Raúl Benjamin Dávalos Martínez

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This interview was conducted by interviewer Alexandra Graham with interviewee Raúl Dávalos Martínez. He goes by Ben, which is short for his middle name Benjamín. Throughout the interview, Ben talks about how he learned English upon arriving to North Carolina when he was almost seven years old. He describes how his family and ESL--English as a second language--instructors motivated and assisted him and his twin sister in learning the language. Ben shares stories about his interactions with English-speakers when he first moved to NC as well as what the process of learning his second language looked like. He tells us about his proficiency of Spanish and English now and explains what impact bilingualism has on him. He also shares what his ESL classes and tutoring sessions looked like, as well as why he feels ESL is important and how it could be improved based on his experiences and observances. The interview, lasting 55 minutes and 19 seconds, took place in an empty classroom at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) on April 9. There were occasional sounds coming from people entering and exiting the building, but the setting was usually quiet. Alexandra is a senior at UNC from Wilmington, North Carolina. She is a Hispanic Linguistics and Economics double major graduating in May 2018. After she graduates, she will be pursuing her Master of Arts in Teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. Ben is a Public Policy major, also at UNC, with a minor in Entrepreneurship. He is originally from Saltillo, Mexico, but has also lived in Norway, Canada, and the United States. His immediate family currently resides in Cary, NC and he lives in Chapel Hill, NC during the school year. The interviewer and interviewee know each other through UNC and are both on staff for an organization called N.C. Sli, a college preparatory and mentorship program for Latinx high school students.



A: [00:05] Hi. My name is Alexandra Graham. I'm here with Ben Davalos about to start an interview. Let's go ahead and dive right in. So where are you from originally? When did you move to the United States, and to where exactly?

B: [00:17] Yeah. I'm originally from a city called Saltillo in the state of Coahuila in Mexico. I moved to the United States when I was 6 years old. Well, 7 years old. I was about to turn 7 years old. Where we lived in the states, I think-- Well, when we moved permanently, I think to the United States, that was where I live now, which is Cary, North Carolina. The Triangle area. But we-- and I guess we can talk about this later-- Many points in my childhood were in the United States and we kind of lived all over the United States. So yeah. Right now, I live in Cary, like I said. And I'm 20 years old.

A: [01:07] So what is your first language? And do you consider yourself a native speaker or fluent in that language?

B: [01:12] My first language is Spanish, and I do consider myself a fluent speaker and a native speaker, since it was the only language I spoke before I learned English. And I practice it, I mean, a lot in pretty much my daily life.

A: [01:32] So since you moved to the United States at a fairly young age, how do you think your age impacted your ability to learn English?

B: [01:38] I mean, I think hearing-- It was pretty common to hear that from older Spanish-speakers that were trying to learn English as well, that the reason I was getting so good at English was because of my age and that it was just easy for me to absorb new information. But I don't know. I think age for me was definitely important. I think if I moved later it would have been a little harder, but I think I had a lot of drive to learn English. And I didn't really-- I was really confident with English, but I don't think I really spoke it very well until I was in 6th, 7th grade. But I was really adamant about using it as much as I could, watching all of my TV in English with the exception of family movies and family shows that we would watch only in Spanish. But I became really interested in learning it and I think I've always been interested in researching really random topics. And I remember that was a good way for me to practice my English as well. I would think of a weird question and then go look it up and read as many comments or something like that as I could. So, I think I was really interested in it, and that helped me learn it quickly, because I have-- There's a lot of people that I think got to the U.S. at the same age as I, but-- as me, but they didn't pick it up as quickly. Or they picked it up more slowly. So, I think it really just depended more on my own experience and my own drive and my own love, I guess, for the language. And I didn't see that interest in other people, which is neither good nor bad, it's just, you know. It was different. So, I think my interest level was more important than my age.

A: [03:24] Thanks. So, apart from all of those little things that you did on your own, how did you learn English? So, what were the services available to you or what were the requirements that you had to fulfil in school? Things like that.

