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Breaking language barriers, crossing cultural borders heals 'social schizophrenia'

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Justin Ayres and Madison Serrano spotted each other from across the room as the hall at St. Agatha's Parish in South Central Los Angeles began to fill for one of a series of Thursday night Advent workshops. Within seconds Ayres scooped Serrano into his arms, allowing the brown-eyed 3-year-old to wind her tiny arms around his neck and grasp his blond ponytail in a firm embrace.

The bond between Serrano, the daughter of a Chilean immigrant, and Ayres, a 27-year-old Anglo-American counseling psychologist, had grown in just a few short weeks of Advent sessions where Latino parishioners taught Spanish to Anglo and African-American English speakers and vice versa.

Nearby, Mark, an elderly African-American man, and Ivan, a Latino immigrant, met and shook hands like old friends. "I have a test for you," Ivan said, straining to get the words just right in English. "What is your marital status?" he beamed, proud of a new vocabulary word.

Responding slowly, Mark helped Ivan add yet another item to his verbal repertoire: "I am a wi-do-wer. Widower." Mark said the word several times until his friend repeated it clearly and smiled. "Oh, a viudo," Ivan said, finding the Spanish equivalent.

Ivan and Mark joined one of several groups of parishioners sitting in circles of folding chairs to say the Lord's prayer, first in English, then in Spanish. From the prayer, each group moved on to numbers, greetings and short sentences about how many beings -- dogs and cats included -- lived in everyone's home. The entire hall erupted in laughter when Fr. Kenneth Deasey, the pastor, interrupted the session on telephone numbers to ask in strained Spanish, "Cual es su numero de beeper?" (What is your beeper number?).

In one circle, a Hispanic teenager, dressed in a way that hinted at gang membership, sat near a blond young woman wearing a stylish brown business suit. As English-speakers in the group struggled with the pronunciation of the word perro, or dog, the teenager emerged as an expert instructor on how to roll r's in Spanish.

"This church does a lot of things to serve the community," the teenager explained. "Things like this, for young people, that help us develop as people and get out of gangs, drugs and alcohol."

Older participants were also pleased with the workshop. Dorothy McDonald was one of the first African-Americans to move into the neighborhood just over 40 years ago. She experienced strong prejudice from Anglo families, predominant in the neighborhood at the time. "When we came here, we were the minority. We know how that feels. The Hispanics today feel the way we felt," McDonald said.

McDonald admitted that she "always resisted" learning Spanish. "I thought they should learn English," she said. "But coming here, I've found Spanish is meaningful, and I am helping them learn English, too!" One of her new Latino friends, she boasted, "speaks to me now in Spanish." And, she added proudly, "I've told my family I am bilingual now."

The 77 parishioners from St. Agatha's who attended the workshop, "Breaking the Language Barrier Together," learned more than just words and phrases in another tongue. Created and led by writer and language instructor Jeanne Pieper, the workshop, according to Ayres, "helps us to rectify the forms of schizophrenia that exist in our society."

Language and cultural differences create walls between people, even in a parish setting, said Ayres, the psychologist. "We don't see people as humans because of [the walls] and we develop a social schizophrenia on a collective level," he said.

Pieper said she got the idea for the workshops when she realized that, in many multicultural settings, "people watch everybody else do their [ethnic] dances, but they don't really interact." Many people, she said, are afraid to approach others because of these differences. "People are petrified," she said. The structure of her workshop, she said, is "common and simple," and, because "everyone is a professional in their own language," the activity of teaching one another basic skills "makes everybody equal -- everybody is equally smart."

Pieper has taken her workshops into parishes, universities and factories. "The whole purpose of the workshop is to build relationships," she said. "Language is partly the carrot to get them to come." She said her goal is to get people to continue their lessons outside of the organized setting.

Deasey, who came to St. Agatha's after serving as associate pastor in an upper middle-class parish on Los Angeles' West Side, said the workshop is just one of the ways his parish is learning about tolerance and community. A self-described "white ... suburban ... English-speaking boy," Deasey says separate Masses in Spanish and in English, including one with a gospel choir.

In addition to liturgies at St. Agatha's, he said, there are parties and potlucks where "we have corn bread and tortillas, where beans are baked and refried, where we have tamales and gumbo." When Pieper approached him with her language workshop idea, he signed her on immediately for the Advent sessions.

Deasey said misunderstandings have existed in the neighborhood between the long-established African-American residents and Latino newcomers. The sense that Hispanics were "taking over" made both groups wary of each other, he said. And language barriers added to the problem. "People see each other in the store and they cannot even say hello," Deasey said.

But the parish has come a long way. Today, St. Agatha's parish council -- which holds meetings in English with simultaneous translation in Spanish -- is made up of eight African-Americans, five Hispanics and three Anglos. The latter are part of a large group of what Deasey called "reverse white flighters" who commute from the more upscale suburbs and West Side of Los Angeles to be part of the parish.

Deasey said many of the former parishioners followed him from his previous parish to offer him support. When they arrived at St. Agatha's, "romance" occurred: "The whites ... were welcomed at the door when they were afraid of being rejected. They found that this is not a poor and war-torn area. They felt they were risking their lives, going to the 'hood,' but they love it and they come back."

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997