December 2014

THE GIFT OF SELF— Edwina García Wood: For English, Press One; para Español, Presione el Dos


Alejandro López


I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service

I acted and understood that service was joy

— Rabindranath Tagore


When I look around and think of people who make a difference in the lives of others on a daily basis, I think of Edwina García Wood. She is a woman whose mission in life is to assist immigrant women in Santa Fe make the transition from their native language—usually Spanish—to English. For these vulnerable women, who have left their homes, families and countries far behind to make a new life in the bewildering colossus of the north, García Wood functions as a most sensitive, informed and linguistically savvy guide on their often-precarious personal journeys. Going beyond what most guides or teachers would do, she accompanies these women along the bumpy road of familiarization with the unruly American offshoot of the Germanic family of languages (English), as well as with the new set of challenges and complexities that they meet in an unfamiliar and quirky New Mexico. Filled with a real appreciation for what the women are going through and an irrepressible sense of appreciation for our region’s complex multicultural reality, she happily leads her “sisters” from fear and dread to confidence and from wistfulness and isolation to community and full civic participation—a tall order for a rather short woman.


García Wood was born in Belén, New Mexico, around World War II and grew up in a Spanish-speaking family in the tiny Española of that time. After working for Los Alamos National Laboratory for many years as a financial administrator, she one day brought to completion all of her tasks, left the “hill,” and never looked back.


She began her new life by taking a trip through México with her daughter, Stacie, who, although having grown up speaking only English in Los Alamos, became fluent in Spanish owing to a job that she took as an engineer in a U.S.-run maquiladora (assembly plant) in Ciudad Juárez. As mother and daughter made their way through the cities, towns and villages of this extraordinary country that once cradled Nuevo México, García Wood came to the realization that, although her half-Anglo daughter could communicate effortlessly in the mercado (market), she herself could not go beyond a rigid and insipid tourist Spanish and connect with the hearts of the people.


As it so happened upon her return, one day as she sat sipping her morning coffee and perusing the paper, an ad for a weeklong Spanish-language intensive class for native Spanish speakers at a local college caught her eye. It took a certain amount of courage to register, show up and brave the first few, all-day classes. Only after a cathartic outburst of tears and painful sharing of unhappy childhood memories that fostered her fear of speaking Spanish was she able to clear the psychic debris of the past and begin to consciously and joyously rebuild her linguistic abode where a few warm embers still burned.


Having met with some measure of success during this first course, for several years afterwards, she took every conceivable opportunity that came her way to increase her fluency, particularly availing herself of more classes. She also began to visit the Spanish-speaking elderly of her community and volunteered at Santa Fe’s Villa Therese Children’s Clinic, which serves primarily Spanish-speaking families. Beyond this, she helped organize Spanish-language courses for others and traveled to various Spanish-speaking countries where she often enrolled in month-long language institutes. By opening herself up to all of these experiences, in addition to cracking open the language, she experienced the rich kaleidoscope of el pueblo and la cultura hispana, which left her a much-changed and fuller person. After eight years, García Wood emerged as a fluent speaker of her native language, barring a few pesky irregular verbs and the genuinely sonorous rr sound of río and perro.


It was at the Villa Therese Children’s Clinic that she became aware of the need for young immigrant mothers to learn to speak English. She could see the disadvantages they experienced, the fear on their faces, and their dependency on their 5- or 6-year-old children to translate medical information and prescription dosages for their infants that the doctor or nurse was giving them in English.


Soon thereafter, she learned about the English as a Second Language (ESL) tutoring program operated through the Volunteer Literacy Program at Santa Fe Community College and enrolled in one of their trainings. After successfully completing the program, an excited García Wood, always the student but now the teacher, was provided with teaching materials, classroom space and a half-dozen women, mostly from México, with whom to begin the slow, careful process of the demystification and deconstruction of the dreaded, elusive English language. Almost immediately, her instructional methods bore positive results, combining as she did the best practices of her own best instructors of, ironically, Spanish. ¡Qué esmarte! (How smart! Classic New Mexico “Spanglish.”)


Although she had never been an “official” teacher, García Wood was able to instill her natural spontaneity, exuberance for life and love of adventure in her adult students. She makes use of some grammatical guides, but García Wood relies more heavily on lots of deeply relevant conversation and level-appropriate literature such as The Diary of Anne Frank, which all of the women have taken to with a vengeance. She challenges the women to use their newly acquired linguistic abilities in situations that formerly would have terrified them but are now a source of interest and pleasure.


Aware that the big wide world is the best possible textbook, García Wood, in the last five-and-one-half years of teaching ESL, has taken her students to an ice-skating rink to learn how to skate—and fall—in perfect, graceful English, on memorable excursions to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, to historic downtown Santa Fe sites and restaurants, the alpine wilderness of Los Cañones near Chama, to farmlands in the Española Valley and to the classic A Christmas Carol performance at UNM’s Popejoy Hall.


A watershed event for many was their recent participation in an ongoing exhibit on immigrants and immigration at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, where Mildred Rodríguez, the daughter of one of her students, is proudly exhibiting one of her poems. In the realm of the practical, her students often report their recent English-language successes in obtaining a driver’s license or a health-insurance plan, paying a bill, speaking with their children’s teachers, making medical or dental appointments or a hotel reservation—each an enormous hurdle. One of the things that she is most proud of is that one of her long-term students, Isabel Garrido, formerly from Mexico City, was recently selected as the first student member on the English-speaking board of the Santa Fe Literacy Volunteer Program.


García Wood’s ability to relate to adults trying to learn a new language stems from her own self-imposed barriers in speaking Spanish in the early part of her life. Her newfound vocation of ESL tutoring during this, the final third and perhaps most interesting stage of her rich and fulfilling life, is pure joy. And it began with her own search and then passion to master her buried-away Spanish. ¡Bravo!, Edwina García Wood.



Alejandro López, northern New Mexican writer, photographer and educator, was Edwina García Wood’s first Spanish-language instructor.




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