B: [03:35] So I had a big interest for learning English, and when I was in elementary school in Mexico still, we had an English class, but it was really, really simple. It was really rudimentary. The only thing I really learned was mashed potatoes. It was a song called Mash Potatoes, and it went, "Mash, mash, mash potatoes. Mash, mash, mash potatoes. Mash, mash, mash potatoes. Mash, mash, mash potatoes." And that was pretty much the song. And that’s-- apart from cat and dog, I literally think that's pretty much it. That's all the English that I knew. So it had always been in an educational atmosphere. English had been present. But the real learning, I think, happened behind closed doors when I was reading. And I would get my hands on books that were way too complicated for me. I saw all my friends reading Harry Potter and I saw all my friends reading these big books when I was in elementary school and even early middle school. And I had no idea. I would pick them up, and I would try to go through them, and I had no idea what was going on. I literally couldn't keep the information for more than a page, but it was really fun for me to go through it and just kind of see the words and pick out which ones I could understand. And I kept doing it, and I kept doing it, and I kept-- And I literally-- I got to the point where I would just get textbooks and I would just go through them. And I didn't pick up 99.9% of everything, but it was the words, the exposure, I think, that really helped me. Another thing is at home, my mom and-- Well specifically my mom, but my parents-- I remember at some points encouraged me to watch television and to practice my English by just listening to it on TV and hearing the dialogue of the characters on the screen. So it was really cool, because in a way I was watching TV and learning, you know? But-- Because that was what I was learning at the time. That was the subject, English. And it was a really good way to learn it. But as far as structure in schools, I-- ESL was the biggest structure that I had just in my daily life. But yeah, no real-- Except for learning the ABC's in class, nothing-- I don't remember any learning of English happening in courses, really. It was just-- There wasn't necessarily new knowledge. It was kids getting better at reading. They already could read in English, and they were just getting faster at it and getting more proficient. But for me it was like I literally didn't even know how to read [English]. So it was really different, I think, for me. I think the environment I was in gave a lot of structure outside of the classroom, but I definitely didn't see as much within the classroom or support for students like me. So a lot of the structure, I think, I had to give myself within the classroom. I had to kind of accept that similarly to those textbooks, it was a conscious decision that I wouldn't understand most of what happened in class, but my struggle was just like I want to hold on to those few things that I do and process them very well, and then be able to talk about them with my friends. And that was my goal, just take a few things from this class and be able to talk about them. So I think I gave myself a lot of structure in class. Outside of class, I think there was more.

A: [06: 53] So can you tell me a little bit more about the structure of your ESL classes themselves? So were you pulled out of your everyday classroom to go to an ESL classroom? Or what was it like? And what was your teacher like?

B: [07:06] Yeah. I've honestly-- It gets pretty faded at times, my memory, because I was really adamant about not being in ESL classes. I was being-- I was really, really adamant about not participating in ESL classes, because, I mean, I felt like they were lame. I think that's the word I-- I didn't like the-- I mean, that's what everybody said, you know. Is that it was-- "Lame" was the word that they used a lot. And so it created this really bad image of what an ESL class is. And generally, because, you know, it was a small enough school where I knew a lot of people in elementary school, the people in ESL were typically the students that weren't doing well in general in any of their subjects in school. And so it was like going to the dumb, lame classroom, and for me that was-- As a kid and thinking with that mindset, it was really scary and really-- to go there. I think I was much more open to it earlier in my-- you know, as soon as I got to the U.S. Mostly, I think, because I was kind of forced into it. It was-- I was in a classroom, and the teacher would come by and she would just say "Ben" and my sister's name, and she would take me and-- Well, my sister was in a different class, so she would go for me and then she would go pick up my sister. And interestingly enough, a lot of times it was just me and my sister with that instructor, with that ESL teacher. And she's still there today. She was-- Yeah, she's been doing it for a long, long, long time. But yeah, that's how it worked. They would come get me and it was a really small group. I think I see a lot of ESL groups now that are bigger classes and it kind of looks more just like a normal classroom. But for me it was very different. It was more one-on-one or two-- one-on-two, which is pretty similar to that. So I think my structure was really personalized, and on top of that we had an after school program that I was a part of, which is-- We had high school students from Cary Academy, which was right down the road from us. It's a private school that has focused on this program for over a decade now, and I was a part of it when I was a student. And that was mostly helping me do my homework that I really couldn't have done without their help a lot of the time. My parents-- my dad could help me a lot with my math homework, but the concepts were called different things, you know. The equations were called different things. And they couldn't always connect the two languages, so they were-- So going to ESL classes was helpful, I think, in just organizing my life a little bit. Kind of telling me what I should be focusing on. I think sitting with a student who had done really well and was in a top high school in the state really helped me break down my goals, because it was two very different worlds. They're going to a really good college, probably, after they graduate, and they probably don't speak a second language. I mean, most of the people at Cary Academy, they take a second language, but it’s not-- You don't really see as much diversity. So it was somebody that was probably going to live a very different life than I was, but was really knowledgeable about a few things and knew how to connect with me. And I think I took a lot away from those after school programs-- from the after school program.

A: [10:50] So did your ESL teacher or any of those tutors in that after school program speak Spanish?

B: [10:56] I don't remember them speaking-- the students, the tutors speaking Spanish. There were two teachers, though. They were a couple. And they were both kind of running the ESL program at the time. And both of them, they were Ecuadorian and they spoke Spanish. It's interesting. They helped my sister and I a lot. And we built a good connection with them, and I actually-- My parents ended up meeting them, and they became our family friends to this day. They're some of our closest family friends. I remember the first time going over to his house, their house, and it was the weirdest feeling. Like it's a teacher and you're in their house. But I think that speaks to how good the ESL program was there and how connected the parents and students felt to the program.

