Tragic Loss Motivates Mother To Learn English for Her Children’s Sake

March 3rd, 2011
Carolina Mendez attends a class taught by Luz Zuniga at our Larkins Early Learning Communities (ELC) center
Carolina Mendez and her two-year-old daughter at our Larkins ELC

Carolina Mendez and her two-year-old daughter at our Larkins ELC

In her struggle to express herself in English, there is a note of anguish, as if much more is at stake than the words Carolina Mendez cannot find to tell her story.

It is a story that turned tragic two years ago. Six months after their second child was born, Carolina’s husband died. Jose was a construction worker and was killed at a job site.

They had been married for eight years. Both were from Guadalajara, Mexico. Jose had his green card, and together they settled in Detroit.  Carolina did not speak any English and she relied on her husband to take care of all matters where English was required.

Five years into their marriage, their first child was born, a daughter Samantha. Carolina accompanied Samantha to our Even Start program based at Southwestern High School.

“I took English classes at the Even Start program, but I didn’t study hard because I had my husband and he could take of everything,” Carolina says.

Carolina and Jose had their second child at the beginning of 2009. In July of that year, Jose was working on a crew with Imperial Construction to repair a water main on the east side of Detroit. The crew dug a trench seven feet deep in the roadway to reach the broken pipe. Jose was at the bottom of the trench when the walls suddenly collapsed.

Jose was buried in mud from his neck down. Rescue personnel worked for more than two hours to free him, and the drama was covered by local news stations. Although Jose was conscious during the rescue attempt, his internal injuries from the pressure of the mud were grave. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. Jose was 36.

Although Jose had been working in construction since arriving from Mexico, he had only been with Imperial Construction for two weeks. The company had a history of safety violations. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) investigated Jose’s death and found Imperial liable for failing to protect its workers from excavation hazards.MIOSHA fined Imperial $131,000 for the negligence that led to the fatality.

Jose’s body was taken back to Guadalajara. Carolina, however, could not attend the funeral. An attorney told her that authorities might not let her back in the States because, even though her two daughters are citizens, her own immigration status was uncertain in the wake of Jose’s death.

“When my husband passed away, I felt very alone, sad and scared,” Carolina says.

Carolina had to make a critical decision about staying in America or returning to the solace of her hometown. She knew in her heart that Jose would want her to stay so their daughters would have opportunities for education and success that they would never have in Mexico.

“I miss my family in Mexico, but my children are my life,” Carolina says.

After her grief began to subside, a resolve took hold. Carolina decided she must take full advantage of the opportunities our Early Childhood and Family Literacy program offers. She has been attending classes at our Larkins Early Learning Communities (ELC) center. These classes teach parents and caregivers to prepare their young children to be “ready to learn” before entering school.

“It is my goal to speak English well,” Carolina says. “I want to get an education and a good job, maybe as a nurse. I want to live as independently as I can so I can help my daughters do well.”

Because of her dedication, Carolina has made considerable progress in her language skills in a relatively short period of time. She recently received her GED.

“Carolina has found within herself so much courage and strength to push herself,” says Lucia Vazquez, lead family support worker at our Larkins ELC. “I have faith in her that she will reach her goals.”

Although Carolina is well on her way, her sense of urgency to learn as much as she can – as quickly as she can – also makes her anxious. She feels disappointed in the gap between what she wants to say and what she is able to say.

With time and perseverance, it is an emptiness she will overcome, even as the emptiness of loss and grief always lingers and eludes words.

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