Al Margen de Todo (On the Outside of Everything)

By on May 16, 2018

Jackson’s Spanish speakers find language barriers, lack of resources difficult to overcome in their path to learning and integration        

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Emilia Alvarez dreams in English. “Es super raro,” she said. It’s really weird.

It is super raro, because Alvarez does not speak English—not much, anyway.

The 34-year-old Paraguayan single mom moved to Jackson three years ago. Three months later, her 9-year-old son, Martín, joined her. (Due to their pending immigration status, Alvarez and her son are using pseudonyms.)

Alvarez heard about Jackson through a friend who also immigrated here. She was mesmerized by the mountains and wildlife, but it was the promise of a better life that ultimately drew her to Jackson.

“Es un lugar increíble sobretodo para los niños, la educación, las escuelas, la gente súper amable, y no hay delincuencia.” It is an incredible place for children, the education, the schools, the very friendly people, and there is no crime.

Since then, Alvarez has held numerous jobs, mostly cleaning houses. She also juggles nannying and light office work. Her immaculate fingernails, which on this day were bright violet, do not reveal how hard she works.

But after a few rough years bouncing from job to job, Alvarez has found some measure of stability and a regular income. “Este es el primer año que tengo menos trabajo,” she said. This is the first year that I’ve had less work.

Alvarez wants to learn English for two reasons. “Primero,” she said, “porque es como un desafío mi misma. Es algo que nunca me imaginé por mi vida, poder vivir en un país donde se habla otra idioma.” First, because it’s like a challenge for myself. It’s something I never imagined for my life, to be able to live in a country where they speak a different language.

It is the second reason, though, that is more pressing. “Obviamente que si yo tenga buen Inglés, puedo tener un buen trabajo, mejor trabajo.” Obviously if I speak English well, I can get a good job, a better job.

Learning English as an adult can feel like swimming against a current, like achingly slow progress toward an immediately necessary goal. It takes time to learn a language, and when you are learning for survival—to secure a higher paying job, to communicate with your coworkers, neighbors, or to navigate the obstacles of everyday life—time is a luxury many cannot afford.

Alvarez said she could excel at many jobs, but she cannot prove herself because she cannot communicate.

Local advocates say Teton County’s Latino population hovers around 30 percent (25 percent according to the 2016 U.S. census). It is a number that has been steadily increasing for years and offers a window into America’s future.


“Obviamente que si yo tenga buen Inglés, puedo tener un buen trabajo, mejor trabajo.”

Obviously if I speak English well, I can get a good job, a better job.


In 2015, Spanish speakers comprised 17.6 percent of the U.S. population. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2065 the nation’s population will be roughly 24 percent Hispanic.

Already, the Department of Education has noted 32 states with a shortage of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in public schools. Meanwhile, Wyoming has reported a shortage since 2004.

This shortage is more pronounced when it comes to resources for adults.

According to the Pew Research Center, America’s Latino population is moving away from cities like Los Angeles and New York, which have historically had the highest Latino populations in the nation. They are moving to the South, suburban areas all over the country and resort towns like Jackson. As larger numbers of immigrants settle in small towns rather than cities, language resources in places like Jackson are stretched thin.

Painful Past, Bright Future

Martín was seven years old when he moved to Jackson. He started school at Jackson Elementary but was utterly lost in his new English-speaking school.

Alvarez got help contacting the school and asked for Martín to be enrolled in the dual immersion program. He was switched to that program, which he attends today. In dual immersion, students switch back and forth between an English-speaking classroom and a Spanish one.

There is a waitlist for the program and most families must enroll their children as they enter kindergarten. There are some exceptions, though, and “whenever possible we add [newly arrived Spanish speaking students] into dual immersion,” said Charlotte Reynolds, Teton County School District’s information coordinator.

The district tries to maintain an equal balance of English and Spanish speakers, so students like Martín can enter the program if there is space and the ratio allows.

When Spanish-speaking students are unable to enroll, they receive other ESL services or are placed in a traditional classroom, depending on their needs and language aptitude.

Dual immersion helped Martín learn English quickly, and he is now fluent. Alvarez attributes this to his being surrounded by English speakers in school all day, but “el que más sufrió con esto de no saber el idioma fue él,” she said. The one who suffered most from not knowing the language was him.

Before he learned English, Martín was bullied by his peers. They taunted him because he could not speak the language. Martín became afraid to attend school and angry with his mother. Why would she take him to a place where he couldn’t understand anyone, where he was put down because of it?

“Estaba enojado conmigo,” Alvarez said. “Yo sentí eso, y igual yo sentía mal al principio.” He was angry with me. I felt this, and I also felt bad at first.

Alvarez and her son are very close and she is a fiercely loving mother. Once, when Martín had lice, she sat with him each day for nearly a month and picked every bug from his hair so they would not have to cut his long, wild locks.