A: [11:48] So what was the balance of English and Spanish that you spoke in your ESL classes, and how do you think that affected the way that you learned English?

B: [11:57] I don't actually-- If I were to answer that completely accurately, I don't remember, actually, the percentage or the proportions. I know that a lot of it was just reading English really slowly and it was an everyday, or a day-to-day thing where if I didn't get it, then we would just stick with that one paragraph for the entire session. If I could move past it, then we'd move on. But I don't know. I don't know. I don't think much of it wasn't-- I mean, I don't think the instruction was in Spanish at all. I think those two teachers, since they spoke Spanish, they were kind of a helping hand. Helped me cheat a little bit [laughs]. But I don't think the instruction was really in Spanish. But if it was, I don't remember exactly the proportion.

A: [12:48] Ok. So did you feel forced to learn a new language? And if so, how did you feel being forced?

B: [13:06] That's a tough one. I don't think I felt forced. I'm trying to think about what 7-year-old me thought. I don't think I felt forced, just because it was the thing to do when I was growing up in my community in my own context. I was friends with a lot of other children of immigrants or who were immigrants themselves, the children. And what they were doing at the time was learning English, and what I was doing at the time was learning English. And it was part of our conversation just like you talk about, "Oh we're doing math and it sucks. Have you gotten to multiplication yet?" For us it was, "Oh, I can say this now and you can say that now." And it became kind of a competition. My sister and I had a-- You know, it was pretty competitive at times, too, just like who could speak the best English. Also, my parents were very involved in making sure that learning English was my priority. So I didn't really feel forced, just because there was no other option. There was no easier road. I also-- I think I had enough maturity at the time to understand that I was going to need it. And that-- I think, especially after reading all those-- Or paging all those books, I was like, "There's so much information that I can't hold onto because I don't understand what's going on." And so it became a big goal of mine and I had a lot of motivation.

A: [14:41] So how were your interactions with your English-speaking peers when you first started school in the U.S.? And how did that change over time, and how quickly?

B: [14:54] I remember a very representative example of how much of a social life my English let me have. I always tell this story. I went to-- I remember the first time ever I went to Chick-Fil-A and they had a little playground, and I was 7. 7 or 8. Probably 7. But I remember there was a kid playing in the playground, and I thought I wanted to play with him. And I went in there and I tried to think of-- I mean, at first, I didn't want to go in there. I think my parents did a lot of convincing. I remember them actively telling me, "No, go play with him." And I was like, "Noooooo" -- Was like, "Go play with him." And I said, "okay." But I walked into the section with the playground and I immediately knew I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea what I was going to say. So I just looked at him and I said, "Play?" And he started talking, and I don't know why, but everything he said-- To everything-- First of all, I couldn't understand anything he said, but to everything he was saying, I just kept answering, "Yes. Yes. Yes." And who knows what he was saying. He was probably listing games that we could play, or he was, you know asking me questions about myself, or what kids talk about. And all I could answer was yes. And I literally said yes, yes, yes. Eventually, I think he got it and we ended up playing either-- I think it was tag. So we got through the game, but I had no idea at all what we had said to each other. I had no takeaways from that conversation except that I didn't have a takeaway. So that was my level, I think, socially starting out. I just-- Zero ability to interact with the world. And then that grew very quickly, because I remember by fourth grade, I could understand what was happening. I think the fourth-- Third grade was-- It's weird. I remember it very vividly. I think part of that reason is that I was trying so hard. It was very active learning. Third grade, I remember was this very weird phase where I was getting more proficient, but I still didn't know what people were really saying. And I was not in the advanced class. I, interestingly enough, I started in the upper level math class and I got moved down. They were like, "this kid doesn't know what he's saying. He doesn't know what he's doing." I remember them trying to teach me cursive. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing because I'm like, "I can't even write in English. I can't write in cursive now in English." I had a big block there and they ended up just not teaching me cursive. But by the end of third grade, going into fourth grade, I remember things started to come together. I was able to hold conversations. I had a few people that I considered my friends. Especially with neighborhood kids, I started developing stronger speaking abilities, and then by the time I really graduated. Graduated [laughs]. By the time I left elementary school behind, things got a lot better really quickly. I started reading a lot of books sixth grade. Any books that-- I was always reading constantly. I think by seventh grade, that had paid off a lot. Not only because my English was way better and I was starting to-- I discovered in seventh grade that I was a-- I loved writing. I was a good writer. And I really loved it. It was this magical key. Now I could actually write and people were telling me that it was good. So that meant it was good enough, right? For them to understand. And I had made progress in my English and it was really great. And then also my academics went up. That was motivating for me, because I said, "My English has to do with this." I went from not great grades to all As. And that pretty much stayed with me until I graduated high school. So it was really interesting. It was really interesting to see how not only did my language skills get better, but with it, my social skills got better and my academics got better. And did you say how it impacts me now?

