It’s interesting to wonder what a stranger would think if he walked into Cafecito, Puente’s monthly language exchange for adults learning English and the volunteers who converse with them.
He or she would see immigrants, mostly from Mexico, sitting at long tables, engaged in conversation — and a lot of laughter — with native English speakers. The Spanish speakers and the English speakers might not totally understand each other, but they’re trying. Because language is a bridge between cultures, a bridge that creates fellowship and connection between strangers.
What our outsider would see is a roomful of people working hard to learn English, even if they embarrass themselves in the process. Their interlocutors sometimes do not speak their language at all, meaning people who are fluent in Spanish and people who are fluent in English must find a way to communicate. It’s a humbling experience, and ultimately, a special one.
“Bigger things are happening here than learning English. I think it’s making this town a more integrated place,” says Puente Adult Education Coordinator Charlea Binford, who manages Cafecito as part of Puente’s ESL program. “We’re creating friendships in this community, creating less fear among people who do not look alike and do not speak the same language.”
Eighteen years ago, the Rev. Wendy Taylor founded Puente to address the needs of single male farm workers who lived in and around Pescadero but were essentially strangers to the townsfolk because of a language barrier. They kept to themselves — until Rev. Taylor began to converse with them.
More than perhaps any other program in the history of Puente, Cafecito evokes those early conversations on the steps of the Pescadero Community Church.
But it’s not without awkwardness. At the Cafecito on February 25th, Tammy Bloom and Floriberto Gomes settled in for a fifteen minute conversation that started and ended with a firm handshake, and with some moments of hesitation and laughter in between. Around them, thirty other volunteers sat with thirty adult students in similar dyads inside the multi-purpose room at Pescadero Elementary. The students are in all three levels of Puente ESL, from beginner to advanced. Floriberto Gomes is in Level II.
“English very difficult for me,” Gomes confessed.
“I took a Spanish class last year and it was really hard. You’re doing really well,” Bloom reassured him.
“I try. I’m very nervous,” he said.
“Me too!” Laughed Bloom.
Gomes spends his days in a greenhouse cutting flowers. Bloom is an attorney who owns a small farm. They would be unlikely to cross paths in town. They were sitting at the “Food” table, one of several suggested conversational themes (like “Hobbies,” “Family” and “Celebrations.”) Bloom fingered a glossy pile of food photos on the table, provided as conversation starters. “What’s your favorite food?” She asked.
It emerged they both loved avocados. Bloom told Gomes about her avocado tree, and he told her that his young son’s favorite foods are bananas and Chinese food, which made her laugh. After a few more minutes of rapid-fire questions with brief answers, Binford called out, “Time to switch!”
Bloom and Gomes shook hands, and Gomes stood up and moved across the room to a new conversation partner, speed-dating style. Bloom smiled and reflected on the experience.
“It’s always hard. I couldn’t hold a conversation in Spanish to save my soul,” she said. At her farm, Bloom has hired Spanish-speaking men, and she has found it awkward not sharing a common language. “After a while you run out of things to say.”
And that’s why she feels Cafecito is a hugely important investment of her energy as a volunteer. Last year she even gave a live cooking demonstration to the language students. She made a salad, narrating everything as she went along, from ingredients like “lettuce” to “knife” and “cutting board.” They loved it.
“It’s wonderful to connect with the people in my community who speak a different language,” she said. “We have different paths.”
Puente’s Cafecito tradition — named after a coffee drink shared between friends — started last June. Binford and Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera held a retreat with some of Puente’s most accomplished ESL students and asked them for ideas on how to improve the program.
“They all said they wanted to have more conversation. They wanted to talk without being interrupted,” recalls Binford. That seeded the idea of a language exchange, albeit a one-sided one. Recruiting volunteers from the community as conversation partners was an essential part of the vision. Together, student and volunteer form the bridge from which Puente takes its name.
For that first Cafecito, Binford asked volunteers to bring in an object to talk about. She also borrowed sports equipment and picked up some menus from restaurants around town — anything to prompt a conversation. Everyone was nervous about the format. Would it work? Would people find anything to say to each other?
But everyone had fun. The ESL students found it valuable, and the event’s reputation continued to grow. Puente also caters a simple dinner, so students and volunteers can eat together and continue their conversations.
To volunteer as a Cafecito conversation partner, contact Abby Mohaupt at (650) 879-1691 Ext 114 or AMohaupt@mypuente.org. Puente could use your help… whether you are monolingual or bilingual!
Often, these conversations spur surprising new connections that last beyond class. Which is exactly what Binford feels the community needs.
“It’s our goal for our students to master their English, but the results have been much greater than that. This last Cafecito, I saw one of the volunteers ask a student whether they needed extra work. And another volunteer and student asked me whether there could be language partners outside class,” she says.
At Cafecito in February, Sharon Degener, a tax manager, and Chuy Deharo, a maintenance worker, made a nice connection over the fact that they both have a 17-year-old child. Deharo told Degener about the pig he planned to cook for his daughter’s birthday, often lapsing into Spanish since his English wasn’t as good as Gomes’. But that was fine, because Degener is bilingual.
“My parents immigrated from Mexico too. They were 19. That’s why I’m here. I know how hard this is,” she told him, and he smiled.
For more information about Cafecito contact Charana Binford at (650) 879-1691 Ext 321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.