The break-room at Su Casa, a non-profit organization that teaches English as a second language classes, filled with the sounds of people speaking Spanish and the smell of freshly-made coffee. People came and went as they finished the first half of their ESL classes for the night.
Abigail Esquivel, 19, sat at a table with two other women in the middle of the room. Her eyes were like brown marbles and her eyelashes reached the bottom of her eyebrows. Her smile went from one side of her face to the other as she talked and laughed with her new friends.
This is Esquivel’s first semester at Su Casa. She said she is hopeful for the future in the United States. Esquivel primarily speaks Spanish and said that learning English is a personal goal.
“It’s a personal aspiration because after this [completing her ESL classes], I will have more opportunities,” Esquivel said. “I like it a lot because I get to meet new people and we get to share our stories about how we got here and what we want to do in the future.”
After completing the program, Esquivel said she wants a better job and to go to college to study medicine.
Finding a well-paying job in a new country that speaks another language can be difficult. For this reason, many Latinos learn English to create more opportunities or to escape from the poverty line
According to a study released by officials from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Latino community has one of the lowest unemployment rates, but it is still the poorest sector of the population in Memphis.
According to Fabiola Cervantes, the communications and outreach coordinator at Latino Memphis, many Latino families of four or five people make between $20,000 and $25,000 per year.
“What we see here, is a system of networks. It’s not like you show up and just pick up guys [day laborers], it’s more like, ‘I know a guy who knows a guy.’ So it’s happening much more under the table.” — Elena Delavega, U of M social work professor
Elena Delavega, an assistant professor in the department of social work at the University of Memphis, said poverty among Latinos is an immigration issue because many don’t have the same opportunities for mainstream jobs.
Latino men and women turned to alternative methods for jobs. Day labor is a trend that started to grow among the Latino community. However, in Memphis, it looks a little different.
“What we see here, is a system of networks,” Delavega said. “It’s not like you show up and just pick up guys [day laborers], it’s more like, ‘I know a guy who knows a guy.’ So it’s happening much more under the table.”
Delavega said that unfortunately this type of job tends to lead to abuse or wage-theft. In some cases, the employer doesn’t want to pay the workers the amount that they agreed on. Other times, the employer pays the day laborers below minimum wage. This contributes to the poverty level among the Latino community.
According to Delavega not only is this system of networks common among the job sector, but it’s also evident in the settled communities. People move into an area where others speak Spanish or where they have friends.
According to census records released by officials from the Shelby County Register’s Office, the highest concentrations of Latinos live in the zip codes 38108 (Hollywood) and 38122 (Berclair/Highland Heights).
Cervantes said that people migrate to these zip codes because of access to affordable and available housing.
Some apartment complexes require a social security number to rent. This requirement makes it hard, Cervantes said, for undocumented Latinos to rent apartments from these complexes.
“It’s heart-breaking because you’re wondering how people are making it,” Cervantes said. “It’s like you have this family to support and you have bills to pay, and one thing just leads to the next.”
According to Cervantes, there are also churches and organizations in these zip codes that offer different services to help the Latino community as a whole.
One of those organizations, Su Casa, is located in the heart of the 38122 zip code. According to Tim Jewett, the executive director of this non-profit organization, Su Casa was an outgrowth of an “adopt-a-school” program. Second Presbyterian Church adopted Berclair Elementary School.
“At that time, Berclair had a high population of Hispanics,” Jewett said. “So the volunteers started seeing a unique need [to learn English] among the Latino community.”
Now, Su Casa is an independent non-profit organization that provides ESL classes to 225 adults.
While Esquivel started the ESL program this semester, Edras Aguilar, 32, started classes at Su Casa when it first opened about five years ago.
Aguilar came to the United States from Honduras eight years ago. He immediately began taking ESL classes because he said it was necessary.
“This is a different culture,” Aguilar said. “You have to know English in order to communicate with people and to have a good job.”
Aguilar said he went through the program and chose to stay and help with the classes. Now, he is a teacher’s assistant at Su Casa and has a job in construction.
“Knowing English helped me because you don’t have to depend on anyone else,” Aguilar said. “I’m about to start a new job.”