A: [19:32] Just how it had changed over time, but that's-- You can answer that as well.

B: [19:42] I think that's-- I mean, definitely I'm at the peak of where I've ever been. My English is the best it's ever been and my academics are good and my social-- ability to interact is at the best it's been. But that's not to say that I don't-- I don't want to say suffer, but still feel the effects of it and how where I see my strengths now, I think is because I've worked so hard to build them when they were weaknesses. For example, the social piece. I love talking to people and my professional life, I love networking. That's a big thing I do in a formal way. Not just talking to people, but networking for businesses. And it's ridiculous to think about that I would ever fit in that job description when I-- back when I was really not able to utter a word and my social abilities were really much lower. So I think over working on those skills, working my butt off to get really good at talking to people, and working my butt off to make sure that people could really understand what I was saying. Not just talking, but they could comprehend what I was saying and saying it eloquently. And I'm still working on it, but I think it's interesting to see how they started as weaknesses, and since I worked on them so hard and focused on them so hard, now they're some of my strengths. So yeah, I think that's interesting.

A: [21:15] At what point did you realize that you felt comfortable in English? Really comfortable. You didn't have to think about it so much and translate in your head.

B: [21:26] That's very interesting, because there were many different points where I thought I felt good. Fifth grade, I felt good, because I-- That's kind of where I saw growth. Because I was around the same people, pretty much, since when I-- since second grade. And now it's fifth grade and I could see over time how my relationships had improved and how much more conversations I was able to have. And so I was like, "Oh this is good." And then I got to sixth grade and did terribly and couldn't understand what was going on in class at all. And my teachers weren't very understanding. I would ask a lot of questions, because I really-- I just didn't know what was happening. And I kept asking questions. I actually got kicked out of classrooms just for asking questions. Not being disruptive, just for asking too many questions. I don't know if the teachers thought I was joking or they thought I was mocking, but I wasn't. I remember specifically one time where my teacher said, "That's enough questions. Please step out." And he made me stand outside for the rest of class and then went to get me right before class ended. I was-- I mean, so yeah. I think I lost my train of thought here. What was the original question?

A: [22:48] At what point did you feel really comfortable--

B: [22:49] Oh, yeah. I think those experiences helped me to understand, okay I'm not there yet and things are really bad. Seventh grade, after reading all the books and after starting to do really well on academics, I felt really good about myself. I was like, people-- My professors-- My professors [laughs]-- My teachers think I'm a really good writer! So, okay, I must be doing something good here. And then I got to a very competitive high school, which was actually Cary Academy as well, who ran the program, the ESL program, interestingly enough. And I was, you know, in a room with some of the smartest students in North Carolina, and I was like, "Oh boy. Did I think my English was good? It is nowhere near as good." Especially because I got involved in debate very quickly in high school, and out of those really smart students you have the most eloquent, the most informed who could just speak and speak, and it sounded amazing. And I knew that I just didn't compare. So I was really self-conscious my first couple years of high school with my English. And I thought about it a lot, and then I thought about how silly it was, but then I would go back to thinking about it. It's-- It just-- It was almost not voluntary. It was almost programmed that I had to evaluate my own ability and working through-- I mean, I think the biggest increase in my ability, you know, that's not just from zero to a little bit, where I actually made a lot of increase was debate. Joining debating, and working through that, and being in those rooms with people who would just speak and speak. And I felt silly. I was like, "I'm seventeen years-- or I'm sixteen years old, or fifteen years old and I still am missing some stuff." And at this point, it's a very small percentage of-- I mean, it's maybe like 5% of less of the conversation. But it was still something, and that frustrated me a lot. So I worked on debate really a lot, and learned a lot of new words, and learned how to make arguments, and I think that helped me a lot.

A: [24:55] So what's your level of comfortability now? Do you still feel any of that?

