Spanish as a Second Language // Guatemala

Guatemala is a country with a tumultuous and violent history which has resulted in extreme conditions of poverty throughout the country. This has prompted many Guatemalans to seek refuge elsewhere. About 40% of Guatemalans are indigenous and speak a Mayan language. Therefore, many Guatemalans do not speak Spanish when they arrive in the US, making their transition more difficult than that of immigrants from other Hispanic countries. Additionally, education is not easily accessible in Guatemala and the literacy rates are the lowest in Central America. The three women I spoke with emphasized that life in Guatemala is extremely difficult and that there are no routes, such as job training or education, to improve one’s life.

I photographed three Guatemalan women during my project. For all of them, Spanish is their second language. Juana and Eva’s first language Q’anjob’al and Raquel’s is Chuj. None of their children are learning these languages; instead, they are growing up speaking Spanish and English, although they do understand some of their mothers’ languages. While Eva learned Spanish in Guatemala, Raquel and Juana moved here speaking only their indigenous languages. All three of the women were motivated to learn how to read and write Spanish so that they could help their children. Juana also understands a good deal of English and speaks some as well. She began learning English by doing her daughter’s kindergarten homework and she works at Wendy’s, where she practices it. For these three women, the United States is a place of opportunity to create a life they never could have had in Guatemala. 



Juana, originally from Guatemala



Juana and her daughter Sabina


Raquel with her son Mateo


Raquel outside her Knoxville home

La Flor // México

Located right off Kingston Pike is a small Mexican panadería. Walking into the bakery, the smell of freshly baked bread and pastries fill the air and the bright colors of the green walls and multi-colored piñatas hanging from the ceiling catch the eye. La Flor is a traditional Mexican bakery that Audiel Vega Gomez and Ilda Soto have owned for twelve years.

Twenty-six years ago, they moved to Atlanta from Michoacán, Mexico. From Atlanta, they moved to North Carolina before landing in Knoxville twelve years ago. Ilda’s brother also lives in Knoxville and owns El Girasol, located next door to the bakery.


Audiel and Ilda decided to open a bakery because they wanted to own their own business and work for themselves. A baker came from Mexico to teach them the necessary skills and since then they’ve operated La Flor. In addition to making and selling traditional Mexican pastries and breads, they make cakes for a variety of events which Ilda decorates with beautiful colors and designs. While most of their customers are Hispanic, Americans also frequent the bakery.

Audiel and Ilda have been married for twenty years and have four children, all of whom were born in the United States. While life running a bakery is busy and difficult, says Audiel, both agree that it is worth the work. The freedom that comes with being self-employed is precious and they are happy with their life here.

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Loida Velázquez // Puerto Rico

Loida Velázquez and her husband Luis came to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1971 because their oldest son was born with a hearing impairment. A law had recently been passed to provide children with such impairments with specialized education, guaranteeing more options for her son. After several years of living in Chicago, the Velázquez family moved to Knoxville because Luis obtained a position at the Department of Energy. They’ve been here ever since.

Loida went on to get a Master’s degree from the University of Tennessee in College Student Personnel and later a doctorate in Adult Education. She directed a program through the university for the children of migrant workers who had not finished high school and wanted to go to college.

When Loida and Luis first arrived in Knoxville, the Hispanic community was very small: most of the Hispanics were highly educated professionals working for TVA, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, or the university. Then, in the 1990s, there was a second wave of immigration as people from Mexico and Central America arrived to work in agriculture. Now, she says, a third wave of Hispanics is arriving in Knoxville: people from other states and a variety of countries, many coming because of the growing need for bilingual professionals.

In addition to experiencing the development of the Hispanic community, Loida was a founding board member of the Hispanic organizations here in Knoxville: HOLA, Centro Hispano, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. To her, these organizations are a way of promoting the culture as well as working to solve issues many Latinos face, such as learning English.

Considering her years spent in the United States, Loida says that she is more than happy to live here. Her son, the original reason her family relocated, has a successful career and her other children have thrived as well. She has five grandchildren living in Knoxville and feels very much at home.

