Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:13:14 PM CST

Top Stories

Ashleigh Joplin/MEDILL

This mural on the school wall shows a family celebrating "Dia de los muertos" or "Day of the dead" at a grave site of a loved one.

Little Village school and community center help create stronger families through language and culture

by Ashleigh M. Joplin
Feb 7, 2013

Ashleigh Joplin/MEDILL


As part of the school’s art inciative the walls of the Telpochcalli School are filled with Mexican themed murals. The slideshow is to the sound of Mrs. Werner’s second grade music class.

Helping with homework comes with the territory for parents. But for one immigrant mother of three, helping her 12-year-old poses a difficulty greater than the actual homework.

“With the older one, her homework will be in English and I have to work really hard to help her,” said Esperanza Emiliano, 34, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico nine years ago and speaks limited English.

That’s when the community school and neighborhood community center steps in.

The Telpochcalli Elementary School and the Telpochcalli Community Education Project are helping the children of Latino immigrant parents, who are at risk of being mainstreamed away from their native culture and language, maintain a grasp on their native identity. At the same time, they help parents develop their English.

“With me they [her daughters] don’t speak English. They do when they are with a friend, with each other or with their father,” Emiliano said in Spanish. “There are times when I understand and I can answer, but there are times when I don’t.” The girls’ father learned English for his job. Emiliano, herself, is now able to take ESL classes at Telpochcalli.

Since opening its doors in 1993, the Telpochcalli Elementary School has worked to meet the needs of its predominantly Mexican community by integrating Mexican arts and culture into its dual language program.

The school has 40 percent Spanish-dominant students, 30 percent English-dominant and 30 percent balanced-bilingual.

In 1991, prompted by a desire to create a template for students to reaffirm their identity, Tamara Witzl, co-founder and principal of the Telpochcalli School, began working with the National Museum of Mexican Art and Chicago Arts Partnership in Education to design the school.

“Kids would outright deny who they were because the pressures of the larger society did not see that as a great thing,” Witzl said. “It was really concerning to me that kids were walking away not feeling proud of who they were and what they brought to the table.”

At the school, students are exposed to Mexican culture through music, theater and visual art taught by three resident artists. Mexican history is also integrated into the curriculum, allowing more attention to be given to themes such as the Mexican revolution and immigration.

“No one ever told me about my own culture,” Emiliano said. “They are trying to make sure that these students do not forget who they are.”

In 2003 parents at the school realized that just helping students was not fully bridging the cultural gap. In response, the Telpochcalli Community Education Project was born to facilitate parent involvement in the school and neighborhood through a number of programs including English lessons.

“Before, if the child asked for information, that parent would say they did not know and they were just stuck there,” said Maria Velasquez, executive director of the Telpochcalli Community Education Project. “The parents are gaining confidence.”

Working at the school building, the community center provides eight sessions of ESL classes a week and GED-preparation classes in Spanish four times a week. Principal Witzl said the average education level of the school’s parents falls between third- and sixth-grade.

The organization serves roughly 350 community families a week.

“If you really want to have a more stable bilingual community you have to have more people speaking both languages,” said Frances Aparicio, a Latino studies professor at Northwestern University. “You cannot say that a community is bilingual if the younger generation is speaking English and the older speaking Spanish. That is monolingual, but in two languages.

“The difference in identity is reflected through language,” Aparicio said. “You can see the divide through the American identity of the child and the older generation’s connection to Mexico.”

Katia Arroyo, an 11-year-old native English speaker, said she is learning Spanish in order to communicate with her father and grandparents who are in Mexico.

“I heard on the news that they said, like, every school teaches, like, the same thing. I really like this school because there are not a lot of schools that are bilingual,” she said.

Telpochcalli School is one of only two Spanish bilingual schools serving the Little Village and Cicero communities.