Illegal alphabet

Immigrants take a sink-or-swim approach with do-it-yourself English

Rafael Espana’s Journal is available online at “Georgia Hedrick’s Storefront” at <a href=">

Rafael Espana’s Journal is available online at “Georgia Hedrick’s Storefront” at


he first thing to notice: The handwriting is, not just beautiful, but careful. Each letter tells a clear, tidy story of a painstaking, determined process.

“I write slowly,” says Rafael Espana during a break from his custodial duties at Pine Middle School. “If you take rush to do something, it doesn’t come out well.”

Espana has been working on a journal of words, phrases and sentences in English and Spanish since he came to the United States 35 years ago. It’s now been published in book form as Rafael Espana’s Journal: Everyman’s Everyday Words, Phrases, Sentences from Mexican Spanish to American English. It’s not an academic work. It’s not a work liable to be found in any big bookstore. But it’s how he taught himself English, and he hopes it can be used by others to do the same.

One of 14 children, Espana was born in Jalisco, Mexico, 60 years ago. He’s enjoyed reading since he was a little boy. In the break room at Pine Middle School, he points to a shelf of books above the couch—used mysteries and paperback bestsellers.

“I like to read these books,” he says, a calm, easy smile turning up the creases on his face. “I have books at home in English, and I want to read them all.”

He attended school for six years before he went to work fulltime at age 14 to help support his family.

“I had no time to go to school. We had to put food on the table.”

In Mexico, he worked in the fields, planting corn and beans for about $8 a day. “It’s hard work over there,” he says. “Harder than here. What I’m working here is easy.”

Espana came to the United States in 1974, first to California, then to Washington to pick apples. In 1978, he moved to Reno after hearing that even illegal immigrants could find jobs in the casinos.

“The first work I did was washing dishes,” he says. “Then a porter and busboy for casinos. Then a cook.” Two years ago, he took his current job as a janitor. “I think this is the last place I will work. I’m getting older.”

Now an American citizen, Espana remembers well what it was like to come to a foreign country without knowing a word of that country’s language.

“You feel like you’re deaf or mute. You listen but you don’t hear what they’re saying.”

If he needed to go to the doctor or bank, a translator would have to come with him. But the translator didn’t say what he wanted to say.

“I thought, ‘No, no, no, no. I have to learn this.’ Maybe I can help people now.”

Retired school teacher Georgia Hedrick self-published her own bilingual children’s books as well as Rafael Espana’s journal. She plans to publish Gilberto Cortez’s book geared toward working class Spanish speakers learning English.


At the casinos, during his breaks, Espana would write in his journal. “I’d take my book and start writing,” he says, making a scribbling motion in the air with his hand. He would write a word or phrase he’d just learned and its Spanish equivalent so he could remember it.

“People would say, ‘What are you doing? You don’t need to do that!’ Oh yes.”

He says his coworkers were more interested in talking about where the party was that night. They’d laugh at him scribbling in his book. But it’s how he learned. He would also look in books and try the words out in real life.

“I started saying things like ‘see you tomorrow’ and ‘close the door.’ I’m still learning. I like to learn the verbs. … I see people who speak English, but not correctly. Like they say, ‘I see you yesterday.’ That’s not correct. It’s ‘I saw you yesterday.’”

Espana still writes in his book during work breaks. So much so that he has a second journal he’d like to publish, as well. His children—three boys and a girl, all born here—look at his first book and say, “Dad, that’s good!” He shares it with his coworkers and anyone who takes an interest.

“When you come to another country, sometimes you don’t learn the proper way to say things,” he says. “But if you try and try and try, maybe someday you learn to speak.

“I try to speak and to learn, but I won’t speak as well as people born here. But I try. I like it. Even people who say I’m crazy or laugh at me … it’s OK. You can laugh. That’s OK. But now, I feel better. Whenever I go to the doctor, I go by myself. I don’t feel afraid to go [without a translator]. I can do it.”

He said it took him about five years in America to feel that way.

The second thing you might notice: A number of the words are not spelled correctly. And, most often, it’s the Spanish words that are misspelled in Espana’s journal.

For example, “hacer,” meaning “to make” or “to do” is occasionally and phonetically spelled “aser.” Or “diciendo,” meaning “saying,” might be spelled “disiendo.”

Georgia Hedrick, who published the book for Espana online through her e-book business, Byte Me!, wants to know what people think of the book—about the drawings of the little mouse she did to illustrate certain pages, about the layout, the idea.

“But do not tell me the words are spelled wrong.” she says emphatically. “I know that! That’s not the point.”