Carolina O’Neal // Colombia

March 15th, 2015 marked 15 years that Carolina O’Neal has lived in the United States. Born in Cali, Colombia, she and her mother moved to the United States after her mother married an American. Eight-year old Carolina was excited to come to the US because of what she knew about it from movies. She was also excited for the snow and the changing seasons. Although she came knowing only a few words of English (‘crazy’ and ‘bye’) she began picking up English within two weeks of starting school.

Her family in Colombia is extremely close-knit and being separated from them was the hardest part of coming here. Although she has only been back to visit twice since, she remains just as close to her family as she was when she moved to the US, partially due to the fact that communicating internationally has become much easier thanks to technology. She uses Skype and Whatsapp (a texting app) to communicate with her family daily. Her mother recently moved back to Colombia and Carolina is hoping to visit much more often in the coming years.


Carolina feels equally connected to her Colombian and American sides. She plans on retaining her Colombian citizenship for the rest of her life and in the future would like to divide her time between the two countries. She recently started studying graphic design and is appreciative that she has the opportunity to study something she loves. In Colombia, she says, it is more difficult to go to college because there are fewer scholarships and less financial aid than in the United States. In the future, she hopes to share her graphic design and computer coding skills with Colombian children.

Beatriz Fulgueiro Santana

When she was 5, almost 6 years old, Beatriz walked across the Mexican border with her mother to join her father in Nashville, Tennessee. Her journey to the US did not start in Mexico, however. It began in her town of Remedios, Cuba. For Beatriz and her mother, it was impossible to enter the US from Cuba, the way her father had managed to do several years earlier. Instead, they flew to Venezuela and from there traveled to Mexico, walking 14 hours to the river, where they finally entered the US.

Beatriz’s memories of crossing the border are few. She remember being carried on a man’s shoulders and saying, in Spanish “I don’t want to die! I’m too young to die!” She remembers that her mother ripped her pants jumping over a fence and, strangely, that they heard the sound of a lion which she believes was a recording used by the coyote for an unknown reason.


Because she was so young, her transition to life in the US was relatively seamless. She was in an ELL class for a year before she was able to speak perfect English and started regular classes. While her own adjustment to life in the US was simple, the process of becoming a citizen was not: Beatriz became a citizen 9 years after she came to America. Now that she is older, she knows that the reason her mother was often late coming home was because she would always take a different route to the house and drive past to make sure there were no strange cars in the driveway. Living undocumented was a constant stressor.


Beatriz is appreciative of both her life in the US and her Cuban family. While Beatriz loves living in the US, she wishes she could share what she sees during her visits to Cuba with everyone. The culture and the feeling are different from here, she says. Everyone knows everyone. The doors in her old village are always open, people are louder and there is so much dancing. It’s beautiful and much less populated, but the country is impoverished; the houses are rundown and many people walk around barefoot since they don’t have shoes.

Beatriz says that while she feels more American than Cuban, she never feels completely American. She feels connected to the Hispanic community because of the values they share, even if she doesn’t know them personally. When at restaurants, she loves that servers speak to her in Spanish, that they identify her as being Latina. This feeling of being connected to both American and Hispanic culture is Beatriz’s hope for the Hispanic community. Learning English and becoming a citizen are two important parts of this process, as her own story demonstrates.

Vilmaris González

A second-generation American, Vilmaris González is very proud of her Hispanic culture. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, her family moved to Colombia, Tennessee when she was two. With a grandmother still living in New Jersey and two living in Puerto Rico, the culture of Puerto Rico has been a big influence on who she is today.

Growing up in Colombia, Tennessee, Vilmaris always sensed that her family was different culturally from her classmates. It wasn’t until she was older that she spent more time with her friends from school. Instead, she grew up in the large community of Hispanics, including Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, that live in Colombia. She recently graduated from the University of Tennessee and currently works as an after-school counselor at a local elementary school and volunteers at a domestic violence and transitional housing center.


