Helping immigrants acclimate, be empowered

This article by Librarian Debbie Chavez was originally published in the Arizona Daily Star on Dec. 21, 2014.

Have you ever watched a Charlie Brown special on TV?

When the adults speak, the children hear only garbled voices.

I remember sitting at my desk in first grade with the teacher addressing the class, but I had no idea what she was saying.

I was like Charlie Brown listening to his garbled-voice mom.

My parents were immigrants from Mexico, so I grew up speaking Spanish at home. I learned American customs at school, but my family’s experiences were different from those of my friends. There were visible differences involving food, language, and traditions, but then there were things that my friends never saw such as my mom’s attempts to make us more American. She would blast the record player with a flag-waving album titled, Patriotic Songs of the USA, though she would have preferred listening to Julio Iglesias.

Being part of an immigrant family also involved enduring the occasional embarrassment of being singled out for our “culture.” One time, our very well-meaning church asked my family to sing “Silent Night” in Spanish during the Christmas Eve service.

We were horrified. Didn’t they realize my mom was tone deaf?

After the initial, “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” my brothers and I stopped singing. We didn’t know Christmas carols in Spanish; we knew Patriotic Songs of the USA! My dad nudged me to sing louder to drown out my mom, but I couldn’t help him.

My mom’s plan to Americanize us also involved taking me and my brothers to the Green Valley Library once a week. We spent many Saturday afternoons there, reading Mad magazine, poring over the illustrations in Richard Scarry books, and watching filmstrips like “The Red Balloon.” Although she didn’t speak English, my mom instilled in me a love of reading.

As a librarian at the Eckstrom-Columbus Library, I work with many immigrants and refugees from all over the world. I see mothers coming into the library looking bewildered and lost. They remind me of my mom. When I attempt to communicate with children who don’t speak English, I get that same look from them that I must have given my first grade teacher.

I get it. I’ve been there. It’s scary, and I want to help.

Some of our most well-attended programs are our English language classes, but customers can also borrow CDs to learn how to speak English. One of my favorite library services, Mango Languages, helps people learn English at their own pace on a computer or smartphone. [Note: Mango Languages has been replaced with Pronunciator.]

Did you know that we have computer classes in Spanish? I’ve seen some of our students progress from not knowing how to use a mouse to creating slideshows using Windows Movie Maker one year later. One of our students recently told me that she’s now teaching other Spanish speakers how to use PowerPoint, a program that she learned at our library.

In addition to offering citizenship classes, we have Welcome to the Library videos that we produced in Spanish, Arabic, Somali, Maay Maay, and Nepalese to help more people understand the basics about how their library works. The short videos can be viewed on our website or the DVD can be checked out from the library.

We also have Homework Help in person and online tutoring for children and adults. At our branch, we even have a wonderful Kinyarwanda-speaking volunteer helping children with their homework.
One of the library’s goals is to empower people so that they can navigate through life and reach their full potential. Immigrants contribute to the cultural fabric of our community, making Pima County a vibrant and beautiful place to live.

The library’s resources and programs are free, and what we get in return is immeasurable.

"Waxaan kugu arkay libraryga!"

That’s Somali for, “See you at the library!”


Debbie Chavez has been a librarian for 13 years, and began her career as a summer youth worker at the Green Valley Library. When she's not working at the Eckstrom-Columbus Library, she enjoys hiking, gardening, and listening to Latin alternative music.

More information
Take a look at this list of library resources for new immigrants and refugees.