Longform

Nada Chance

Page 3 of 7

When they're all home, the five members of Martín's family squeeze together on the brown sofa that engulfs much of the trailer's limited space. They like to watch the Mexican novelas (soap operas) in the evening.

Opposite the long sofa, high on the wall, hangs a tiny shrine. The wood-framed images of La Virgen de San Juan and La Virgen de Guadalupe are illuminated by a half-burned candle in a purple glass cylinder with a painted image of Jesus Christ. The idols are surrounded by tiny white vases filled with salt-and-pepper feathers and nylon carnations in red, orange and yellow.

Maria says the saints have protected them thus far, so "we have to give them light . . . we entrust ourselves to them."

The candle's light also shines on the family's few worldly possessions.

They have little money for nonessentials, but they've managed to come up with an old TV and a secondhand silver hi-fi. The electronic relics hold a place just to the left of the shrine, testament to their importance in an American household.

Secondhand wooden shelves hold wedding photos of Maria and Martín Sr. They've been married almost 20 years. In the photo, she's wearing a plush white wedding gown and turquoise eye shadow. The same color covers her eyelids today.

Symbols of the family's determination to excel despite a life of poverty and lack of English skills also have a prominent place on the wall, near the shrine and its protective saints. Two framed certificates -- one for perfect school attendance and one for outstanding achievement -- bear Gisela's name. Julio has one for perfect attendance and outstanding citizenship.

Maria, who spoke Spanish during interviews with New Times, believes Gisela is the best of her kids at learning English. She hears her conversing with phone solicitors and sees her reading magazines in English. Martín is doing okay, Maria says, but is shy about practicing.

Julio isn't doing so well.

"He just can't get it," Maria says. "It doesn't penetrate."

For two years, Julio's reading and writing scores have declined. He flunked the fourth grade because he couldn't retain information.

Julio's teacher, Robert Witte, says Julio is immature for his age, which partly explains his poor retention level. But Julio has more severe problems.

Witte says that kids in a bilingual or ESL setting learn to speak English faster if they are already proficient in their native language. Although Julio is in fifth grade, he still reads only at a first-grade level in his native Spanish.

Now, Julio is a candidate for special education classes, where he would get more individual bilingual attention. But under Proposition 203, Julio would be allowed to continue learning in a bilingual setting only if his parents request a waiver and only if the school approves it. Moreover, to conduct a bilingual classroom, Proposition 203 requires that there be at least 20 kids in the school with waivers. If not, the student must transfer to a school that does have that many.

At Sullivan, 8 percent of the 900 students are bi-illiterate and are being taught in special-education programs, according to Kenneth Erickson, Sullivan's principal.

He says kids in these programs come from poor, ethnic neighborhoods and may have been affected by parental drug use, alcoholism or domestic violence, or they live in areas where these things are prevalent.

Some of these kids, 10 years and younger, have missed an entire year of school -- the years when kids absorb the most information.

"Being a practitioner and administrator, you see the issues differently," Erickson says. He's opposed to Proposition 203.

In an English-immersion setting, there will be "kids like Julio that won't survive," he says.

Proposition 203 is telling kids, "we're going to throw you in English, and if you fail, we've got plenty of [lawns] to work on."

Julio's difficulty is apparent in his ESL class, which is not far from being an English-only class.

Maria says that Julio's teacher "talks to the class in English and he can't understand."

If Proposition 203 passes, teachers will still be allowed to speak Spanish if necessary.

On a Monday morning in class, Julio busily flips through books that are written in English. Witte is meeting with a reading group at the opposite corner of the room.

With a partner, Julio is taking turns reading from At the Car Wash and I Can Do It Myself. The books don't look very complicated. Each page has one sentence and a colorful illustration.

Julio reads softly so as not to be heard. He mumbles and his words make little sense. The two boys rush through four of five books, despite several mispronunciations and little understanding of their meanings.

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Caleb Correa