A Bet­ter fu­ture

Fam­ily Lan­guage Cen­ters work to im­prove lives

The Sentinel-Record - HER - Hot Springs - - Contents - Story by Lara Far­rar, pho­tog­ra­phy by Richard Rasmussen

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

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