By Yessica Huizar
The car ride of over thirty hours was exhausting. Five people in a little truck, full with luggage, and the weather over ninety degrees was very overwhelming for six year old Keka. Not only did she had to deal with the weather and a small space, but also with her annoying brother who kept talking the whole ride and who stuck gum in her hair, and her sister who kept on crying because she left her beloved boyfriend back home. Yet, the worst came when Keka and her family were inspected by the immigration authorities. “It felt as if we had done something bad, really bad,” Keka thought. They checked everything in the automobile, twice, as if Keka and her family had something illegal. Even poor Mr. Carlitos got checked. The authorities checked Mr. Carlitos by squeezing all of his body, very abruptly, and kept poking him to see if he had anything in him. Keka thought, what can Mr. Carlitos possibly have if he is just my friend, “mi osito,” my teddy bear.
After the long ride from Tlaltenango, Zacatecas, Keka arrived on August 22, 1999 to where she thought was a new world. The buildings were so big, the lights were brighter than the sun and the chilly breeze felt unusual. It was late in the afternoon and all she could think of was sleeping in a bed. Yet, to her surprise when they arrived, her father, who had already lived in the United States, only had one twin size bed.
“How in the world are all six of us going to fit there, Mommy?” Keka asked, while her mother laughed.
“Oh mija esa cama solo es para tu papa y yo, your brothers and you will be sleeping on the floor.”
That night was rough, well, actually the floor was rough, but nothing as rough as the first day of school.
“Tienes que ir a la escuela, but why do I have to go school, Mom?” Keka said.
“Mija, tienes que ir so you will be able to have the education that your father and I could not have,” Keka’s mom claimed. “Your father brought you and your brothers to this country so you can have a better future than we did back in Mexico.”
The building was enormous; it had a big sign in front of it that said Chase Elementary School. There were hundreds of kids playing outside. Keka was very nervous because she had never been to a place so big and with so many kids. The last time she remembered seeing so many people in one place was when they had las ferias, the festivals back in her hometown. When it was time to go inside class she begged her mom to come inside with her because she was scared, but her mom explained to her that she was unable to do so. “Tú ya eres una niña grande, therefore you have to go alone.”
The classroom was full with all the kids who were screaming and laughing, while Keka was in the corner of the wall observing how everyone was happy, except for her. She did not know anyone, and did not understand what they were saying. They did not speak Spanish, instead they were all speaking this weird language she did not understand. Keka really had to go to the washroom, therefore she decided to ask a young girl who was sitting calmly in her desk, “Donde esta el baño?”
“What, I do not understand you?” the girl said.
Keka did not understand what the From Tlaltenango to Chicago by Yessica Huizar girl was saying, and by the looks of the girl she did not understand what Keka was saying either. “Why does no one understand me?” Keka thought to herself.
Days passed by, and school just became harder and harder. Keka did not understand anything anyone was saying and no one understood what she said. “Why did my parents bring me to a country where no one understand me? Why did they not leave me in Mexico, where I had friends, family and everyone understood me?” Keka thought. On a Tuesday morning, Keka had enough. The teacher was teaching the class a math problem, and Keka recalled how to do the problem, but when the teacher called her out to answer it she did so but in Spanish, and everyone began laughing and saying “What did she say? Why is she always speaking Spanish? No one understands her.” Keka looked around as she saw all the kids laughing and pointing at her and she could not take it anymore. She started crying because she did understand anything, and screamed “Yo no entiendo nada,” as she rushed out from the class room. “Porque no entiendo nada?” Keka screamed while her teacher was rushing towards her.
Keka did not know where to go, but she just kept running away from her classroom. After what felt like hours of running she decided to sit down at the end of a hallway, in a corner, with her knees up to her chest, as she continued to cry. A few minutes later, her teacher came up to her and asked her if she was okay? And Keka screamed, “No entiendo lo que usted dice!” Her teacher was surprised about Keka’s reaction and said “Lo siento,” she apologized and told her that she also spoke Spanish. At that moment Keka’s teacher finally understood why Keka did not participate, or why she did not complete any homework assignments. All this time her teacher did not know that Keka did not speak English, since she was in an English-only speaking classroom. As she heard her teacher speak Spanish, Keka felt as if she was not alone in this big building full of people that only looked at her as if she was a strange creature from another world. Keka was so happy that she could finally communicate with someone, after those agonizing days of feeling like an outsider.
Since that day everything changed. Her teacher decided to offer extra help to Keka; she explained all the assignments in Spanish and English and offered after school classes. Keka was very happy that she was learning more and more every day. Keka became the hardest working little girl in her class. She would complete her normal homework assignments and in addition her teacher would give her extra assignments for her to complete so she could practice what she had learned in the after school tutoring.
After a year of hard work, Keka became very fluent when speaking English and understood mostly everything in this new language. She was very proud of herself because she felt that after accomplishing this task there was nothing in this world that she could not do. Now she felt that this new world that she had been brought to was not as bad as she thought. Keka had many friends now, and they were not mean as she thought they were before. Her new friends now understood what she was saying and she understood them. At the end of the school year, Keka felt content of what she had accomplished and was ready to accomplish the next obstacles in her life at such a young age.
Keka, that little girl who did not let anything or anyone stop her from learning a new language and adapting to a new country, was me; I was that little girl who emigrated from Mexico to the Unites States. I still recall all my experiences as an immigrant child so vividly. I still do not understand why my principal at the time felt that it was a good idea to place a small child in an all English speaking class, yet I am thankful for her doing so because that experience changed me and made me who I am today. My first grade experience has been one of the hardest experiences I have ever faced. I still do not understand how at such a young age I was able to handle all the changes that I encountered in this new country, but I am very glad I did.
Tlaltenango is so different from Chicago. My pueblo is very tiny, but full of people I love. My neighbors were not friends, they were family. The school was walking distance to my house, and my classroom was very small. There were about thirty kids in my school back in Mexico, whereas in Chicago there were thirty kids per classroom. The stores were so close to one another, and instead of sellers, I had relatives. We did not have to purchase our food because my aunts and uncles would give to us for free. They were farmers, therefore, they would provide us with fresh food like vegetables, fruits and meat. One thing that I remember I would miss so much were my friends. Back in Mexico my mom would let me play with my friends all day after I finished my homework; instead, in Chicago I could not come out after five because it was too dangerous. My house in Tlaltenango was very different from my home in Chicago. In Mexico my family and I had animals, like pigs, cows, lambs, chickens, and horses, whereas in Chicago, we could not even have a dog because our landlord did not permit it. In Tlaltenango we had a big house with a lot of space. Our house had four bedrooms, a huge living room and dining room, kitchen and two washrooms; instead, in Chicago we only had a two bedroom apartment with a kitchen and a small washroom for the five members of my family and me.
There were many more differences than similarities between Tlaltenango and Chicago, but I am so glad that my parents brought me to this country. I am currently a junior at the University of Chicago at Illinois, and pursuing a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and a minor in Psychology. I am so thankful that this country has given me the opportunity to grow and expand my education. Although it was a difficult chapter in my life, adapting to a new country and culture at such a young age, I am glad that I was able to overcome it.
It took a lot of effort and courage for little Keka to adapt to her new home, but it was all worth it. Therefore, if you are struggling with a new language or culture do not give up because just like little Keka did it you can do it. There are many resources in this country that you can look for to help you learn the new language and help you adapt to the new culture. There are also many people who are willing to help you accomplish your goal of adapting to a new culture, just like first grade teacher. All takes is effort and courage.