Learning English was the key to success for migrant family
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Carlos Davila Torres, 34, lives in Glenwood Springs. He has just completed his associate’s degree at the Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy, a program of Colorado Mountain College.
Carlos Davila Torres: We came to the United States in August of 1996 when I was 9 years old. My family was in search of better opportunities. I came with my mother and father, my older sister and my younger brother and sister.
I didn’t know what to expect, it was pretty scary. None of us knew any English and in 1996 there weren’t very many Latino families in the valley.
When we first came we lived in a basement studio apartment. That was tight. The winter of 1996 was a heavy snow year, and we had never seen snow or experienced the cold. I love it now, but it was quite an adjustment for us at first.
I thought we were just going to be here three months and leave. I didn’t think we were going to stay. Catholic Charities was really small at the time, so there wasn’t much in the way of help.
I think what pushed us all to learn English and get out there was the lack of Latino interaction. Because of that we felt like we had to learn the language as fast as possible.
I can remember going to the store and realizing that I couldn’t just ask someone where things were. I realized I had to learn how to ask. I learned English in about six months. In a year I was pretty fluent.
Gallacher: You said you didn’t expect to stay in the U.S. Is that what your parents had told you?
Torres: Yeah, my parents had said that it was just a trial to see if we liked it. We weren’t here very long and my brothers and sisters and I were begging to go home. It was scary. I can remember my first day of school I was waiting for the bus. My mom had dropped me off and told me that the bus would be coming in a few minutes.
So while I was waiting, these other kids came and started asking me God knows what. I just nodded my head yes and no to their questions and they started laughing. I couldn’t tell if they were making fun of me or really asking me a question. It was really intimidating.
Being in school and not knowing the language is a very vivid and frightening memory for me. I didn’t talk to anyone, I couldn’t.
There was one Latino girl who helped me out a lot. She would translate for me, and we became good friends that year. She would make sure I understood the homework and even tutor me.
Gallacher: How did your parents handle the situation when you were all begging to go back to Mexico?
Torres: My parents knew it was hard on us, but they were firm with us about staying. They knew we would eventually get used to life here. They were right. We went back for a visit in 1998 and after a week we were all saying, “Let’s go home.”
When we were in school in Mexico we wore uniforms and school was very strict. Teachers didn’t really care that much about students, you were on your own. But here, if the teachers see you are having trouble, they do everything they can to help you.
At my school in Mexico they had people at the door checking to make sure our hair was short, our shoes were shined, our uniforms were pressed and that the girls weren’t wearing makeup. We had to take our books home with us every night.
So when I came here I thought you had to do the same thing. At the end of my first day I was putting all of my books in my backpack when my friend asked me what I was doing. She told me I could leave the books there, but I didn’t believe her. She finally convinced me.
I couldn’t sleep that night because I thought my books would be gone. But the next day, there they were. I was amazed. I remember thinking, “Maybe this isn’t such a bad place after all.”
Gallacher: You couldn’t leave your books at school in Mexico?
Torres: Oh, no, they would be gone.
Gallacher: What did your parents do in Mexico?
Torres: They owned their own taco shop. They were doing really well until 1994, when the value of the dollar went up and the peso was devalued.* People who were doing well one day woke up poor the next. Our money was suddenly worth nothing. There were a lot of successful businessmen committing suicide.
My dad had just bought a truck, a Ford F150. It was brand new and my parents were current on their payments, but when this happened in 1994 the amount they owed on the truck tripled because of the drop in the peso.
The economy was the main reason we came here. My dad came first in 1995 and worked for a year. He saw the life and the opportunity here and decided to come get us.
Gallacher: How did you come to the United States?
Torres: We came on a visitor’s visa and applied for residency. I started working very young. I got a job as a busboy at Marshal Dillon’s Steakhouse, and my older sister got a job as the hostess. We all worked together. After school we would come home, do a little bit of homework and go to work until 10 or 10:30 at night.
Gallacher: How were you able to do schoolwork when you were working so much?
Torres: We did pretty well and since my dad ran the restaurant he was able to work with us on our hours. If we had a big project at school we didn’t go or we left early. I did fine. I made it through high school, and I will graduate from Colorado Mountain College with an associate of arts degree in criminal justice.
Gallacher: What do you want to do with your degree?
Torres: I want to be a police officer. I just graduated from the police academy. My plan is to start as an officer. Eventually I want to get a bachelor’s degree and work as a detective.
Gallacher: It sounds like your family was really close growing up.
Torres: We still are. We stick together. Every night we gather round the table and talk about our day. We give each other advice and support one another. We are all still living at home.
My parents never believed in the “you’re 18 and out of the house” approach to raising a family. They have applied the family values they brought with them from Mexico. They believe that you don’t leave the house until you’re ready to move on.
Gallacher: A lot of immigrant kids have to work to help their family. Was that your situation?
Torres: We did help our parents but they were pretty self-sufficient. My dad wanted us to work and learn the value of money. He wanted us to learn the difference between need and want.
He used to say, “If you need something, you’re going to work for it and you’re going to help out in the house, too.” We weren’t like some teenagers just hanging out after school. We were studying or working.
When my parents came here they really applied themselves. Both of my parents went through the English as a Second Language program at Colorado Mountain College. It was really hard for them to learn a second language because they are older, but they were determined.
My dad has been managing restaurants ever since he learned the language. My dad is totally fluent. I can have long conversations with him in English.
My mom works as a cashier at Kmart and uses English every day. She was really afraid to apply for the job, but we all encouraged her. We told her the only way to learn was to get out there and make some mistakes. She’s not fluent but she’s about 60 percent. She is a cashier, so she is learning every day, and she is still going to CMC classes.
She gets off work at 5 p.m. and goes straight to class and gets home at 9.
The first three or four years were really hard for them, trying to learn a new language and adjust to not owning their own business. Dad started working in restaurants, just doing prep and having someone tell him what to do.
I think that experience really motivated him to learn English. He wanted to be able to speak for himself. Now my parents are both doing well for themselves and their family.
Gallacher: Did your parents go to school in Mexico?
Torres: Yes, they both graduated from high school. They didn’t attend college but they understood the importance of education and encouraged us. My dad used to always say to us, “You’re all going to finish school if it’s the last thing I do.” All of us have gone to Colorado Mountain College.
* The 1994 economic crisis in Mexico, widely known as the Mexican peso crisis, was caused by the sudden devaluation of the Mexican peso in December 1994. The Mexican government’s finances and cash availability were further hampered by two decades of increased spending, a period of hyper-inflation from 1985 to 1993, debt loads and low oil prices.
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