Little house of learning:
Stetson professor creates free English program
Submitted by Westvolusia1
Fri, 09/16/2016 – 3:30pm
Peace, love and understanding —
Stetson University professors Dr. Pamela Cappas-Toro and Maria Servigna pose with an English class at La Casita Cultural Latina, or “The Little Cultural Latino House,” a community space for DeLand’s Hispanic community to learn and socialize. With Cappas-Toro and Servigna above are Maria Abreu, Larry Martinez, Kathy Hernandez, Audrey Almeida, Julieta Almierda, Alberto Gomez, Lupita Sanchez, Socorro Arredondo and Enric Cordoba.
BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA McLAUGHLIN
After Dr. Pamela Cappas-Toro joined the World Languages and Cultures Department at Stetson University in 2013, she soon noticed the Hispanic presence was much more prominent in DeLand than where she completed her doctoral program in Illinois.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Cappas-Toro realized that despite this strong presence, there weren’t readily available English classes for those who wanted to learn the language.
“I’ve always seen missed opportunities of language-learning as a social-justice issue. Many Latinos have the willingness but not the resources or the time. I wanted to use the resources and facilities Stetson has to help members of this community. And I didn’t want price, legal status, or lack of time to be a barrier,” she said.
Over the past two years, Cappas-Toro and a colleague, Maria Servigna of Stetson’s languages department, have managed to achieve those goals, and also created a community center for cultural sharing.
While there may be a common misperception that Hispanics and immigrants in general are reluctant to learn English, Cappas-Toro said many immigrants do want to adopt the language of their new country.
Cappas-Toro also noticed a dearth of opportunities for English-speakers who want to learn Spanish. In her quest for language and cultural exchange, she initiated the course Spanish in the Communities.
“I wanted my students to link what is taught in the course with direct interactions with Spanish-speakers. Spanish is usually taught in controlled academic environments, which lack spontaneous daily-life-based interactions that are not scripted or staged,” she said. “The best way to truly be fluent in any foreign language is immersing yourself in the community where that language is spoken.”
In 2014, Dr. Cappas-Toro was given a place on Stetson’s campus that could be used to serve the Latino community. The house at 234 E. Michigan Ave. had a dilapidated interior.
It was going to be a challenge to rebuild the inside, but Cappas-Toro wanted to seize the opportunity to make it a learning space where her students and DeLand’s Hispanic community could socialize, advance their Spanish and English skills, and understand each other’s cultures.
She decided to call the house La Casita Cultural Latina, which translates to “Little Cultural Latino House.” With funding from different sources, she was able to obtain computers, dictionaries, and other books and academic materials, which transformed the house into a welcoming academic environment.
Cappas-Toro partnered with Servigna, a professor who seemed perfectly suited for the task. Servigna has a master’s degree in ESL (English as a Second Language) and 10 years of experience volunteering with the nonprofit literacy organization “Fe y Alegria” (Faith and Happiness) in Venezuela.
“My biggest challenge in Fe y Alegria was to teach how to read and write to a 77-year-old bus driver. In a way, what I am doing at La Casita is similar, since I have to teach adults to learn a language from scratch,” Servigna said.
The professors started getting students mainly through word-of-mouth, and now they distribute pamphlets around town to attract more people. The largest class so far had 15 students. Each student takes a placement exam to be situated in the proper class; there are four levels, and each takes a semester to complete.
The students this semester come from Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and have different professional backgrounds.
Larry Martinez — one of the program’s current students from Venezuela — said he won’t stop taking the classes, even after he completes the fourth level.
“I won’t leave until I am able to speak perfect English,” Martinez said. He said he wants to learn English so he can stand up for himself when he feels disrespected. “I want to let people know when they are giving me a bad service or when I feel mistreated, which is extremely hard to do now due to the language barrier.”
Socorro Arredondo and her daughter, Lupita Sanchez, both from Mexico, attended the class for the first time recently. They have been in DeLand for only six months. Arredondo is working at a hotel in town, and Sanchez is in her senior year of high school.
Mother and daughter are motivated to perfect their English skills.
“We both understand most of what is said to us, but we can’t speak it,” Arredondo said.
Julieta Almierda, another student from Venezuela, said she’s been having health issues and going to the doctor has been a challenge. She wants to be able to communicate in English so she doesn’t have to rely all the time on her son to translate what the doctor is saying.
Deciding it would be better to relocate classes from the house on Michigan Avenue to Room 223 in Sampson Hall, Cappas-Toro and Servigna believe the house will be a better space for monthly “tertulias” (get-togethers), where Stetson students and La Casita’s students bring ethnic foods to share, socialize, and engage in conversations in both English and Spanish. Everyone in town is welcome to join.
Overall, the students believe the class has enabled them to step out of their comfort zone. A young man from Colombia said “one of the most beautiful things professor Maria and Pamela has done for us is to give us confidence and not feel ashamed when trying to communicate.”
One student was able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam on her first attempt.
Cappas-Toro envisions the program moving forward.
“I want all my students from my Spanish in the Communities class to continue to get involved with the program so they feel more comfortable with conversational Spanish and be exposed to Hispanic culture. I would also like to engage more Hispanics in the program to help them better integrate into our community and get by easier with daily activities,” she said.
She wants nonprofit organizations such as La Alianza de Mujeres Activas (Alliance of Active Women) and Stetson’s student organizations working with the Hispanic community to use the house on Michigan Avenue as a meeting and workshop space.
Anyone interested in volunteering or engaging in any way — whether you want to help teach English, know someone who needs the classes, or simply want to be a part of this wonderful cultural exchange — may email
The monthly tertulias at the house on Michigan Avenue are open to anyone in town.
The next one is set for 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22.
— Maria Abreu, originally from Caracas, Venezuela, was a Spanish tutor in Stetson University’s language department, and graduated from the university in May 2015.
She works at Fleishel Financial, as a registered client service associate.
She has lived in DeLand for five years.
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