A Better future
Family Language Centers work to improve lives
SoniaLopez Heydeck knows firsthand about discrimination. Two years ago, after receiving American citizenship, she was stopped by an immigration officer at an airport in Houston and questioned for over an hour. Puzzled as to what she had done wrong, she implored the officer why he wanted to interrogate her.
“I said, ‘Why did you stop me? All of this time questioning here? What are you searching about me?’” she said.
Eventually, she was allowed to leave and could only come to one conclusion as to why she was stopped: she is Mexican.
Lopez Heydeck’s story is not only one of an immigrant. It is one about identity, about nationality, about how borders can fundamentally shape the course of an individual’s life.
Lopez Heydeck is not just Mexican. Though she was born there, her mother grew up in Michigan, later moving to Mexico after marrying Lopez Heydeck’s father who she met on a trip there when she was young. (Lopez was her father’s surname; Heydeck was her mother’s).
Because of an obscure loophole in American immigration policy, Lopez Heydeck was not able to claim American citizenship because her mother had left the United States at such a young age and did not return to the country for a number of years. Yet, because her mother was American, the Mexican government did not see her daughter as a citizen, so did not issue her a passport until she was 18. Even then, it was only a temporary one.
For most of her life, she was, essentially, a stateless person.
This experience led Lopez Heydeck, who moved to Hot Springs from Texas in 2016 with her husband, Brent Hiller, to decide to start a free school to teach immigrants living in the community not only English but also skills they need to survive in a country that is not their own. (Lopez Heydeck was able to claim citizenship after marrying Hiller in 2011.)
“We like to help people,” she said. “That is how we were raised.”
Lopez Heydeck and her husband founded their nonprofit, Family Language Centers Inc., at the end of 2017. The organization relies on volunteer teachers who offer free classes in English as well as classes about obtaining citizenship in the U.S. Most of the students come from Central and South America. A few are from Romania, even China.
“We want to teach non-English speakers how to speak English, to help them assimilate and function well and be productive individuals in this country,” Hiller said. “What we are trying to do is to help people become better.”
Family Language Centers holds classes in space donated by the Garland County Library and Hope Church. By September, the nonprofit will hold classes in a space donated by the Hispanic ministry of Gospel Light Baptist Church. The group has almost a dozen volunteer tutors. Within the next year, the group hopes to have about 100 students and up to 20 teachers, the couple said.
“Living here in Hot Springs, I got to know people who have their citizenship, who have their residence permits, but they don’t have the confidence to speak English,” Lopez Heydeck said. “They might understand 50 percent, but they are not able to communicate. That has been a motivation for me to encourage them.”
Lopez Heydeck likes to teach. Back in Mexico, she worked as an English teacher for nearly two decades at a local university. But, she says what also motivates her is her acute understanding of the strug- gles immigrants face, particularly overcoming poverty and securing better futures for their children and for generations to come.
She also spoke of the violence spurred by cartels that coerce poor villagers into the drug trade leaving them no choice but to either take part or lose their lives. This, she says, is also a major reason so many from Central and South America are trying to come to the U.S.
“They don’t get enough money to survive in the little villages (in Mexico),” she said. “Some of the villages you can barely get all the way to sixth grade. The income, the salaries are really low.”
One message that both Lopez Heydeck and Hiller want to get across is how hard the students in
their classes are working to build a better future. Many take English classes on their day off, often working sometimes two, maybe three, jobs to make ends meet.
Though not an immigrant, Lopez Heydeck’s father is perhaps another reason that drives her to help those living in the community try to improve their lives. Once a relatively poor tour guide and taxi driver, her father later went on, with money he saved from a small business, to build a resort in Taxco (pronounced TAZ-co), a city in southern Mexico where she grew up. The resort is still in the family today.
“It is an amazing story,” she said. “Because the dream my father had was to build a hotel in Taxco, and he did. They worked really hard and saved money and built a hotel.”
This ingenuity crosses the border into the U.S.
“Most of who we touch, for economic reasons, they are hardworking. They are never in trouble,” Hiller said. “What we have found in Hot Springs, the immigrant community is very much a net positive.”
The couple, who decided to retire in Hot Springs after falling in love with the community during several trips here, said they have also been encouraged by the support they have received from residents.
“We have found in Hot Springs there is a huge, warm welcoming community that really wants to help,” Hiller said.
But aside from helping immigrants, another overarching goal of Family Language Centers is to improve communication, and thus misunderstanding, about people moving to the community from places beyond the borders of the U.S.
“We want to help people open their minds so they don’t demonize someone who doesn’t speak language the way we do,” Hiller said. “There is too much of that going on. Too many people don’t mind saying immigrants are bad. I see these people, immigrants, who have every challenge in the book working against them, and they are doing something.”
“It is like a chain,” Lopez Heydeck added. “You plant the seed, and they continue to grow.”
Teaching materials used for class