She spoke mainly English at home, even though her father spoke primarily in Spanish to her and her brother. So although she always had perfect comprehension of the Spanish language, she grew up feeling ashamed that her speaking skills were not as good as she wanted them to be. It wasn’t until she started college and studied abroad in Spain that she began to speak Spanish without fear or shame. And while she would like to use her Spanish in her career, being able to speak without fear has personal value for her: she can communicate with members of her family who don’t speak much English and she has a better understanding of her cultural roots.

Vilmaris spoke a lot about the stereotyping she experiences, especially because of her pale skin. She said: “What people don’t realize, especially in the States is just because I don’t have long black hair, kinky curly black hair and I’m not really tan, doesn’t mean I’m not Hispanic. And I’m always asked, “Oh are you half?” Just all these different speculations. You can see that when you go to Puerto Rico too. You see Afro-Puerto Ricans, you see people who are like me but with blonde hair and blue eyes. All different shades and colors.”


She wishes people would take the time to differentiate between the nationalities that exist within the Hispanic community, to see the cultural differences. She explains that while certain customs are shared by most Hispanics, each culture has unique dishes, dances, and customs. For example, in Puerto Rico there are many dishes made from plátanos such as tostón, mofongo, and pastel (a dish that mixes pork and a dough made from the banana).

She experiences stereotyping more so in the South, saying: “The south, in general and just from my experiences, isn’t as culturally aware of the differences within the Hispanic community and the different nationalities. If someone sees your last name or realizes you’re Hispanic they automatically assume you’re Mexican. And a lot of the time I’ve noticed that being Mexican isn’t very good in a lot of people’s eyes, it’s a negative connotation. But in my mind too, “Well why is it negative?” If I were to be Mexican, I would be proud, I would be okay with it. So many people assume that and then also view it as a negative thing. I can’t wrap my personal mind around it. I just don’t understand.”

Vilmaris has a huge appreciation for other cultures and loves to travel. This past summer, she interned in Romania where she worked in an international team of college students with middle-school children. She loves working with kids and influencing them, dispelling stereotypes and building understanding across cultures. In Romania, she was the first American several people had met. Abroad and in the States, she is changing perceptions of what it is to be American and Latina.

Efrain Rodriguez

Efrain Rodriguez is a 24 year old from Saltillo, Mexico. A natural people person, he mixes Spanish and English and fluidly communicates with Latinos and Americans alike. He moved to Knoxville three years ago and has become an integral part of the Latino community due to his previous job as Program Coordinator at Centro Hispano. Currently, Efrain works at Custom Foods of America, Inc. in the Human Resource Department where his Spanish is a valuable asset. His personal ambitions have been influenced by his experiences in Knoxville: he now aspires to become a lawyer because of the dire need for immigration law.


Even before he moved to the US, Efrain Rodriguez always knew he wanted to travel. When he graduated from college, he took a job with Pemex, a Mexican oil company. This allowed him to travel and live all over Mexico. While he loved experiencing different areas of Mexico, he decided to come to Knoxville to live with his sister because of the opportunities that exist in the United States.

He arrived in Knoxville with a tourist visa and 500 dollars. He lived with his sister and worked construction with his brother-in-law. He began looking for a job so that he could obtain a work visa and volunteering at Centro Hispano teaching English and Math. After six months he still had no job and almost had to return to Mexico, but at the last minute he was offered a job as Program Coordinator at Centro Hispano.

His extensive work with the Latino community has given Efrain a unique perspective on the issues Latinos face in Knoxville. He cites the language barrier as a main issue: if all people we able to communicate, he says, the barriers between them would disappear and so would discrimination.

Despite the struggles that exist because of the language barrier and the difficulty of accessing vital resources, such as education, Efrain has hopes that these issues will be resolved if Latinos and Americans work together. He says: “I wish to see a more inclusive society from both sides (American and Latinos) and to appreciate what everybody can offer and bring to the table, from culture to food, from values to family customs.”