It was hard for her to see her son suffer, and for him to blame her for it. Now that Martín has learned English and come out the other side of his bullying ordeal, Alvarez said, “me siento mucho orgullo de él… Martín tiene una personalidad súper linda. Él sabe que no tiene que ser bully.” I feel very proud of him. Martín has a beautiful personality. He knows that he doesn’t have to be a bully.

For her part, Alvarez found it easier to blend in. She knew with whom she could and could not communicate. But for Martín, the whole English-speaking world seemed against him.

Now, three years later, Martín is a happy boy with many friends, but the trauma of bullying and that initial fear have stayed with him. He can be timid around other children and adults. Still, he has language to fall back on, a tool of communication that has changed his life.

Older and Unheard

Nearly all the support and scaffolding available for children English Language Learners (ELLs) in Jackson is absent for adults, who must navigate the world on their own. When it comes to resources for adult Hispanic ELLs, Jackson simply does not have the manpower to teach everyone who wants to be taught. Indeed, it is left to a small coterie of instructors. One can count the number of adult ESL classes on one hand.

Alvarez found her first ESL class where everyone goes, she said. “Todo el mundo me dijo, en verdad.” Everyone told me, really.

The class is at Central Wyoming College. Inside the Center for the Arts, CWC offers free ESL classes with four different levels based on proficiency. Jacqueline Vulcano, who teaches levels 1 and 2 for beginners, said the population in these classes is overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking, and that there is a high level of turnover.

“Ideally, we’d like people to continue from term to term until they complete our four levels, but rarely is that the case.”

Alvarez is one of the many people who did not complete the classes. She attended Vulcano’s classes twice a week for three months. She said during that time, “no aprendí nada. O sea, aprendí lo básico.” I didn’t learn anything. I mean, I learned the basics.

The problem, Alvarez said, is that she has had very few opportunities to practice the material she learned. She spends most of her days with other Spanish speakers at work, and has limited interactions in English. The English word she uses the most is “vacuum,” she said, laughing.

For adults, one of the most effective ways to learn a language is by actually using it in real situations. The fact that Alvarez doesn’t have anyone to practice her English with might be one of the greatest barriers to her learning. She would learn a word and then immediately forget it, as she had no context for its use. She noticed that other adults in her class had similar retention issues.

“La gente nunca terminaba el proceso. Siempre vi a la misma gente estudiando lo mismo.” People never finished the process. I always saw the same people studying the same things.

CWC’s English classes are semester-based, with each semester lasting 15 weeks. After three months of learning, Alvarez left the program early.

Vulcano admits that in the lower levels, “students start dropping out within eight weeks. Levels 1 and 2 have very high attrition rates.”

There are many reasons students leave CWC’s adult ESL classes early, or fail to return after their first semester. Most people, with jobs and families, don’t have the time to attend twice weekly evening classes.

For single parents like Alvarez, it can be difficult to find childcare. She doesn’t have family in Jackson, and there are few people she can rely on to care for Martín while she’s busy.

It can also be difficult for adults to motivate themselves to learn a new language when it feels abstract. Vulcano’s teaching methods are aimed at adult learners, and she uses “task-based learning,” among other techniques, to teach students how to navigate necessary life activities in English.

But students do have to learn basic English in order to master these tasks. Alvarez wanted to learn how to ask for a raise, order food at a restaurant, or have a conversation with an English-speaking friend. And while Vulcano’s classes do strive to teach students these skills, learners still have to get over the first hurdle of basic language acquisition.

This approach proved too tedious for Alvarez. For someone who is working three jobs and caring for her son alone, Alvarez decided she did not have time for tedium.

The other driving force in educational resources for the Latino community is the Teton Literacy Center, whose volunteers are the beating heart of TLC’s educational programs, said Fio Lazarte, TLC’s family literacy program manager. TLC offers services for children of all ages, as well as their parents, under the umbrella of their “family literacy” programming. TLC emphasizes “whole family literacy”—reading and language education for parents and children. Families learn together and from each other.

But that means it does not offer instruction to adults who do not have school-aged children.

For parents with young children, TLC has a free preschool program, which for many kids is their first real exposure to English, giving them a necessary boost for when they enter the public school system. The preschool program also extends to parents, as each family enrolled receives a monthly home visit from a TLC employee, who works with parents to connect their child’s in-school learning to daily home activities.

With the “Late Night Learning” program, TLC offers simultaneous classes for children while their parents learn English, which eliminates the problem of finding childcare.

The classes use similar teaching methods to those at CWC, and in fact when Alvarez left the English classes at the Center for the Arts, she asked around and found that TLC’s classes were “muy parecidas.” Very similar.

If CWC’s classes hadn’t worked for her, why would the classes at TLC be any different?