Hedrick, an energetic and retired teacher, met Espana while she was visiting Pine Middle School one day to do some volunteer work. They got to talking, and Espana told her, “Georgia, I have something to show you. This is my notebook. I want to turn it into a book. Do you know how?”

“Oh, I can do it,” responded Hedrick, who’d been publishing her own bilingual children’s books online. So he trustfully gave her his notebook. She didn’t want to type or edit the words—she wanted the character of his penmanship and careful work to come through. So she scanned the pages, published the book online, and brought him a finished copy. Some pages are blurry, some visuals are proportionally out of whack. It’s not organized in any categorical way. It is what it is: one man’s way of teaching himself English.

There are academic ways to learn a language—verb agreements, past participles, dangling prepositions that make even English speakers’ heads spin. Then there’s the sink-or-swim approach that is largely about survival—and survival now. It’s an approach working class immigrants often have no choice but to take if they want to interact beyond their own ethnic community.

Gilberto Cortez, a local Latino activist, stands in his vacuum shop off Wells Avenue holding his list of words and their direct and phonetic translations. He says “mispronunciation is discrimination” and wants Latinos to learn English so they can “defend themselves.” He’s working on a book to help Spanish speakers learn English and its pronunciation using the Spanish alphabet.


Within the bright yellow walls of his vacuum shop on Wells Avenue, Gilbert Cortez is making a point. His fingers tap a sheet on a clipboard. It’s a list of words, laid out in columns with the Spanish word, English word, and its phonetic pronunciation: cucaracha/cockroach/kacroch.

He’s explaining his frustration with “the erroneous way the education system is teaching Latinos English.”

“They teach you ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill.’ So they teach you ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill’ and ‘hill.’ But in order to read that you have to read English.”

By that, he means English pronunciation, which is why his many pages of word lists give both the direct translation and phonetic spelling of each word.

Cortez, who was born in Texas to immigrant parents nearly 80 years ago, has many more pages of translated words. Like Espana, he too wants to publish them in a book, and Hedrick has offered to help, though he has no time frame in mind for its publication. (“When I run out of words,” he says.) Unlike Espana, he wants his book to be categorized by subject (a kitchen section, car section, etc.) and full of pronunciations using the Spanish alphabet.

The technique Cortez is using is one chronicled by Tomas Mario Kalmar in Illegal Alphabets and Adult Biliteracy: Latino Migrants Crossing the Linguistic Border. He wrote the book after studying the way a group of illegal immigrants in southern Illinois helped each other learn English by “translating” the English alphabet to Spanish. For example A, B, C in the English alphabet is pronounced “ah, bay, say” in the Spanish alphabet. So the word “everybody” was easier for the group to pronounce if they saw it written as “ebri bari.”

Cortez is seated behind a counter in his shop, wearing a bright blue work shirt and a 5 o’clock shadow. Vacuums sit upright in rows along the floor, and flags representing many countries flutter above them from the ceiling. On the wall behind him is a portrait of his much younger self in an Army uniform.

Cortez is a longtime community activist. He too had to quit school early, in sixth grade, to become a field worker to help support his family. He remembers seeing many signs on the doors of businesses that said “No dogs. No Mexicans.” He later marched with Cesar Chavez as one of his “lieutenants.” He fought in the Korean War and went to college on the GI Bill. He also helped organize the Cinco de Mayo immigration march last year. He’s a well-known and well-respected figure in the Hispanic community of Northern Nevada.

“I am an American of Mexican descent,” says Cortez. “But I only got to be that way through education. I was a Latino, a Chicano, a Mexican-American. But I’m an American of Mexican descent.”

It’s common for people to come into his shop asking “Como se dice [insert word they want to know]?”

“I have good friends of mine who’ve been here 10 or 15 years, undocumented, trying to learn English. I’d ask them what this is,” he says, holding up a plastic spoon. “They don’t know. They don’t know ‘knife’ or ‘spoon’ or how to pronounce it. That’s what the book is trying to do.”

For Cortez, language is about more than communication.

“Mispronunciation equals discrimination,” he says. He describes an interchange with a UNR senior during a talk he gave at the university. The student asked him how he recognizes discrimination. Before answering, Cortez told the Latino student he was going to have trouble in the world with discrimination. “I can tell you’re a foreigner,” he told him. “You’re uneducated. Your English is not good.”

He then describes his own frustration when talking on the phone with a computer service operator he couldn’t understand. “I asked them, ‘Do you speak English? Where are you calling from? India?’ Me! I’m a Latino activist! So I’m discriminating myself, and I have to catch myself.”

Cortez believes the word—and its proper pronunciation—is power.

