Breaking Down Language Barriers in a Sacramento Parking Lot

Day laborer Pedro Flores (L) and students Wyatt Irmen and Nimra Syed take part in the intercambio. (Blair Wells/KQED)

It’s an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at a bustling Home Depot on Sacramento’s south side. Every possible kind of construction material flows in and out of a very busy parking lot. Paint, plumbing parts, windows, wallboard and lumber are loaded into work trucks and the back of pickups. All are destined for a building project somewhere around California’s state capital. But at one corner of the lot, in the shade of young oak trees, another kind of building project is just getting underway.

Surrounded by a loose collection of men in jeans and T-shirts -- one wearing a straw cowboy hat, and another wearing a gray hoodie -- stands Heather Hutcheson, an English professor at Cosumnes River College. Most days of the week, she teaches courses in advanced composition and creative writing to a full classroom of college-bound hopefuls. But Wednesdays are different. On these days, she stands on the hot asphalt of this Home Depot parking lot leading what are called intercambios.

“They’re English and Spanish exchanges between the guys waiting for work out here on a regular basis and my community college students,” explains Hutcheson.

Out here she is called la maestra or the teacher. Her new estudiantes are the day laborers who stand side by side in a loose half-circle, listening and writing down the English words and phrases they’re learning in new, brightly colored, lined notepads. Hutcheson pays for the notepads herself.

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According to Hutcheson, the idea for these parking lot intercambios was inspired by an unforgettable trip to Mexico.

“I had the fantastic, amazing opportunity to be on sabbatical from my teaching position in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was fantastic,” continues Hutcheson. “Every Saturday I would have this intercambio at a local library, where I would speak with strangers one hour in English and one hour in Spanish.”

The experience was life-changing. And when she came home, she didn’t want the exchanges to end. That desire drove her straight to this parking lot.

Student Eunice Edigin helps a worker with some English phrases.
Student Eunice Edigin helps a worker with some English phrases. (Blair Wells/KQED)

“I pulled up here and said, ‘I’m recently returning from Mexico, and I want to continue to learn Spanish. I’m an English teacher and I can help you learn English. What do you guys think?’ They really thought I was insane, and said, ‘Where’s the classroom?’ I said, ‘This is the classroom.’ They’re like, ‘But no, where are we gonna have classes?’ I was like, ‘No. We’ll stand out here.’ ”

And why not? Hutcheson says these men are out here almost every day and there’s a lot of down time while they wait for work.

“They’re waiting for day labor jobs, which aren’t coming a lot right now, and they usually stand around under this tree and talk in a circle, exchanging lessons in English and Spanish as the rest of the traffic is passing us by.”

One of her students is Iberto, a robust 77-year-old who, like the others in this group, is hoping to become better at speaking and understanding English. It’s important for his work, and he’s looking to Hutcheson for help. At the moment he can’t remember the English word for “store”:

Hutcheson:     ¿Que es mercado en Ingles?
Iberto:         Ingles, no se.
Hutcheson:     Mercado is store.
Iberto:        Ah, eh store. Store.

Some of Hutcheson’s students from the community college join the group. One of the students, Juelle Baker, and a day laborer named Oscar jump right in:

Hutcheson:     ¿Cuantos años estas aqui?
Juelle:         How many years have you been here?
Oscar:         Seis años.
Hutcheson:     So, six years ago.

Heather Hutcheson laughs with one of her estudiantes, Daniel Herrera.
Heather Hutcheson laughs with one of her estudiantes, Daniel Herrera. (Blair Wells/KQED)

Juelle says she was nervous about coming, but is glad she did. Hutcheson understands that basic fear, knowing that the conversation is not always easy.

“I think a lot of what happens in the language exchange is that we feel stupid or uncomfortable or even ugly in a language that isn’t our native language,” says Hutcheson. “And it’s an uncomfortable feeling, but we all experience it.”

Along the way, the students -- both English and Spanish-speaking -- stumble over pronunciations and trip on conjugations. But it’s a shared experience in a group that supports each other as they learn. And the best part is they’re having fun trying. Juelle included.

“I think it’s pretty cool because it’s like you can learn something – you can only learn it firsthand,” she says. “It’s like as much as I sit in a classroom, until you immerse yourself in a different type of environment or language, you’re not really going to learn.”

Her sister, Noelle Baker, agrees.

“I like the idea because I like the cultural bridge. You get to step over that bridge. You break down those boundaries that separate everybody from one another, because there’s already so much separation based on cultural differences, countries, languages and so on.”

One of the day laborers, Pedro Flores, is breaking down boundaries, too. He says it’s thanks to Hutcheson.

Heather Hutcheson brings notepads each week for the estudiantes, so they can write down the English words and phrases they’re learning.
Heather Hutcheson brings notepads each week for the estudiantes, so they can write down the English words and phrases they’re learning. (Blair Wells/KQED)

“She’s friendly and she helps other people to speak better English. Because sometimes when we speak, any new word like English or in Spanish, it’s nice to write it and remember it another day, to put it in your mind, using it for your life. She give that to me.”

A happy Hutcheson says she can see that language is no longer a barrier, but a link to others.

“There are no strangers, just people we haven’t met yet. And we need to meet those people because they have a whole lot to offer, whether it’s a little bit of Spanish or polite exchanges or news about the world.”

Lately, on occasion, she takes her intercambios out of the parking lot and into nearby restaurants. The group lunches together as they continue their unique Spanish and English exchange and sharing.

A parking lot of strangers has become a table of friends.

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