Reluctant to enroll in another ESL class, but enticed by the promise that TLC would take care of her son, Alvarez attempted to enroll.

But Martín was placed on the waitlist, so Alvarez waited, too.

A few months later when TLC informed Alvarez that there was finally space for Martín, she had already enrolled him in various other after-school activities, so the two were unable to fit any TLC classes into their schedules.

Next, she turned to private tutoring. She found her first tutor through a friend. Shortly after, one of her employers offered to find her a free tutor in exchange for Alvarez picking up more work hours, a deal she gladly accepted.

She learned a lot from her new tutor, who spoke fluent Spanish and was well-equipped to answer difficult questions about English grammar and syntax. She had finally found a learning method that worked for her, and that she could afford, but it didn’t last long.

The linguistic honeymoon came to an end when her tutor moved away. For now, Alvarez is taking a break from lessons to save money and have more free time. She hopes to find another tutor someday.

Linguistically on the Edge

An important aspect of Alvarez’s search for English classes is that she found her way to the free, federally funded services at Central Wyoming College and Teton Literacy Center, and her private tutors, solely through word-of-mouth referrals. This is not an exception and is, in fact, indicative of how these programs operate.

The Latino community in Jackson is tightly knit, and most people know to send those who are looking for help either to CWC or TLC. If the classes don’t work, then they are back to asking around, left floating in uncertainty until they happen to hear of another opportunity, or find someone who knows someone who can tutor them for cheap. Vulcano and Lazarte noted that almost all of their students find their way to ESL classes by asking other ELLs where to go.

This uncertainty, and the fact that many Latinos work together, leads people to avoid English in their daily lives and stick to interactions with other members of the Spanish-speaking community.

The community is bound by language, which creates closeness, and perhaps a bubble within the bubble that is Jackson.

The flip side is that many members of the Latino community feel like outsiders because of the language barrier (as well as other factors, like the high rate of poverty among Latinos and the mounting fear of deportation for the undocumented portion of the community).

One 22, a nonprofit that serves community members in need, released a study earlier this year about the needs of Latino youth in Teton County. A combination of analysis and direct quotes paints a picture of the isolation that much of the community feels.

The study found overwhelming levels of “self-segregated social groups in schools at all levels, discrimination against Latino students and low participation among Latino families in community-wide events.”

Local students reported feeling ostracized due to race, socioeconomic status, and language, saying, “The whites sometimes isolate you because of your skin color or the way you talk and look,” and “[I don’t hang out with] La comunidad anglo porque tienen otro estilo de vida.” I don’t hang out with the Anglo community because they have another lifestyle.

Jackson’s language gap is one of the greatest barriers to interaction between the white and Latino communities, and residents of all ages are affected. This may be why so many people, both English- and Spanish-speaking, seek structured programs to teach them how to communicate.

The Language Exchange program, hosted in tandem by CWC, TLC and the Teton County Library, is Jackson’s answer for those folks. It hinges on learning through conversation; local English speakers and Spanish speakers are paired up based on gender, age, and language ability.

Pairs undergo an hour-long training and then meet for an hour a week to have informal conversations, each speaking the other’s native language.

The language exchange is in its second year, and thanks to some advertising and (unsurprisingly) word-of-mouth traction, it has drawn a large number of applicants. If an applicant cannot be paired with someone of the same gender, similar language levels, and age, they are stuck waiting for another applicant who fits the ticket. But for those who do manage to pair up, the program has been successful.

Adriene Henderson and Mirella Susano have been meeting weekly since last October. Henderson studied Spanish in high school and college, but virtually stopped practicing when she moved to Jackson. She is involved with a number of nonprofits and has found that, through work and her daily personal life, there are many Spanish-speaking members of the Jackson community with whom she could not communicate. She had trouble finding the time to enroll in the exchange, but finally decided that “it was time to make time.”

Both women are acutely aware of the division between Jackson’s English- and Spanish-speaking populations. It is something they talk about often. Henderson said the exchange, “takes some of the fear of the language barrier away, and you learn a lot about this whole other community that I feel our town is unfortunately a bit divided.”

“Sí!” Yes! Susano’s enthusiastic response sparked laughter between the women, who now consider each other friends.

Susano uses the language exchange as a supplement to ESL classes that she takes with instructor Lina Collado at Teton Literacy Center. “Me ha ayudado bastante. Me ha ayudado involucrarme más en la comunidad y perder el miedo expresarme,” Susano said. It has helped me a lot. It’s helped me involve myself more in the community and lose the fear of expressing myself.

But it is not that simple, she added. The fear of trying to speak English is so great for her that she avoids it in all other aspects of her life. She posits that is why more Hispanic women do not sign up for the program. “Yo creo que el motivo es el miedo que tenemos. Me ha dado miedo reunirme porque es muy difícil, pero ya enfocandome y practicando yo pienso diferente.” I think the motive is the fear that we have. These meetings scared me because it’s very difficult, but now that I’m focusing and practicing I think differently.

