cruz's assignments June 11 at their Amherst home. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • María Teresa Cruz, left, stands with her children Miguel Cruz, 14, Jocelyne Cruz, 19, Andrew Cruz, 11, and Francisco Cruz, 19, at their Amherst home on June 11. SARAH CROSBY/Daily Hampshire Gazette

  • Above, Jocelyne Cruz, left, reviews assignments this month with her mother, María Teresa Cruz, at their Amherst home.



@DHGCrosby
Monday, June 27, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — With mastery of each English word, the world of María Teresa Cruz expands.

Sixteen years ago the shy El Salvadoran woman immigrated to the United States to join her husband, shortly followed by her two oldest children. But when her husband, Miguel Angel Cruz, died of leukemia in October 2012, María Teresa Cruz was left to carry on alone.

“When my husband was talking to me in his last days,” said Cruz, “he told me, ‘You can do it. I know you can do it.’”

With four children then under 16 years of age, Cruz prepared to become sole parent and breadwinner for her family.

But she soon realized she had an additional challenge: Learning English. Cruz resolved, “I need to learn this language.”

In just four years, her growing English skills had earned her a prestigious local award.

Language = independence

Soon after her husband’s death, Cruz began studying in the International Language Institute of Massachusetts’ free evening English program. Two-thirds of the program’s funding comes from the state education department and the remainder from fundraising and ILI’s other tuition-based programs.

ILI Director of English Programs Macey Faiella said most students in the program are working one or two jobs just to cover their basic expenses. There is no way they could afford anything additional, she said.

“English classes would probably slip to the bottom, below their utilities and food,” said Faiella.

The class not only equips the students with English, she added, but also aims to foster independence and a sense of possibility.

“It comes down to being able to do things for yourself and not having to rely on somebody else to help you,” she said. “That you’re an agent in your own life.”

Since Cruz has entered the program, she has blossomed not only as an English learner but also socially. When instructor Michelle Walsh asked the students to assess their performance on a recent vocabulary assignment, Cruz’s face lit up.

“I think we did very well,” she answered softly, with a playful smile. Walsh and the other students agreed, laughing along with Cruz at her newfound confidence.

“There is a lot of laughing when she’s around,” Faiella noted. “She’s someone who is going to jump in no matter what crazy activity we ask them to do to practice their English,” she said. “She’s more than willing.”

Cruz said her new communication skills are “very very helpful,” adding that she relies on English daily to make appointments, navigate phone calls about her children’s schooling and speak with customers at Bueno Y Sano restaurant, where she works full-time.

“Not being able to do the right thing for your family and your kids is a really scary place to be,” said Faiella, adding that many of the students initially feel “helpless and weak” without a confidence in the language. “We all know how hard it is to negotiate anything over the phone or trying to set something up in English,” she said. “Imagine trying to do that without having the language or having nobody there to help you do it.”

Despite the long days Cruz spends juggling work, studying and caring for her family, her determination has not faded.

“I work so hard but my motivator is my family … to help them in all things,” she said, noting that America offers her children more opportunity and security than in El Salvador. “They are my life, my inspiration, my everything,” she said.

Her eldest daughter Jocelyne recently completed her freshman year at Antioch College in Ohio, where she has a full scholarship. Francisco, Cruz’s eldest son, is studying graphic design at Holyoke Community College.

But for Cruz, it’s not just about her and her family’s needs. Walsh said Cruz is quick to pair up with a struggling classmate, jumping immediately into a “nurturing” role.

Faiella said Cruz has flourished during her time at ILI and is “a really integral part of creating the atmosphere,” which she says is that in which “everyone feels welcome, no matter where they are in the learning process.”

On April 27, Cruz was recognized for those contributions, receiving ILI’s fifth annual Andrea Raphael Memorial Award during the school’s annual “Giving Voice” event at the Hotel Northampton.

The award is named for Andrea Raphael, who with her family opened the doors of their home as a host family for many studying at ILI. Raphael died of Lyme disease in April of 2012.

Faiella said in selecting a recipient for the award, ILI looks for generosity of spirit, a commitment to self improvement and a habit of encouraging others.

(Andrea) “was this person who just lit up a room and brought people together and made them feel comfortable where ever they were,” Faiella said. “María really reflects that.”

She hasn’t had the easiest life,” Walsh said, but her gentle strength and compassion has a “domino effect” on those she interacts with.

English, Walsh said, has been that conversation starter. And, she added, Cruz is much more vocal in class than when she began.

“A lot of doors are open to her if she wants to walk through them,” Walsh said, “but that’s going to depend on her.”

“Every day is learning new words,” Cruz said.

Sarah Crosby can be reached at scrosby@gazettenet.com.