B: [24:58] Yeah. I think right now, I feel really, really, really confident in my English. I think I've-- I'm definitely way past the fluent point, or where I would be considered fluent, because I'm also-- It's interesting to think, what is fluent? Because you have so many people within the U.S. who don't speak English very well, who are Americans, right? Born and their English is-- Again, what is good English? It's proper, using correct grammar, using correct word choice. And there are people that were born in the U.S. that have lived here their whole lives and all of their ancestors are from here or they have a very long history in the country, and I speak better English than them. So to me, yes. I'm past that point of saying, am I fluent, am I not fluent? Absolutely. however, I-- The mistakes that I do make are different in nature than the mistakes American English-speakers make in English. So it's like-- Theirs may just be a grammatical rule, or maybe they just don't know the definition of a word. For me, it can even be like-- It's not so much the vocab, and it's more the structure of the sentence itself where I'll just say it wrong, in the wrong order and it sounds fine to me. But it happens rarely. I think the more notable thing is references, like pop culture and the things I'm actually able to talk about are really different. So it's not that my English is bad, it's just my vocabulary within certain subjects is not up to other people's levels, just because that's not the context I grew up in. And a lot of the terminology for the-- If you take the example of a sport, right? Not-- I could speak fluent English, but I don't necessarily speak fluent, you know, football English. So it's those terms that you would have been exposed to surrounded by a lot of English speakers as a kid and by family who-- You know, your family isn't-- doesn't have one identity. There's many different people in your family with many different identities and you're bound to just get a little taste of a lot of different things in the language and exposed to that kind of vocab. And I didn't get it. However, I do have it with Spanish. So that's interesting.

A: [27:31] So how do you think Spanish has shaped you? Or your bilingualism has shaped you?

B: [27:37] I think-- I mean, I think it's definitely huge, because the number one thing, I think, is resiliency. Just being able to push through an issue and not get frustrated by it. I think situations-- I think issues seem really, really, really minor compared to just not being able to communicate at all. An issue as to whether you misunderstood what I said, or you misheard something, or even a conflict, like a debate somebody's having or an argument, it seems so much easier to resolve that than just not even knowing the language. And that's obvious, right? So it's almost like I've gone through the hardest point of it, just not even being able to ask questions, to express myself, to have an identity, to have a presence in a room. And my personality is very, very extroverted, and it's very conversation-heavy, and I was very limited by those things. So I was kind of in prison within my own body. Especially as a kid, you know, you're super curious about the world, and you point-- I was the kind of person-- kid that pointed at everything and is like, "What’s that? What's that? What's that?" And I couldn't do it unless I was at home with my mom. So it was really-- I think Spanish helped to put things into perspective-- Or struggling with English helped to put things in perspective. And I think in terms-- So I think, yes. So resiliency and I guess for that you can throw in adaptability. I think I learned a lot. And again, just being able to put things into context, so bigger life lessons. Nothing's too big that you can't work through it if you have words. You can work through anything with words. Use your words! Right? But as far as-- I mean, Spanish brings in a lot that's not just the language, but the culture and the heritage, and also just visiting where I'm from. Living there for a period of time and then visiting very often. It's given me a lot of different perspectives in terms of what it means to explore your own identity within another country. I think it's not only my journey from Spanish to English but seeing other people's journeys from Spanish to English and being in that Spanish-speaking community was really big. And knowing other bilingual people, because, again, their journeys were really different. Some of them, like I said, the kids that I was friends with, they came at the same time as I did, but they struggled a lot more or they found it a lot easier. And learning about how different-- how people are different. How no matter-- You can have the same content in front of somebody and the same lesson plan, but somebody's going to absorb it differently. Even with my own sibling. I have a twin sister and she was learning literally everything I was learning, and we were going home to the same house and everything was the same, but we had very different speeds of development with language. And I think being in a Spanish-speaking community that was already a contrast to the majority of Americans kind of put my focus more into very specific characteristics and qualities of people that helped them through that very big barrier. It was really cool. So I think, yeah. There's so much more than just the language with knowing Spanish, but being a part of that community, again, has allowed me to travel and experience an international perspective. And within this community here in North Carolina, again, just learning more about people in general.

A: [31:42] So do you feel like you lost any of your identity with your native language or culture when you were forced--or not necessarily forced--when you started to learn English in the U.S.? Or any skill level with Spanish?