Another obstacle? The program requires at least a basic level of language aptitude, as complete beginners would find it next to impossible to engage in hour-long conversations in a foreign tongue. But as a supplement to ESL classes or tutoring, the program is a valuable resource.

This year it has 17 pairs, and while there are plenty of folks waiting to be paired up, the professionals in charge of the language exchange say they are overburdened with work, and would have great difficulty taking on more pairs right now.

It makes sense, as the women behind the language exchange—each representing one of three organizations that sponsor it—are Vulcano and Collado, who already teach the only ESL classes in town, along with Jordan Rich, a full-time Teton County Library employee. They not only review every application and assign pairings, but they also train each individual pair and regularly check up on pairs to make sure they are reaching their goals.


Yo creo que el motivo es el miedo que tenemos. Me ha dado miedo reunirme porque es muy difícil, pero ya enfocandome y practicando yo pienso diferente.”

I think the motive is the fear that we have. These meetings scared me because it’s very difficult, but now that I’m focusing and practicing I think differently.


The three say they wish they could expand the program, and even have far-off plans of creating an identical program in Idaho with help from the Teton County Library’s Alta branch, but there is much work to be done before that can happen.

They also noted a demographics problem. The program has a great need for more Spanish-speaking women and English-speaking men to match their current applicants—the vast majority of whom are English-speaking women and Spanish-speaking men.

They have a few hypotheses about this, mainly that Hispanic women are too busy working and taking care of families to donate an hour a week to participate in the program. This, coupled with Susano’s theory that fear holds many women back, makes for a disheartening combination. As for the low number of English-speaking men, Vulcano, Collado and Rich aren’t quite sure why there is a lack of interest.

Too Busy, Too Fearful

The problems facing the language exchange are the problems facing all of Jackson’s ESL resources, and indeed the nation as a whole: there are just not enough dedicated professionals to serve all the people who need help, and the people who would like help are often too busy or ashamed to seek it in the first place.

Jackson, como ciudad, es muy generoso con la gente que no habla inglés,” Alvarez said. Jackson, as a city, is very generous with people who don’t speak English.

And this, in part, is true. ESL professionals often go above-and-beyond their job description when it comes to meeting the community’s increasing needs.

Any provider of services for Spanish speakers often becomes a de facto community resource for all aspects of local life, including things outside the purview of their expertise.

The Latino community has many needs and, because of the language gap, few places they can ask for help. Some ESL providers say that they end up helping with other things, too, like searching for tutors, childcare, housing or jobs.

Students bring their mail for help in a quick translation,” Collado said. “Sometimes, they just need advice on where to go for certain circumstances—veterinarians, summer child care options, assistance with health care bills, or how to connect with certain organizations to pursue their hobbies, like art or volunteering.”

As a language instructor and de facto translator and advocate, Collado is indeed busy. During the school year, she also teaches ESL classes to Head Start parents at the Children’s Learning Center.

Beyond the professionals, where do ordinary native English speakers fit into the equation? “Los Americanos,” Alvarez said, “muy poco hablan español. Y cuando no saben hablar español no te hablan directamente… no se esfuerzan comunicarse contigo.” Very few Americans speak Spanish. And when they don’t know how to speak Spanish, they don’t speak directly to you. They don’t make an effort to communicate with you.

After three years, Alvarez still feels like she is on the outside of the Jackson community, looking in. She is lonely, and a little bored; she doesn’t have many adult friends, and she spends most of her time either working or taking care of Martín. Alvarez is very outgoing and said she would love to make more English-speaking friends.


“Los Americanos muy poco hablan español. Y cuando no saben hablar español no te hablan directamente. No se esfuerzan comunicarse contigo.”

Very few Americans speak Spanish. And when they don’t know how to speak Spanish, they don’t speak directly to you. They don’t make an effort to communicate with you.

If Alvarez were to become fluent in English, she said, she would have a better job and social life. People would talk to her more. She would make more friends, work fewer hours and spend more time with her son. She could build a better life for her family.

Alvarez offered her own solutions. “Podrían haber más recursos para enseñar.” There could be more resources for teaching. She wants “más profesoras quizás, no gratis, quizás donde puede pagar, pero no hay.” More professors maybe, not free, maybe where you can pay, but there is nothing. Alvarez wants more teachers, more classes, more options. She doesn’t mind the idea of paying something for a class if it will diversify her options.

Initially, Alvarez said she wasn’t interested in a language exchange. She wanted to learn; she did not want to use her time to teach someone else. Now, though, she said she would participate.

The bridge across the language gap may be long and rickety, but Alvarez said she is determined to work her way across it.

“Yo estudiaría todo el día si es posible.” I would study all day if it were possible.

About Rachel Attias

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