Teaching English as a Second Language in
The Bronx: A Discovery
by Manuel Hernández
In 1988, the New York City Board of Education visited The
Island of Puerto Rico looking for English as a Second Language
and Bilingual teachers. I was impressed with the yearly salary
and fringe benefits. My marriage was on the rocks, and I believed
it could benefit from a new setting. Maria was unhappy because
she had not had a child, and I prayed to God and asked Him
for a signal. If my wife got pregnant, it meant we had to
stay in Puerto Rico. If she did not get pregnant in a period
of six months, it meant we had the green light to move to
The Big Apple. A month later, my wife gave me the good news,
but I kept quiet about His orders and decided to move to New
York City anyway.
We packed our bags and headed to New York. Deep in my heart,
I knew it would be difficult for us in New York, but I was
twenty-three years old, and I was inspired by the so-called
American dream. I had mixed emotions while reflecting on the
bumpy plane ride to Kennedy Airport. Maria was nineteen years
old and had never been to New York before. I knew that I was
moving in disobedience, but I wanted to defy my Creator.
When we arrived at Kennedy, our friends forgot to pick us
up. Two hours had gone by, and no one showed face. I called
my buddies, and they were sleeping. Finally, Freddie came
by in his 1987 Chevy Blazer blasting a hit song by Terence
Trent Darby: sign your name across my heart, I want you to
be my baby, sign your name across my heart, I want you to
be my baby. He said he was sorry, but I did not hear sincerity
in his voice. We stayed with Freddie for a month and later
searched for an apartment in Brooklyn. We had lots of relatives,
and I wanted my pregnant wife to have them around while I
was gone studying and working. We were told to dress up and
look neat when searching for a place to live. My cousins lived
in Los Sures, but I wanted to live a couple of blocks away
I found a Polish neighborhood very close to where I had lived
ten years before. The neighborhood looked quiet and calm,
so I decided to hunt for an apartment there. It was a gloomy
and cloudy day when my wife and I got ready to look for a
dwelling. I wore designer polyester pants and shirt, and my
wife had a cute dress, which highlighted her growing belly.
Apartments that were for rent looked empty, had the curtains
up and had the for rent sign hanging on the outside of the
window. We found a nice apartment in a two-floor private house.
I knocked on the door and heard a voice from the inside asking
for my name. I responded:
My name is Manuel Hernandez.
Wait a second, mister, answered the fluttering voice.
Whats your name again?
Hi, Mr. Hernandez, what can I do for you? Answered the man,
after hastily opening the door.
My wife and I are looking for an apartment.
What? He answered observing every detail of our humanly body.
There is a sign up there that says that you have an apartment
available. I replied.
What sign? Not here! he quickly replied.
Sir, but you have a sign.
You Dominican? the man asked in a bickering manner.
No sir, were Puerto Rican.
Same to me, and he politely threw the door in our face.
As a consequence, we looked for an apartment closer to the
Latino neighborhood because getting one outside of it would
be virtually impossible. It was on the second floor of an
old two-story house. Every time I walked up the stairs, the
house shivered. The landlords complained about my snoring.
The floor trembled with my steps, but it was the best we could
afford for $500.00 a month. The landlords were a retired couple
from Puerto Rico who had made their living in New York and
were months away from moving to Florida.
After two months of adjusting, moving and getting acquainted
with the New York City way of life, it was time to work. The
New York City Board of Education hired me to work at West
Bronx High School. The school was right in the middle of the
largest Latino communities in the Bronx, and I was looking
forward to the experience. When I knocked on the front door
on the first day of class, I was confused for the new custodian.
With that in mind, I was introduced to Mr. Quezada, the Assistant
Principal. In many public schools, assistant principals had
absolute control of all administrative affairs. This was the
case at West Bronx High School. Mr. Quezada was as thin as
a needle. He wore a Puerto Rican guayabera, which initially
made me feel at ease and was very careful with his words.
Mr. Hernandez there seems to be a problem here.
Whats the problem?
We dont have a position for you here?
I dont understand. I have a contract.
We dont have a copy or original for that matter.