B: [31:54] Yeah. I mean, I think that's a big issue with-- Well, it depends how you define issue, really. Because some people, when they learn English so well that they start to lose their Spanish take it as a pride thing and they say, "I've assimilated into this country and I've become a part of American society, and I deserve to be here, because obviously I value it more than my native language since I--" Some people make an effort to not speak their native language again. And I think it's really interesting, and I've met those people. I think for me, though, there's a lot to lose. There's just so much to lose in my own opinion, just because it's-- Again, it's not just the language that you're missing out on, it's the culture. And it's a larger conversation. A larger social conversation about-- You're bound to learn about immigration issues and you're bound to learn about different policies in the United States that are affecting these big communities, but you're not necessarily a part of that community. Even if you're Latino or Latinx, if you don't speak the language, it's really hard to actually understand these communities in the sense that you also need to be a part of those conversations when they're happening. So I think-- I mean, in my own experience, just knowing Spanish really well and making an effort to not forget it and to not, you know-- I really told myself I can learn perfect English and I can keep my perfect Spanish, and I don't need to give in. There's no give and take here. I think I've done as best I could with that, but it's really-- The payoff is really just being able to sit in a room full of undocumented immigrants mixed with documented immigrants and have a real conversation with this population that is so talked about at a national level. And I think if you lose your Spanish as so many people do while assimilating to English, you lose a lot more than language. You lose that connection in such a deep way. I don't-- I'm not saying you can't have it. Obviously, you can and have a very meaningful one, but as far as actually being a participant and a player in those conversations, it's really interesting how important the language becomes and your ability to navigate it. So yeah, I think that's one thing that's lost. One thing that I think I lost is writing. And that's kind of the very typical thing you hear from kids that came to the U.S. when they were young or have-- or were born in the U.S. but have Latinx parents. It's, "I don't write it well and I don't-- maybe not read it well. And my grammar is horrible. And accents." You know, that's the conversation that I always hear and it's a very similar story. I see a lot of students that are now taking Spanish courses in college that are Latinx, just because they-- their whole life has been mine, you know. It's so confusing to know the language perfectly and sound like a native, but you're illiterate basically when it comes to anything on paper. And then when you want to write something, you're not professional. You're not-- It's hard to fit into whatever audience that you're trying to reach, because you have a very limited understanding of Spanish if you're not exposed to huge communities. If you're only community is really your family, your Spanish becomes really, really specific. And it's so cool. You travel around North Carolina and the United States and after meeting so many different Latino people across the United States, you really-- Their Spanish is never the same. It's never, ever the same. There's always some twist to it. There's always a word that they keep repeating that's just incorrect, but that's how their house-- and my family has those, too. We have a lot of words that we kind of made up and they make sense in our context. And It's easy to get carried away and think this is-- Again, kind of the point I was making earlier that this is everybody's Spanish. This is the way everybody's lives go, and I think you lose that. You lose-- When you're learning English and you're so focused on "that's my professional language and that's my language of presentation to the world" you lose the idea of how rich and diverse Spanish is.

A: [36:37] So what is your proficiency level of Spanish now at this point and how do you feel when you speak Spanish with other native speakers?

B: [36:45] I think my proficiency level, if we had to break it down into written-- Or writing, reading, oral. I think as far as speaking Spanish, it's perfect. I'm sure there's very official, heavy words that I wouldn't be able to understand or use. But, I mean, as far as travelling around Mexico and people believing that I'm from Mexico. And well, I mean, I am. That I live in Mexico. I have no issue with that. I think people have always assumed that I'm-- So I think as far as that, my spoken fluency, it's very, very high. It's native. Writing is probably the weakest of the three. And that has a lot to do with what I was just talking about, the richness of your vocabulary and the limited exposure that I've had to Spanish, because it's been-- It's not an entire country around you, it's your family and your church and some people you know. It's not-- You don't get all these different versions of what it could sound like and you don't get to pick and choose. You have more limited samples. So yeah. When it comes to writing, I don't feel like my vocabulary is as deep or has a big breadth, so I don't know. I think that's probably the weakest of the three, but I can still write and I can right-click my wrong accent marks on Word documents and fix them. But it's definitely a challenge, more of a challenge to write it. Reading, I think is seamless. I think I do that well. As well as speaking, probably. Perhaps my English reading is faster, but I've never really tested it and I've always been able to keep up. So I think, again, as far as what is the threshold, I'm definitely past it on all of them, but writing is the closest to-- Writing would probably make me stand out in a group of completely integrated into Mexican culture, or citizens of Mexico that live there every day. I think people would either think I'm really dumb, or they would be like, "This kid's not from here."

A: [39:26] So can we go back to [Ben coughs] ESL a little bit? Can you tell me about what that actual instruction in the ESL classroom was like as far as what you did with your teacher and what was helpful, what was not helpful? What did you like or dislike about your actual time spent learning English in the ESL classroom?