Mary Ann Robinson is the ESL/World Language coordinator for Washoe County School District. She says ESL classes have moved beyond “Jack and Jill went up the hill” but that bilingual education would be a greater step forward.


“I want them all to become Americans,” he says. “I want them to learn English so they can defend themselves. By gosh, we’re in America. I’m not saying to forbid speaking in Spanish. The bilingual person is worth more then.”

In fact, that’s another concern. “The American-born Latino that went to school knows how to speak English, write English, but doesn’t know how to write Spanish,” he says.

Just as English speakers take English classes, Spanish speakers also need instruction on how to write, read and speak Spanish. But the latter is something often taken for granted. “Why are you in Spanish class? You speak Spanish!” is one likely conversation among students in a Spanish class with both native Spanish speakers and non-native speakers.

And yet, Spanish words are often misspelled—in menus, in announcements, advertisements, brochures, conversations on Myspace. Of course, English speakers make their fair share of typos. The difference, however, is there is an effort to ensure that English speakers spell and speak correctly—mandatory English classes, for example— while those efforts among local Spanish speakers exist to a lesser extent. Another difference is that some immigrants never got full instruction on how to read and write in Spanish, as they too had to leave school early to go to work.

“That’s one of the problems with having just ESL [English as a Second Language] and not offering bilingual education,” says Mary Ann Robinson, the ESL/World Language coordinator for Washoe County School District. “You really do lose your language.”

Robinson says that, historically in the United States, the first generation of immigrants is monolingual, the second is bilingual, and the third generation is monolingual English. The grandkids can’t talk with their grandparents.

However, on both the Spanish and English fronts, Robinson says the schools have moved forward since the days of “Jack and Jill went up the hill.” She’d like Mr. Cortez to visit an ESL class to see for himself.

“We have a lot of strategies we use to make content comprehensible,” says Robinson. “It’s true the easiest thing to do is kind of decode, but then have no idea. I could probably decode Italian and then have no idea what I’m saying. That’s something you have to be careful of and make sure the students understand what they’re reading.”

For example, teachers use pictures and games to teach English rather than just rote translations. Other teachers, not just ESL instructors, are trained to offer what’s termed “sheltered instruction” for students learning English while they’re taking math, science and social studies. Teachers are taught to use gestures, pictures, and rephrase content—which help English speakers learn better, too. And many of the textbooks have chapter reviews in Spanish to clarify vague subjects.

As for Spanish speakers improving their Spanish, roughly 80 percent of high schools in the district have Spanish classes for Spanish speakers, though they are electives. And, in addition to the all bilingual Mariposa Academy/La Academia Mariposa, two additional schools in the district, Mount Rose and Jessie Beck, started bilingual programs in Spanish and English last year. This is a 50-50 program, where half the students in the program are English speakers, half are Spanish speakers, and instruction is split 50-50 between the two languages. Sixty students applied for the 12 English-speaking slots available for next school year.

The children of parents who don’t know English are further disadvantaged simply because once they reach a certain grade, the material goes beyond the parents. (Some English-speaking families have similar issues.) “It is, of course, much more helpful if you have parents who can help out with your homework,” says Robinson.

Cortez thinks this partly accounts for the low graduation rate of Hispanic students: only 38 percent.

“Say someone from Mexico comes here,” says Cortez. “They get married, have kids. At fourth grade, the parents don’t know how to help them, and that’s when they start having problems. By sixth grade, they drop out.”

It’s generally not for lack of parental interest, says Robinson. “It’s very rare that a parent doesn’t care, and our immigrant parents care so much that they’ve left their home country. And if you ask them why, it’s for their children.”

Robinson says some schools in the district offer free English lessons to parents, but they’re not always offered at convenient times. “Most of our schools, I’d say all of our schools, we have parents saying, ‘Where can I get English lessons?’ But part of the problem is the availability of classes that fit into their schedule. If you’re working two jobs and maybe don’t have your own transportation, spending a lot of time on the bus to and from, there’s only so many hours of the day.”

That’s why she’s impressed with individual, do-it-yourself methods of learning English. If you just want to learn to speak the language, she thinks phonetics is a fine way. “And whoever this man is who’s writing a little journal and asking people, that’s a wonderful way. Some people have a good ear for mimicking, too. They get whole phrases they start practicing and using. I think that’s a good way.”

Back at Pine Middle School, Espana’s break is almost over, and he’ll soon return to mopping floors and emptying trash cans.

“If they pay attention, they get it,” Espana says of people trying to learn English. “If they don’t, then forget it; don’t waste your time here. If you want to learn a language, you have to practice,” he says, moving his hands in a chatting motion. “If you learn one word that day, you have to practice.”