There must be a mistake
Mr. Hernandez, its simple; we dont have a job in this
school for you . Can you teach Math or Science? We
may be able to dig up a program for you.
But Im not a Science teacher, and I hate Math.
Im sorry Mr. Hernandez, take it or leave it. Ill be back
in a little while.
The teachers lounge was terribly damp and dark. I sat down
in a corner sofa, put my head down in between my legs and
cried. I dont remember ever crying, but I could not hold back
the tears this time. After a short period of frustration,
I remembered having the telephone number of my recruiter in
a piece of paper tucked in my wallet. I called his office
and told him of my troubles at West Bronx High. He told me
to call back in a half an hour. The half an hour seemed like
an eternity. I was finally placed at Henry James High School.
This time I was received with a nice warm smile by the assistant
principal, Ms. Laura Gonzalez. It was very difficult not to
notice Ms. Gonzalez. She was forty-something, weighed about
one hundred and thirty five pounds, light-brown hair and shining
green eyes. She walked with an air of confidence that kept
all of us in awe. She was a versatile woman, doubling as an
ESL teacher and Assistant Principal. My teaching skills were
polished at James. Ms. Gonzalez made every effort to make
me feel comfortable as a professional. She made unannounced
visits that kept you on your toes. I got involved in extra-curricular
activities and organized an ESL journalism club. I enjoyed
my teaching experience there and felt at home.
One day, the ESL Program at James invited a Nuyorican poet,
Lalo Latorre. I observed him while he got ready. Latorre was
medium height, had black curly hair and deep brown eyes. He
dressed completely in white and looked like a Santera priest.
He came in the library with drums and a guitar. Latorre was
gregarious and flamboyant. I was anxious to hear the poet
do his thing. When he started reciting his poetry, he read
verses in English and Spanish. He combined music and verses
and went from prose to poetry. He followed no rules. He closed
his eyes as if evoking some unknown spirit.
Oye tu, como vas?
I dont know si me quedo, o me fui ya.
I speak ingls, espaol and Spanglish.
Soy de aqui y de alla, you know!
The students loved it. They laughed, cheered and yelled whenever
the poet instructed them to do so. I was amazed at their reaction.
I identified with the message, and I was curious to know who
he was and wanted to know more about his poetry. Mr. Latorre
and I became good friends, and he gave me a list of Latino/a
writers who were writing and performing in the United States
and abroad. Next day, I ran to the bookstore and bought a
few of the books recommended by Latorre.
Latorres experience opened my eyes to a whole new world.
As a teacher, I had always been looking for alternatives.
I wanted the best for them, and I knew that the study of literature
was the only situation in which students had to explore issues
that were relevant to their interests. Latino/a literature
combined the language, history and the cultural expression
of the Latino/a experience that allowed students to examine
themes and made language their own by making personal connections
with their lives and background information.
As a result of my discovery experience, I found that some
of the themes portrayed were self-esteem, education, family,
values, domestic violence, identity, varied approaches to
race, cultural confusion, growing up in a bicultural/bilingual
setting, peer-pressure, the challenges of learning a new language,
father-son; mother-daughter relationships, standing up for
what one believes in, the celebration of culture and music
and other issues which provoked students to become critical
thinkers in the process.
I started to use Latino/a Literature to help students improve
educational outcomes and provided the preparation and encouragement
needed for them to be successful in the English classroom.
I designed specific strategies to prepare students to read
and write and prepared them for further literary analysis.
Much to my surprise, my ESL students, especially those at
the higher levels started developing a greater interest in
literature. I strongly emphasized Latino/a literature as a
bridge to the teaching of American and British Classics, and
it was starting to make a difference in the city, state and
There was a way to measure success but my personal experience
with my family superseded my teaching experience, and in the
summer of 1991, my family made the move back to The Island.
Although I had not entirely tested my theory, I knew that
time would be the great equalizer. There was an alternative.
I had not created it, but I had the plan to help Latino/a
teens improve academic performance on city, national and state
standardized testing. It was much more that extra-curricular
activities and coop programs. There needed to be a mirror,
then a bridge and the final outcome which would be reflected
in a five year plan. It was necessary, not only for Latino/a
teens but for the millions of American high school teens as