B: [39:54] So, I mean, I guess you're talking about specifically the material? I was going to go into the stigma of being in the ESL class, which I think is-- That adds to it being a negative experience for a lot of kids. But as far as the actual content in the class, again, I don't remember that much to be very honest I think. Mostly it was a lot of reading and, again, just kind of going back to what you were-- I thought it was very-- It was workbook heavy. I remember having a lot of workbooks. I remember-- Oh! I remember-- Oh, actually, I just remembered. I had a tutor that would come to my house and help me with English for a while, and she was actually my ESL teacher. And she moved to a different school and my parents-- This wasn't the same couple. This was a different teacher. But my parents still thought she did a great job, and they ended up asking her if she could just do it on the side, just kind of tutor my sister and me. And that was really helpful. That was basically reading. I mean, a lot of it's reading and just speaking it. So I think as far as what was the most popular teaching method, it was just having a big page, reading it out loud. Which I found helpful, because it was in a small setting. But it'd be hard to-- I always had small settings and I think that was one of the ways that I was advantaged, just because I was placed in a setting where I had a very small group of people that I had to fight for attention with. So I really liked the small class aspect of my own experience. I liked the speaking, the stand up and speak and build your confidence. I think there probably should have been more dialoguing. A lot of it was just read and read it back. But yeah, there was not-- I don't remember there being a lot of dialogue. I remember when I wanted to dialogue, I would try in English and I couldn't do it. And then I would just give up, or if I had the Spanish-speaking teachers with me, I would just speak in Spanish to them. So probably more real-life situation dialoguing. I can't remember that much, actually, about my classes, unfortunately. I've really tried over time and I don't know what it is. Maybe I don't remember much because I didn't get it. I didn't, you know-- I never learned it. I never-- I think a lot of ESL is not so-- You can't really think about it like a normal class. There's not, you know, "I'm giving you this assignment. You're going to complete it" and then you get a very defined grade. I think learning in ESL is just exposure and exposure and exposure and exposure and exposure, and eventually you gradually start to get things. So it's a much slower process than I think most people think. It's not like a-- That's why Spanish classes don't work so many times in the U.S. when American students want to take Spanish or another foreign language. It just-- They can go through really high levels, but they can't communicate in a real situation, because it's so comparable to the structure of other classes. I think my particular program in ESL did a good job on not putting pressure on grades or anything like that. It was really just see what you can pick up over time and we'll track your progress. There was the exam, I think, that they tracked the progress with. I had to take a yearly exam. It was the most dreaded thing for all of the ESL students. All of us talked about it all year and then we had it. But I guess I did well. I don't remember what was on it except for one of them, which was a visual. It had a card with different activities and I would have to tell them what's going on in the card. And I remember I failed one of them because I didn't know the word for bucket. They kept asking, "what is that?" and I kept saying, "jar. it's a big jar." And they were like, "No, it's not a big jar." I couldn't figure it out and I remember that's when I learned how to say bucket.

A: [44:22] So how many years were you in formal ESL? What grade did you exit that?

B: [44:27] Definitely not past fifth grade, but I don't even know if I took it in fifth grade. I think-- I remember taking an exam in fifth grade, but I don't think I was in the class anymore. I think I was still in the after-school program, though, so that's yeah.

A: [44:45] Speaking of the after-school program, when you ended up at Cary Academy, did you-- was that program still around? Or did you have any interaction with that tutoring program?

B: [44:55] Yeah! So that program was definitely still around. It was getting pretty small by the time I got there, and I was concerned. So I got involved, and I ended up actually being the president of the club while going to Cary Academy by my senior year. And kind of changing a lot of the things we did. A huge thing was parent involvement and how to get parents to like that their-- to like the program, to get to know their program. So I did a lot of work there. And then a lot of it was kids feeling like they had gotten really nothing out of it. Like I said, ESL is just a very gradual process, and you don't get that A or B, really in a lot of these classes at the end of the year. I don't know how it is now. Maybe it is very grade-based-- I wouldn't know too much about that. But for our students, it was definitely not grade-based. It was just kind of a workshop. Like, you have work to do, we're going to help you do it. We paired a Cary Academy student with one of the students there and just took a couple hours to go through their homework. I mean, homework was honestly the smallest part of it, because you have kids who are really curious about high school students, so the kids would just ask away. They were just-- The last thing they wanted to talk about was their homework. There were a lot of strategies that we had to use to get them to like their homework. But yeah. It was really interesting to get involved with the program from a completely different perspective. It was almost like closing the circle. I started as the little mentee or tutee and ended up getting involved with the program out of chance. I did not know I was going to go to Cary Academy. I always saw it, but I assumed, "I'm never gonna go." It was really expensive and it was the top high school. I always went there for events. They used to invite us, all the little ESL students, to-- when they had speakers or something like that. But I always remember being really impressed by it and I never thought I could ever get in there. I didn't even think about applying until I was basically forced to by my parents and I loved it. The best thing I was-- Going along with the sense of reward for the students, what do they get out of it? We have an end-of-the-year ceremony now where they get a diploma and ice cream, or a certificate and ice cream, graduating. And that's something that I helped start. And they love it. I think that it's a good way for them to walk happy at the end of the year and say, "I actually accomplished something." Cause they did, even though they don't realize it.

A: [47:37] So after all these years and coming full circle, being a tutee and then being the tutor, do you have a language preference now? Is there one that you feel more comfortable in, and how has your answer to that changed over time?

B: [47:52] I think I've always thought Spanish was more expressive. There's more-- There are just so many more informal expressions that I know in Spanish than I know in English. And there's a lot that I associate with other not-language aspects that I associate with the language of Spanish. Like TV shows that I watch. Some of my favorite TV shows were in Spanish. So whether it was my preference or not, the only language that I could watch it in was Spanish. So it was really-- It kind of depends on what I'm trying to access. In a professional setting, I definitely, I think, prefer English? Just because I speak a better professional English, and I know more of the heavy words and the big vocab. And I know how to, you know, carry myself in-- from start to finish with a lot of confidence in English. With Spanish, I think the confidence is there, but definitely the ability to lead a business meeting is something that I'm still working on. And I have before, but I certainly feel the confidence level drop. I can still do it, but I'm shaking kind of through the process. And it's again, not my accent. My accent is native. It's perfect. It's native, Mexican accent. But it's sounding intelligent that I'm afraid that I'm not going to-- You know, with the vocab that I choose, the patterns of my sentence, or the order I'm saying things in. But if I were to focus on movies, I almost always watch movies in just Spanish if I'm by myself or if I'm with-- Like my twin sister, we speak fluent English. My little brother speaks more English than Spanish. But we always, always, always try to watch movies in Spanish, and I watch shows on Netflix that I'll just switch the language to Spanish. And I think it's-- I prefer it. I definitely prefer it when it comes to entertainment, which is interesting. And probably also conversations, I think. Conversations in Spanish are really cool, because there's a lot of expressions that I can't find in English that I wish I could say. But as far as preference, it's pretty 50/50. Somebody asked me once, "what language do you dream in?" kind of to see what preference there was, and I realized I really dream in both a lot. It really just depends on the context and I think that answers the question as well. It depends on the context that I'm in. I'll prefer one over the other.

A: [50:38] So finishing up, do you have any final thoughts on the ESL system in public schools in North Carolina? Drawing from your own experiences that you can remember.

B: [50:48] Yeah. I mean, I think the obvious one is there's not enough. Just because you're seeing a huge increase in the Latinx population here. And I think you're seeing a lot of kids that have been born in the U.S. that can speak English to a level where they're not necessarily standing out in class as the worst student. They find enough similarities or enough-- Yeah, I mean if they're born here and they've always been exposed to their friend group that speaks English, I think their chances of standing out in a bad way are a lot lower than mine were when I was just-- I was really the standout kid. I was just-- I looked totally different and spoke no English that my-- Everything was different about me. Body language, probably, even. So I see a lot of kids that now don't have those struggles where they can assimilate pretty well, but there's a difference between speaking English and speaking really good English. And while I've seen a lot of my friends develop really good technical skills over the years that I grew up-- some of those kids I grew up with. If they didn't have ESL programs-- and it's so consistent, I mean, in my own experience. Their ability to even express those really technical, profound, intelligent ideas in English is really limited. I mean, it's like you're listening to a 12-year-old explain a really complex idea. They just use very base words and they repeat those words a lot. And it's like I see my Spanish. When my written-- when I write in Spanish, I'll just repeat words, you know, sentence structures a lot. Certain words and verbs in my sentences. And I think those students in the U.S. do that too. So I think there's-- To say that more succinctly, I think there's-- People are perceiving language abilities to be much higher than they really are in a lot of cases, so I think that's why there's not more of a big call for these programs or a big alert for them. But I think just growing up around these kids who didn't have ESL programs, it makes a big difference at a certain point, especially, I think, when you apply to college. You really-- It's a really big time for reflection and kind of to put all your skills on the table. And going through that process with some of my fellow Mexican-Americans that weren't in ESL classes, their ability to express those ideas of "my life and my struggles," it was reading a very basic essay versus reading a very poignant essay for your average American student. So even though their life experiences may have been a lot less interesting, perhaps, than others. Not to categorize, but I think there's a lot of untapped talent that's just kind of laying dormant because there aren't enough programs. Especially in rural North Carolina. You have so many Latinx populations. So much of the Latinx population is not moving to Raleigh or Durham. I mean, sure, you have big numbers, but you're seeing a huge increase in rural cities and kind of taking these cities-- Like Siler City is a great example, how they took it over basically and now it's more than 50% Latino. I'm not sure. I don't know the numbers, but from the students that I do know from Siler City, I don't know that many that were in ESL programs for a long period of time other than taking that test once a year to see if they were good enough. And you do see some effects of that when you know they're brilliant and they can-- You know, their school work is fantastic and their academics, but it's just that ability to express yourself, I think, is really key. And it's sad, because it's there. And again, it's kind of just laying dormant until it gets activated. But yeah. So I think that's a really important foundation to have, specifically time to focus on language. Because sure, you can learn English by just being in class. You'll pick it up over time. But to have a class about learning how to participate in class, almost, if you think about it that way, it's really helpful.

A: [55:16] Ok, well thank you so much for your time.

B: [55:18] Thank you.